Acts 21: 17-26

When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them.

Understanding And Applying the Text

The day after Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem he and his party met with James and all the elders of the Jerusalem church. They welcomed him. And he greeted each of them. Then he gave them a detailed report of what God had done.

Notice the wording Luke uses. “the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.” Paul labored. But it was God who did things. God did and does handle the outcomes. We should remember that. We fret. We worry. We struggle. But God brings about the results. We are responsible for the labor. God take care of the result of our labor. If we could accept that, we could relax. We are only responsible for labor.

Paul did not deliver his report alone. He took Luke and the others with him. They could confirm his report. After Paul gave his report the elders glorified God. There was no envy in them. They were not jealous of Paul’s success. There was no reason for jealousy. They understood God created the results, not Paul. Their desire was to glorify God. It was not to bring honor to any man.

The fact all the elders were present shows how they regarded Paul. They regarded him and his mission with favor. But there were those rumors. They generated concern. The concern was for Paul’s safety.

After Paul gave his report the elders told Paul he was in danger. But from whom? He was in danger from members of the church. “Many thousands are among the Jews of those who have believed.” That little phrase tells us a lot.

First, The threat to Paul came from inside the church. It was not the Chief Priest. It was not the Pharisees. It was from inside the church!

Second, there were “many thousands” in the church. The church was sizable. The church was full. But people who did not understand or accept the Gospel filled it. This was in spite of the fact the men who Jesus taught, taught them.

They did not trust in Jesus. They still clung to the law. Rather than trusting Christ, they trusted the law. But the law cannot save. (Romans 3:20) Rather than righteousness, the law brings judgment and wrath. (Romans 4:15)

Third, these men believed. That is, they believed Jesus was the messiah. But they did not believe He could forgive sins. They believed Jesus rose from the dead. But they believed the law justified them. They believed Jesus was the Son of God. But it was the law that ruled.

That little phrase ought to give us pause. Are we like those men? Do we trust in Christ for our salvation? Do we trust in some sort of law or works? What saves us? Is it Christ or something we do? Is our salvation dependent on exercising of our faith? That is, does our salvation depend on us and what we do? Or is Christ the one who saves?

To be fair these men probably believed it was a combination. That is Jesus did 99% of the work. That last 1% is up to us. But that is the same as saying it is all up to us. For without our 1% Christ’s 99% is impotent. Thus our salvation is dependent on our work. It is dependent on our last 1%. In the ultimate sense that makes the forgiveness of our sins totally dependent on us.

I will not develop that theme any fuller. Rather I would direct you to read Romans, Ephesians and Galatians. Paul develops that theme very well in those books.

These men were zealous for the law. That was not a bad thing. The law is important. It shows us our sin. That is its purpose. (Romans 7:7) But the law does not have any power to forgive sins. (Romans 3:20)

The Jewish Christians heard rumors about Paul’s teaching. They understood Paul taught the Jews outside Jerusalem to ignore the Mosaic law. They heard that Paul taught Jews not to circumcise their children.

These rumors were not without foundation. Paul taught circumcision’s limited value. But it did not make the Jews any better off. (Romans 2:25-29, 1 Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 5:6, 6:15)

Paul had no objection to Jews following their customs. What he opposed was any attempt to make such observance necessary for the forgiveness of sin. (Romans 14:1, Galatians 5:2-6). Paul was always careful to avoid giving an unnecessary offense. Paul’s entire interest was the gospel. As a result, he remained flexible in matters of custom. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

The elders knew those who were zealous for the law would find out Paul was in Jerusalem. This put Paul in danger. So how were they going to protect Paul? The elders had a plan, Their plan was to prove Paul valued the Mosaic law.

At this point, we need to back up and ask the question, “What was the problem?” So what if Paul taught the Jews living with Gentiles not to circumcision their children? He did not. But so what if he did? Christ has fulfilled the old covenant. Why were the Jewish believers so worked up? If they wanted to follow the law let them. If others did not don’t make them. Unfortunately, the answer is simple. And it has an application to us today.

Why was it so important to them? They were Jews. Circumcision is what defined them as Jews. They were descendants of Abraham. God had chosen them. God Himself gave them the law. God had commanded them to circumcise their children. It was a sign of their special relationship with God. Yes, God was now be reaching out to Gentiles. But He has a special relationship with the Jews. After all, they were His chosen people.

I live in the United States. I am an American. I am a proud American. But when I look at how these Jewish Christian acted I see parallels to Americans. “God would never bring judgment on the United States. We are a Christian nation. God shows us favor. Look at all He has given us. That proves it!” While we would never say it. We believe and act as if we are now God’s chosen people. So, we have said and still believe, God is on our side. In other words, “We are special. Americans have a special relationship with God.”

We associate God with our culture. That was the same in Jerusalem. They associated their culture and God’s will. I assume neither Americans nor the Jerusalem Jews are unique. I would assume that everyone thinks God is on their side. The best example I know of is the American civil war. Both sides thought God was on their side.

There is a danger in asking, “Is God on our side?” “What do we need to do to get God on our side.” Wrong question. That question assumes if God if is not on our side we can do something to change God. It assume we don’t need to change, God does.

It also assumes mankind is the highest value. Not only do we assume mankind is the highest value but specifically us, me, myself, and I. It is God who defines good. It is God who defines what is right. God is the highest value. The correct question is, “Are we on God’s side?” And, “What do we do to get there?” The needed change is on our end.

The Jerusalem Jews equated their culture with God. The elders’ solution made this clear. Paul was to do something very Jewish. He was to show he still respected the Jewish culture.

Paul adapted to all cultures for the sake of the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:18-23) When he was with Jews he was like a Jew. That way, he was not an offense. Paul submitted to the weaker brothers.

There were four men who had taken a Nazirite vow. (Numbers 6:1-21) During the time of the vow, they let their hair grow. When the time as over they would shave their heads and dedicate the hair to the Lord. They would burn it along with a fellowship offering.

The elders’ solution was for Paul to pay the expenses for the four Nazirites. He would go with them to the priest for the sacrifices. And finally, he would take part in the rites. This would show he was a law-abiding Jew. So that is what Paul did.

Was Paul giving in. Yes, in a sense. But he did it not to be an offense to the weaker brothers. He did not let his pride get in the way of his desire the preach the Gospel.

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