Today’s reading: Acts 21-23.
Like Jesus before him, Paul set his face like flint towards Jerusalem. His Christian brothers and sisters knew the danger – Jerusalem was a powder keg of religious emotions – and tried to stop him. The prophet Agabus, who had earlier warned of impending famine in Jerusalem, now foretold of Paul’s imprisonment if he pressed on. But Paul was determined to complete his journey. Was he foolish to do so? Some commentators wonder if he was wrong to push ahead in the light of so many warnings.
Paul had been to Jerusalem before. He came there briefly after his conversion. He brought the collection for famine relief. He was there for the Jerusalem Council. But in the interim Paul had made a name for himself through repeated conflicts with Jewish synagogues in Asia Minor and Greece. He had notoriety even among the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. As James said, they held zealously to the Law and were appalled at rumors that Paul was preaching against the Law.
Paul clearly stated his reason for pressing on to Jerusalem. It was “for the name of the Lord Jesus.” He was determined to glorify Jesus by his presence in Jerusalem. He had been throughout much of the Roman empire, and had seen much success for the kingdom, but Jerusalem had always been a restricted zone for him. After he was arrested in Jerusalem, he said this to the crowds about his first time there after his conversion:
“When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking. ‘Quick!’ he said to me. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ ” ‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’ “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ” Acts 22:17-21
God gave Paul a ministry to the Gentiles, but Paul was still a Jew, trained by one of the great teachers in Jerusalem, and he stilled longed for the Jewish people to come to Christ. As he wrote in Romans, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” I think Paul longed to see some successful ministry in Jerusalem in spite of the obstacles. He may have also sought some better understanding by the Jewish believers there. He was willing to lay down his life for the opportunity. We can second guess the wisdom of his decision, but let’s remember that his arrest in Jerusalem and subsequent trials gave him an opportunity to witness to influential men and women, and eventually brought him to the seat of the Roman empire.
Image by Gustave Dore