Paul’s Character


Acts 21:1-26


Text Comment




v.1

“…torn ourselves…” Affection on both sides and, all the more, in light of Paul’s prediction that they would not see one another again.


v.3

An eyewitness touch. That journey across the open sea, instead of along the coast was much faster, of course. According to Chrysostom, the passage took five days.


v.4

Seven days with the Christians there. He probably did not know them, but sought them out and enjoyed an immediate fellowship. You who have traveled have had this wonderful experience, a sense of family with Christians you meet.


“Through the Spirit…” that is, by prophecy. But what was the prophecy. Perhaps, given the fact that Paul was not deterred by what they told him — a man who ordinarily did what the Spirit of God told him to do! — and in view of what Agabus will tell Paul in v. 11, it is most likely that what the Spirit told them was of the suffering that would befall Paul in Jerusalem and they took it upon themselves, in view of that predication, to urge Paul not to go.


v.5

With 20:36, evidence of how widespread kneeling was as a public posture for prayer in early Christianity.


v.8

We left Philip in 8:40 in Caesarea and he is still there. “The evangelist” distinguishes this Philip from Philip the Apostle.


v.11

We have met this Agabus before (11:27). OT prophets also often illustrated their messages. Now, be careful, Agabus’ prophecy will come true — it was accurate — but it was not a command. Christ prophesied his own death in Jerusalem many times, but not to provide a reason not to proceed there. But Agabus’ prophecy had the dramatic impact of inducing even Paul’s companions, Luke included, to urge him not to go on to Jerusalem.


Paul’s firmness resulted from his sense that he was supposed to go to Jerusalem. He had been working toward this end for some years now, taking the collection from his Gentile churches, bringing with him representatives of those churches. He was probably well aware of the tension between the Jewish and Gentile churches — which we will soon be reminded of — and knew how important it was to act to resolve that tension. He was entirely willing to face death in the pursuit of these objectives. [Cf. the Quo Vadis tradition.] “Thy will be done” here resembles Christ’s similar conclusion in Gethsemane.


v.16

Not every family of that intensely Jewish-Christian church would have been so happy to have that entourage, with Gentiles in the majority probably, come into their home.


v.18

James, that is, James the Just (Acts 15). This meeting was probably where Paul introduced the men who had come with him as deputies of the Gentiles churches and presented the offering.


v.21

Note that the issue is what Jewish Christians do and what Paul is telling them to do. There is no evidence anywhere that Paul urged Jewish believers not to practice circumcision, etc. We just saw, a few chapters back, that Paul had taken a Nazirite vow.


v.24

The vow in question appears to have been a Nazirite vow, as the shaving of the head indicates. Paul would participate with them in the final rites of the vow, which involved making a sacrifice in the temple, and paying for the sacrifice for the others. There are some difficulties understanding exactly what was done and when, but they do not touch the fact that Paul did participate with these brothers in the sacrificial ritual of the temple.


v.25

The point being that Paul’s action would be taken by no one to mean that the fundamental freedom of the Gentiles from such Jewish obligations was being undermined.


v.26

If you still have a view of the relationship between the OT and the NT, between Mosaic religion and that of Christ and his apostles, that cannot happily and easily accommodate the fact that Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, saw no difficulty with offering blood sacrifice in the temple now some 30 years after the resurrection, it is time to rethink your view of the history of salvation. The Jewish sacrifices, rightly viewed, were evangelical rites and could be used by believing Jews after the crucifixion as before. God saw to the end of that worship by destroying the temple, not by teaching that it was somehow defective or inappropriate.



Now, I want to set before you briefly this evening, a facet of Paul’s character, revealed in these verses, that is a wonderful, inspiring, and most important example for us all. It is a kind of paradox, better a dialectic, a combination of seemingly opposite characteristics, which held together in his character made him a man of tremendous influence and fruitfulness. What you find in him is a combination of firmness and flexibility, stubbornness in regard to virtue and pliableness, hardness and softness. And such must be the character of every Christian: tough and gentle at one and the same time.



  1. You see the first side of that two-sided character in vv. 4-14, in his refusal to bend to the well-meant entreaties of different groups of friends and brethren, including his most intimate friends and co-workers, not to put his life in danger by going to Jerusalem.


