Nazarite vow (Numbers 6.1-21) was a pledge of devotion to the LORD that any Israelite could make. The individual man or woman began by making a vow or pledge to abstain from wine and products of the vine, from cutting his hair, and from contact with a dead body. One under the vow was able to perform normal domestic and social duties. When the duration for the vow ended, the individual offered prescribed sacrifices, and he cut his hair and burned it on the altar in Jerusalem. These actions signified that the Nazirite vow had concluded. There were two kinds of Nazirite vows: the parents could dedicate their child to the Lord or an individual could make the choice to enter into the vow. Samuel (1 Samuel 1.11), Samson (Judges 13.5), and John the Baptist (Luke 1.15) are examples of the former. The regulations about wine, hair, and dead bodies symbolized God’s holiness and that the individual dedicated himself to serve Holy God by abstaining from things that symbolized sin or the results of sin in the fallen world. If the Nazirite accidentally contacted a dead body, he went through a procedure that, once completed, allowed him to continue the vow. The Nazirite vow was an opportunity for non-priests to dedicate themselves to special service of the Lord for a specific period of time.
Jerusalem was Paul’s planned destination for the end of his third missionary trip. Should he have gone there? Some Bible students say yes, and some say no. While there, Paul helped four men conclude a vow that they were under; it was not his vow. To do so, he entered the temple where he observed ritual purification and then paid the money necessary for the four men to conclude their vow. Should Paul have done that? Most Bible students treat these two incidents as one. It is better to deal with them separately. So, we have two questions. The first is, should Paul have gone to Jerusalem? The second question is, should Paul have participated in the vow in the temple? Should Paul have gone to Jerusalem?
Notice that in most of the cities in which Paul preached a riot of some kind resulted. The riots were not Paul’s fault. In fact, most people recognize this and do not condemn Paul for going to the cities. Note the following confusions, riots, and attacks against Paul: Acts 9.23, Damascus right after Paul’s salvation; Acts 13.44-50, Pisidian Antioch; Acts 14.5-6, Iconium; Acts 14.19, Lystra; Acts 16.19, Philippi; Acts 17.1-10, Thessalonica; Acts 17.13, Berea; Acts 18.12-17, Corinth; Acts 19.23-34, Ephesus; and Acts 21.27-37, Jerusalem. Why is this Jerusalem incident singled out?
Paul went to Jerusalem because he was delivering an offering to believers and because he had a longing to see his Jewish brothers believe in the Christ. The Passover would be a good time to give this witness.
Agabus and other believers warned him of the trouble ahead. While at Tyre, believers warned Paul “through the Spirit” not to go to Jerusalem. Agabus, a prophet in Caesarea, predicted that Paul would be imprisoned at Jerusalem and turned over to Gentiles (Acts 21.10-12). Believers Caesarea tried to persuade Paul to skip Jerusalem, but he said that he was ready and willing to be bound and even to die for Christ (Acts 21.13). The people accepted Paul’s decision, saying, “The will of the Lord be done!” (Acts 21.14).
Was Paul correct in rejecting this advice? When at Miletus (Acts 20.18-25) Paul told the Ephesian pastors that he knew that trouble lay ahead for him in Jerusalem, and that he was quite willing to endure whatever was necessary in order to finish his course and his ministry.
Paul’s action cast its net over many, many people in Jerusalem. A number of questions come to mind. Why did Paul even go to Jerusalem? Should Paul have even gone to Jerusalem? Was Paul participating in a vow of his own? If so, what kind of a vow was this—a Nazirite vow or another vow to show appreciation to God? If Paul was not participating in his own vow, what was he doing? Did Paul solve any spiritual or social problems by participating in the vow? Did Paul promote spiritual growth and a better understanding of God’s grace by participating in this vow? Did Paul bring the church together in spiritual camaraderie and fellowship? Should Paul support and defend those believing Jews who continued to live under the Mosaic Law? How is this incident different than the vow Paul cut his hair for in Cenchrea some three years? That did not seem to arose trouble. What can we conclude about Paul and this incident?
The This likely was a Nazarite vow, but if that be the case, then he had to complete the vow in Jerusalem.
