Acts has 28 chapters. We are in chapter 21. The last one-fourth of the book is devoted to Paul’s imprisonment, the occasion of it and then the details of it, and, finally, the last chapter deals with his reaching the city of Rome. These chapters, and chapter 21 in particular, are difficult to preach in that for the most part they present a narrative of the details of Paul’s imprisonment and travel to Rome and lack some of the doctrinal principles that are easier to form a message from.
But in looking at this chapter as a whole, we see Paul move from the position of a free man, to a prisoner. And the word that seems to come to my mind as a result of reading this chapter repeatedly is the word bound. Paul is warned twice that he would be bound as a prisoner, and then in vs. 33 he is bound in chains, and from that time on as far as we know, Paul is a prisoner, bound in chains for the rest of his ministry. So this is an important transition in the life of Paul, and the narrative spends the remainder of the chapters detailing those final years of Paul’s imprisonment.
But I think it’s important that we establish something right off the bat as we look at this new chapter of Paul’s life. In two of the epistles which Paul would write while in imprisonment, Ephesians and 2 Timothy, he referred to himself as the “prisoner of the Lord.” And that is essential to understanding this passage and the subsequent chapters. Paul does not consider himself a prisoner of Rome, but a prisoner of the Lord.
Now that is significant, because if you don’t understand Paul’s mind set, then you may make the interpretative mistake of many theologians and Bible teachers, in claiming that Paul made a mistake in this chapter, and as such he caused his imprisonment, and though God worked through it, his imprisonment was not necessary. And some theologians, emboldened by their declaration of Paul’s supposed error, have taken an even greater liberty and gone so far as to say his actions in the temple in regards to observing the vow and the feast are also a mistake and he was guilty of going against his own admonitions about not being under the law.
So we have to be careful in how we look at this chapter, because though it may seem to be just a travelogue, a poor interpretation can lead to bad doctrine. Personally, I think that Paul is exemplary in all that he does after his conversion. And I believe his actions here are exemplary as well. And I think realizing that Paul did not consider physical bonds as anything limiting his spiritual effectiveness is fundamental to understanding this passage correctly. Paul already considered himself bound to the Lord, and as such the physical bonds could not hinder his ministry whatsoever. In fact, he said in Philippians 1:12 that “my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel.” And he goes on to describe that progress as a result of his imprisonment. So Paul’s imprisonment in my opinion is not a mistake. But it was used by God for the greater progress of the gospel, even greater than he could achieve as a free man.
Now that is a great lesson in and of itself. That sometimes, the trials that we find ourselves in can achieve more for the kingdom than times of peace and prosperity. And when you come to recognize that, then when you find yourself in difficult, trying situations, rather than falling apart or having a pity party, perhaps you should consider it a ministry opportunity, and start looking around you at what God might want to accomplish through you as you go through your trial. Contrary to the teachings of the prosperity gospel proponents, God uses adversity more than He uses prosperity to accomplish His purposes.
Now as I alluded to, this passage is difficult to build an expositional message from, and a more astute preacher than I might skip right over this one. But I’m a little bit pig headed I guess, and I can’t help but think that there are some things here which are written for our instruction and admonition. We just may have to dig a little deeper. The late Dr. S. L. Johnson had the following to say about expositional preaching of such difficult passages. He said, “In final analysis, it seems to me, that the point of preaching is not to preach to the problems of a particular congregation; but rather to preach the Word of God so that you may become knowledgeable in the Scriptures and thus able to apply the Scriptures yourself to your problems. In other words, to bring you to a certain maturity in the understanding of the Word of God.” Now I think that is good and a worthy goal. It is very popular today to preach messages such as 7 Steps to a Better Marriage, or 10 Characteristics of a Successful Church. Those type of messages may propose a formula for you to emulate, but they can fail to give you a sound basis on which to be able to rightly discern the scriptures and correctly apply them to your daily lives.
Now before we delve into chapter 21, let’s set the context and at the same time dispel the idea that Paul was in error by continuing on to Jerusalem by referring back to the previous chapter, 20:22, 23; where Paul said to the elders at Ephesus, “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, bound in the Spirit, not knowing what shall befall me there; except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” So he goes forward after being told by the Holy Spirit that imprisonment will await him as he goes towards Jerusalem, and then to Rome. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit didn’t show him all of that in some detail, so that he knew exactly what was going to happen.
So my title today is “Bound for the sake of the gospel,” and I have four points just to give us a little outline for our exposition, and they are bound in the Spirit, bound by fear, bound by love, and bound yet delivered.
