Acts Lesson Forty-five: Acts 21:15-25 – Conflict Over the Gentile Mission

After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. 16 Some of the disciples from Caesarea also went with us and brought us to Mnason, a Cypriot and an early disciple, with whom we were to stay. 

17 When we reached Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us gladly. 18 The following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After greeting them, he related in detail what God did among the Gentiles through his ministry. 

20 When they heard it, they glorified God and said, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law. 21 But they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to abandon Moses, by telling them not to circumcise their children or to walk in our customs.  22 So what is to be done? They will certainly hear that you’ve come. 23 Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have obligated themselves with a vow. 24 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. 25 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.” (HCSB)

I’ll divide this lesson into two parts.

  • Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem – verses 15-19.
  • Conflict over the Gentile Mission – verses 20-25.

Paul’s Arrival in Jerusalem

Paul now begins the final leg of his journey to Jerusalem. Let’s take a closer look at the trip.

  • The trip from Caesarea to Jerusalem was approximately sixty-four miles.
    • The journey would take three days on foot or two days if they used pack animals.
    • The second option seems more likely as we must remember that Paul was bringing the collection from the Gentile churches, and carrying the collection would have been burdensome. 
  • The group was also relatively large; it included Paul and Luke, a delegation from each church who contributed to the offering, and some of the Christians from Caesarea.
  • Once they arrived in Jerusalem, they were led to the house of Mnason, who was from Cyprus and had been an early convert to Christianity. 
    • Although we don’t know explicitly from the texture, it is a safe conclusion that Mnason was a Hellenist.
    • Paul would not have been welcome in the home of a Palestinian Jewish Christian. 
  • Paul’s third missionary journey was finished. 
  • In addition, his mission work with the Greeks was now complete; he would not be returning there. 
  • Paul would no longer be a missionary working in freedom. 
    • Paul would now become a missionary bound by chains. 
    • However, the chains may have bound him physically, but they didn’t bind his witness to the truth of the Gospel. 
    • If anything, Paul’s witness became bolder.

Beginning in Acts 21:17, there begins a long section in Acts that doesn’t finish until the end of chapter twenty-six. Although comprised of an endless string of legal scenes and numerous speeches, the reason Luke presents it in such detail is to underscore the divine promise given to Paul at his conversion that he would bear the Lord’s name to the Gentiles, to kings, and the people of Israel (Acts 9:15). These chapters comprise the climax of Acts.

The remainder of this lesson’s passage is, in effect, a mini-trial before Paul faces the Jewish Christians and the Roman legal authorities. Let’s take a closer look at this section.

  • For the most part, Paul was warmly welcomed by the Christians in Jerusalem. 
  • The next day Paul, and part of his entourage, went to visit James and the elders of the Jerusalem church. 
    • During the Jerusalem Council, Paul’s report of the successful Gentile mission was met with silence (Acts 15:12). 
    • Here, Paul’s report was met with great enthusiasm, and they praised God for the fruit of Paul’s work among the Gentiles. 
  • The collection taken among the Gentile churches for the Jerusalem church is not mentioned here. 
    • It’s possible it wasn’t warmly received. 
    • It could be that Luke wanted to remain focused on the next major theme in Acts, Paul’s ultimate destination of Rome. 
  • Another thing to note is the absence of any of the Apostles at this point. 
  • The leadership of the Jerusalem church was comprised of James and a group of unnamed elders. 
  • The discussion now moves to the danger facing Paul; the Jewish Christian converts were “all zealous for the law.”

Conflict Over the Gentile Mission

From the earliest days of Jewish converts to Christianity, the issue of the Torah and adhering to the requirements of Jewish Law was a point of contention. If we remember back to earlier in Acts, the Jerusalem Conference was supposed to clear up the issue of the Law for Gentile converts. The Jewish Christians would remain faithful to the requirements of the Law, but Gentile converts would be exempt from following except for the provisions outlined in the Apostolic decree given in verse twenty-five. However, there was an added dynamic to the present situation, which made things dangerous for Paul and others who evangelized the Gentiles. The dynamic in question is found in verse twenty; the Jewish Christians were “zealous” for the Law. 

Let’s look at some information regarding Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem.