Paul did not solve any spiritual or social problem among Jews and between Jews and Gentiles; His appearance in the temple brought on a riot, instigated to be sure by Asian Jews, not Jerusalem believing Jews, but participating in the vow opened the door for false issues—Jew versus Gentile—to become magnified to the detriment of Jewish believers in Jerusalem and the Roman military (Acts 21.27-28).
Paul did not promote spiritual growth and a better understanding of God’s grace by participating in this vow. He did not seem to pacify Jewish believers who wanted to follow Moses, circumcise male children for religious reasons, and walk according to the law’s customs (Acts 21.21). Instead, they became more caught up in a false issue; this vow and the keeping of the law was a major distraction that would keep them from living by grace, by faith, and by the Holy Spirit—which, by the way, was the message Paul wrote, prior to the events of Acts 21, to the Galatian believers who were also being attacked by Jews who wanted to impose upon them the Mosaic Law. Note Acts 21.20-22 and the words that hint at the enormity of the Jerusalem problem: “And when they [James and the elders at Jerusalem] heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; 21 and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. 22 “What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.”
What about an increase in spiritual camaraderie? Paul’s participation in the vow did not pull the Jerusalem church together; it did quite the opposite. The Jerusalem church apparently left Paul to look after himself when he was arrested and imprisoned. There is no report of prayer or encouragement or active support for him. This may be an argument from silence, but surely Luke would have written about prayer and support by the Jerusalem believers if there were a rising tide of prayer and support for Paul and for God’s grace, especially after the reports of spiritual camaraderie and support by believers along Paul’s route to Jerusalem.
Paul’s participation seemed to raise an even more basic problem; it appeared to distract believers from living under the effects that Christ’s death and resurrection had on the Mosaic Law, and, therefore, seemed to hinder the spiritual growth of the Jerusalem believers. At the same time, Paul’s action and the results of his action very likely hindered further evangelism in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem church was reasonably strong during the early years of the church age, but was never able to integrate into the church age as other city churches did. This strong temple centered religious life culminated in the Roman destruction of the city and temple in AD 70. Therefore, it is unlikely that Paul should have supported and defended those believing Jews who wanted to continue to live under the Mosaic Law? In fact, Paul wrote earlier to the Corinthians that circumcision and uncircumcision were non-essentials or non-issues (1 Corinthians 7.17-19).
Many years earlier, likely around AD 49-50, Paul wrote to the Galatians after his first missionary trip—or at the very least Paul wrote Galatians before this trip to Jerusalem in AD 57. In Galatians 3.2-3 Paul argued that the Holy Spirit was not given to believers through law works, but through faith, and very importantly, that the ministry of the Holy Spirit brings about spiritual growth and the control of the flesh. Mosaic law legal activities have nothing to do with spiritual progress and in fact provide no ability to live the Christian life. Paul continued in Galatians 5.1-4, saying that if one follows religious obligations as obligations in order to gain salvation or spirituality, he must then observe the entire law. Then in Galatians 5.5 he continues by saying that the Father provided the Holy Spirit and actively worked miracles among believers, and he did all of this unrelated to the law works. Miracles in 5.5 stood for the function of the temporary spiritual gift of miracles and therefore today stand for spiritual gifts and Christian service. The application is the same either way. Paul went on to write in Galatians 4.21 that the law produces spiritual bondage and persecution of faith promise people, while God’s promise believed produces spiritual freedom. Paul had to be careful, in his ministry in and around Jerusalem, not to lend support the use of the Mosaic Law for Christian living.