I’ve already alluded to the first point. Paul considers himself even before his imprisonment as bound in the Spirit. Throughout Paul’s writings, he refers to his ministry as being compelled, constrained to preach, saying woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. Paul’s salvation was such a dramatic conversion, after having persecuted the church for years to becoming an apostle of the Lord to the church, that he considered himself bound to serve Christ and the church with everything he had to offer. He would later say that I consider all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ. Nothing else mattered.
The Bible says that before our salvation we are all bound to sin. We served sin, and by extension, we served the devil. We served our flesh and our base passions. But now that we are saved, we are to serve the Lord. That is what it means to be bound in the Spirit. Recognizing the depravity and hopelessness of our sinful condition, and grateful for the grace God has bestowed upon us, we now serve Him joyfully, obedient to the leading of the Spirit, forsaking all the pleasures and profits of this world, for the sake of our love for the Lord.
Then our second point is bound by fear. So Paul is traveling towards Jerusalem, en route to Rome, and he is bringing an offering to the church at Jerusalem which he has gathered from the churches in Asia and Europe that he established. And I will spare you the geography lesson as we read of Paul’s travels by ship. But as pertaining to our outline, he lands in Tyre and stays there 7 days.
And while there Paul searches for any disciples that might be in Tyre. And when he does, they warn him through the Spirit that he should not set foot in Jerusalem. Now this is where supposedly Paul errs. However, I would suggest that the Spirit is not forbidding Paul to go to Jerusalem. I think that the Spirit was leading him to Jerusalem and had been for some time. That is why Paul was resolved to go there. What the Spirit was warning was to expect to be afflicted and imprisoned. And these warnings were not meant to alarm Paul, but to prepare him.
I believe that is why the scriptures warn us of tribulation and trials as Christians. Jesus warned us that if we follow Him then we will suffer. Jesus certainly does not want us to not follow Him because we will suffer. But He wants to warn us; forewarned is forearmed. That is the purpose of much of the prophecy in scripture. It’s not to give us a code that we spend inordinate amounts of time on, trying to figure out every detail and the day and time indicated. But it is simply to forewarn us that we are going to experience tribulation in this world, even as Jesus said. But take courage, for He has overcome the world. He knows what is going to happen before it happens, and He lets us have a glimpse of it, so that we might be prepared.
Then further along in the chapter, we read that Paul leaves Tyre and travels to Caesarea. And as he is there, a prophet named Agabus gives another warning to Paul. This one is even more explicit. He takes Paul’s belt, and in the style of the Old Testament prophets uses it to illustrate how the Jews will bind Paul and deliver him to the hands of the Gentiles which are the Romans. Now as I said, all of this was not to discourage Paul, but to strengthen him, and even to corroborate the previous prophecy that Paul had concerning Jerusalem given by the Holy Spirit in Acts 20 which I read to you earlier. And one important point in that is that prophecy needs to be corroborated. If you come to me and say you have a word of prophecy by the Holy Spirit, I don’t care how spiritual you may sound, I don’t care how esteemed you may be in the church… I will not accept it on that basis alone. It must be corroborated by scripture, or at the least by 2 or 3 witnesses. Paul said test the spirits. There are many deceiving spirits out there and even if an angel were to tell you something different than scripture you are not to accept it. Everything has to be corroborated. Now this was especially true in the early church when they did not have the finished scriptures such as we have. Now that prophecy is complete, God is not giving new revelation. His word is sufficient for all knowledge, for all instruction in righteousness.
But the main point is that we are not to be bound by fear. We are told to trust the Lord, lean not on our own understanding, but in all our ways acknowledge Him and He will direct our paths. Listen, the whole Christian life can be summed up in the idea of trusting in God’s plan for our lives. All rebellion, all sin is really just an attempt on our part to try to do it ourselves, to make our own decisions, to think that we can handle life on our own and do it on our own terms. That is sin because it is not of faith. But the Christian life is coming to the point of surrendering to God’s plan and trusting that His plan is good, and we can rest in His wisdom and His plan. That is what Romans 8:28 is talking about. Trusting that God’s plan will work out for good to them that love God and are called according to His purposes.
And we should not allow the fear of persecution or affliction to keep us from being witnesses of the gospel. Paul said, “For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” I would that we all had that sort of courage for the Lord. Not in some future, imaginary scene where we are asked to renounce Christ or face the firing squad. But in our everyday, common lives, that we were so bold as to be a witness on our jobs, in our schools, to our neighbors, not fearing the condemnation or scorn or derision. We don’t typically face death, ladies and gentlemen, for the sake of the gospel. We just face society’s reproach, and that is enough to silence us.
