Bible read me 2The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 21:1-6

Paul Goes to Jerusalem

21 And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara.[a] And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo. And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home.


Last week’s entry described Paul’s farewell to the elders of Ephesus, which took place in nearby Miletus. Their reunion ended in kneeling and praying, which also appears in today’s reading (verse 5).

Luke, the author of Acts, was with Paul at this time, hence the first person in verse 1. They sailed from Miletus (look for Caria on the right hand side of this map, and it’s due south). The two proceeded to the Dodecanese Islands (see map on the left hand side of the page). Cos (Kos, Coos) and Rhodes, two of today’s top holiday islands, are among them. When they reached Asia Minor again at the port of Patara (see map), they left the boat.

Both our commentators purport that Luke and Paul’s journey was smooth sailing, based on Luke’s wording: ‘straight course’. John MacArthur says (emphases mine):

The interesting note of these is it apparently was a nice wind. They went on a straight course; they didn’t have to tack back and forth. But also, it’s interesting to note that those are stops 45 miles to Coos, 70 miles to Rhodes, 70 miles to Patara. Again, they probably only sailed during the daytime. The winds would blow in the daytime and calm at night. And so, they would sail at the day and stop at night.

Also interesting that they sailed along the coast. They just – they never got very far from one little island on the coast to the next little island on the coast to Patara, which is not an island but a city on the coast on the Xanthos River in Asia Minor.

So, they sailed on the coast. That indicates they had a little boat, just a little ship that hugged the coastline. And so, they went to those various places, stopping along the way.

MacArthur describes Patara as being an important port in Lycia, now part of Turkey:

Patara was a large port. Since the Xanthos River emptied there into the sea, the Mediterranean Sea, certain ships would unload cargo, and it would be taken up the river to various inland spots.

Luke and Paul found a ship sailing to Phoenicia and boarded it (verse 2). They left Asia Minor for the area where modern-day Syria, Lebanon and Israel are.

When they saw Cyprus (see dark green island on the map), they bypassed it (verse 3). Matthew Henry’s commentary explains that Barnabas was in charge of the church in his homeland:

In this voyage they discovered Cyprus, the island that Barnabas was of, and which he took care of, and therefore Paul did not visit it

Paul and Luke continued to Syria and disembarked at Tyre, which is still a significant port city today in that part of the world.

MacArthur describes their journey to Tyre:

Now, the indication is that this is a large ship, and the reason we feel that is because it went straight to Phoenicia, and that meant it would have had to sail right out into the midst of the Mediterranean. But another reason we think it’s large is in verse 3. It says at the end of verse 3, that it unloaded its cargo in Tyre. And verse 4 says they stayed there seven days. Now, any ship that needed seven days to unload must have been a large ship. And so, very likely, it was a large ship that they were on at this time, and it would go straight across. Chrysostom, one of the early Church fathers, says from Patara to Phoenicia or Tyre was about a five-day sailing trip if you had good winds and a straight course.

Tyre was famous for the production of the purest form of purple dye, made from the murex shellfish. This dye was reserved for nobility and royalty, it was that precious.

This was the region where Jesus healed a Gentile woman’s daughter of her demon. Jesus commended her for her faith (Matthew 15:21-28):

22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.[a]

This miracle is also in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 7:24-29).

While they were waiting for the ship to unload its cargo in Tyre, Paul and Luke spent time with the Christians in that great city. Some among them prophesied ‘through the Spirit’ that Paul should not go to Jerusalem (verse 4).

The church in Tyre began after the fatal persecution of Stephen, the first martyr, in Jerusalem. Paul had been involved in his death, as this was before his conversion. Converts fled Jerusalem, fearful for their lives but keen to spread the Gospel story. The second half of Acts 11 explains how the Church grew in Syria, beginning with this description of what happened in Antioch, an early destination for Barnabas:

19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists[c] also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.