Is there a parallel between the Cenchrea and Jerusalem vow incidents and the Timothy and Titus circumcision incidents? Paul ended a vow of his own by having his hair cut in Cenchrea some three years earlier; that caused no trouble with either Jews or Gentiles (Acts 18.18). If that was a Nazirite vow, he completed it when he arrived in Jerusalem a short time later (Acts 18.22). No one apparently had made it an issue of doctrine or personal spiritual life. However, this time in Jerusalem, it was different. Many Jews were making the law of Moses and the traditions an issue. Many believing Jews were followers of Jesus and the Jewish traditions, and many were weak believers; they did not understand the change from the law to grace. Others—believers and non-believers—were very much against Paul’s grace gospel; and some—the Asian Jews—were just looking for a fight (21.27). Add these together and you have an unstable situation. Now the Jerusalem elders—Christians, to be sure—urged Paul to help in the completion vow and to pay the final vow expenses for the four men. The Jewish elders feared the Jews there who were “zealous for the law” (21.20). This was their way to keep the peace, yet their way ended up not helping the Jewish believers, and, unforeseen them, caused a riot. What about the circumcision of Timothy. Paul, under no pressure, had Timothy circumcised in order to remove a false issue before someone made it an issue later on. At Jerusalem, he refused to have Titus circumcised when legalists brought that issue up as a part of their rejection of Paul’s ministry; to Paul, the circumcision of Titus had just become a forced false issue. The vow that Paul ended in Cenchrea, like the circumcision of Timothy, apparently had no baggage such as pressure or false issues attached to it, so Paul made the choice under spiritual freedom and carried it out. The vow in Jerusalem was made under pressure and false issues, like the earlier attempt, in Jerusalem, to force Paul to have Titus circumcised. In both the Titus circumcision case and the temple vow case Jews “zealous for the law” pressured the elders and Paul and therefore made the Mosaic Law a false issue for Christian living.
This is a pretty strong case against Paul, but what did Paul know and say about the Jerusalem incident? The day after the riot Paul stood before the Sanhedrin and told Ananias the high priest that his conscience was clear (Acts 23.1); Paul did not think that what he had done was wrong. That night the Lord stood by Paul—probably a post-resurrection appearance to Paul—and encouraged him. The Lord said nothing to indicate his displeasure with Paul’s actions. In fact, he had more witnessing for him—in Rome (Acts 23.11). About nine days after the riot, Paul stood before Felix in Caesarea and told the governor what had happened. During this defense, Paul gave no indication that he believed that he had gone against God’s will by going to Jerusalem and helping in the temple (Acts 24.16-21).
From our vantage point we can note that Paul did not help the believers in Jerusalem break from the law to grace, from the flesh to the Holy Spirit, or from works to faith. He seemed to have muddied the waters. Paul also appeared to have reversed the principle that he applied to Timothy and Titus about circumcision—that is, do not make an issue of a non-essential act if you do not need to; but when the issue is pressed, do not give in to legalism. Paul had cut his hair in Cenchrea in keeping with his vow (Acts 18.18). If this were a Nazirite vow, he completed it at Jerusalem (Acts 18.22). No issue was raised then, so he had the liberty to do that in order to express thanks to God or to help other believers. The Jerusalem case was different. It came up as something essential in the minds of many, and so grace could have been compromised.
Did God work good from this Jerusalem incident? Yes. Paul witnessed to many high ranking officials; he became a strong witness in Rome; he wrote the four prison epistles—Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon—while in the Roman imprisonment; and he became an example for us of one who endured hardship for Christ, all the while “run[ning] with endurance the race set before [him] (Hebrews 12.1) and so he modeled for us “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4.7). God does, indeed, produce good out of bad choices, out of suffering, and out of impossible situations (Romans 8.28).
What is the conclusion? The conclusion is that we probably cannot make a yes or no conclusion. The worst that we can say is that Paul may have made an error in judgment by deciding to participate in this vow in Jerusalem. Paul had the highest intentions, but his decision may not have helped local matters. Did Paul sin? I do not think so, but God must make that call. The policy that he stated in 1 Corinthians 9.20, “And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law,” still held, but Paul may not have made a very judicious application of the principle in this particular case.
What can we learn from this? For one thing, we cannot always say whether another person has disobeyed God’s will for his own ministry. In fact, that is not our responsibility. Paul addressed this issue in 1 Corinthians 4.1-7, where he responded to those attacking him and his ministry. His answer: a steward must be trustworthy or faithful. Paul did not introspectively examine himself. Others were not to examine him or pass judgment on him or on others in the ministry; the Lord will do that and his examination and judgment is enough. If you do judge others’ ministries, you are placing yourself above God and the Scripture and that is arrogance. Another principle is that each of us must apply the Bible doctrine that we know, and each must listen to the Holy Spirit guiding us. We will at times ask for the wisdom of others; but, ultimately, we must make our decisions before the Lord and be willing to take the consequences. We also learn to think graciously toward other believers even when they disagree with our ministry, and not only that, we continue to pray for and encourage them. Finally, we do not ever want to lose the truth that God graciously uses each of us and blesses each of us and blesses others through each of us. For that we can be eternally grateful to him.