From some Bible texts lessons fairly leap off the page. Others are an enigma, leaving us wondering why they’re in the Bible at all. Acts 21:17-26 is like the latter.
“When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly. The next day Paul went with us to visit 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. When they heard it, they praised God . . . “ (21:17-20a).
Paul is relieved to reach Mnason’s house. It isn’t just the warm reception. He and his band of about 12 men are carrying the Gentile offering for the poor Jerusalem church. Besides, he’s looking forward to telling James and the elders what God has done through him. The next day in a large room in James’ house he does, in great detail, city by city, five years’ worth. The longer Paul testifies, the louder grows the elders’ praise to God.
But now the atmosphere changes. Praises die out. The room falls silent. Facial expressions turn stern.
“Then they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come’” (21:20b-22).
“Now, Paul,” James begins. He’s near enough to touch Paul, but speaks loudly for all to hear. “Jewish believers in Christ Jesus number in the thousands. And they are all eager to keep the law.”
He hesitates, searching for the right words. “It’s rumored that you teach the Jews living among Gentiles to forsake Moses’ teaching, to not circumcise their children, to not practice Jewish customs. They’re suspicious of you, Paul. So what should we do? It won’t be long, and they’ll know you’re here.”
Paul has preached, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Galatians 3:11). But he manifestly hasn’t taught what the Jews rumored. Suddenly, Paul feels trapped. But James’ question isn’t really seeking an answer. He already has one.
“So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law. But as for the Gentiles who have become believers, 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 is strangled and from fornication” (21:23-25).
“Do this, Paul. Four poor Jews are under a dedication vow. Join them. Undergo the purification rite with them. Pay for their head-shaving. Then everybody will know that ‘you are living in obedience to the law’. As for converted Gentiles, we accept them as long as they meet the conditions outlined in our letter.”
“Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having purified himself, he entered the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification when the sacrifice would be made for each of them” (21:26).
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This text raises three questions. One, what is “the vow”, this “rite of purification”? Two, did Paul, by participating, play the hypocrite? And, three, what in the world has this to do with us?
It’s generally thought that the vow was the “Nazarite Vow”. It was taken by men or women who voluntarily wanted to dedicate themselves to God. It usually lasted for thirty days, during which time he/she was not to drink any fermented drink, nor drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins, was not to cut his/her hair for the length of the vow, and was not to go near a dead body. At vow’s end, he/she was to cut his/her hair and present it at the Jerusalem temple, burning the hair as part of animal and grain sacrifices (Numbers 6:1-21).
Sounds like a Jewish custom to declare devotion to God, sort of a formal way of presenting one’s body as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1,2). But did the animal sacrifice imply an offering for sin? (Numbers 6:21 specifies “a lamb for a sin offering”. If so, Paul here was a hypocrite. If not, he was simply trying to make peace, trying to win those under law by becoming like them (1 Corinthians 9:20).
John Stott (Anglican leader of the worldwide evangelical movement) comments on James whose solution this was: “James . . . had a sweet and generous spirit, he has a conciliatory spirit, the solution that he’s advocating is a concession in the area of practice only.” But James Montgomery Boice (author of the Cambridge Declaration on the Inerrancy of Scripture and founder of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals) writes: “This, what Paul did here, was hypocrisy. It was compromise. He was going to offer a sacrifice? In front of the very priests who had killed, who had crucified Jesus? It is a turning of his back on the sufficiency of Christ.” Many commentators, however, suggest we don’t have enough knowledge about the situation to judge. Many commentators claim we simply aren’t given enough evidence to decide.
Now: what has this to do with us? I think Luke intends us to understand Paul did all he could to forestall a riot by the Jews (it happened anyway–Acts 21:27 and following). So, one lesson for us is our best peace-making intentions don’t always produce peace. A second lesson for us is the Christian life presents us with tough choices. Everything isn’t always black-and-white.
Take divorce, for instance. You, dear wife, made a vow before God. But your husband has been verbally abusive and having sexual relationships with other women for years. Instead of improving, he’s getting worse. Should you hold to your vow, despite his vow-breaking, and trust the Lord to take care of you? Or should you break a marriage covenant he’s already broken?
The best we can do in some situations is to find applicable principles in God’s Word, pray, trust the Holy Spirit to guide us—then, without a clear biblical text and a definitive word from the Spirit, decide.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God,
who gives generously to all without finding fault,
and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).