In these verses we have,
I. Paul’s journey to Jerusalem from Caesarea, and the company that went along with him. 1. They took up their carriages, their bag and baggage, and as it should seem, like poor travellers or soldiers, were their own porters; so little had they of change of raiment. Omnia mea mecum porto—My property is all about me. Some think they had with them the money that was collected in the churches of Macedonia and Achaia for the poor saints at Jerusalem. If they could have persuaded Paul to go some other way, they would gladly have gone along with him; but if, notwithstanding their dissuasive, he will go to Jerusalem, they do no say, “Let him go by himself then;” but as Thomas, in a like case, when Christ would go into danger at Jerusalem, Let us go and die with him, John 11:16. Their resolution to cleave to Paul was like that of Ittai to cleave to David (2 Sam. 15:21): In what place my Lord the king shall be, whether in death or life, there also will thy servant be. Thus Paul’s boldness emboldened them. 2. Certain of the disciples of Caesarea went along with them. Whether they designed to go however, and took this opportunity of going with so much good company, or whether they went on purpose to see if they could do Paul any service and if possible prevent his trouble, or at least minister to him in it, does not appear. The less while that Paul is likely to enjoy his liberty the more industrious they are to improve every opportunity of conversation with him. Elisha kept close to Elijah when he knew the time was at hand that he should be taken up. 3. They brought with them an honest old gentleman that had a house of his own at Jerusalem, in which he would gladly entertain Paul and his company, one Mnason of Cyprus (Acts 21:16), with whom we should lodge. Such a great concourse of people there was to the feast that it was a hard matter to get lodgings; the public houses would be taken up by those of the better sort, and it was looked upon as a scandalous thing for those that had private houses to let their rooms out at those times, but they must freely accommodate strangers with them. Every one then would choose his friends to be his guests, and Mnason took Paul and his company to be his lodgers; though he had heard what trouble Paul was likely to come into, which might bring those that entertained him into trouble too, yet he shall be welcome to him, whatever comes of it. This Mnason is called an old disciple—a disciple from the beginning; some think, one of the seventy disciples of Christ, or one of the first converts after the pouring out of the Spirit, or one of the first that was converted by the preaching of the gospel in Cyprus, Acts 13:4. However it was, it seems he had been long a Christian, and was now in years. Note, It is an honourable thing to be an old disciple of Jesus Christ, to have been enabled by the grace of God to continue long in a course of duty, stedfast in the faith, and growing more and more prudent and experienced to a good old age. And with these old disciples one would choose to lodge; for the multitude of their years will teach wisdom.
II. Paul’s welcome at Jerusalem. 1. Many of the brethren there received him gladly, Acts 21:17. As soon as they had notice that he was come to town, they went to his lodgings at Mnason’s house, and congratulated him on his safe arrival, and told him they were glad to see him, and invited him to their houses, accounting it an honour to be known to one that was such an eminent servant of Christ. Streso observes that the word here used concerning the welcome they gave to the apostles, asmenos apodechein, is used concerning the welcome of the apostles’ doctrine, Acts 2:41. They gladly received his word. We think if we had Paul among us we should gladly receive him; but it is a question whether we should or no it, having his doctrine, we do not gladly receive that. 2. They paid a visit to James and the elders of the church, at a church-meeting (Acts 21:18): “The day following, Paul went unto James, and took us with him, that were his companions, to introduce us into acquaintance with the church at Jerusalem.” It should seem that James was now the only apostle that was resident at Jerusalem; the rest had dispersed themselves to preach the gospel in other places. But still they forecasted to have an apostle at Jerusalem, perhaps sometimes one and sometimes another, because there was a great resort thither from all parts. James was now upon the spot, and all the elders or presbyters that were the ordinary pastors of the church, both to preach and govern, were present. Paul saluted them all, paid his respects to them, enquired concerning their welfare, and gave them the right hand of fellowship. He saluted them, that is, he wished them all health and happiness, and prayed to God to bless them. The proper signification of salutation is, wishing salvation to you: salve, or salus tibi sit; like peace be unto you. And such mutual salutations, or good wishes, very well become Christians, in token of their love to each other and joint regard to God.
