“Take these men, purify yourself along with them, and pay for them to get their heads shaved. Then everyone will know that what they were told about you amounts to nothing, but that you yourself are also careful about observing the law. With regard to the Gentiles who have believed, we have written a letter containing our decision that they should keep themselves from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from what is strangled, and from sexual immorality.” Then the next day, Paul took the men, having purified himself along with them, and entered the temple, announcing the completion of the purification days when the offering for each of them would be made. As the seven days were about to end, the Jews from Asia saw him in the temple complex, stirred up the whole crowd, and seized him, shouting, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place. What’s more, he also brought Greeks into the temple and has profaned this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple complex.” (Acts 21:24-29 HCSB)
Have you ever been misunderstood by someone? In our culture of text messaging, tweets, mass produced and redistributed social media memes, and fake news it seems that being misunderstood is just, well, normal. A “normal” which is really unfortunate and sadly true. Even as I sit here and write these very words, I recognize that it is relatively easy to write something that can be completely misinterpreted, misunderstood or come across completely wrong. Sometimes this is done intentionally, like fake news sites that seek to draw you in based on your own cultural presuppositions and philosophical assumptions. At other times, it is completely unintentional because something is worded poorly or someone just miscommunicates. Communication, even when it is done well, runs the risk of being misunderstood or misinterpreted.
Our focal passage is a classic example of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Paul has been fighting this battle of misunderstanding, or “grace versus law,” throughout his ministry. As I tried to point out last week, the law was never intended to be the means by which God’s people established and maintained their relationship with Him. The law is really a spotlight on our sinful souls. The Mosaic law describes and defines holiness and our inability to fully obey it demonstrates and illustrates our sinfulness, our personal unholiness.
The real problem exists in how we perceive ourselves and how we present ourselves. To be honest, I think social media is a great example of this very phenomenon. The person we present through our tweets, posts, hashtags, photos and videos is not, generally speaking, who we really are. Our online persona is a glamorized version of our real self. We usually strive to be funnier, cuter, more self-confident, less truthful about our failures and struggles when we go online. Oh, sometimes the truth comes out and that’s when the proverbial gloves come off and we get into a “bare knuckled brawl” with someone over something they posted or implied about us.
Honestly, this “perception versus reality” problem also exists in our lives outside of social media. We see this clearly when it comes to this issue of establishing and maintaining a relationship with God. Most religions are built on the concept of “earning” or securing God’s favor through some pious act of devotion, obedience or sacrifice. We perceive of ourselves as being capable of performing this pious action in a manner worthy of God’s favor and we perceive God as being “impressed” enough by our pious actions that He bestows His favor and blessings upon us. A divine/human quid pro quo, if you will.
But Paul has burst upon the traditional Jewish religious scene and ours with a disturbing revelation, God sees through our false-piety religious mask. God knows that the real issue is not in our actions or even our lack of them, but in our hearts. We don’t just DO the wrong things, we DESIRE the wrong things. So, even when we work ourselves up to some really pious religious act our hearts are not pure and we are actually acting out of selfish motives or ambitions. We might do the right thing but it’s for the wrong reason. Let’s take a look…
Our focal passage opens with James’ admonition to Paul that he prove these men wrong, those who misunderstand his message of Grace and Law, by performing a specific act of Jewish piety. He is instructed to purify himself through the completion of a vow and also by monetarily assisting four others in completing their vow. This would clearly demonstrate to them that Paul hasn’t abandoned the demands of the Jewish law or, as James’ puts it, “you are careful about observing the law.” Law and grace are not, therefore, mutually exclusive but we must learn how they should properly interact or, to put it euphemistically, how they can dance with one another.
If I’m completely honest, I know very little about dancing. It isn’t that I don’t like to dance it is just that I have no talent or rhythm. But, one thing I do know… someone must lead. In fact, the person who leads is actually telling or demonstrating to his dance partner what her movements must be through his “leadership” movements. The lead dancer is “directing” the actions of his partner so that their movements work and flow together to create a dance that is joyous and beautiful. When the lead dancer missteps then it throws the entire rhythm and flow of the dance off. It may even cause them both to stumble and fall. Personally, I’m very familiar with these missteps. It becomes very obvious quite quickly if you don’t know what you’re doing and I don’t know, when it comes to dancing.
Now, back to that relationship with God.