We can well imagine what these wise and prudent and compassionate counselors were saying. Why take the risk? The larger work is more important than a single trip to Jerusalem. Someone else can take the Gentile deputies to the city. If you are lost a far greater blow to Jewish-Gentile relations in the church will be suffered than if you don’t go to Jerusalem right away. The Lord has told you what will happen. Is that not his way to dissuade you from going. Aren’t you tempting God by going?


But Paul is unmoved. He follows Isaiah’s counsel (50:7): “Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore, I have set my face like flint and I know I will not be put to shame.” In this he is like the Lord who knew what awaited him in Jerusalem but set his face to go there and would hear no advice to the contrary. It was Paul’s duty to go, and that was that! He would do his duty and leave the consequences to God.


Now the history of Christendom is rife with stories of such holy determination on the part of young and old, men and women, those who lived and those who died because they would not be deflected from their Christian duty as they saw it.



Blandina: “Christianus sum!”
Chrysostom on being threatened by the Empress Eudoxia: “Nil nisi peccatum metuo.”
Luther: “Here I stand.”
Thomas Ken with Charles II
John Paton to the South Seas despite the entreaties of so many


In these cases and many others, and many others unknown and private, there was this firmness, this resolution in the matter of loyalty to Christ and fidelity to one’s calling as a Christian. Backbone and stubbornness when it comes to the will of God and following it. I think of the case of an old Sunday School teacher in the congregation of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, which some of our young people will see a few weeks from now. It is an anecdote told by E.S. Woods, a liberal vicar who was pastor of Holy Trinity some years after Simeon. R.H. Kennet, the University Professor of Hebrew had preached a sermon denying all the biblical teaching on redemption. The next day the old Sunday School teacher came to the vicarage and tendered his resignation. He had been unable to sleep all night, he said, because there, in Simeon’s old pulpit, Bible truths had been belittled. Woods himself later commented, “I could scarcely control my amusement.” But the old man wouldn’t stand for it, pure and simple, and did what he could do. [BOT 236 (May 1983) 22]


Or think of the Moravian missionaries in South Africa, some of whom felt they had to bring the gospel to the lepers who lived in colonies there and, despite the entreaties of others, entered those colonies to preach not knowing that they would ever be allowed to leave. Come wind, come weather, it was what they had been called to do. They were men under orders.


The words “must” and “cannot” have been and ought to be great words in a Christian’s life. I must this… I cannot do that… Such a man or woman God uses!


It is a good way to examine yourself (and the instruction of your children). Are there ways, obvious to you and some to others, in which your face is set like flint? Are there ways in which, as a Christian, you are and are known to be “unbending and inflexible?”


Nowadays we have as a Christian church gravitated to the opposite end of this continuum. The “dogmatic spirit” is generally a negative idea in the church. But a certain kind of dogmatism is the lifeblood of the Christian life and its end will be the end of Christian living and Christianity itself. It is Christ’s spirit: “necessity is laid upon me” he said at many points in his life and ministry, often before doing difficult things.


Teach your children these two great words: “must” and “cannot.” They are the words a Christian soldier lives by.



  1. But Paul joined to this fierce determination and unbending loyalty to his calling a remarkable flexibility, pliableness, and readiness to adjust wherever God’s law and his calling gave him room to maneuver.


When it came to the gospel and his responsibility to it, Paul was unbending, unmovable. But he was everyone’s doormat when it came to accommodating himself to the interests of others in hopes of advancing Christ’s cause in their hearts. (1 Cor. 9:19ff. He became all things to all men so as to save some.)


Here is Paul, in what a number of folk at that time must have felt was a startling concession on his part, taking the advice of the Jewish Christian leadership in Jerusalem to help assuage the fears of folk who had given an ear to rumor-mongers. Here is Paul doing cheerfully what we always resent doing, proving to folk who mistrust us that we have not done the things we are accused of! What is more, you can bet that some Jewish Christians were going to make too much of Paul’s going to the temple on this errand, that some were going to take comfort in Paul’s action in just the wrong way and were going to use the report of it to advance their errors. Still Paul does what is suggested and goes to the temple with these men and pays for their sacrifice and undergoes purification with them.


Where as before Paul would not bend, here he is bending over backwards! Paul is quite willing to do anything his principles permit him to do, even when he could virtually guarantee that by so doing he would be giving comfort to the gospel’s enemies.


In this too he was the faithful follower of Christ. The Lord would associate with the outcasts and got himself in trouble for his pains. But he also would be the honored guest at feasts thrown in his honor by the great and powerful and got himself, in that way, a reputation as a glutton and a drunk.