III. The account they had from him of his ministry among the Gentiles, and their satisfaction in it. 1. He gave them a narrative of the success of the gospel in those countries where he had been employed, knowing it would be very acceptable to them to hear of the enlarging of Christ’s kingdom: He declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry, Acts 21:19. Observe how modestly he speaks, not what things he had wrought (he was but the instrument), but what God had wrought by his ministry. It was not I, but the grace of God which was with me. He planted and watered, but God gave the increase. He declared it particularly, that the grace of God might appear the more illustrious in the circumstances of his success. Thus David will tell others what God has done for his soul (Ps. 66:16), as Paul here what God has done by his hand, and both that their friends may help them to be thankful. 2. Hence they took occasion to give praise to God (Acts 21:20): When they heart it, they glorified the Lord. Paul ascribed it all to God, and to God they gave the praise of it. They did not break out into high encomiums of Paul, but left it to his Master to say to him, Well done, good and faithful servant; but they gave glory to the grace of God, which was extended to the Gentiles. Note, The conversion of sinners ought to be the matter of our joy and praise as it is of the angels’. God had honoured Paul more than any of them, in making his usefulness more extensive, yet they did not envy him, nor were they jealous of his growing reputation, but, on the contrary, glorified the Lord. And they could not do more to encourage Paul to go on cheerfully in his work than to glorify God for his success in it; for, if God be praised, Paul is pleased.
IV. The request of James and the elders of the church at Jerusalem to Paul, or their advice rather, that he would gratify the believing Jews by showing some compliance with the ceremonial law, and appearing publicly in the temple to offer sacrifice, which was not a thing in itself sinful; for the ceremonial law, though it was by no means to be imposed upon the Gentile converts (as the false teachers would have it, and thereby endeavoured to subvert the gospel), yet it was not become unlawful as yet to those that had been bred up in the observance of it, but were far from expecting justification by it. It was dead, but not buried; dead, but not yet deadly. And, being not sinful, they thought it was a piece of prudence in Paul to conform thus far. Observe the counsel they give to Paul herein, not as having authority over him, but an affection for him.
1. They desired him to take notice of the great numbers there were of the Jewish converts: Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of the Jews there are who believe. They called him brother, for they looked upon him as a joint-commissioner with them in gospel-work. Though they were of the circumcision and he the apostle of the Gentiles, though they were conformists and he a nonconformist, yet they were brethren, and owned the relation. Thou hast been in some of our assemblies, and seest how numerous they are: how many myriads of Jews believe. The word signifies, not thousands, but ten thousands. Even among the Jews, who were most prejudiced against the gospel, yet there were great multitudes that received it; for the grace of God can break down the strongest holds of Satan. The number of the names at first was but one hundred and twenty, yet now many thousands. Let none therefore despise the day of small things; for, though the beginning be small, God can make the latter end greatly to increase. Hereby it appeared that God had not quite cast away his people the Jews, for among them there was a remnant, an election, that obtained (see Rom. 11:1, 5, 7): many thousands that believed. And this account which they could give to Paul of the success of the gospel among the Jews was, no doubt, as grateful to Paul as the account which he gave them of the conversion of the Gentiles was to them; for his heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Jews was that they might be saved.
2. They informed him of a prevailing infirmity these believing Jews laboured under, of which they could not yet be cured: They are all zealous of the law. They believe in Christ as the true Messiah, they rest upon his righteousness and submit to his government; but they know the law of Moses was of God, they have found spiritual benefit in their attendance on the institutions of it, and therefore they can by no means think of parting with it, no, nor of growing cold to it. And perhaps they urged Christ’s being made under the law, and observing it (which was designed to be our deliverance from the law), as a reason for their continuance under it. This was a great weakness and mistake, to be so fond of the shadows when the substance was come, to keep their necks under a yoke of bondage when Christ had come to make them free. But see, (1.) The power of education and long usage, and especially of a ceremonial law. (2.) The charitable allowance that must be made in consideration of these. These Jews that believed were not therefore disowned and rejected as no Christians because they were for the law, nay, were zealous for it, while it was only in their own practice, and they did not impose it upon others. Their being zealous of the law was capable of a good construction, which charity would put upon it; and it was capable of a good excuse, considering what they were brought up in, and among whom they lived.
