Wednesday, December 5, 2018

A demonstration of commitment (Acts 21:17-36)

Dr. Paul Manuel—2018

Sometimes when you try to fix something, you only end up making it worse than it was.
Steve is in charge of water and sewer billing for a small city. Some customers complain that the postcard-sized bills look too much like junk mail and that they occasionally throw them away by mistake. So the billing department decides to use a full-sized letter and announces the new format a month ahead. To Steve's surprise, complaints start to come in over the proposed change. When he reviews the original announcement, he understands the reason. It reads... "Coming soon! New Larger Bills!"
Sometimes when you try to fix something, you only end up making it worse than it was. The apostle Paul tries to fix something on a visit to Jerusalem but only manages to make it worse.

Paul's ministry, especially his outreach to gentiles, has not endeared him to some in the Jewish community, despite the general acceptance of God-fearers in the synagogue. The false rumors about how he supposedly denigrates the law to make his teaching more appealing to non-Jews is particularly hard for this Pharisee to bear and is something he must address before it becomes too widespread and too difficult to correct.

Paul does not know it yet, but when he enters the temple to fulfill a Nazirite vow it will be his last public appearance. His return to Jerusalem is "A Window of Opportunity" to make the case that he is not a traitor to his people.

I. The elders receive the itinerant missionary (Acts 21:17-26).
Acts 21:17 When we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren 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 observe the 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 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 is strangled and from unchastity." 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself with them and went into the temple, to give notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for every one of them.
A. They recognize the apostle's presence.
Paul returns to Jerusalem to fulfill a Nazirite vow he had taken while at "Corinth" (Acts 18:18).
If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of separation to the LORD as a Nazirite, he must abstain from wine and other fermented drink.... During the entire period of his vow of separation no razor may be used on his head. He must be holy until the period of his separation to the LORD is over; he must let the hair of his head grow long. Throughout the period of his separation to the LORD he must not go near a dead body.... When the period of his separation is over he is to be brought to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. There he is to present his offerings to the LORD: a year-old male lamb without defect for a burnt offering, a year-old ewe lamb without defect for a sin offering, a ram without defect for a fellowship offering.... Then the Nazirite must shave off the hair that he dedicated. He is to take the hair and put it in the fire that is under the sacrifice of the fellowship offering. (Num 6:2-18)
When in the Jewish capital to fulfill the vow, Paul decides to meet with church leaders, and he addresses concerns they have about his service.
1. Paul recounts the ministry success.
He rehearses where he has been and what he has done in the course of spreading the gospel.
2. Paul observes the church's growth.
This reform movement within Judaism has experienced exponential expansion: from "about a hundred and twenty" (Acts 1:15) after Jesus' ascension, to "about three thousand" more (Acts 2:41) after Peter's public rally, "to about five thousand" men alone (Acts 4:4) after the disciples' first healing in the temple.
3. Paul denies the apostasy charges.
Despite the impressive growth, there have been setbacks: reports of scandal among the leadership, notably that one individual, an outspoken Pharisee is promoting some very un-Pharisee-like notions: for example, that parents should not "circumcise" (Acts 21:21) their male children, which is a clear violation of God's command through Abraham:
This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring.... Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." (Gen 17:10-14)
This precept is permanent ("everlasting" Gen 17:7, 13), not subject to revocation or revision. It is unthinkable that Paul would in any way subvert it or negate it.

To refute these charges as baseless, while demonstrating that Paul still adheres to "the customs" (Acts 21:21) God instituted, the Jerusalem church leaders recommend that the apostle demonstrate his commitment to the law by financing others who are also ready to fulfill a Nazirite vow, with its requirements of ritual cleansing and animal sacrifice.
4. Paul pays the vows' expenses.
a. He will join the cleansing.
b. He will subsidize the sacrifices.
What Paul has been teaching gentile believers is no different than what the Jerusalem council originally recommends, that non-Jews should follow the Noahide commands, the few rules the rabbis and the council say are incumbent on all gentiles who wish to embrace the creator of the universe.
B. They review the gentiles' responsibilities.
The Jerusalem leadership reiterates the original recommendations of the council for gentiles: "We should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood" (Acts 15:20).

