“When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 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, 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. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 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. 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.” 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)
Are you one of those people who has trouble delegating a job to someone else? Some say it is just easier to do it yourself, but I think the truth is that we really think we can simply do it better. I will admit, I’ve delegated jobs and later realized it would have been easier if I had just performed the jobs myself. The person may have done the job poorly or left out some critical steps and I had to go back and do the job correctly. Frustrating, right? As I’ve matured I’ve realized that, while a completed job done well is important, an educated and mature person is more important.
In many ways, I think this tendency is strongly tied to our deeply embedded, cultural individualism. I don’t need anyone else, I can do this myself… thank you, very much. I also think this same attitude (I can do it myself) has invaded our religious beliefs and culture. We approach our relationship with God with this same individualistic “I can do this myself” attitude. Honestly, this attitude and approach towards God is not limited to my American culture. This same attitude is seen worldwide and is evident in every religious belief I’ve studied. While it might not come across as rampant individualism, it is very much an “I must work to earn God’s favor” approach.
In today’s focal passage, we are confronted by the stark contrast of Paul’s message of God’s free grace to the Gentiles (non-Jews) and the Jewish reliance on observance of their religious law. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that we abandon all religious traditions and rituals. I think some of those, many of those, have their proper place in our lives and our churches. But, I would like us to look at the lessons that these things teach us about God and about ourselves.
Let me start by reminding you that Paul was Jewish and he continued to observe the Jewish religious laws even after his conversion to Christ. In fact, in previous passages, we saw how Paul had Timothy circumcised when Timothy joined Paul’s mission team and how Paul had made a Nazarite vow and cut his hair as a sign of its completion. These are just a few examples of how Paul continued to value and keep the religious laws of his Jewish heritage while recognizing, embracing and teaching the saving grace of God the Father shown to us through the redemptive and atoning sacrifice of Jesus the Son.
Paul’s first stop in Jerusalem is the home of James where he gives a detailed accounting of his work to James and the elders. The wording in the Greek gives the indication that this is a step-by-step or “one-by-one” retelling of Paul’s work. The details are, apparently, very important to Paul, James and the elders. It appears that the details are necessary to vindicate Paul’s actions and to validate his preaching and teaching among the Gentiles. It is interesting to note, none of the Apostles appear to be present. I say this because Luke fails to note their presence at this gathering. It is most likely that they are out on various mission endeavors, themselves.
Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem did not go unnoticed by his opponents. His mission work among the Gentiles has resulted in large numbers of converts, but it has also resulted in a large number of critics. James informs Paul that, during his absence, a very large number of Jews had become followers of Christ in Jerusalem. Knowing what we do of the Judaizers, it seems likely that quite a few of these Jewish converts were Pharisees and they brought with them a love and zealousness for the Jewish law. However, it does appear that some misinformation regarding Paul’s preaching and teaching has made its way back to the Jerusalem church.
One of the things that seems quite apparent, among Christians in the early church and in today’s modern church, is our need to hear and to heed Christ’s command: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34 ESV) We are COMMANDED to love each other in the same manner that Christ has loved each of us. And yet, we tend to jump to conclusions, make false assumptions and think the absolute worst about these very same brothers and sisters in the faith. In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul says: “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:15 ESV)
For example, this past week a very popular fast food chain, known for its chicken sandwich, Christian founder and their business ethics based on biblical principles, made an announcement regarding how funds from its charitable public foundation would be distributed in the coming year. In reality, it was mostly a humdrum announcement that would not normally have caught ANY attention in the mainstream media or on social media. However, somebody in the media seized upon the announcement and claimed that it signaled a capitulation by the company to the LGBTQ+ agenda since the foundation’s charitable donations in the coming year would not include certain conservative Christian service organizations.
Based on the response, you’d have thought someone had equated Jesus Christ with the anti-Christ. Christians were outraged and Satan, no doubt, was chuckling to himself. He had been able to use the Internet, social media and a little lie to expose one of our glaring weaknesses, our struggle to “love one another” like Christ. It was lunacy. People were mad over absolutely nothing. The company hadn’t abandoned their biblical beliefs and Christian principles. They were still giving lots of money through their foundation to great causes, even conservative Christian causes. In fact, they even pledged to give $25,000 to a local food bank EVERY TIME they open a new restaurant.
