Paul’s Vow, Acts 21

Questions for study from Acts 21

Question 2: Was Paul right in helping the men complete their vow?

Tod Kennedy, May 20, 2001

  1. Why did Paul decide to enter the temple to help the four men complete their vow—most likely a Nazirite vow? James and the elders of Jerusalem heard Paul’s report of his ministry to the Gentiles. The leaders told Paul that thousands of believing Jews were “all zealous for the Law” (Acts 21.20) and were worried that Paul was not upholding the Law before Jews to the Jews’ satisfaction (Acts 21.21-25). Now, many believing Jews in Jerusalem were followers of Jesus and the Jewish traditions, and many were weak believers who did not understand the change from the law to grace. Some were adamant that the Law was important for salvation and for Christian living—these were legalists, those who favored the religious regulations in spite of teaching to the contrary. Others—believers and non-believers—were very much against Paul’s grace gospel; and some—the Asian Jews in town for the holiday—were just looking for a fight (Acts 21.27). The leaders challenged Paul to demonstrate “that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the law” (Acts 21.24). They pressured Paul. The doctrinal issue was the place of the Mosaic Law in the life of a believer. The social issue was satisfy the contending parties. Paul agreed to the plea from the Jerusalem elders to prove his loyalty to the Law of Moses. He had a big chore on his hands: He wanted, if possible, to calm the fears of those zealous for the law, to satisfy the Jerusalem church leadership, and to avoid conflict between those zealous for the law (legalists) and those who, like himself, knew that the law was a non-issue in the Christian life. He  ceremonially purified himself at the temple by offering the right Levitical sacrifices, and then paid the ritual expenses for the four men so that they may complete their Nazirite vows.
  2. Upon what Scriptural principles or doctrines did Paul make his decision? He likely applied the principle that he stated in 1 Corinthians 9.19-21: “19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.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;21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law.” Paul was willing and able to be flexible in non-essential matters such as food, days, traditions, places, Jews and Gentiles, but he would be inflexible in essential matters—clear statements of Scripture—such as the person and work of Christ, faith, grace, living the Christian life, and legalism invading the Christian life. Paul had further developed this principle when he taught the principles of liberty, love, sacrifice, profit, restoration, and burden bearing in relation to weak and strong believers, carnal believers, and unbelievers in Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8-10, and Galatians 6.
  3. Were there any historical precedents in Paul’s life that he could draw upon to help him decide what to do? There seems to be a parallel between the Cenchrea (no issue raised) and Jerusalem vow (issue raised) incidents and the Timothy (no issue raised) and Titus (issue raised) circumcision incidents? Paul ended a vow of his own by having his hair cut in Cenchrea some three years earlier. If that was a Nazirite vow, he completed it when he arrived in Jerusalem a short time later (Acts 18.22). That incident caused no trouble with either Jews or Gentiles; No one apparently had made it an issue of doctrine or personal spiritual life (Acts 18.18). However, this time in Jerusalem, it was different. Many Jews were making the law of Moses and the traditions an issue. Now the Jerusalem elders—Christians, to be sure—urged Paul to help in the completion of a vow by paying the final vow expenses for the four men. The Jewish elders feared the Jews who were “zealous for the law” (Acts 21.20). This was their way to keep the peace, yet their way ended up not helping the Jewish believers, and, unforeseen to them, eventuated in a riot. The second parallel was between Timothy and Titus. What about the circumcision of Timothy at Lystra in Acts 16?  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 circumcision up as a part of their rejection of Paul’s ministry. To Paul, the circumcision of Titus had just became a forced false issue. Paul refused in order to teach spiritual liberty and grace. 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 case 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 Paul and therefore made the Mosaic Law a false issue for Christian living. Did Paul reverse himself in Jerusalem?
  4. Had Paul written anything, before this vow incident, about law and grace, the flesh and Holy Spirit, and works and faith? Yes. Many years earlier, after his first missionary trip, likely around AD 50-52, Paul wrote to the Galatians. 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 had nothing to do with spiritual progress and in fact provide no ability to live the Christian life. Then in Galatians 3.5 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 Galatians 3.5 stood for the function of the temporary spiritual gift of miracles; miracles were one of the spiritual gifts and part of Christian service. Paul wrote in Galatians 4.21 that the law produces spiritual bondage and persecution of those who believe God’s promise—live by faith not law—while faith in God’s word produces spiritual freedom. 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. Furthermore, while on the last leg of his third missionary trip and before he reached Jerusalem, Paul had written to the Roman believers in Romans 6-8 that we must live the Christian life by God’s power, which is the power of the Holy Spirit, and not by the flesh, which is our own ability. Any attempt to live by the law stimulates our flesh or human ability. When human ability takes over the Holy Spirit has been excluded. Spiritual failure results. Paul was in a bind. He had to be careful, in his ministry in and around Jerusalem, not to lend support the use of the Mosaic Law for Christian living, and yet at the same time he had a desire to bring Jews and Gentile believes together.
  5. What is legalism? Do we find legalism in this narrative? Was Paul able to correct the legalism practiced by those of Jerusalem? Legalism is the practice of human religious regulations and taboos because one believes that is the way to please God, become spiritual, and live the Christian life. That, of course, is wrong. Legalism can then become the strict following of the letter of scripture or of tradition by human ability. Those “zealous for the law” were legalists. The law of Moses was their code of religious regulations and taboos; they were upset with Paul that he did not place high priority on living by the law. The entire context of Acts 21-23 demonstrates that Paul was unable to persuade Jews that Christ alone was sufficient for salvation and that the Christian life was lived by God’s grace through the power of the Holy Spirit and by faith. F.F. Bruce sums up the results of the temple episode: “Whether he was wise in doing so may well be doubted. There is no evidence that his action produced any such reassuring effect on the zealots for the law as James and his fellow-elders had hoped” (The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Book of Acts, 432).
  6. What were the effects of this episode on the Jerusalem church and those zealous for the law? distract believers from living under the effects that Christ’s death and resurrection had on the Mosaic Law, and therefore hinder the spiritual growth of the Jerusalem believers? We do not have any direct statements. What we do see is that Jerusalem was thrown into an uproar. Paul was not able to teach, encourage, evangelize, or begin churches in or around as a result of his decision. We do not know what happened to those “zealous for the law.” They likely gained few biblical answers to help wean them off  the legal traditions. Few if any came to better understand God’s grace and that Christ was the end of the law. We wonder what Paul could have accomplished had he began teaching and discussing Christian life doctrine with those Jewish believers of Jerusalem. We do know that the Jerusalem church gave way to the church at Antioch and other churches to the west. In 10 short years the Jews of Jerusalem would rebel against Rome so that by AD 73 the Roman army had destroyed the temple and city and cruelly killed thousands of Jews. In fact, the slaughter was that crosses bearing crucified Jews lined the landscape. We wonder if Paul could have stopped this by making a different decision. Probably not.