Now there is a side issue in this section that I am need to address. It is one of those passages that have caused or added to the controversy about the gifts of the Spirit as well as the roles of ministry. And so I will skip over that part. No, not really. But let me forewarn you that many controversial passages are such because there is not sufficient evidence to speak clearly on a subject. And so you have what is called an argument of silence. I would suggest that you do not build doctrine on an argument of silence. One passage taken out of it’s context does not make for sound doctrine. So let’s look at this, but realize that there is not sufficient evidence to be too dogmatic about what some might like to think they see here.
The difficult section is the one referring to Philip’s four virgin daughters who were prophetesses. Now let’s consider what it says; first of all, it says they were prophetesses. It does not say they were preachers. It doesn’t say they were elders. Luke never relates a prophecy given by these women. Second it says they were Philip’s daughters, virgin daughters. That means that they were under the legal authority and headship of Philip. Now Philip is described as having two offices; the first is he was one of the seven. One of the seven men appointed by the church of Jerusalem and the apostles to serve the church. Second, he was an evangelist; that would be a preacher of the gospel, particularly associated with traveling to churches, going to far away areas to preach the gospel and establish the church. So Philip has the office, and his 4 daughters have some sort of gift that is called prophecy. My position is that they did not preach, because that would violate Paul’s instructions in 1Timothy 2:12 that he did not suffer a woman to teach, but to keep silent in the church. So what purpose did these women serve? I would suggest they served Philip and through him the church as a source of revelation from God, in a time in which there was not the written New Testament scriptures, and in a land where there was probably not even sufficient availability of Old Testament scriptures. And so for practical matters God provided prophetic revelation through this evangelist’s daughters which he then gave to the church. And the fact that there were four of them is important, because they would have fulfilled the command that every fact was to be confirmed by at least 2 or 3 witnesses. See, there can be false prophets. There can be false prophecy. And in regards to new revelation, sometimes that cannot be immediately corroborated as coming from the Lord. But in this case, the plurality of testimony could confirm revelation. And so I think it was a unique gift to the early church, particularly in this church in Caesarea, in a remote area where they did not have adequate scriptural resources. But note that when Paul comes, the 4 daughters were there, but they did not prophecy to Paul. Paul was an apostle first of all. He had direct revelation from Christ. That is what the requirement of an apostle was that he had seen Christ and been taught by Christ. And Paul had that by revelation. But God brought a prophet named Agabus, a man to prophecy to Paul in the church. So this is a perfect illustration of the principle that in the church women are not to hold a position of authority, which is in keeping with Paul’s letters.
The third point then is bound by love. Paul finally arrives at Jerusalem. I can’t imagine how he must have felt, anticipation, maybe some apprehension, even some anxiety. But I think Paul most of all felt adrenalin. He wanted to get it on. Paul is like a combatant, like a prize fighter. He wants to go to battle. And he is biting at the bit to do it.
But don’t forget in all that his motivation for going to Jerusalem. And that is he loved the Jews. He knew he was going to be afflicted and imprisoned. And yet he loved them so much he was willing to suffer for them. He said elsewhere, I would to God that I was accursed for the sake of my brethren, the Israelites. That is an amazing thing to say. That is like a parent saying, I would to God that He would take my life, for the sake of my child’s salvation. And maybe some of you have said that. That is love.
And Paul proves his love for them by going out of his way to not offend them. The elders come up with a plan to keep Paul from harm by taking these four young men who were taking the Nazarite vow and helping them fulfill that vow. And this is where some have mistakenly criticized Paul again. Because in this passage he is seen attending the feast of Pentecost which lasted 7 days, he purifies himself according to the Jewish law, he may have even shaved his head, the other guys certainly did, and he offers sacrifices in the temple! Now at first glance that is like a Christian going to mass and confession. But it’s even worse than that, because Paul rails against that sort of thing in Romans. But we need to consider not what Paul did but why Paul did it.
First of all, he did not do it to establish righteousness that he might be saved. He knew that he was saved by grace, not works. The reason he did it was so that he could preach to the Jews. So that he could enter the temple and preach. If he was defiled ceremoniously according to Jewish law, he could not enter the temple. And during the feast, this would be his greatest opportunity to be a witness to the truth of the gospel.
Now Paul explains that in 1 Corinthians 9:20, “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law: To them that are without law, as without law.” He goes on to say that he becomes all things to all men that he might by all means save some.
