I will focus these study notes on Acts 21:1-Acts 23:11.
As you read this story of Paul, notice that the Church of his time has spread to many communities. Paul is able to move from place to place, at least in the general area of Palestine and parts of Asia Minor (now western Turkey), and to depend on local branches of the Church as he does so. For example, in verses 3-7 we see him visit the branches at Tyre, Ptolemais, and Caesarea. Clearly the early Church grew rapidly after the Day of Pentecost, roughly thirty years before the story we are reading. (Paul’s journey was in approximately 58-61 AD).
Though King Agrippa, son of Herod Agrippa and king of the Roman province of Palestine, had found no crime with which Paul had been charged (Acts 26:32), he could have bee released immediately. But because Paul had demanded a hearing before Caesar—to which he had a legal right as a Roman citizen—Agrippa had to keep Paul as a prisoner and send him to Rome as a prisoner. He was held in prison in Jerusalem for two years before the Romans got around to putting him on a cargo ship with cargo bound for Rome. Because he demanded a hearing, Paul was treated as a prisoner for the time between his arrest and his appearance in Rome. No bail in ancient Rome! In the end, Paul preached in Rome because of his decision—and he was executed by the Romans because of it.
Acts 21:10-12: Why do the saints in Caesarea try to stop Paul from going to Jerusalem? Why would the Lord give the kind of prophecy that he gives through Agabus (verses 10-11) if, as appears to be the case, he wants Paul to go to Jerusalem? Is it relevant that the prophecy is given publicly, to more than just Paul?
Acts 21:20-25: When Paul reports to the elders in Jerusalem how his missionary work has gone among the Gentiles, how do they respond? What do you make of verses 19-20: Paul reports on the work among the Gentiles, they praise God, then they say “Look how many Jews have joined the Church and remained faithful to the Law of Moses”?
Why is there no mention of the collection that Paul has been taking up from Christians elsewhere for the Christians in Jerusalem (Romans 15:25-27, 31; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-7; Galatians 2:10)? This has also been an important part of his work, but it goes unmentioned.
What problem do the elders point out to Paul? Is there anything like that in the contemporary Church?
What are they asking Paul to do in verses 23-24? The four men in verse 24 are surely men who have taken a Nazarite vow (see the LDS Bible Dictionary) and wish to complete it. Why do the elders in Jerusalem want Paul to do what they ask him to do?
Why are they making these requirements of Gentile converts (Acts 21:25)? Are these requirements part of what is expected of Christians and, so, also expected today, or are they something that the Jerusalem leaders put in place in order to create harmony among the two factions of early Christianity? Are there any things today that we are asked to do, not because, ultimately, they are religious requirements, but because they promote harmony among us? Why is harmony so important to the early Christian Church and to the latter-day Church? Are there drawbacks to requiring harmony? I assume that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, but do they?
Verses 27-36: Jesus prophesied that his followers would be persecuted and even killed (Luke 21:12-17), and Paul clearly knew those possibilities were real before he experienced them. After all, he had persecuted Christians in his former life and seen them killed for their beliefs. But we are very seldom killed for our beliefs. If such a murder were to happen, it would probably be committed by someone insane. And the persecution we suffer is so mild by comparison to the persecutions of the ancient Church or the early latter-day Church as not to count. Does Jesus’ saying, therefore, apply to people before us but not to us? If it applies to us, how does it?
Verse 28: Of what is Paul accused? Are we ever accused in this way? Do we ever accuse others, perhaps fellow Latter-day Saints, in this way? How do we avoid such accusation?
Gentiles or foreigners (allogeneis) were not permitted beyond the Court of the Gentiles. Lest foreigners ritually defile the sacred precincts, the inner courts were marked off by a stone balustrade with slabs inscribed in Greek and Latin warning foreigners of the death penalty for trespassing (see Josephus, J.W. 5.5.2 §§193–94; Ant. 15.11.5 §417; Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 31 §212 [“death without appeal”]). This regulation was an interpretation of Num 1:51; 3:10, 38; 18:7. The text of the Greek inscription was “No one of another nation may enter within the fence and enclosure round the Temple. Whoever is caught shall have himself to blame that his death ensues.” Two copies of such an inscription have been discovered. (Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation With Introduction and Commentary, 698 [Yale UP, 2008])
Verse 34: Note that the word castle would be better translated “fort” or “military headquarters,” though the King James decision to translate the word as castle is quite understandable. This is the Fortress Antonia in ancient Jerusalem.
Verses 3: Why does Paul begin his defense by telling about his birth and education? How are those relevant to the charges that the crowd has made in Acts 21:28? What do you make of the fact that Paul says “I am a Jew” rather than “I was a Jew?”
Verses 3-21: Stephen defended himself by recounting the history of Israel (Acts 7:2-50). Paul defends himself by recounting his own history. Why does each defend himself as he does?
In verse 3 Paul describes himself as a zealot for God, and he says that those calling for his arrest are also zealots for God. But for what are they zealots? Other translations for zealot are “enthusiast,” “adherent,” and “loyalist.” How do you understand what Paul is saying about himself?
How does Paul’s account of his conversion(verses 6-21) differ from his earlier account (Acts 9:1-19)? For example, in Acts 9:7, he says that those with him heard a voice, but didn’t see anything. Now he says that they saw the light, but heard nothing. Can you pick out other differences? Why does Paul tell the story differently? Does that make his story more or less credible? Explain.
Verse 17: Note that Paul’s return to Jerusalem seems to have been three years after he went to Damascus. See Galatians 1:18. Why do you think he stayed in Damascus that long? How do you think the Sanhedrin reacted to the fact that their emissary to Damascus had, from their point of view, vanished? Or do you think they heard about what had happened to Paul? How do you think they would have reacted to that? Which scenario seems most likely to you? Why?
Verse 20: Notice that the Greek word translated martyr here is the same word translated witness in verse 15. What does that tell you?
Verse 22: Why does what Paul says in verse 2 send the crowd into such a fury? What kinds of things today are likely to send members of the Church into an unrighteous fury? How do we avoid that?
Verse 24: Note: “examination by scourging,” in other words torture, was a common practice in the Roman world. Witnesses were tortured to get them to give the evidence needed to make a decision about their case. However, by Roman law citizens could not be examined by torture.
Verse 30: Why does the captain call the chief priests and the Sanhedrin to the fortress to hear Paul?
Verse 3: Why is “whited wall” an insult?
Verse 6: Why does Paul say “I am a Pharisee” (my italics)? Doesn’t what he preaches about the Law of Moses mean that he is no longer a Pharisee?
Is it true that Paul is being condemned because he believes in the resurrection?
Verse 8: How could the Saducees (the temple priests) be faithful Jews and deny the resurrection from the dead? (Be careful about the assumptions you make as you answer this question. You may need to do some research.)
Verse 9: The Pharisees say, “We find no evil in this man,” in other words “We find nothing wrong with this man, we have no charge to bring against him.” Given our usual understanding of the Pharisees, what is ironic about this?
Verse 11: How do you think Paul responded to the message of this visitation?
To comment on these notes, go to Feast upon the Word.