Acts 21:17-24 – Submit & Accomodate the Weak – Part 1
Diving Deeper Lesson outline for Acts 21:17-24
The title is drawn from James request to Paul to placate the believing Jews of Jerusalem.
1) PAUL IS BACK – TROUBLE IS BREWING
Acts 21:20b-22 – 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, 21 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. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.
So somebody, probably the Judaizers many say, were saying that Paul was teaching the Diaspora Jews to “forsake Moses”, to “not to circumcise their children”, and were no longer to “walk according to our customs”.
Presumably, they were to abandon these before they could come to Christ.
Whether or not this rumor was true or not, the Jewish believers who were “zealous for the law” were up in arms and James saw it as his duty to bring peace and unity to the body.
Was the accusation true?
Paul on Moses:
Acts 13:38-39 – Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and 39 by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses
Acts 28:23 – When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.
Romans 10:18-19 – But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.” 19 But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.”
The law of Moses could not produce the freedom that belief in Christ could.
The correct understanding of the law of Moses points to Christ.
Moses knew that Israel would reject the Messiah AND have a problem with His relationship with Gentiles.
Paul on Circumcision:
Romans 2:28-29 – For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
Galatians 6:12-15 – It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.
1 Corinthians 7:17-19 – This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.
A circumcision that is meaningful is a circumcision of the heart done by the Holy Spirit.
(BTW – This is exactly what Moses taught in Deut. 10:16)
Circumcision of the foreskin has become a way to impress man and avoid persecution.
Obedience to God’s moral law not his ceremonial law is what counts for something.
Paul on Jewish customs:
Romans 10:12-13 – For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Romans 14:1-3 – As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.
Salvation from God sees neither ethnic nor cultural differences.
Some have found the freedom from cultural baggage that Christ provides and some have not yet done so.
So, did Paul teach, as far as we can tell, that believing Jews were to abandon the laws and customs of Moses?
In fact, what kind of vow did Paul participate in earlier in Acts?
What was the gist of Paul’s teaching on the law of Moses?
Now we will see that even though Paul never taught what was said of him, James made a demand of him.
2) JAMES SPEAKS – HERE IS THE SOLUTION
Acts 21:23-24 – Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 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.
First, Paul is told to cover the expenses of 4 men who were about to complete a Nazarite vow (see Numbers 6:1-21).
James asked him to pay for the ritual haircutting, but it also would have included the accompanying sacrifices (vs.26) required to complete the vow.
In so doing, James believed Paul would “up his street cred” as a law observing Jew to the thousands of Jewish believers.
The book of Numbers tells us exactly what Paul was paying for:
Numbers 6:13-20 – “And this is the law for the Nazirite, when the time of his separation has been completed: he shall be brought to the entrance of the tent of meeting, 14 and he shall bring his gift to the Lord, one male lamb a year old without blemish for a burnt offering, and one ewe lamb a year old without blemish as a sin offering, and one ram without blemish as a peace offering, 15 and a basket of unleavened bread, loaves of fine flour mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers smeared with oil, and their grain offering and their drink offerings. 16 And the priest shall bring them before the Lord and offer his sin offering and his burnt offering, 17 and he shall offer the ram as a sacrifice of peace offering to the Lord, with the basket of unleavened bread. The priest shall offer also its grain offering and its drink offering. 18 And the Nazirite shall shave his consecrated head at the entrance of the tent of meeting and shall take the hair from his consecrated head and put it on the fire that is under the sacrifice of the peace offering. 19 And the priest shall take the shoulder of the ram, when it is boiled, and one unleavened loaf out of the basket and one unleavened wafer, and shall put them on the hands of the Nazirite, after he has shaved the hair of his consecration, 20 and the priest shall wave them for a wave offering before the Lord. They are a holy portion for the priest, together with the breast that is waved and the thigh that is contributed. And after that the Nazirite may drink wine.
Second, Paul is also told to purify himself.
Most take this to mean that Paul, having come from Gentile lands, was considered unclean by the believing Jews, and so therefore in need of purification.
And implicit with this was that purification was needed before he could accompany the 4 men to the completion of their Nazarite vows.
To be thorough, we must understand that Jews had obligations to both ceremonial law and moral law.
To understand this superficially, I think we can say that these obligations can be seen as external (e.g., circumcised foreskin) and internal (e.g., circumcised heart).
But for the believing Jew mentioned in verse 20, these obligations were not displaced by faith in Christ.
In fact, we just learned that Paul apparently did not teach that believing Jews should abandon them.
So we must keep all of these in view to fully grasp what is going on in our text.
To help us do this, we need to define moral and ceremonial law.
Please keep in mind that they can overlap with each other, so we shouldn’t be to wooden in our understanding.
“The ceremonial law, described mainly in Exodus 25:1–40:38 (as well as in Leviticus and Deuteronomy), involves the tablernacle, the clothing and function of the priests, and the sacrifices and offerings.”
Enns, P. P. (1997, c1989). The Moody handbook of theology (57). Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press.
This law included such things as dietary restrictions (e.g., could not eat any blood) and quarantine restrictions (e.g., menstruating women),
It is said that the ceremonial laws, in addition to setting the Jews apart culturally, dealt mainly with how to worship God.
In reference to ceremonial law, J.I. Packer says:
The ancient Israelites centered all of their activities on the worship of Jehovah…In great detail, the Bible described the ceremonies of worship that were so important to the life of God’s people. These scriptures show that even though a person cannot please God on his own, God makes that person able to worship Him acceptably.
Packer, J., Tenney, M. C., & White, W. (1997, c1995). Nelson’s illustrated manners and customs of the Bible (384). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
The moral law is found, though not exclusively, in the 10 Commandments.
The moral law is prefaced with “I am the Lord your God…”, it is therefore said of it that:“the standard of moral measurement in deciding what was right or wrong, good or evil, was fixed in the unwavering and impeccably holy character of Yahweh, Israel’s God. His nature, attributes, character, and qualities provided the measuring stick for all ethical decision.” Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, p. 114.
Which of these two, moral law or ceremonial law, was Paul asked to oblige?
That it would show Paul to be “observant of the law” tells us what about the law?
We will finish this lesson next week when we deal with Paul’s response.