Now that is an illustration of love. That is the love that Jesus had for us. He became like us, a human. He humbled Himself to receive spit and blows and rejection of men which He had created. And that is exactly what we see Paul doing here. That is why Paul could say be imitators of me, because he was an imitator of Christ. And that is what we are to be; imitators of Christ. That is how you become conformed to the image of Christ, by acting like Christ acted.
Now Paul understood freedom. He is the one who declared the freedom we have from the law. But true freedom is not only the freedom from the law, but the freedom to observe the law. There are times when you may need to restrict your freedom for the sake of a brother in Christ who is weaker. You may feel that you are free to have a glass of wine at dinner. But there may be times when you restrict that freedom for the sake of a brother or sister that may be tempted to go back to the bondage of alcohol that they once suffered under, if they were to be eating with you. That is why in the church, and at a church function, we will never allow alcohol. Not because we are legalists, but because we love the brethren more than we love our freedom, and certainly more than we love alcohol.
Well, the last point is bound yet delivered. In spite of the best laid plans, in spite of all the church’s precautions and in spite of Paul’s efforts not to be offensive, it turns out that some Jews from Asia, probably the same group that had caused a riot in Ephesus before, showed up near the end of the feast and they saw Paul in the temple. And immediately they tried to start another riot, with the intention of blaming it on Paul and using it to have him arrested. Their hatred for him and the gospel had not disippated.
So when they saw Paul, they started this riot on the assumption that he had brought a Gentile into the temple, when in fact Paul had gone out of his way to do the exact opposite thing to attempt to appease them. And the whole city becomes involved in this riot, they dragged him out of the temple and started beating him to death. But someone reported it to the Roman commander of the garrison, and he got some centurions and soldiers and ran down there and basically rescued Paul. When they saw the Roman commander, they stopped beating Paul, and notice in vs. 33 it say that he bound Paul with chains.
Now we read the story, so I don’t want to retell it. But the fact is, that Paul was being murdered, and being arrested and put in chains is actually the means by which God delivered him from death. Now that should be a lesson to us. Sometimes, the thing which we are most afraid of, is the very thing God uses for our deliverance. See, the Jews have been trying to kill Paul all along. And we’re going to see in the coming chapters that they will continue to plot to kill Paul. If Paul was not arrested, and held under Roman guard, then it would have only been a matter of time before he was murdered.
But God wasn’t done with Paul yet. And so God delivered him by having him arrested. God would end up using Paul more in bonds than he did when he was free. Paul would write most of the epistles from prison. He would actually have the freedom to do that unhindered and unafraid of being secretly ambushed and murdered. He would end up preaching to governors and kings and all of Caesar’s household. And in the long run, the gospel would advance far more due to this ministry of Paul than it did when Paul personally went on three missionary journeys. Now obviously, God used Paul’s missionary journey’s. But I would suggest that Paul’s writings reached millions upon millions more people than he ever could have reached in person.
So we see that God used bondage to accomplish deliverance. And I think it comes full circle. Because when you are in bondage to Christ, then nothing can come upon you that does not first come through the hand of God. God will not allow you to be finished off until He is finished with you. That is the promise of God for the person whose life is committed to the Lord.
The crazy thing is Paul ends up being a prisoner for the next several years, and most of that time he was not charged with a crime. In fact, King Agrippa says later that Paul would have been released if he had not appealed to Caesar. But Paul only appealed to Caesar because a sorry governor who did not have a charge to hold him with wanted to turn him over to the Jews to judge him. But God had a plan for Paul’s life, and Paul knew that he could trust God’s plan. He knew that his usefulness and effectiveness depended on being in God’s plan, even when it seemed at odds with human reason.
Folks, I hope that you will consider being bound to Christ today. I hope you will consider the baubles and trinkets of this life as worthless as compared to the surpassing knowledge of Christ and serving Christ no matter what the cost. I hope you will not be bound by fear, but be courageous even as Paul was. I hope that you will be bound by love, giving up your freedom, your liberty, your time, your resources, for the sake of the brethren. I pray that your love for the church would prohibit you from putting any stumbling block in front of a another Christian. And then I pray you will know the bondage that leads to deliverance. There is no safer place than smack dab in the middle of God’s will. Trying to do your will and yet appease God, or trying to keep up Christian appearances but live in the world are some of the most dangerous places you can be. There is no better place, no safer place that fully committed to Christ. You will never know true deliverance until you completely surrender to Him.