Acts: Paul in Jerusalem, Part 1

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.

Warm Reception

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!

The Problem

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

Some Thoughts

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.

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4 Replies to “Acts: Paul in Jerusalem, Part 1”

  1. This is good and worthy of a lot of thought and contemplation. I think a small nugget to consider that maybe plays into this is the idea of “realms of authority.” In the churches Paul fathered, he excercised authority and discipline that is evident in his letters. And he administered those churches as he saw fit, led by the Spirit, and counsel from Jerusalem. However, it appears through Acts that Paul always subjected himself to those in Jerusalem and did not act in a way that presented himself as “pre-eminent among the apostles.” This is at least from my recollection.
    Paul had a realm of authority in the churches he fathered, but in Jerusalem…the church there he did not, nor had he fathered that church. He walked as one subject to authority vs being in authority. To me this speaks volumes of understanding our places of authority and where we are subject. If you’ve been invited to participate in a ministry or church that you did not start, you are subject to the leaders and the system in place until you have been granted authority to change it. I believe you may speak prophetically into it, but its up to the founders/leaders to decide to listen (free-will). But, in arena’s you have started yourself, you have authority to govern as you believe is right and are being led. God’s grace is huge to work in the midst of what we see as wrong and also in what we see is right. Be it structures, forms, etc. Wisdom is in knowing your realm of authority and also submitting yourself to authority in realms you do not. And being in love enough to be willing to do both so that unity and the work of the gospel is not hindered. For some it means staying and working within those realms. For others it means pioneering new paths outside the mainstream. And still for others, its serving as a bridge between the two.

  2. Thanks for your insight Ben. No doubt you know Paul well. What I’m finding this time through the Bible is I’m getting to know Luke at a much greater depth than before. I can see him sitting down and writing these stories with meticulous attention to detail, constantly praying for wisdom and insight for all who would read his words. It seems like you’ve read a lot about Paul and perhaps have that same sensation. I hope others read the Bible and get to know characters they resonate with as well as they draw near to Christ. I haven’t thought about realms of authority in the way you phrase it, but this is interesting. In Galatians 2, Paul reiterates he “had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised…” It’s funny that he makes this statement just after saying, “As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism.” At any rate, they have some agreement that Paul is to specialize on the Gentiles while Peter on the Jews. The key takeaway for me is this: Paul wasn’t trying to impress anyone about anything except in ways that the Gospel of Jesus Christ could be preached and His Kingdom expanded. I don’t think he was as concerned with lines of authority inasmuch as he was focused on growing the Kingdom. But to your point, I think, he was indeed sensitive to those in authority, a good lesson for all of us to learn.

  3. Honestly, the subject of “realms of authority” deserves more than I can do it justice here. Basically, look at Jesus and the Centurion. He had an grasp of authority that even amazed Jesus. Also, what you point out in that Paul was sent primarily to the gentiles and Peter the Jews. That was their calling and where their spiritual sphere of authority operated. Which is totally interesting on its own! Paul, a learned man and pharisee would seem a natural fit to preach to the Jews…in our estimation. And Peter, a common fisherman, would seem to be more apt to reach the Gentiles. However, Peter was sent to the jews…which was a probably a stumbling block or offense to many of them; and likewise, Paul to the Gentiles. God so often uses things that offends our minds to reach our hearts. I believe the idea of realms of authority has to do with your specific calling as well. Where God calls you, He gives you authority in that arena. We obviously have sphere’s of authority in our natural lives here. Try overstepping your authority at work and see how that goes. Or let the private tell the sergeant what to do. The natural shadows the spiritual. I’m in no way saying that was all that was going on there…but perhaps one small piece in the puzzle of why Paul did what he did.

  4. and for what its worth…that was the first time I ever saw that in scripture, as far as Paul walking in submission to those in Jerusalem vs the church’s he started. Your thoughts and takes on this got me to seeing this in a new way. All that I shared before I had not seen before. I have understood the concept of authority and spheres or realms for some time…just never saw it in relation to this!

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