Tragic Hero (Part II) – Acts 21:17-36

by Roger McCay
8 November 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 21:17-36
Link to Audio Version

A good trap is not seen by the prey until it is sprung. Traps by their nature are devious. They work best when they can catch their victim off guard, and especially when the victim loses situational awareness. This is very true in the Christian life. The enemy sets traps for us, looking to tempt us and lead us into sin, as we follow after the Lord along the Way.

A particularly devious trap is one of sinful compromise. This one can blast us even when are moving forward with the best intentions and motives. With a laser focus on that goal, that mission, that ideal, the trap can be sprung on us out of the blue. “If you just do this, you can achieve that goal you want so bad. It’s just a little thing, a little compromise, no big deal. Isn’t your goal noble and worthy? No one’ll get hurt.” Thus caught off guard, we can find ourselves justifying in our minds sinful means in order to achieve holy ends. The thing is, holy ends do not ever justify sinful means. Christians are called to be holy in all our conduct, like the Lord we follow (1 Peter 1:15-16).

Last week we took a look at Paul’s journey to Jerusalem. We saw how Paul was so obsessively bound and determined to get there, in order to accomplish his, Paul’s, purposes (what I’m sure he considered the best of intentions). He was so bound and determined that he obstinately refused to listen to God’s command not to go to Jerusalem; God’s warnings as to the terrible things that would happen to him there, if he did go; and the pleading and wise counsel of notable Christians to not go to Jerusalem. Yet, Paul’s emotions had overcome his reason, and (typical to a tragic hero) his fatal flaw (obsessive obstinacy) dominated him, so he went to Jerusalem, knowingly going into peril.

What was the peril at the end of the road in Jerusalem for Paul? The easy answer is that Paul was going to be beaten and arrested, which Paul knew about and to which he resigned himself. But there was an even more insidious peril waiting him there (which he didn’t expect), a trap of sinful compromise set in the Jerusalem church.

Starting in Acts 21:17, Paul was received by certain brothers in the Jerusalem church, who received him gladly. This was not the whole church, but a welcoming committee, of sorts, putting him at ease. On the next day Paul, with his travelling companions (Luke and those mentioned in Acts 20:4), met with the elders of the church. The twelve apostles had, apparently, all gone by this time. But there were quite a number of elders, moderated by James. One scholar I read said there were 70 elders, just like there were 70 members of the synagogue.[1] If so, that makes sense, as the church in Jerusalem was huge with thousands of Jewish members (v. 20).

Coming before the gathered elders, Paul greeted them, introduced his traveling companions, and testified to all that God had done through his ministry among the Gentiles. Most likely, too, Paul also handed over the very large sum of money he had managed to raise for the Jerusalem church. Indeed, presenting this gift (which was designated for the poor and for general offerings – 24:17) seems to have been a (if not the) primary goal of his visit to Jerusalem. The overall purpose of the gift was towards showing the love of the Gentile churches towards the Jerusalem church, with Paul hoping that it might bring credibility to his ministry (Rom. 15:31) and help to unify the church (unity being an essential element in church health and evangelism—John 17:21, 23; 1 Pt. 3:8; Rom. 15:5-6). This desire for acceptance and unity was due to Paul knowing there was a huge, growing rift between the Jewish and Gentile Christians over the issues of law and grace.

However, you’ll notice Luke does not mention the money. Chapter 24 is the only place Luke mentions it, but only in the context of Paul’s speech to Felix. Luke’s lack of mention of such a significant event here is strange. It makes you wonder. Luke was there; the money gift was a big deal. Paul had spent a lot of effort on getting it all together from the various churches and transporting it, even writing about it, particularly in 1st and 2nd Corinthians, trying to wrangle more money out of the believers in Corinth (1 Cor. 16:1-3; 2 Cor. 8-9). Why deliberately omit it? Well, considering what happens, perhaps the simple answer is that Luke did not mention the pay-off of the money since it utterly failed to accomplish Paul’s purpose, contributing nothing at all towards his credibility or unity in the church.