Read: Acts 21:17-26
Paul, Luke, and the entire group were warmly received when they arrived in Jerusalem. James, the brother of Jesus, and the elders of the church are excited to hear the news of Paul’s missionary efforts, but there is a problem that requires resolution in the eyes of the established Church. There is so much to learn from this story in Acts that we need to take this in pieces. This is just Part 1. Pray with me as I venture through this incredible section of Acts.
It started out great! Christians were eager to hear the stories about Paul’s extensive travels. This was a meeting they were really looking forward to.
Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard this, they praised God. Acts 21:19-20
They are excited to hear about Paul’s success. The result of his ministry is that “many thousands” have believed. This is amazing! Seriously, I’d be overjoyed to see a hundred people come to Christ or even a dozen. Lord, I pray that we aren’t captivated by numbers, but also that we would not shy away from them either.
Paul was aware that many had become Christians, but that was not something he counted. Perhaps his math included the denominator of the entire world to keep him humble. In this case, thousands divided by billions is a rather small fraction. Every individual counts. Enough math for the day!
There seems to be a problem here, something that Paul needs to consider before continuing his ministry in the Jewish capital.
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. What shall we do? Acts 21:21-22
Oh *#@__%! The potential for dividing the Church is huge. The solution, in this case, is to do that which will be understood by those who stand in judgment. They devise a method that should be seen as evidence for his purification and acceptability. This includes a seven-day ritual that required steps which are impossible to hide, beginning with shaving your head.
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. Acts 21:26
Paul doesn’t waste time and energy trying to prove his point. Instead, he accepted their decision and honored their authority by submitting to their process.
If Paul was willing to go through this ritual in an effort to win the Jews, we must evaluate how we interact with the established Church in this time before burning any bridges. It’s complicated and messy. When we look at this event in hindsight it’s easy to join the host of commentators that suggest this was a mistake by Paul, that he should have stood his ground and defended his right to be an individual in Christ. We know he was a persuasive orator that could have easily collected arguments in his favor, but that is not what he did.
Paul preached that he was a chameleon, willing to become whatever he needed to win people to Christ. He told us to do the same. Why would this be any different to Christians? Paul was not impressed with the number of converts, nor was he distracted by aspirations of fame and fortune. His time on earth was dedicated to winning souls for Christ.
One who has died to self has a love that “does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5, NRSV). To Paul the unity of the church was so important that a big price was well worth paying in order to preserve it. We ought to recover this perspective in today’s church. NIVAC Note
Things go south rather quickly at this point. The story changes dramatically. I’ve decided to cover this in part 2 rather than squeeze all the thoughts into one post.
The question we are compelled to ponder is how we act within the established Church. It’s clear to me that there are many problems in the Church. I could list a dozen significant issues that must be dealt with immediately. This passage begs me to consider my words carefully. It does not suggest complacency or inaction. I’m not compelled to accept mistakes being made and cower to them. I am, however, entreated to appreciate that all have sinned, each of us, including myself–we live in a fallen world.
Paul preached unity over and over again. We should be a united people who cling to our similarities more than fight over differences. Those outside the Christian faith aren’t interested in this kind of pettiness. They have no time to study why we should do one thing over the other or take a position on either side. They simply view Christians as people who can’t even get their story straight. As a result, they stay away seeming to say, “when Y’all get your act together, give me a call.”
There is so little time to do the ministry for our Lord on this earth. We need to be a band that plays together, that leaves space for each to play his part.
Lord, help me understand how to work within the Church to draw those who would otherwise stay away. Give me the voice of reason that helps churches sharpen their swords of truth for Your benefit. I don’t really know what this looks like for the future. If I need to shave my head and pay the price for someone else, then I need to have a humble attitude and grab the razor! Help us all to hear your voice and act in obedience.
NIVAC Note: Wilkins, Michael J.; Garland, David E.; Bock, Darrell L.; Burge, Gary M.; Fernando, Ajith. NIVAC Bundle 6: Gospels, Acts (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 86346-86348). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.