There is also, wonderfully, a great deal of this flexibility, this willingness to accommodate for the gospel’s sake in church history. Think of George Whitefield biting his tongue in regard to Wesley’s agitating on behalf of his Arminianism. Many wanted him to be more outspoken and combative. Or think of Hudson Taylor growing his pigtail. Criticism came from all sides and was sent home by fellow missionaries who could not understand how a loyal Englishman could so unashamedly take the part of another culture. But, I have something better to give you. You know how often I have spoken of John Duncan, the famous Rabbi Duncan of 19th century Scottish Presbyterianism. He was an eccentric man, also a determined polemicist in regard to what he saw to be the truth. But he had another side, just as Paul did.



… With all his want of common sense in common things, yet when the whole man was present, as on trying occasions abroad, he put forth a consummate tact, and he showed an unrivalled power of entering into other men’s sympathies. “Unto the Jews he became as a Jew, that he might gain the Jews; to the weak he became as weak, that he might gain the weak; he was made all things to all men, that he might by all means save some.” In Pesth he so adapted himself to the Jews that, as already noticed, his opponents reproached him as “a very cunning missionary,” and friendly Jews spoke of him as entering into their thoughts and feelings as no other Gentile ever did. An Hungarian Jew told me after his death, that Dr. Duncan and Dr. M’Caul were the only Gentiles whom the Jews regarded as thoroughly at home in their literature, and that our own Rabbi entered most into the heart of the Jews.


For doctrinal truth, if it was gainsaid, he would earnestly contend; and not merely for great truths, but also for the least, even to the “straining out of the gnat” from the cup. But in his largeness of sympathy with all men he was quick, fertile, deep in finding out rallying-points of agreement. To the Jew he was a child of Abraham; to the Roman Catholic he was an ancient churchman; to the Armenian in the East he would insist only on the words of the Bible; to the Hungarian he was in heart a Magyar; to the Bohemian a Czech; to the Highlander a Gael. He learned all their languages, and entered so cordially into their sympathies, that they all loved him as they did not love any other foreigner.


In circumstances of sorrow, in sickness, in bereavement, in any affliction, he was not merely kind, but with a kindness most discriminating and sympathetic. “In affliction,” he said, “mere natural human kindness is a very valuable communication from the philanthropic God.” Toward the afflicted he showed not only the tenderest pity, but the most delicate perception of the chords that ought to be touched.


From the thoughts of a child his own thoughts appeared to be commonly either soaring or sinking to the extremest distance; yet he could enter wondrously into a child’s feelings, and he wrote a letter to his first grandson in which he seemed himself to become a little boy again…. On a visit to a friend, he had spoken seriously to the only child, a girl of six years of age; but after leaving the house he feared lest his words might lose their effect, because in bidding her farewell he had not entered into all the sympathies of the child. He hastened back, at some inconvenience to himself, and having found her, he said, “Let me kiss your doll before I leave.” (Life of John Duncan, Alexander Moody Stuart)



Now, think about this. Isn’t it true that in our sinful perversity we are always getting this the wrong way round? We draw a line in the dirt concerning many things about which we ought to be flexible. And then we tolerate in the church what is nothing less than infidelity to Christ. [Our enemies do this. They will not tolerate denominational disloyalty, the criticism of the church’s actions and conduct, so they kick Dr. Machen out of the church. But they will tolerate Pearl Buck in their missionary force who no more believed in the gospel than the man in the moon.]


But we do it too in smaller, pettier ways. We split churches and divide from one another over personality conflicts while there is altogether too little of the “must” and “cannot” in our following of Christ. We are inflexible when bending is called for and pliable when rigidity is required.


Knowing when to dig in and when to give in is a large part of Christian wisdom. Paul had that wisdom and it was a large part of the secret of his great influence. He did not unnecessarily divide or offend, but he took the gospel and his own calling so seriously that people could not help but take him seriously when he spoke!


Now, in some personalities there is need for more of the one thing and in others more of the other. Some of us are naturally more dogmatic and others naturally more flexible. But we get the good of neither if it is not joined with the other. Flexibility without a determined loyalty to the Christian calling is just spinelessness and lack of conviction. Inflexible loyalty to principle without a caring concern for others that is demonstrated in a willingness to meet them, wherever possible, on their terms is pride and willfulness.


What we need to be is both and each at the right time. Stubbornly loyal to our calling as Christians and always willing to surrender our own will, whenever we can, if we might be helpful to others.