Acts 21 sets us on the road towards the end of the whole book. Paul has completed his three missionary journeys and now aims to return to Jerusalem. Once again, for a time, the scope of Acts “narrows” towards Jerusalem, and will again widen out in the following chapters.
It seems that Luke was an eyewitness to most or all of the rest of the events in Acts, as the “we” language will now be constant. At the least, Luke was a travelling companion with Paul and if not an eyewitness to all the events himself, had first-hand information from Paul.
21:1-6 Paul, along with Luke and the others, now heads from Miletus near Ephesus back across the sea to the port city of Tyre in the northern part of Israel. Evidently Paul had shared with the Church at Tyre his plan to go to Jerusalem during the week he stayed with them (21:4-5), as they are trying to convince him not to go. (In a way, Paul’s journey to Jerusalem mirrors that of Jesus, who was resolute and “set his face” to go there (Luke 9:51), knowing that he would face persecution, suffering, and (in Paul’s case) possible death.
21:7-15 From Tyre, we hear about stops in three places, including Caesarea, where the group stayed with Philip “the evangelist”, clarifying for us that this wasn’t Philip the Apostle, but one of the seven chosen in Acts 6, who preached and baptized the Ethiopian (Acts 8). Acts 8:40 tells us that Philip ended up in Caesarea, and we return to him here.
Paul again hears his companions implore him not to go to Jerusalem, including a prophecy from a man named Agabus about what Paul faced there. But Paul is ready to go and face whatever comes for the sake of Jesus (21:13). Because Paul was so steadfast, those who were trying to convince him otherwise end up commending him to the Lord’s will. They, like Paul (and like us!) can do nothing better. Remember, it was part of Paul’s call by Jesus Himself that he would experience great suffering for the name of Jesus (9:15-16). What Jesus told Ananias regarding Paul in those two verses becomes fulfilled over the rest of the book of Acts.
21:16-21 The group arrives in Jerusalem, welcomed warmly by the Church there. They get the opportunity to hear from Paul about what God had been doing (again, note the emphasis: “the things that God had done...through his ministry” (21:19). It’s God at work, and the Church is simply His instrument.
21:22-26 This is an interesting case of how to live in Christian freedom, which makes us recall the great council we heard about in chapter 15. The issue here is not salvation, but how to show to Jewish Christians that there is actually freedom. So Paul has the freedom to observe Jewish customs, not the requirement. Though the outward action is the same, the motivation is all-important. This may call to mind for us Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9 about becoming like a Jew for the Jews in order to win them. This is a Gospel-motivated action for the sake of Christian evangelism, not a giving in to Jewish demands.
21:27-40a Yet another mob action occurs as some Jews incite a crowd to rise up against Paul. Again it’s based on misinformation such as assumptions (e.g. 21:29), not on actual facts. But in a mob mentality, facts seem to matter little. Though it might seem counter-intuitive to be thankful for Roman government intervention in Israel, in this case it’s warranted; the Roman leaders and soldiers step in to restore some measure of order to the crowd. The chapter ends with the beginning of Paul’s answer to the crowd, and launches us into the journey that ultimately ends in Rome.
It might be a helpful thing to read chapters 22-28 in one sitting over the next week, as it forms one long narrative and will give good context as we focus on a chapter at a time going forward.