  • Paul’s arrival was in the spring of either 56 or 57 A.D.
  • Felix was the procurator at the time.
  • While Paul had been absent from Jerusalem, the Gospel had spread.
  • There were somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 Jewish Christians in Judea at this time.
  • At this time, Jewish nationalism and anti-Gentile attitudes were rapidly rising.
  • It was a time of political unrest.
    • There had been a number of Jewish insurrections which challenged the Roman authority.
    • Felix brutally suppressed each one.
    • Each event increased the Jewish hatred for Rome and boosted anti-Gentile sentiments.
    • The pro-Jewish sentiment was at its height, and friendliness with Gentiles was viewed in a negative light.
  • When considering the current situation, it’s easy to see that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles would not be viewed with a positive attitude. 
  • The situation also put the Jerusalem elders in a predicament.
    • They had previously supported Paul’s mission work among the Gentiles at the Jerusalem Conference.
    • Paul was a persona non grata among the Jewish population, which the elders were trying to reach with the Gospel.
    • Paul was also viewed unfavorably by the more recent Jewish Christian converts.
    • The elders didn’t want to reject Paul. On the contrary, they rejoiced over the success of Paul’s mission trips.
    • At the same time, they had to consider their evangelism efforts among the Jews, and Paul was a serious liability in those efforts.
  • The opponents of Paul, likely Jews from the Diaspora, were quite effective in creating an environment hostile to him.
    • They accused Paul of several offenses, each of which would be viewed as turning from their ancestral customs.
      • Turning from the Law of Moses.
      • Circumcision was no longer required.
      • Jewish customs no longer need to be obeyed.
      • Each of these charges was serious as they struck at the heart of Jewish self-identity as the people of God.
        • The ceremonial aspects of the Torah made them distinct from other people.
        • Circumcision was a mark given to each Jewish male on the eighth day to signify his membership in God’s covenant people.
      • Paul never argued that any of this was a means of salvation. Only faith in Christ leads to salvation, which is why Paul argued against circumcision for Gentiles.
      • At the same time, there is no evidence that Paul ever encouraged Jewish Christians to abandon Jewish customs.
      • We also see Paul remaining faithful to the requirements in the Torah as he dealt with the Jews.
    • Paul viewed one’s status in Christ as going beyond the distinction between Jew and Gentile (Galatians 3:28).
      • The Gentile wasn’t required to become a Jew.
      • The Jew didn’t stop being a Jew.
    • While accurate in a sense regarding Gentiles, Paul’s opponents were distorting the facts. Paul had only argued that the requirements for Gentile Christians shouldn’t include the requirements of the Law.
  • The offering from the Gentiles to the Jerusalem church presented another challenge.
    • Paul had carefully gathered and protected the offering over hundreds of miles of travel.
    • The offering was a demonstration of love and unity from the Gentile Christians to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.
    • However, the offering presented a huge challenge for the elders of the Jerusalem church.
      • Accepting the offering from the Gentiles would be a slap in the face against the Jewish Christians, especially with nationalism and ethnic pride on the rise.
      • Declining it would be a slap in the face against the Gentiles who sacrificially gave to their brothers and sisters, as well as an affront to Paul, who gathered and transported the gift.
    • Paul had always argued for tolerance and the right of each group to their own views.
      • Timothy had been circumcised (Acts 16:3).
      • Paul had argued for the veiling of women at worship (1 Corinthians 11:2-16).
      • However, Paul’s opponents distorted his teaching and his positions of tolerance.

Now, the leaders in the Jerusalem church needed to decide how to handle the situation. Their solution was a way where Paul could, by example, show that he was still faithful to the Jewish Law. Let’s take a detailed look at their solution.

  • Four Jewish men had taken a Nazirite vow.
    • They had abstained from anything using grapes or alcohol.
    • They had not cut their hair.
    • They had avoided dead people, even if it was a family member.
  • These men were nearing the end of their vow. This would require certain steps.
    • They would have to cut their hair and burn it as an offering.
    • They would have to make a series of costly sacrifices.
      • A male lamb.
      • A female lamb.
      • A ram.
      • Cereal offerings.
      • Drink offerings.
  • The elders were asking Paul to join the four and pay the cost of the required sacrifices and hair cutting.
  • Except for paying the costs of the four men, it is unlikely that Paul had any role beyond that.
    • The minimum period for a Nazirite vow was thirty days, and Paul was only there for seven (Acts 21:27).
    • It wasn’t part of a Nazirite purification ceremony as this was only conducted if someone under the vow had come in contact with a dead body.
    • It’s possible Paul underwent a personal purification ceremony as often a Jew returning to Israel after traveling through Gentile territory would undergo ritual purification. The period for ritual purification was seven days, which fits the situation here.
    • Paul likely underwent the ritual purification to participate in the completion ceremony for the four men, which would take place in the sacred parts of the temple.
    • This would be a display of Paul’s full loyalty to the Torah.
      • Bearing the heavy financial cost of the vow.
      • Undergoing the necessary purification.
  • The Jerusalem elders were counting on this public demonstration of Paul’s commitment to the Torah as evidence against the public sentiment against him.

The concluding verse is an assurance to Paul that the decision of the Jerusalem Conference had not changed.

  • Gentiles would not be asked to live according to the requirements in the Torah.
  • The Gentiles would only have to observe table fellowship and social interaction rituals, which, if not observed, would cause friction between Jewish and Gentile Christians.
  • The Jerusalem elders were trying to create a compromise.
    • Acknowledge the legitimacy of Paul’s law-free approach to the Gentiles.
    • Maintain an effective witness to the Jews, where faithfulness to the Law was absolutely essential.

Applications

  • Do you display hospitality to missionaries or traveling ministers? In this lesson, we saw the example of Mnason. Although he is only mentioned once in the Bible, it’s his hospitality in opening his home to Paul and his companions that is noted.
  • Whatever ministry work you may be involved in, give the details to others. This is especially true if you receive support from other believers. 
  • Rejoice in the ministry work of others. We should never have jealousy of the success that others experience in sharing the Gospel. Regardless of our denomination, ethnic background, or education (or lack of), we are all one in Christ. We should share in the victories and the sorrows of each other.
  • Be flexible but never compromise. We see that example in Paul’s conduct in Jerusalem. He followed Jewish customs while not compromising the Gospel. Sometimes it can be a delicate balancing act, but we may find ourselves in a situation where it is needed.

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