Acts 21:17-26

I get asked about Acts 21 a lot. What exactly is going on there? The rest of the NT is univocal on the fact that new covenant Christians are not under the Mosaic law, but here it seems as if at least Jewish believers were supposed to keep the law. Here is the passage:

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)
There were rumors among the Jerusalem church that Paul taught that Jewish believers should not circumcise their children. The rumors were false. Paul had no problem with Jewish believers circumcising their children. In fact, recall that he himself had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3)! Circumcision is a matter of indifference. Three different times Paul writes that circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing (Gal. 5:6, 6:15, 1 Cor. 7:19).

What Paul took issue with was people teaching or thinking that circumcision contributed to one's righteousness before God. What brought Paul's fangs out was when people sought to add to the gospel. Any addition to the gospel is a subtraction. This is why he refused to have Titus circumcised (Gal. 2:3). Paul's attitude was the same towards observing days on the Jewish calendar and abstaining from meat: "Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. . . . One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom 14:4-5). If you eat and observe, do it for the Lord. If you abstain, do that for the Lord. Just don't judge one another on these indifferent matters.

Back in Jerusalem, to prove that Paul had no problem with Jewish believers voluntarily following the law, he joins and funds some men who were taking a Nazirite vow (Num. 6:1-21). The elders of the church in Jerusalem were not requiring Jewish believers to keep the Law and certainly were not asking Gentiles to do so (see Acts 15).

And Paul certainly didn't have to go along with their proposal. Perhaps he was wrong. But what we see is consistent with his practice and theology. He would rather go out of his way than cause believers to stumble. It was his aim to "give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God" and to try and "please everyone in everything" "not seeking [his] own advantage but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor 10:32-11:1).

Also keep in mind that elsewhere, Paul will call such Jewish believers "weak" in faith, but encourages the strong to welcome them (Rom. 14:1). Those Jewish believers are wrong theologically but the strong ones are called to lay down their right for the edification of the many. What matters is walking in love (Rom. 14:15). "It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble" (Rom 14:21). The strong believer has an obligation to bear with the weak, to not please self, to please their neighbor, and to build them up - because that is exactly what Jesus did for us (Rom 15:1-3). Paul's actions in Acts 21 are consistent with his theology and practice. As F.F. Bruce once put it, "a truly emancipated spirit such as Paul's is not in bondage to its own emancipation."

So this is merely another example of Paul's missional lifestyle. He is willing to become all things to all people that he might further promote the gospel: "For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings" (1 Cor 9:19-23). In Acts 21, we merely see Paul "become as a Jew."

What I love about this passage is the Christ-centered attitude of two significant leaders in the early church - one over Jews and one over Gentiles. James rejoices with the news of what God (not Paul) is doing among the Gentiles. Paul is happy to lay down his rights to avoid a conflict with James and to avoid mass Jewish stumbling.

One may question the "rightness" of the Jews who were still zealous for the law, the "rightness" of the proposal by James and the elders, or the "rightness" of Paul's course of action. But one may not question the coherence of Scripture. There is nothing in this account that contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture on the topic of the law elsewhere. It is a beautiful description of a brilliant missionary-pastor driven by the cross.