So, what’s my point in all of this? Why retell the story of this social-media-fast-food-chicken debacle? It illustrates in today’s language what had happened to Paul. Somebody heard something Paul said, misunderstood Paul’s intent and focus and then started a misinformation campaign against Paul and his work. These former Pharisees got wind of the rumor and became outspoken opponents of Paul’s work among the Gentile churches. Instead of focusing on Paul’s love for God and his zeal for scriptural obedience, they focus in on the misinformation while Satan sits back and chuckles at the results. Satan’s able to derail the work of the church by getting them re-focused on a problem that doesn’t really exist. He still does the same to us, quite effectively.
So, how does James and the elders counsel Paul to address the issue? By yelling the truth loudly at the opposition? Nope. In essence, show them what you believe and what you teach by your actions. They counsel Paul to show his personal allegiance to the Jewish Law by purifying himself, according to the law, and then by assisting four of their men in completing their Nazarite vow. Words are powerful and persuasive, but our actions are the real proof of our words. This is the essence of the letter that James wrote to the Jews who were scattered by the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem (the Book of James). You must hear the word, know the word, believe the word, but you must also obey the word. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22 ESV) We need to follow James’ advice, don’t just hear the word, don’t just believe the word, do the word. Live it out, daily.
Law or Grace? Actually, both. Scripture teaches that the law reveals God’s perfect will and our inherent sinfulness. We know what’s right, because God’s law is written on our hearts, and we generally want to do what’s right but we fail to consistently achieve that goal. I mean, doesn’t Romans 7:19 sound like us?
“I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” (Romans 7:19 NLT)
A friend of mine posted this comment on Facebook: “Sometimes I think dogs are nicer than people.” I replied and told him that I think he’s right and that it’s pretty good evidence for the Biblical doctrine of sin. James reminds Paul and the elders of his admonition to the Gentile believers; that they must “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” There are really two issues at play here: 1) James’ admonition will help maintain unity in a culturally and ethnically diverse church; 2) there’s a significant distinction between the religious, ethnic and moral laws of God.
Some modern critics of Christianity and the church try to charge us with “picking and choosing” the Old Testament laws we are willing to obey or make binding on the modern church. Most do this in an attempt to discredit the church’s stance on sexual sin by citing our belief in the sinfulness of homosexuality but not in the sinfulness of eating pork or shellfish, both of which are clearly condemned in the Old Testament law. However, it is also clear from the New Testament that Gentile believers were not expected to keep the religious and civil laws of the Jews, but they were expected to keep the moral laws. As Paul points out in Romans, the moral laws of God are written on the hearts of men and existed prior to the establishment of the Mosaic Law and have continued to exist even with the fulfillment of the law’s demands in Jesus Christ.
So, most of us are not Jewish or Jewish proselytes (Gentiles who have converted to Judaism) and, thus, are not subject to the religious and civil laws of Moses. However, we are sons of Adam and are, thus, subject to the moral laws of God written upon the hearts of men and faithfully recorded in the laws of Moses. Some would say, but how can God hold man accountable for laws that he’s never heard? Paul (and I) would respond, because God has written them on the very hearts of every man, woman and child. Scripture is very clear that God has revealed Himself (or His existence), His nature, and His expectations (or natural laws) in and through the very fabric of creation. Theologically, this is called GENERAL or NATURAL REVELATION. We can see that God exists and that He is loving, beautiful, holy and just in the things He has made and the laws He has established. What He has revealed to us should cause us to seek Him, to know Him, to love and desire Him.
God has responded by promising that: “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:8 HCSB)
Do you want to know if God is real? Ask Him! Do you want to find and do God’s will for your life? Search for it! Do you really want to live in God’s presence? Knock on the door! Not half-heartedly, go after it with everything that’s in you! If you do, I promise you won’t walk away disappointed. You WILL find what you seek… but what You will REALLY find is HIM!