Barnabas sent for Paul to help him. Paul was, at the time, still known as Saul, but he had converted and had been in his home region of Tarsus in Asia Minor.

As we know from this reading (verse 6), Paul and Luke continued onward to Jerusalem. This raises the question of who was right about continuing onwards: Paul or the prophesiers in Tyre.

We know that Paul listened to the Holy Spirit. In Acts 16, the Spirit would not allow him to travel eastward into Asia Minor towards Bithynia. Instead, Paul went westward to Troas, where he met Luke, and sailed to Macedonia and travelled further south to found the church in Philippi. Now in Tyre, he believed that the Holy Spirit wanted him to make the journey to Jerusalem to commemorate Pentecost.

However, the prophesiers in Tyre had also been given a spiritual gift. They believed, through the Spirit, that Paul was meant to travel elsewhere to spread the Good News.

Henry gives this verdict:

it was their mistake, for his trial would be for the glory of God and the furtherance of the gospel, and he knew it; and the importunity that was used with him, to dissuade him from it, renders his pious and truly heroic resolution the more illustrious.

MacArthur has more:

… somebody prophesied that he shouldn’t go to Jerusalem. It’s inconclusive as to whether or not that’s legitimate or not from that verse. But it does create the problem that if Paul did get this word from the Spirit, and go to Jerusalem, he disobeyed. Some think he did. Some think Paul disobeyed. And that’s fine. They say he disobeyed, but let’s face it; it was a mistake out of love. I mean if you’ve got to make a mistake, make that kind, right? It was selfless. I mean it was going to – it could cost him his life, and he made it out of love. Absolute, overpowering love for the Jewish church caused him to do what he did.

… It was a mistake to go, but – and I like that – I like this viewpoint. Actually, I prefer it for this reason: because it’s an encouragement to meet, to know that Paul made a colossal mistake. I like that, because that makes him human. I lean toward liking this view better. Peter blundered; Paul and Barnabas quarreled. And I like that, too. It’s encouraging to me. In fact, if you read in the Bible, you’ll find that everybody that God ever used, his choicest people fouled up

You say, “Well, what do you mean? You think he was – he was not disobeying the Spirit?”

No, I don’t think he was disobeying the Spirit at all. Why? I’ll give you some reasons. First of all, his life was lived in sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. I cannot see the apostle Paul all of a sudden becoming carnal, without any indication from God that he did. He lived his life in sensitivity to the Spirit …

First of all, then, I think that Paul obeyed here, because he lived sensitively to the Holy Spirit. Secondly, his reasons for going to Jerusalem were right kind of reasons. His motives were so pure that I don’t think you can get an impure act out of an absolutely pure motive if you’re really plugged into the Spirit.

When the seven days were up, Paul and Luke returned to the cargo ship to continue their journey southward towards Jerusalem. However, prior to departure, the Christian men of Tyre brought their wives and children to accompany them outside the city (verse 5). Such an act would have showed how much they revered Paul and appreciated his brief ministry there.

Once on the beach, they all knelt to pray together.

Luke felt it important to mention within a short space of writing — the end of Acts 20 and the beginning of Acts 21 — that two groups of Christians knelt to pray together.

Henry has a considered description of this scene on the beach outside of Tyre — along with a closing word of advice for us today:

They prayed upon the shore, that their last farewell might be sanctified and sweetened with prayer. Those that are going to sea should, when they quit the shore, commit themselves to God by prayer, and put themselves under his protection, as those that hope, even when they leave the terra firma, to find firm footing for their faith in the providence and promise of God. They kneeled down on the shore, though we may suppose it either stony or dirty, and there prayed. Paul would that men should pray every where, and so he did himself; and, where he lifted up his prayer, he bowed his knees. Mr. George Herbert says, Kneeling never spoiled silk stockings.

Then it was time for Paul and Luke to board the ship. The Christians from Tyre duly returned home.

Next time — Acts 21:7-14