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Paul’s Actions in Acts 21

Paul was not only the designated apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:8; Romans 11:13), he was a staunch defender of Christianity against attempts to force it into a Jewish mold. A cursory reading of Galatians is enough to see his strong resistance to those Judaizing teachers who would bind aspects of Judaism on Gentiles, or bind it on Jews as a matter of necessity in pleasing God. Clearly he was the most influential voice in the early church against all efforts to blend the religion of the Old Testament with New Testament Christianity. Therefore, after reading about all of his teachings and his battles in this regard, we are somewhat shocked to read about his behavior in the following passage:

When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. 18 The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. 19 Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.

20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 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. 22 What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23 so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. 24 Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. 25 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.”

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.

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 crowd and seized him, 28 shouting, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place.” 29 (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple area.)

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. 31 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. 32 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. (Acts 21:17-32)

After reading this passage, it is natural to ask the question posed in the title: “Did Paul sin in Acts 21?” The answer to the question is neither simple nor brief. However, it will lead us into some deeper truths that are highly important in understanding the early church and one of the primary challenges it faced.

What Was Paul Thinking?

Reading this section of Scripture without understanding the underlying issues can leave us perplexed and confused. This many years after the cross, with its subsequent termination of the old covenant and inauguration of the new, how could James and Paul be parties to such a blatant observance of Mosaic Judaism? After all, these men were two of the top leaders in the movement. Articles and books have been written by biblical scholars accusing or excusing Paul’s decision here in Acts 21. Did he give in to the influence of James (who was perhaps too close to the forest to see the trees), and just make a serious mistake in judgment with even more serious consequences? Many have alleged this very thing. And then another question looms large. If what he did was permissible, even advisable, what does that say about people continuing to observe many aspects of their former religion today? Some see the possibility of a broader application of the “disputable matters” in Romans 14, extending to non-Judaistic religious practices which would correspond to denominational practices in Christendom or practices in other religions. However, the thrust of Romans makes such applications questionable, for Paul is therein consistently correcting the understanding of the basis of salvation held by those with Jewish backgrounds. But these are good questions to wrestle with, don’t you think?

Let’s examine the denominational issue first, for it seems simpler. Biblical Judaism (not tradition-bound Judaism as we find it during the ministry of Jesus) had been originated by God. Denominationalism was neither introduced nor approved by him, and certainly other world religions were not. The two really don’t compare. Much in the OT is still quite applicable in principle today, excepting the ceremonial laws. Therefore, knowing which biblical principles were to remain in effect required, both then and now, good judgment and discrimination. Even the ceremonial type practices could be viewed as nationalistic and cultural rather than a requirement for pleasing God. Consider Timothy’s circumcision by Paul in that light (Acts 16:1-3), in contrast to Paul’s refusal to circumcise Titus, a non-Jew (Galatians 2:3-5). Therefore, with God’s tacit approval, much of the Law continued to be followed in one way or another during what I believe was a transition period.

Ultimately, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD ended this transition period. Hebrews 8:13 states: “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” In other words, the old covenant was obsolete and no longer binding after Acts 2 and the establishment of the church. However, this had not become obvious to non-Christian Jews, but should have become obvious even to them in AD 70 when the temple was destroyed, forever ending Biblical Judaism with its temple, priesthood and animal sacrifices. Thus, it disappeared. But until that time, the God-given Law could be honored by those with Jewish backgrounds, as long as they met two requirements: they could not bind their Judaism on Gentiles; and they could not trust Judaic practices for salvation. Denominationalism is a perversion of Christianity, and as such, does not compare to the first century transitionary period of Judaism.

Now to the other key question: did Paul go too far in trying to please his Jewish brothers in Christ and make a serious error in judgment? The text says nothing to indicate that God was displeased with what he did, unless the ultimate result of going into the temple – false accusation and arrest – is taken to mean that. Certainly his concession did not accomplish its desired end, but this cannot be viewed as proof that he made a mistake or sinned. The principle of 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, that of becoming all things to all men, was to achieve only the saving of “some.” My opinion is that Paul did not sin in what he did, but went as far as possible to satisfy his critics. The failure was with them, not him.

We face similar challenges today. We try to do all that we can to answer logically and sensitively those who criticize us. When we are guilty of making mistakes and committing sins, we must repent and learn from those mistakes. But we refuse to compromise biblical issues, although we are willing to make concessions if we think such will yield favorable results in the overall mission. How well does it work to make concessions in the interest of relating to others? Usually not very well, but we still try to obey the principles of 1 Corinthians 9:19–22 and Romans 12:17-18, which reads: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” The real issue is not whether what we do will be approved by men, but whether it will be approved by God. However, we still want to do all we can to be viewed by non-Christians as those deeply desiring to do the right thing. 2 Corinthians 8:21 puts the principle in the apropos words: “For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men.”

The early church was soundly criticized and condemned for their determination to follow Jesus. Did they make mistakes which could be rightly criticized? Probably so, since they were human. Certainly we have made our mistakes and committed our sins, but we have continued to repent of them and learn from them. The condemnation of our first century brothers and sisters by the large majority of the society in which they lived was not due to their well-intentioned mistakes. It was because of their convictions and lifestyle which condemned the sins of their fellow man. When young disciples today hear the charges of persecutors, with the old “where there is smoke, there must be fire” adage loudly alleged, they are tempted to doubt the movement and its leaders. “Maybe we really are doing something wrong,” they may think. Just remember that the founder of your religion was God in the flesh, without sin, and yet charged as a blasphemer of God and murdered as a criminal. We can make all of the concessions possible without compromising principles, and the result will often be the same as Paul experienced: emotion-filled outrage and shameless slander. When the modern-day movement of which you are a part is falsely charged, stand tall for Christ. You are in good company with the saints of old.