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Bound for Christ

Date: Jul. 20, 2014

Author: Michael Mark

Acts 21:17-36

Key Verse: Acts 21:33

“The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Then he asked who he was and what he had done.”

The word “bound” is a very versatile word – there are several ways that it can be used. One way it is used is in the sense of limitation, like “boundaries,” or “out of bounds.” If the ball goes beyond a certain line, it is declared out of bounds. In this passage, we will see that Paul, though he is free, binds himself to the law for the sake of Christian unity. Another way bound is used is to be tied to something. Today we will also see that Paul is physically bound, put in chains for the name of the Lord Jesus. Yet another way bound is used is as a destination. In the hymn, “Higher Ground,” one of the verses says, “Still praying as I’m onward bound.” If you were going to New York, you would say, “I’m bound for New York.” See now also, Christ as a destination. I’m bound for Christ. I want to go to Christ. I want to seek Christ.

Last but not least, bound can be used in the sense of a goal. Some people might say, “He’s bound for success,” or “She’s bound for great things,” which are ways to say, “He will be successful,” or “She will experience great things.” Christ, is also a goal. Be “bound for Christ,” is another way to say, “You will be like Christ”; you’re “bound for Christ,” you’re “bound to be like Christ.” Paul captured these thoughts in his letter to the Philipians, in Phil 3:10-11, “I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining the resurrection from the dead.” Paul’s goal, his ultimate destination was to know Christ, and to be like him. We will look more in depth now at the different ways Paul was bound for Christ in this passage, and I hope we all my be encouraged to be bound for Christ as well.

The passage starts at v.17, can we please look at v.17, “When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly.”   We have now come to the end of Paul’s third missionary journey, and he and his companions have finally arrived in Jerusalem. Part of the reason was eager to get to Jerusalem was to give a special and generous offering given by the Gentile churches to help the poor, and the brothers and sisters in Judea. This offering would also help unite the Jewish and Gentile churches. Paul may have arrived at Jerusalem before Pentecost, as he was trying to do. This means it is probably in the last couple of weeks in May, around the year 58 AD. 27 years ago, the Holy Spirit came down for the first time at Pentecost here in Jerusalem, and swept 3,000 people into the church. 22 years ago, around 36-37 AD, Saul left Jerusalem as a proud Pharisee to persecute the Christians in Damascas. Now, he returns as a humble Christian, ready to give his life for the name of Christ. There was a remarkable change, and a difference his life.

A day after they had arrived in Jerusalem, they went to see James and all of the elders of the Jerusalem church. This was not the apostle James, who was killed by King Herod (Acts 12:2), but this was the biological brother of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was appointed leader of the church in Jerusalem. It seems that the other apostles have handed over the leadership of the church to James, and they may have been serving in mission fields outside of Jerusalem. Paul greeted James and the elders, and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. This wasn’t a summary report, this was a detailed report. He gave names, and places, and events. He might have talked about what happened in Ephesus, how the Holy Spirit came on 12 Gentiles, who spoke in tongues and prophesied. He might have also talked about how the Ephesians began to fear and honor the name of the Lord Jesus, and burned millions of dollars of sorcery scrolls.

Look at how James and the elders respond, in the first part of v.20, “When they heard this, they praised God.” They praised God! The Jewish Christians were now open to the idea of the Gentiles coming to faith in God, and gladly accepted the news of their salvation. There was a different concern, however. Look again at v.20-21, “Then they said to Paul: ‘You see, brother, how may thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.’” Of the thousand upon thousand of Jewish believers, they all were zealous for the law. What made them so zealous? During this period in time, there was an intense Jewish nationalism going on – a very high Jewish pride. It was during the reign of the Roman governor Felix that this was going on, according to Josephus (Polhill, J. B. (1995). Acts (Vol. 26, p. 447). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.). There were some revolts (as you can see in v.38) against Rome, but Felix brutally and effectively crushed them, which increased the Jewish hostility toward Gentiles. Thus they wanted all the more to affirm their Jewish identity, and became more zealous for the law, which distinguished them as Jews.

To hear that Paul was turning Jewish believers away from the law so they would be more like the Gentiles would be very offensive, and the Jews would question why the Jewish church leaders associated with Paul. Think about this in terms of your national pride – let’s say I have intense American pride. I love to say the pledge of allegiance every day and sing the Star Spangled Banner. All my friends are what they say, “red-blooded Americans” too. We love stuff “made in the USA.” But then, I have a buddy who tells people, “You know, you don’t have to say the pledge of allegiance every day.” Gasp! My pro-American friends may start to question me, and ask, “Hey, is your buddy a communist?” That was the dilemma the Jewish leaders were in. They were trying to minister to the Jewish Christians, who at this time love their Jewish traditions and heritage. Though they may understand that it’s not required for salvation, they are still zealous and committed to their Jewish identity. Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles could potentially be a hindrance to the ministry to the Jews.