3. They gave him to understand that these Jews, who were so zealous of the law, were ill-affected to him, Acts 21:21. Paul himself, though as faithful a servant as any Christ ever had, yet could not get the good word of all that belonged to Christ’s family: “They are informed of thee (and form their opinion of thee accordingly) that thou not only dost not teach the Gentiles to observe the law, as some would have had thee (we have prevailed with them to drop that), but dost teach all the Jews who are dispersed among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, not to circumcise their children nor to walk after the customs of our nation, which were of divine appointment, so far as they might be observed even among the Gentiles, at a distance from the temple,—not to observe the fasts and feasts of the church, not to wear their phylacteries, nor abstain from unclean meats.” Now, (1.) It was true that Paul preached the abrogation of the law of Moses, taught them that it was impossible to be justified by it, and therefore we are not bound up any longer to the observance of it. But, (2.) It was false that he taught them to forsake Moses; for the religion he preached tended not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it. He preached Christ (the end of the law for righteousness), and repentance and faith, in the exercise of which we are to make great use of the law. The Jews among the Gentiles whom Paul taught were so far from forsaking Moses that they never understood him better, nor ever embraced him so heartily as now when they were taught to make use of him as a schoolmaster to bring them to Christ. But even the believing Jews, having got this notion of Paul, that he was an enemy to Moses, and perhaps giving too much regard to the unbelieving Jews too, were much exasperated against him. Their ministers, the elders here present, loved and honoured him, and approved of what he did, and called him brother, but the people could hardly be induced to entertain a favourable thought of him; for it is certain the least judicious are the most censorious, the weak-headed are the hot-headed. They could not distinguish upon Paul’s doctrine as they ought to have done, and therefore condemned it in the gross, through ignorance.
4. They therefore desired Paul that he would by some public act, now that he had come to Jerusalem, make it to appear that the charge against him was false, and that he did not teach people to forsake Moses and to break the customs of the Jewish church, for he himself retained the use of them.
(1.) They conclude that something of this kind must be done: “What is it therefore? What must be done? The multitude will hear that thou art come to town.” This is an inconvenience that attends men of fame, that their coming and going are taken notice of more than other people’s, and will be talked of, by some for good-will and by others for ill-will. “When they hear thou art come, they must needs come together, they will expect that we call them together, to advise with them whether we should admit thee to preach among us as a brother or no; or, they will come together of themselves expecting to hear thee.” Now something must be done to satisfy them that Paul does not teach the people to forsake Moses, and they think it necessary, [1.] For Paul’s sake, that his reputation should be cleared, and that so good a man may not lie under any blemish, nor so useful a man labour under any disadvantage which may obstruct his usefulness. [2.] For the people’s sake, that they may not continue prejudiced against so good a man, nor lose the benefit of his ministry by those prejudices. [3.] For their own sake, that since they knew it was their duty to own Paul their doing it might not be turned to their reproach among those that were under their charge.
(2.) They produce a fair opportunity which Paul might take to clear himself: “Do this that we say unto thee, take our advice in this case. We have four men, Jews who believe, of our own churches, and they have a vow on them, a vow of Nazariteship for a certain time; their time has now expired (Acts 21:23), and they are to offer their offering according to the law, when they shave the head of their separation, a he-lamb for a burnt-offering, a ewe-lamb for a sin-offering, and a ram for a peace-offering, with other offerings pertinent to them, Num. 6:13-20. Many used to do this together, when their vow expired about the same time, either for the greater expedition or for the greater solemnity. Now Paul having so far of late complied with the law as to take upon him the vow of a Nazarite, and to signify the expiration of it by shaving his head at Cenchrea (Acts 18:18), according to the custom of those who lived at a distance from the temple, they desire him but to go a little further, and to join with these four in offering the sacrifices of a Nazarite: ‘Purify thyself with them according to the law; and be willing not only to take that trouble, but to be at charges with them, in buying sacrifices for this solemn occasion, and to join with them in the sacrifice.” This, they think, will effectually stop the mouth of calumny, and every one will be convinced that the report was false, that Paul was not the man he was represented to be, did not teach the Jews to forsake Moses, but that he himself, being originally a Jew, walked orderly, and kept the law; and then all would be well.