Application: What Paul has been teaching gentile believers in the first century is still suitable for gentile believers today, especially the part about eschewing immorality. Paul places that sin in a separate category, because it is more personally damaging than most sins: "Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body." (1 Cor 6:18) Ultimately, sin is subject to one penalty; all sin is deserving of "death" (Rom 6:23). Immediately, sin is subject to varying penalties according to the seriousness of the transgression; some sin is deserving of "few blows" (Luke 12:47) while other sin is deserving of "many blows" (Luke 12:48). Sexual sin falls into the more serious category, with the biblical penalty ranging in severity from excommunication to execution. Believers today, especially in the US, face neither excommunication nor execution for sexual sin, but God's condemnation of such behavior has not changed, and believers today must conduct themselves accordingly.

As news of Paul's presence in the temple spreads, his detractors gather to incite a crowd against him.

II. Some people assemble and foment unrest (Act 21:27-36).
Acts 21:27 When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up all the crowd, and laid hands on him, 28 crying out, "Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching men everywhere against the people and the law and this place; moreover he also brought Greeks into the temple, and he has defiled this holy place." 29 For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. 30 Then all the city was aroused, and the people ran together; they seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. 31 And as they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. 32 He at once took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them; and when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33 Then the tribune came up and arrested him, and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. 34 Some in the crowd shouted one thing, some another; and as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. 35 And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd; 36 for the mob of the people followed, crying, "Away with him!"
It is ironic that Paul's enemies move against him "when the seven days [of his vow] were almost completed" (v. 27). The very thing they allege him of forsaking he is here keeping.
A. They accuse the apostle of crimes against Judaism.
1. He is charged with transgressing the law.
The indictment is not specific, just general innuendo: "This is the man who is teaching men everywhere against the people and the law and this place" (Acts 21:28). Although these individuals are from an area where Paul ministered ("from Asia" Acts 21:27), they are either unfamiliar with his teaching or care only that his teaching does not agree with theirs. In any case. cool heads do not always prevail against riled emotions, as they certainly do not in this case. Public sentiment is not necessarily informed reason.
2. He is charged with profaning the temple.
Paul's detractors base one accusation on the unsubstantiated rumor that he brought an uncircumcised gentile into the inner court, a capital offense even Roman law acknowledged. They name the offending gentile, which gives their charge the fa├žade of credence, but it is still unproven, simply guilt by association, and extended association at that. "For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple" (Acts 21:29).
B. They threaten the apostle which involves the military.
Stirring a mob against Paul, his opponents are on the verge of violence, and the Roman guard attached to the city steps in to restore order. It is difficult to know how far this mob unchecked would have gone. Mobs by their very nature are unruly and unpredictable. Fortunately, a Roman officer with his squad of at least two hundred soldiers intervenes before things get out of control.
1. The tribune hears the complaint.
The Roman officer does not just listen to the accusers but tries to get the perspective of the accused as well. Nevertheless, he also realizes that, with public tension high, he cannot simply release Paul, so he does what he thinks is the next best thing.
2. The tribune arrests the troublemaker.
He places Paul in "chains" (Acts 21:33), separating him from the hostile crowd until public tension abates and the Roman authorities can sort out the situation, all while the mob shouts, "Away with him!" (Acts 21:36).

Application: Sometimes the direction you initially envision for your life is not the direction it actually takes. There are numerous detours, and there may even be what appear to be dead ends. But everywhere the Lord directs has a productive and satisfying termination. God will never lead you astray or down a road that goes nowhere. If you commit your life to Him, you will discover that He will always point you toward a most fulfilling goal. As the sage says, "In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight" (Prov 3:6).

When Paul appears in the temple, he has "A Window of Opportunity" to fulfill a vow he made some months earlier at Corinth and to demonstrate his continued obedience to the law God gave Israel. Although circumstances prevent his completing the vow, he shows that he has not forsaken Moses' teaching. It is a demonstration of commitment to God that all believers should emulate.

For the Footnotes and Bibliography see the pdf here.

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