So what did the leaders of the Jewish church decide to do? It also seems clear that they had thought about this in advance, before Paul got there. Look at v.22-24, “What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.” There was no truth in the reports about Paul – he did not tell the Jews to turn away from Moses, nor to forsake circumcision and Jewish customs. In fact, he had Timothy circumcised to help him in his ministry to the Jews. He did argue strongly against those who required circumcision for salvation, and as far as salvation is concerned, circumcision counts for nothing (Gal 5:6). He also argued that no one is justified by obedience to the law (Gal 3:11). He did not advocate living lawlessly either – in Christ we have been freed from sin and ought to be slaves to righteousness (Rom 6). He never told Jewish believers to abandon their customs or laws, though he declared they are not required for salvation. However, the Jews still misunderstood so James and the elders came up with a plan to prove that their accusations were false.

Their plan was to have Paul undergo ceremonial cleansing (he didn’t join their vow, as the Nazerite vow required at least 30 days, but was cleansed to qualify in sponsoring their vow), and pay for their expenses – in order to show that he respects and obeys the laws of Moses. The expenses of a vow were costly – at the end of the ritual the participants were required to bring one male lamb a year old without blemish for a burnt offering, one ewe lamb a year old without blemish for a sin offering, one ram without blemish for a peace offering, a basket of unleavened bread, loaves of fine flour mixed with oil, unleavened wafers smeared with oil, and grain and drink offerings (Num 6:13-20). The Nazerite would then shave his hair, and throw it into the fire under the peace offering to signify meeting the vows requirements. Paul had to pay all of these expenses times 4, but by paying them, showed his commitment to one of the most solemn acts of devotion for a Jew. He himself needed to be purified ceremonially to be able to sponsor the four men.

Just as Paul did not require these for salvation, the Jewish believers did not require this either, because you see in v.25 they did not require it for the Gentiles – “As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” These demands were for the sake of fellowship – so that Jews and Gentiles could associate. The Gentiles were still accepted, but perhaps not exactly on equal terms. They still were forbidden to enter certain areas in the temple, for instance. At this time most of the Jews may not have understood, or probably did not want to accept that Jews and Gentiles were now equal – in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal 3:28). And although they may not have required obedience to the law (ceremonial law) for salvation, to be a Jew you needed to live in obedience to them.

So what did Paul do? Look at v.26, “The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.” Paul agreed to obey the ceremonial law in order to prove that the accusations against him were false. He also did this for the sake of unity, so that the ministry to the Jews may not be hindered. Here we see Paul’s great humility. He himself was called to be an apostle by Jesus Christ, yet submits to a request by one who is not an apostle. He also puts himself under the law, though he knows he is free from it, and pays a heavy cost he may not have planned on paying, in order to “satisfy weak minds and remove their prejudices (John Gill Commentary on Acts).”  

Paul bound himself for Christ’s sake. He was not obligated to the law, but bound himself to the law so that the ministry to the Gentiles would not be hindered. Paul writes in 1 Cor 9:19-20, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.” In his obedience we see that he became like a Jew, in order to win the Jews. Hudson Taylor was a good example of this. As some of you know, he was a missionary to China, one of the greatest. Hudson Taylor was able to preach in several dialects of Chinese, including Mandarin, Chaozhou, and Wu – sadly, I can’t preach in one of these Chinese dialects. Unlike some of his British colleagues, who sought to maintain their identity, Hudson thought it best to dress in their native clothing. This brought criticism to his ministry early on. According to the Wikipedia site, “Taylor was convinced that the Gospel would only take root on Chinese soil if missionaries were willing to affirm the culture of the people they were seeking to reach. He argued, from the example of the Apostle Paul, ‘Let us in everything not sinful become like the Chinese, that by all means we may save some.’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hudson_Taylor)” Notice he says, “in everything not sinful,” become like the Chinese, that by all means we may save some.

Another way I think we can exemplify this is to practice what Paul said in 1 Cor 9:19 – “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” We can be bound in service for Christ. Of course we are free to do other things, but we can give some of our time to serve Christ. We could be home watching TV Sunday, but we come here to worship Christ. We could be out every Friday night, but we meet together, or take care of our families, which is good too – for the sake of Christ. The point is, where we once did whatever we want with no regard for the Lord, now we can make some effort to dedicate our time and service for the Lord’s sake. That can be taking care of your family, serving the ministry, serving students. Maybe more and more we can take what time we have, and make it bound for Christ, in order to win as many as possible to Christ. Paul exemplified this in putting aside some of his freedom to fulfill obligations to the Jewish law, so that some Jews may be won to Christ.