5. They enter a protestation that this shall be no infringement at all of the decree lately made in favour of the Gentile converts, nor do they intend by this in the least to derogate from the liberty allowed them (Acts 21:25): “As touching the Gentiles who believe, we have written and concluded, and resolve to abide by it, that they observe no such things; we would not have them to be bound up by the ceremonial law by any means, but only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication; but let not them be tied to the Jewish sacrifices or purifications, nor any of their rites and ceremonies.” They knew how jealous Paul was for the preservation of the liberty of the converted Gentiles, and therefore expressly covenant to abide by that. Thus far is their proposal.
V. Here is Paul’s compliance with it. He was willing to gratify them in this matter. Though he would not be persuaded not to go to Jerusalem, yet, when he was there, he was persuaded to do as they there did, Acts 21:26. Then Paul took the men, as they advised, and the very next day, purifying himself with them, and not with multitude nor tumult, as he himself pleads (Acts 24:18), he entered into the temple, as other devout Jews that came upon such errands did, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification to the priests; desiring the priest would appoint a time when the offering should be offered for every one of them, one for each. Ainsworth, on Num. 6:18; quotes out of Maimonides a passage which gives some light to this: If a man say, Upon me behalf the oblations of a Nazarite, or, Upon me be half the shaving of a Nazarite, them he brings half the offerings by what Nazarite he will, and that Nazarite pays his offering out of that which is his. So Paul did here; he contributed what he vowed to the offerings of these Nazarites, and some think bound himself to the law of Nazariteship, and to an attendance at the temple with fastings and prayers for seven days, not designing that the offering should be offered till them, which was what he signified to the priest. Now it has been questioned whether James and the elders did well to give Paul this advice, and whether he did well to take it. 1. Some have blamed this occasional conformity of Paul’s, as indulging the Jews too much in their adherence to the ceremonial law, and a discouragement of those who stood fast in the liberty wherewith Christ had made them free. Was it not enough for James and the elders of Jerusalem to connive at this mistake in the Jewish converts themselves, but must they wheedle Paul to countenance them in it? Had it not been better, when they had told Paul how zealous the believing Jews were for the law, if they had desired, whom God had endued with such excellent gifts, to take pains with their people to convince them of their error, and to show them that they were made free from the law by their marriage to Christ? Rom. 7:4. To urge him to encourage them in it by his example seems to have more in it of fleshly wisdom than of the grace of God. Surely Paul knew what he had to do better than they could teach him. But, 2. Others think the advice was prudent and good, and Paul’s following it was justifiable enough, as the case stood. It was Paul’s avowed principle, To the Jews became I as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews, 1 Cor. 9:20. He had circumcised Timothy, to please the Jews; though he would not constantly observe the ceremonial law, yet, to gain an opportunity of doing good, and to show how far he could comply, he would occasionally go to the temple and join in the sacrifices there. Those that are weak in the faith are to be borne with, when those that undermine the faith must be opposed. It is true, this compliance of Paul’s sped ill to him, for this very thing by which he hoped to pacify the Jews did but provoke them, and bring him into trouble; yet this is not a sufficient ground to go upon in condemning it: Paul might do well, and yet suffer for it. But perhaps the wise God overruled both their advice and Paul’s compliance with it to serve a better purpose than was intended; for we have reason to think that when the believing Jews, who had endeavoured by their zeal for the law to recommend themselves to the good opinion of those who believed not, saw how barbarously they used Paul (who endeavoured to oblige them), they were by this more alienated from the ceremonial law than they could have been by the most argumentative or affecting discourses. They saw it was in vain to think of pleasing men that would be pleased with nothing else but the rooting out of Christianity. Integrity and uprightness will be more likely to preserve us than sneaking compliances. And when we consider what a great trouble it must needs be to James and the presbyters, in the reflection upon it, that they had by their advice brought Paul into trouble, it should be a warning to us not to press men to oblige us by doing any thing contrary to their own mind.