We have been shocked by Paul’s perseverance. He has been resilient in the face of constant suffering and threats of death. He has come to Jerusalem having been spent for the kingdom, but fully expecting more suffering to come his way.
Read Acts 21:17-26
What in the world is going on here? Is somebody doing something wrong? Is Paul acting like a hypocrite as one prominent commentator suggests? Great pastoral heroes of mine have disagreed about how to understand this passage. One of my friends who preached on it six years ago titled his sermon, “The Most Difficult Passage in the Bible.”
Not every text is equally clear. The Lord has left this passage particularly cloudy for many.
Something left unsaid at this point is that Paul brought a collection for the Jerusalem Christians (1 Cor. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 8-9; Rom. 15:26-29).
Reception > Accusation > Instruction > Concession
Who? We do not know anything about “the brothers” who received the missionary team gladly when they initially arrived in Jerusalem. But, once again we are reminded of the close relationship between Christianity and hospitality (cf, v.16). The next day a Session meeting was called involving Paul, Luke and others, James, and all the elders (v.18).
3MJ = 5yrs +/- As hard as Paul’s missionary journeys have been – filled with tremendous suffering – when he has the chance to stand before the elders, he gives a detailed report of all that GOD has been doing (v.19). God had been faithful to Paul. He had kept his promise to use Paul in mighty ways that would also be the cause of great trials and tribulation.
We also see an important sign that James and the elders are not filled with envy regarding the many ways God has been using Paul. Rather than follow his report with a report of their own (in order to justify themselves), we read that “they glorified God” (v.20a). In other words, they are supportive of Paul’s ministry.
However, the joyful reception of Paul was short lived. It was immediately followed by a false…
There was a rumor that Paul was teaching Jewish Christians to forsake Moses (see also v.28):
- Discouraging them from circumcising their children. He was willing to have Timothy circumcised (16:3) in order to keep access to the temple open.
- Discouraging them from practicing their customs. Paul had already fulfilled a Nazarite vow (18:18) and still valued the Jewish calendar (20:6, 16).
These accusations came from Jewish Christians who were “zealous for the law” (v.20b). But, in this case, their zeal was without knowledge.
Thomas, “We have to try to imagine the searing pain that this must have brought to him. Paul had been planning this visit for at least two years. He had made a considerable sacrifice in coming to Jerusalem. He had come with a gift, a substantial amount of money gathered from the largely Gentile congregation in Asia, Macedonia, and Achaea. We must try to imagine how they brought this money – in heavy sacks of coins, no doubt. It was in all probability sitting on the floor in the middle of the room where Paul, James, and the elders were meeting. But there was no mention of it from the men in Jerusalem. No fluent expressions of gratitude! No expressions of unworthiness at so generous a gift from men and women whom they had once counted as “dogs” and of whom they remained deeply suspicious.”
James and the elders had already prepared…
v.24 Paul had been living in observance of the law (18:18). Paul was willing to become all things to all people. When it was not presented as ceremonial observance for salvation, Paul was free to observe the Jewish customs associated with his heritage.
Paul had considered the weaker brother when he wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus during his 3MJ (1 Cor. 8:7-13; 10:25-33; 9:19-23). Now, it would appear he was being asked to live according to that principle.
Christians come with all kinds of baggage. There isn’t a single exception among us. We come with different backgrounds, different experiences, different failures and ongoing struggles. We all come with different levels of education, and different abilities to process what is being said.
We arrive here among brothers and sisters who are at different levels of development. Some of us are still newborn Christians, while others are so mature they seem to have one foot in the grave already.
Some of us are strong while others of us are weak. Most likely, we are both depending on the subject (intellect, vulnerability, hospitality, parenting, finances, etc.).
All of us come impoverished in ways that others are rich. We all come with something to receive and we all come with something to offer.
What is the most surprising aspect of this passage is Paul’s…
Maybe you think by labeling this section “Concession” I’m revealing my thoughts about what Paul has done here. But is concession always a bad thing?
It is interesting that Luke has nothing to say from a narrative standpoint that would suggest his opinion of the events he’s recording for us. We don’t have the ability to discern his thoughts. Does he think James and the apostles fear man more than God? Does he think Paul has compromised?
The vow appears to be related to the Nazarite vow (Num. 6). It was taken out of gratitude and devotion. Others have suggested that Paul was “purifying himself” in order to be accepted in the temple (Num. 19:11-13). In the end, we don’t have adequate information to know for certain.
However, Guy Waters points out what we do know:
“(The elders) are not…counseling any fundamental departure either from what the church has already confessed and agreed to practice, or from what Paul has been doing on the Gentile mission field.”
The biggest problem in this passage is the acceptance of the ongoing practice of temple worship, but that has continued throughout Acts.
So what does this have to do with you and me?
How far are you willing to go in order to earn the trust of others?
Paul was gladly received, yet crushed beneath false accusations. But he was willing to humble himself and accept the instruction of the elders.
Remember, Luke has been setting up a parallel between Paul and Jesus. Paul is following the steps of his Savior who was emptied in ministry to others, suffered false accusations, and was willing to be mistreated – to the point of death on a cross – in order to bring salvation!
Are you willing to become all things to all people in order to win some?