Unfortunately some trouble arose by wicked men that interrupted James’ plan. Look at v.27, “When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowed and seized him.” Paul’s purification was to last for 7 days, and after that he would go and cover the expenses of the four men who took the vow. However, before the seven days were completed, a malicious mob was being formed.   A crowd was being stirred by Jews from the province of Asia, which included the city of Ephesus, where there was a riot just a few months before Paul arrived in Jerusalem. V.28-29 shows what accusations they were directing against Paul: “‘Fellow Israelites, help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place.’ (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple.)”

All of these accusations were false. It’s ironic that at the same time that Paul is trying to prove his acceptance and support of the law and Jewish customs, that he is directly accused (in the midst of his humble service) of attacking it. Their first accusation is that he is teaching against the Jewish people. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He loved and longed for the Jews to come to repentant faith. The synagogues were the first places he entered. He writes in Romans 9 that he has great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart for the Jews, and wishes he himself were cut off from Christ for their sake. Then they accuse Paul of teaching against the law and the temple – but we see here in the midst of their accusation he is inside the temple, fulfilling the requirements of their law! He was at the temple being purified, and preparing to pay the expenses for the four Nazarites. Stephen, the first Christian to be killed for his faith, was accused of these very things, and martyred. Stephen was accused of speaking against the law and the temple, but he himself was innocent. It seems they were also looking for charges with which to kill Paul.

Their fourth charge was groundless and ridiculous. They accused Paul of bringing Trophimus into the temple – just because they saw Trophimus with him in the city. They assumed he was inside the temple with Paul. Why would Paul even do this? He was trying to win the Jews, and he was trying to purify himself. It would go against everything he was trying to do to bring Trophimus into the temple. It’s also ironic that even as Paul was in the middle of the purification process, they accused him of defiling the temple. If there was one thing that was readily punishable by death, it was this offence. If you crossed the boundary from the court of the Gentiles into the inner courts, you would do that at the risk of death. There have even been walls that were excavated in Jerusalem with inscriptions that warn of death for passing through.   The death sentence was carried out by someone on duty at the temple. Now Paul would not be the person to die, but Trophimus would have been if he was there.

Look at v.30, “The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut.” Wow. There was no evidence that Trophimus was in the temple. And if he was, they should have seized him and dragged him out. But who did they drag out? They dragged Paul out. And then what did they do? They shut the doors. They shut the doors in expectation of a mob riot, and to avoid further defilement, they shut the doors. But guess who was not in there: Trophimus. If they closed the door, they would have trapped a Gentile inside the sacred area. And again, if Trophimus was the one who passed the boundary, he would be the one who should be killed. But we see that they dragged Paul out, and tried to kill him.

Look at v.31-32, “While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.” The Roman troops seemed to have reacted quickly. These troops were housed in the Fortress of Antonia, which was situated to the northwest of the temple mount and had 4 towers. It was built by Herod and named after Marc Antony, a supporter of Herod and one of the highest ranking officials in the Roman Empire. One of the towers overlooked the whole temple area. The soldiers there were to maintain Roman law and order in the land – and probably situated on the temple mount to immediately squash religious riots. There was a permanent detachment of soldiers living there. The soldiers may have seen the riot going on and notified the commander. The commander was the leader of a cohort of 1000 soldiers, and here he took a couple of centurions down to the scene. A centurion was part of a group of 100 soldiers, so there may have been at least 200 soldiers rushing into the scene. Their presence and power was so authoritative that the rioters stopped beating Paul. Imagine the scene – there’s a mob of say thousands of people – all centered around killing one person. Then, a group of 200+ soldiers and their commanders come to the center of the storm – and the beating stops, despite all the emotion, rage and anger in the air.

What happens next? Can we all please read v.33, “The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Then he asked who he was and what he had done.” Immediately Paul, not the mob, was assumed to be guilty. He was the one who was arrested, and bound with two chains, possibly one chain on each arm, and then attached to two different soldiers. It seems the commander had asked the crowd who he was and what he had done, because Paul did not answer, but the crowd answered. The commander could not get at the truth because of the uproar – after he asked the question some people were shouting one thing and some another. Just as the most of the mob in Ephesus did not know why they were there, the mob here in Jerusalem really did not know who Paul was, or what they were doing. The violence continued to escalate to the point where the soldiers had to carry Paul. Maybe they were trying to reach Paul as he was walking away with the soldiers to tear him up, but in any case he now had to be carried.

Behind all the turmoil, all the rioting and mob violence, God’s sovereign plan is unfolding. Last week we heard Agabus prophesy, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” Agabus predicted this days before it happened. In fact, Paul had some idea of this even before Agabus. Paul says in 20:22-23, “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.” Yet Paul entrusts himself to God. Compelled the Spirit, he goes to Jerusalem, even though prison and hardships face him. He could have avoided it. He could have stayed far away from Jerusalem, but he went. It was God’s will. I don’t think the deception, the riots, the violence were from God’s hand. They were from sin – God knew it was a sinful place, warned Paul, and sent him there. But God is sovereign over all. He protected Paul. Yes, although Paul did get a beating, it must have been God’s providence that he did not die. It should have taken a couple of minutes for the centurion to come, but with a mob of thousands beating him, he could have died before they got there. But God preserved him. What’s more, God used unbelievers to control the wickedness of other unbelievers. God sent the centurions to stop the beating, and delivered Paul from the mob.

