27 When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, 28 crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” 29 For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. 30 Then all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. 31 And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. 32 He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33 Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. 34 Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. 35 And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, 36 for the mob of the people followed, crying out, “Away with him!” – Acts 21:27-36 ESV
Rumors had spread among the predominantly Jewish believers in Jerusalem that Paul, while on his missionary journeys, had been attempting to get Jews to walk away from Judaism. They had heard that he was teaching against the Mosaic law, demanding that parents no longer circumcise their children or keep the customs associated with Judaism. Of course, none of it was true, but rumors have a way of becoming fact, not fiction, when told often and eagerly enough. So, Paul had agreed with the suggestion of James, to join four other men who were completing their vows to God. Paul would underwrite the costs of their ceremonial cleansing and join them in their rites of purification, signaling to the Jewish Christians that he was still very much a faithful adherent to Judaism. And it was while Paul and the four other men were in the middle of completing their seven days of purification that a riot ensued. It seems that the Jews had never forgiven Paul for deserting the faith and becoming a follower of the Way. At one time, he had been an up-and-coming Pharisee and fervent opponent of the sect of the rabbi from Nazareth. He had done everything in his power to eradicate the movement and its followers. Then suddenly, without warning, he had switched sides, becoming one of movements most powerful proponents and propagators of the teachings of Jesus. As Paul was completing his purification rites in the Temple courtyard, some Jews from Asia saw him and became upset that he was on their sacred grounds. These men were Jews who had traveled all the way to Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. They were devout and completely dedicated to the Hebrew faith. Having come from Asia, they were very familiar with the work of Paul and his efforts among the Gentiles. It may be that these men were from Ephesus, because “they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city” (Acts 21:29 ESV). They obviously recognized Trophimus, and knew him to be a non-Jew. Upon seeing Paul in the temple courtyard, they immediately assumed that he had brought his Gentile friends with him. Now, if Paul had brought them into the Court of the Gentiles, that would have been acceptable, but as part of his purification rite, Paul would have been in the Israelite’s Courtyard. These men viewed Paul as an enemy of Judaism. He had spent two years in Ephesus, preaching the gospel and spreading the good news regarding Jesus, “so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10 ESV).
Now, here were these Jews from Asia, seeing Paul in the courtyard of their sacred temple, and they lost it. They immediately sounded the alarm, calling attention to Paul’s presence and accusing him of desecrating the temple by bringing Gentiles into the restricted areas. Perhaps they thought that the four men who were undergoing purification with Paul were Gentiles. Whatever the case, they shouted, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who preaches against our people everywhere and tells everybody to disobey the Jewish laws. He speaks against the Temple—and even defiles this holy place by bringing in Gentiles.” (Acts 21:28 NLT). Luke makes it clear that they had wrongly assumed that Paul had brought Trophimus into the sacred area of the temple. According to the Mosaic Law, that would have been a capital offense. According to the 1st-Century Jewish historian, Josephus, there were notices placed in the court of the Gentiles, written in both Greek and Latin, warning that any Gentiles who ventured into the inner courts would be responsible for their own deaths. Paul, while a Jew by birth, was little more than a Gentile to these men because they were convinced that he had abandoned his Jewish faith for Christianity. In their minds, Paul was a lover of Gentiles, and he deserved to die. The Jews from Asia whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and “Paul was grabbed and dragged out of the Temple, and immediately the gates were closed behind him” (Acts 21:30 NLT). It seems likely that Paul was removed by force from the Israelite Courtyard and dragged into the Court of the Gentiles. The gates between the two were closed and locked, in an effort to prevent any other potential desecration of the holy grounds.
Things escalated quickly, because Luke indicates that they were trying kill Paul. News spread of the riot taking place on the temple grounds, and the commander of the Roman forces stationed at the Fortress of Antonio, gathered his troops and entered into the crowd in an attempt to restore order. It didn’t take the Roman Tribune long to get there, because the Fortress of Antonio was directly outside the northern portico of the temple. It was only when the crowd saw the Roman troops, that they stopped beating Paul. But the chaos continued, with the irate Jews shouting accusations and spewing hate-filled demands calling for Paul’s death. The commander, placing Paul in chains and having his troops carry him above their heads in an effort to protect him from the mob, ordered that he be taken to the fortress. And as they made their way through the throng crowded into the Court of the Gentiles, Paul could hear the shouts of “Kill him, kill him!”
This scene conjures up images of another, very similar occasion, when Jesus had been dragged before Pilate, the Roman governor, having been arrested by the Jewish council and accused of blasphemy. Pilate had examined Jesus and found Him guilty of nothing worthy of death. And Pilate, confused as to what he should do with Jesus, turned to the Jewish crowd and asked them for their opinion in the matter.
12 Pilate asked them, “Then what should I do with this man you call the king of the Jews?”
13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!”
14 “Why?” Pilate demanded. “What crime has he committed?”
But the mob roared even louder, “Crucify him!”
15 So to pacify the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip, then turned him over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified. – Mark 15:12-15 NLT
Their answer had been perfectly and painfully clear. And, in the case of Paul, the Jews were equally adamant in their demand that he be put to death. Paul was a perceived threat to their way of life. He was disrupting the status quo and, apparently, guilty of causing many of their fellow Jews to abandon their Jewish faith. He was a troublemaker and a heretic who needed to be exterminated. But, in reality, all Paul was guilty of, was teaching men and women how they might be made right with God. He had been teaching justification by faith, not by the law. He had not been discounting Judaism or diminishing the importance of the Mosaic law, but had simply been clarifying the true intentions of the law. If Paul had taught anything, it was that the law “was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised” (Galatians 3:19 NLT). It had been the apostle John who wrote in his gospel, “For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17 NLT). Later on, in the same gospel, John records the words of Jesus, spoken to the Jews: “Moses gave you the law, but none of you obeys it! In fact, you are trying to kill me” (John 7:19 NLT).
Jesus had come to fulfill the requirements of the law. He made that fact known when He addressed the crowds during His sermon on the mount.
17 “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. – Matthew 5:17-18 NLT
Jesus had been the consummate law-keeper, not law-breaker. He was obedient to His heavenly Father in every way, having kept every single commandment perfectly. And Paul had been spreading the truth regarding Jesus and His association with the law of Moses.
21 But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. 22 We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. – Romans 3:21-22 NLT
3 The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. 4 He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT
Paul was not against the law of Moses. He was against the idea of anyone being able to keep the law and make themselves righteous in the eyes of God. He had been a law-abiding Pharisee, but knew that all his efforts to keep the law had failed. In spite his best intentions, he had been a law-breaker, not a law-keeper. And Paul provides us with a vivid description of his view of life lived in an attempt to keep the holy and righteous law of God in the flesh.
14 So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. 15 I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. 17 So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
18 And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. 20 But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. 24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! – Romans 7:14-24 NLT
Paul was in chains. He had been beaten and falsely accused. But he knew that he was guilty of nothing more than preaching and teaching the truth about Jesus. He firmly believed what he wrote to the church in Rome, answering his own question, “Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?” with the powerful and life-altering words, “Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25 NLT
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.