You’re in Trouble Now: Acts 21
What can we say about Paul? If you are a believer but have never read Acts, you do not realize what kind of trouble Paul was capable of getting into. You should read the whole text and then come back to this point.
If you have read the whole book, though, let’s get into this from here: Acts 21 (link). Paul is making his way back to Jerusalem, and stops off at Miletus to meet with the elders of the Ephesian church. Then he travels on to Caesarea and meets with Phillip the Evangelist (Acts 8, see here) and Phillip’s four daughters who prophesied. While Paul is there, he also encounters a chap named Agabus comes in, picks up Paul’s belt, ties himself up with it, and says that the owner of the belt will be bound up just like that.
Now, go back through all the rough moments Paul has been through. He’s been stoned, flogged, locked up, threatened….but we have no textual moments that tell us he was ever warned that bad things were going to happen. Usually, he just went one place to the next.
Here he gets a warning that, if he goes to Jerusalem, he’s done. He’ll be imprisoned by the Jews and handed over to the Gentiles—which should be read as “Angry Romans.” Being handed over to Angry Romans works out about the same every time—not well for the handed-over one.
The question that bothers me here is: WHY?
Why get the warning? Why does God send Agabus to Paul? What is the purpose? The people around him start panicking, calling on him not to go to Jerusalem. It becomes a test point for Paul.
What will he do? Will he go on to Jerusalem? Will he decide to preach elsewhere?
Then he gets to Jerusalem. Immediately, is he arrested? No. Instead, he’s faced with a different challenge. One that was likely harder to swallow: he, Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, is asked to help a few Jewish Believers go the Temple and fulfill their ceremonial vows. He is asked to do this because other believers are questioning Paul. Rather than defend himself, Paul is asked to do something he hasn’t done much of: Jewish ceremonial ritual.
That probably challenged him as much as the threats of oppression from the outside. Yet he persevered. The end-result? Arrest, hand over to the Romans, and the rest of the story of Acts.
We know the ultimate fate of Paul: he is beheaded with the sword by Rome sometime during the reign of Caesar Nero. We’re not entirely sure everywhere he goes between now and then, but we know that much. And there is not anything we can do about it for Paul, anyway.
What do we do about it for us?
First, we need to consider this: the warning signs echo for two millennia: the world and Christianity are incompatible. We will either follow Jesus or seek approval from other sources. At times, following Jesus will be approved culturally and will be to our benefit, but those times are separated widely by the divergence of the options.
Christian living by nature creates a separation from culture that does not honor God. It happens. How the competing culture responds varies based on how much of a threat the Christian view is held to be.
Second, then, we must consider how we shall respond. We have the warnings. We have Scripture that places before us the reality that some people will interfere with us religiously and some will use the power of the government against us for our beliefs.
What will you do when that comes to your door?
Now, on to the nerdish note:
Phillip has four virgin daughters who prophesy. Many modern Christian groups practice neither prophesy as it happened then nor women taking on the main teaching role in the churches. What should we do with this clear example of women as prophets?
1. Discard it as fable.
2. Punt it by saying that prophesy as then does not exist now, so there’s no point worrying what they did.
3. Argue semantics about these four only doing what their father allowed or did not do such things outside of them. Or that they did—given that there is only one mention, it’s hard to tell and not worth arguing.
4. Acknowledge that narrative moments must also be connected to plainly spoken propositional statements, and work to form a clear theology based on the testimony of all Scripture rather than excising one liners.