Friday, March 23, 2018

Acts 21:17- 26 "Paul’s Submission to the Jerusalem Elders - A Study in the Nature of Biblical Humility."

Last time we saw  how  Paul had made his way from Miletus along the southwest shore of Asia Minor, taking a ship  across the Mediterranean to the port city of Tyre, Syria where he  had met with the church. The church had urged him not to go to Jerusalem but he sailed on to Ptolemais, and  from there on to Caesarea. Here he met again with the church, and   again the church at Caesarea and even his fellow travellers (at least nine men[1], Luke includes himself) urged him not to go to Jerusalem.  But Paul was determined to go to Jerusalem, and his aim was to be there,  if possible by  Pentecost  (19:21 ; 20:16,22).

Our passage today records  that Paul finally arrives in Jerusalem. His first lodging is at the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple (21:16). The other well-known personality from Cyprus whom we have already met in the book of Acts is Barnabas. We are told that the brothers received us gladly (21:17). This is probably a delegation representative of the whole Jerusalem church. From them news of his coming would filter back to  the rest  of the church (21:22).

The next day there is this official meeting with James the   brother of Jesus along with the other elders of the Jerusalem church. Incidentally, the other influential James mentioned in the book of Acts is found in 12:2. He is the brother of John. We read that he was killed by Herod.

We may safely assume that Paul’s first order of business was to hand the collection from the gentile churches to the Jerusalem elders (see reference to this in 24:17).  This was done once before in Acts 11 for the purpose of relief from the famine (cf. Acts 11) when  a collection had been taken in the church of Antioch for the struggling  saints in Jerusalem. In that instance Barnabas and Paul had delivered this money to the Jerusalem elders in 11:30, and this  fact really  must have impressed the Jewish Christians, knitting their hearts to their gentile  brothers in Christ.    This might have provided further impetus for the idea in Paul's mind that he would gather a collection from the churches in Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, churches representing largely Gentile congregations, and that he would bring this collection to the church in Jerusalem[2], a largely Jewish Christian congregation, now afflicted with much poverty.  Paul wanted to see the barriers between Jew and Gentile broken down (Eph.2) as he brought this substantial collection to Jerusalem.  So this is ultimately not about money. This  was ultimately  about unity in the gospel, and Paul writes about that in his letter to the Ephesians and Chapter 2.    
So, when the brothers in Caesarea were pleading with him not to go to Jerusalem, Paul said to them,“What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am  ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the sake of the name of the Lord Jesus.”  Why was Paul ready to die in Jerusalem? Was he ready to die over money? No! He was ready to die because of his burden for the whole church of Jesus Christ. Paul is ready to give his life for the sake of the unity of the church of Jesus Christ. What does that say to you? How important is the unity of the   body that Christ died for, to you?
Paul knew that there was always this very real possibility that the Jewish church and the Gentile church could seriously divide. And it would discredit the Name of Jesus who died to unite all things under Him.  Paul had evidently hoped and believed that this collection would be a catalyst to avoid such a potential division. 

V.19. So, how was Paul received? After a customary greeting   with James and the Jerusalem elders, Paul began with  an account of his  recent  ministry in Galatia,  Macedonia, and Achaia. He tells them of the churches in Thessalonica, Philippi, Corinth and Ephesus. He recounts the extraordinary things that the Holy Spirit had done through his ministry to the gentiles. ”He related one by one the things that God (not Paul!) had done among the gentiles  through his ministry” [3]  This is a necessary reminder, for often we are so busy doing our demographics, planning our outreach strategies, preparing our people and materials for our missionary thrust for God that we forget that He must do the work. True ministry for him will always be ministry by him.

V.20 And they glorified God!  However, there was an immediate but!  It goes like this …”Yes Paul, we are glad with you for the great work   that God has done among the gentiles, BUT  remember that there are  also many thousands of Jews, and all zealous for the law...  These  Jews  certainly  included the converted Pharisees of Acts 15:5.  Being literally "zealots for the law," they combined their faith in Jesus  with  a Jewish nationalism along with a strict observance of the whole Mosaic code.  And they were teaching other converts to do the same.  And Paul, they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake[4] Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.”  OUCH!   PAUL YOU ARE IN TROUBLE!

V. 22: And then the question: “What then is to be done? (They clearly have thought about this).  They will certainly hear that you have come”. Try to imagine that scene. Paul is here to report on his ministry and to hand over the collection from the gentile churches. But instead there is a greater concern about what the Christian Jews in Jerusalem are thinking with respect to his apparent disrespect  of the Jewish law.  It was not true of course what they were thinking,  but there you are. This matter is proving to be a mental block in the mind of the Jerusalem elders.   
Was this in fact what Paul had been doing and teaching?  Well, he would certainly have taught that the ceremonial aspects of the Law, the sacrifices, and the sign of circumcision were mere types that had been fulfilled by the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He would have taught that when Christ died and shed His blood, those things had no more significance. There was no further obligation to keep the ceremonial aspects of the law on the part of either Jew or Gentile.  So, in his ministry Paul wasn’t pressing these things upon the consciences of his converts – Jew or gentiles. He left his Jewish brothers their freedom to decide. 

