My last post in this series of articles on the life of Paul ended with him and his companions leaving the house of Philip the evangelist in Caesarea and arriving at the house of Mnason of Cyprus in Jerusalem (Acts 21:15-16). The following day they visited James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem. James and the elders of the church in Jerusalem rejoiced over Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles but expressed concern over rumors that Paul was teaching Jews to abandon the law of Moses. They proposed that to dispel the rumors Paul participate publicly in a Nazarite vow, which he did.
17 When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. 18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. 25 But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them. (Acts 21:17-26, ESV; all Biblical quotations are in the ESV.)
When Paul and his companions reached Jerusalem, “the brothers” (either Mnason and his associates or James and the elders) received them, probably in the house of Mnason. The next day Paul and his companions visited James and the elders, and Paul described to them his ministry among the Gentiles. Undoubtedly, although Luke doesn’t mention his doing so, Paul also presented to them the money which he’d collected for the poor in the Jerusalem church (see 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15; Romans 15:25-28).
Since none of the apostles except James (although not one of the twelve, he was recognized as an apostle; see Acts 15:13-21) is mentioned in Luke’s account of this visit of Paul to Jerusalem, they were likely away doing the missionary work that Jesus had commissioned them to do (Matthew 28:19-20). Apparently the elders of the church in Jerusalem, which may have numbered seventy (the traditional number for elders in Israel), shared the leadership of that church with James.
James and the elders praised God but shared with Paul their concern over the probable reaction of Jewish Christians of Jerusalem to his visit. They had heard rumors that Paul was teaching Jewish Christians to abandon the law of Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or to observe Jewish customs such as their food laws. The rumors were false, Paul’s having had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3) and telling the Corinthians to “remain in the condition in which [they were] called” (1 Corinthians 7:20), and James and the elders seemed to realize this.
However they felt that Paul should do something to demonstrate this to the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. They told him of four men who had taken a Nazarite vow (see Numbers 6:1-21). When the thirty days of the vow were over, the men would cut their hair, which they hadn’t cut during the vow, and present an offering in the temple. The elders proposed that Paul purify himself (to remove any ritual defilement incurred during his long stay in Gentile territory; seven days were required of Nazarites), accompany the men when they made their offering, and pay the cost of the offering. This would demonstrate that he didn’t object to Jewish Christians following the law of Moses voluntarily.
The elders also reminded Paul of the requirements for Gentile Christians agreed upon in the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:28-29). This reminder was probably to assure Paul that although they wanted him to recognize the law of Moses by participating in the vow, they weren’t asking his Gentile converts to take upon themselves the law of Moses.
Paul did what the elders suggested. Not only had he himself undertaken a Nazarite vow at Corinth five years before (Acts 18:18), but also his paying the expenses of the four men who had undertaken such a vow would be regarded as an act of piety, not as a means of acquiring merit before God. Moreover the action would demonstrate his willingness to “become all things to all people, that by all means [he] might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22; see verses 19-23).
What does this mean to us? Life Application Bible observes, “Often a church is split over disagreements about minor issues or traditions. Like Paul, we should remain firm on Christian essentials but flexible on nonessentials. Of course, no one should violate his or her true convictions, but sometimes we need to exercise the gift of mutual submission for the sake of peace” (New International Version, Tyndale House Publishers and Zondervan Publishing House, 1991, on Acts 21:23, 24).