Our divine/human relationship is a bit like a dance. When the wrong partner tries to lead then things will, inevitably, end up messy and we are going to stumble and fall. To understand it correctly, we need view this two ways: 1) We are in a divine dance with God and we often, mistakenly, try and lead; 2) We must orchestrate a dance between our hearts and our actions and we often let the wrong one lead. Let me explain, but I’ll start with the latter one and work our way back… our hearts and actions, first.
This part isn’t really hard to understand, it is just hard to change… our HEARTS drive our ACTIONS. What we desire and value will determine and drive what we do. Scripture puts it this way: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21 HCSB) What we treasure in our hearts we WILL pursue with our hearts. As I mentioned above, we tend to get this backwards. We know what’s right but we tend to do the wrong thing. Why? Because our actions are driven by our will and our will is directed by our desires. Our desires are generally self-focused which leads us away from God, and away from holiness and godly actions.
So, to get the right results we must start with the right desire. This is where that metaphor of dancing comes in. We must let our desire lead us but our desires are, most often, not focused on the things God would desire in us and of us. But, how do we change our desire? How can we change what we treasure in our hearts? We try and force a change in our hearts by changing our actions, but it will INEVITABLY fail. Some call this the “fake it ‘til you make it” approach to spiritual living. Just do the right things and keep doing them and things will, eventually, get better. Let me tell you, it doesn’t work. You fake it for a while, but you never really make it because you heart’s true desires are never really dealt with.
How does this fit with our focal passage? The Jews were masters of the “fake it ‘til you make it” method of religious piety. In fact, Jesus even called them “whitewashed tombs” that were clean, painted white and were completely socially presentable on the outside but were full of death and dead men’s bones on the inside (see all of Matthew 23, but specifically verses 27-28 for the whitewashed tombs reference). They were good at faking it, but they never quite made it. They were missing one essential ingredient, a changed heart.
That’s where Jesus comes in and is, by the way, the real JOY of Christmas. Jesus didn’t come to just make us feel better about ourselves, He came to give us life. He came to give life to our cold, stone-dead hearts. He came to change our heart’s desire. Change your hearts desire and you change what you treasure, change your treasure and you change what you pursue, change what you pursue and you change what you do. In other words, when your heart is dancing the right dance then it takes the lead and you follow with the right steps.
So, that brings me to the second part of this story. I believe that we are all trying to dance the right steps with God. The Jews were trying to do this in our focal passage, and we try and do the same. In our focal passage, you’ll notice that these Jews were not irreligious or skeptics. They actually believed in the one, true God; the God of the Bible. The problem was that they were trying to lead in this dance. They had been trained in some “dance steps” (religious beliefs and piety) and they were trying to take the lead in this dance with God. In other words, they wanted to dance their own way and they expected God to follow. The problem is that God never ever follows someone else’s lead in this dance we call life. He shouldn’t. He’s the teacher and we’re the students.
That’s where this conflict with Paul comes to a head. Paul has recognized the need to let God lead and these Jews are still in the habit of taking the lead in this dance. The Jews are convinced that they are masters at pleasing God, partly because of who they are (God’s chosen people) and partly because of what they do (meticulous observance of the ceremonial law). What they fail to recognize is that their desire is not about pleasing God as much as it is about being pleased (or blessed) by God. That selfish tendency that makes everything about themselves. They work at observing the rules, but only because they expect God to reward them for their empty actions. Their heart’s desire isn’t God, it is their own appetite – whether that is an appetite for some physical pleasure or even an appetite for spiritual ambition or recognition. That’s why Jesus called them whitewashed tombs, they were morally good people (whitewashed) on the outside but selfish and filthy (dead men’s bones) on the inside.
As Paul has followed God’s lead, he’s learned that grace takes precedence over law. Why? Because of the heart problem I previously mentioned. Because our hearts are self-focused and we are trying to lead, then we make many more missteps in this dance than we do correct steps – scripture calls them sin. Because we tend towards sin then we are deeply in need of grace. God is willing to grant us grace, but we must come to Him on His own terms – repentant, humble and willing to follow His lead in this dance. What are His terms? Where do these dance steps of God lead us? He leads us to the cross. He leads us to confess of our sin and to profess our faith in His Son, Jesus the Christ.
Ultimately, this is the conflict that Paul is facing with these Jews from Asia. They accused Paul of preaching against the Jews, against the law, and against the temple. They wanted to dance with God, but only when God followed their lead. What about you? Are you willing to dance with God on His terms? Are you willing to follow His lead? He’s leading you to the cross. He’s leading you to see that your sin, your desire to dance your own dance, is what placed Jesus on that cross but His love for you held Him there. If you follow His lead you’ll discover that grace is the main step in this dance…