Still though, Paul was bound in chains, but he was bound for Christ. Again he knew the dangers and hardships going in, but he went, ready to be bound and even to die for the name of the Lord Jesus (v.13). Even though he was bound by wicked men, he trusted God. And as we will see in the coming weeks, God used this situation for his own glory. Now that Paul was bound, he would testify to the mob. Then he would testify to the commander. Then he would testify before the Sanhedrin, to the Roman governor, then to Rome, and to Caesar, the most powerful man in the world at that time. This is how the message of the good news would be amplified, and spread to all the earth: the story of God’s grace to both Jew and Gentile. From this point on to the end of Acts, we will see Paul bound – sometimes in chains, sometimes as a prisoner, and sometimes under house arrest, but he always proclaimed the gospel, all the while being bound, trusting God – he was shackled, in chains for Christ – he was bound for Christ.

Today, Christians are the most persecuted group in the world (http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/4365/christians-most-persecuted). Many are imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their faith. Despite this fact, many remain faithful.   Recently, there is the story of Meriam Ibrahim, who was arrested and thrown in jail, accused of converting from Islam to Christianity. It was reported that a relative turned her in for adultery by marrying a Christian man. She was sentenced to death on May 15, 2014, pregnant with her second child, which she gave birth to in prison on May 27,2014. Her accusers demanded within 3 days that she renounce her Christian faith, but she refused, stating that she was a Christian all her life, and would not change her genuine personal faith at the request of a court. The death sentence caused an international uproar. She was released June 24,2014, and currently is seeking refuge in the US. Let’s pray for her and her family’s exit from Sudan. Although she was bound, she maintained her testimony of faith even at the threat of death.

We pray each year during the International Day of Prayer for the persecuted church, and we receive updates every week in the email. It is a reality today that people will be bound in chains for Christ, we should pray for them for strength to testify to God’s grace in all circumstances. Jesus also gives great hope for those who become bound for his sake, he says in Matt 5:11-12 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” We don’t need to seek out trials and difficulties, they will come, probably moreso the more we do for Christ – but in all circumstances, whether we are bound in chains, or insulted or persecuted or slandered because of Christ, we should all the more put our trust in Him.

Finally, by way of conclusion – how could Paul, or anyone find the strength to be bound for Christ: to commit themselves to do his will, or find the strength to persevere when bound in chains for Christ? We find strength, wisdom, peace and comfort from Christ himself. Who do we look to? Christ. Who do we seek? Christ. So be bound for Christ – look for him, seek him in his word, and through prayer. Each morning where should you be? Bound for Christ. Each night where should you be? Bound for Christ. Our love will grow as we grow in knowledge and depth of insight of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with increasing knowledge of him we will be better able to discern his will (Phil 1:9-10). I’ll mention Philipians again where Paul writes (Phil 3:8,10-11), “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of known Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage that I may gain Christ… I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection of the dead.”

And this is the final sense of the word “bound” – our goal. When we are “bound for Christ,” we will become more and more “like Christ,” as Paul said in Phil 3:10, “becoming like him.” We see this exemplified all throughout the chapter. A prideful, young, murderous Saul became humble, serving Paul after meeting the risen Lord Jesus. He imitated Christ’s humility, making himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant (Phil 2:7). And last, look at v.36, “The crowd that followed kept shouting, ‘Get rid of him!’” Where did you hear that before? That’s right, at the crucifixion of Jesus, the crowd shouted “Away with this man! Release Barrabas to us! (Luke 23:18).” Our sins put Jesus on the cross. Our sins cost him his life. He was innocent, but he came to die, so he humbled himself and obeyed the will of God. God should have poured his wrath out on us. We’re like Meriam Ibraham’s relative, who would turn in our own flesh and blood. We’re like the mob, who would rush into bloodshed before knowing the facts. Our sins deserve the beating of a thousand blows – but Christ took those blows for us. The punishment that brought us peace was on him. He died, for our sins. But death was not the end. Putting our sins away, he rose from the dead in a triumphant resurrection, proving the last penny for sin has been paid, and in him is life. He ascended to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God. He is the Lord Jesus Christ, the same on who called Saul on the Damascus road. He is the Lord Jesus Christ, who has good news for you. Repent of your unbelief, and put your faith in him, and he will forgive your sins and grant you resurrection from death unto eternal life. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Be bound for Christ, in every sense of the word, be bound for Christ.

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