But Paul had certainly not been actively campaigning that Jews no longer had to obey the Law. There is no evidence that Paul had ever instructed Jewish Christians in this way (Rom. 2:25-30; Gal. 5:6; 6:15). He had not opposed the practice of circumcision.  What  Paul did oppose was that if anyone insisted that without circumcision you cannot be saved, then he would  oppose that teaching. But if it was merely a matter of social custom, then that explains why Timothy (a half Jew) was circumcised and Titus (a gentile) was not.  But as I have already  observed  is that the problem is that the Jewish believers   in Jerusalem were made to believe that Paul was undermining their social customs, which he did not.   

Vv. 23-25: So James and the Jerusalem elders  respond (an imagined dialogue):  “Here's a plan.  We have four men in our local church who are undergoing a Nazarite vow” [cf. Numbers 6]. A Nazirite vow could be made for showing thankfulness for past blessings, or earnestness in prayer or as a sign of strong devotion to God. “So Paul, why don't you join them, since you have recently returned from Gentile territories?  Why don't you take part in a ritual purification? Join with them. Pay all of their expenses…the shaving of the head, animal sacrifices  etc.  all that would be necessary in order to complete this vow. Paul, if you do that   this will demonstrate to all the Jewish brothers that you are still with them in practise.”

V. 26 : What did Paul do?  He obliged! He did it, not because he believed that any of these rituals  were  essential or helpful   for  his sanctification, but he did this  because he loved the  church. This obviously wasn’t his spiritual choice.  He humbled himself for the sake of the weaker brothers. Yes, James and the Jerusalem elders were weaker in this regard.  Paul discusses this principle in Romans 14 and in 1 Corinthians 8.  Paul was very careful  not to offend the conscience of the "weaker brother,"  and so  he respected  the Jewish Christian who continued to maintain  the tradition of the elders. And for their sake, as already observed, he even went so far as to have Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). And since Paul does not violate his own conscience  in this matter he has liberty to oblige. He knows which hill to die on, and this is not one of them. Paul’s heart for Christ and His church is just that much greater. He is truly the apostle of the heart set free, to quote the title of the book with the same name by Professor F.F. Bruce.  

So what can we learn from this as modern Christians  in Namibia   who   are  far removed from all this cultural clutter?

1.     We affirm that the keeping of the Old Testament law, has no relevance for salvation. Forgiveness of sins is not obtained through the blood of sheep and goats, but  through trusting in Christ alone (Acts 13:38-39; 15:10-11).
2.     This does not make the  moral law (the 10 commandments)  irrelevant. It simply put it into it right place. (Lk. 10:25-28; 18:18-23)
3.     Concerning the use of the  ceremonial law there is freedom.  Jewish Christians may find a positive use for the ceremonial laws (circumcision, keeping of festival, food laws) to aid them in the expression of their faith, as we find it in fact the custom in some of  the modern church in  Israel.  It’s simply a cultural choice that damages no one if used in this way.  But we cannot make this binding upon the consciences of non Jewish Christians. Christian Gentiles in the company of Jewish Christians  have the  liberty to observe  such  feasts (e.g. the observation of the Friday night Sabbath meal)   when in their homes, as long as  they know that  no additional merits come to them  as a result of doing these things  etc.  In all of this we learn to be humble and largehearted in accommodating  ourselves  to our brothers in all things non essential. 
4.     According to the Bible there is a large measure of freedom in  the use of all things made by God, but  be sure that  this freedom is to be used to promote
(i)                The advance of the gospel
(ii)                The unity of an ethnically diverse church.

[1] The nine men have come from Macedonia and Galatia, and Achaia. From Macedonia, Sopater and Aristarchus and Secundus; from Galatia have come Gaius and Timothy; from Asia have come Tychicus and Trophimus. And then there's Luke. And then there's a ninth, who isn't mentioned by Luke. And in all probability he's a representative of the church of Corinth, and his name is Titus. There's a long-standing tradition that Titus is actually Luke's brother.
[2] II Corinthians 8 and II Corinthians 9 is a lengthy discussion about the collection and about principles of giving toward this collection. Romans 15 mentions this collection.
[3] Acts 15:12, 14; also see 14:27; 20:24
[4] This phrase translates apostasia, which refers to either political or spiritual rebellion

No comments: