by Al Maxey

Issue #166 ------- January 3, 2005
It is a custom more honor'd in
the breach than the observance.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Conforming to Jewish Custom
Did Paul Sin by Yielding to the Advice
of James and the Jerusalem Elders?

It was the spring of 58 AD. Paul had earlier bid a tearful farewell to the elders from Ephesus at the port city of Miletus. He had chosen to "sail past Ephesus in order that he might not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost" (Acts 20:16). After kneeling and praying with them, they then accompanied him to the ship. Several weeks later, and after repeated warnings from inspired prophets that he would face imprisonment at his final destination, Paul arrived in the city of Jerusalem where he was received by the brethren with great gladness (Acts 21:17).

Paul wasted no time setting up a meeting with James, the brother of our Lord Jesus, and the Jerusalem elders, at which time he "began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry" (Acts 21:19). The past several years had been a very successful period of ministry for Paul. Through a series of three separate missionary journeys he had proclaimed the gospel of God's grace to countless men and women throughout many nations. The church had been established in numerous cities, and the borders of Christ's kingdom had been expanded to the glory of God the Father. Although a great many Jews had been converted to Christ Jesus, Paul was especially successful in bringing the Gentiles into the One Flock. When James and the elders of Jerusalem heard this report, "they began glorifying God" (vs. 20a).

Posing the Problem to Paul

James and the Jerusalem elders were concerned, however. Paul's presence in Jerusalem at this time posed a potential for serious turmoil among some of the believing Jews, many of whom had yet to fully appreciate the fullness of their freedom in Christ Jesus. It especially posed a problem among those of the non-Christian Jewish community, who were very much opposed to the "traitorous" exploits of this former Pharisee on behalf of this Jesus he proclaimed to be the Messiah. Many of these non-believing Jews continued to harass their fellow Jews who had accepted Jesus. Thus, James and the elders said to Paul, "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law" (vs. 20b). Paul could certainly identify with this strong sentiment, as he himself had previously been "advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions" (Gal. 1:14). To the saints in the city of Philippi Paul wrote that he was, "as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless" (Philp. 3:5-6). Paul could certainly "bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge" (Rom. 10:2). Seeking justification, sanctification and salvation through the avenue of law, custom and tradition was a path destined to lead those who walked it to certain ruin. Paul had become the chief proponent of Truth over Tradition, Christ over Custom, Liberty over Law.

Now, years later, he finds himself back in the city of Jerusalem, faced with the reality that countless Jews who have come to Christ Jesus are still "zealous for the Law," with a good many more Jews who not only were zealous for the Law, but who were also zealous in their opposition to Jesus Christ. Paul had his work cut out for him, as did these concerned leaders from the church in Jerusalem. Word would soon get out that Paul was in town, and everyone knew what a controversial figure Paul had become. Things could get out of hand very quickly. Paul was a proclaimer of freedom in Christ, and thus was not viewed favorably by those still steeped in legalism. Those who were still bound to Law would soon begin informing the populace, as well as these Jewish Christians who still had loyalties to Law, that Paul, the "liberal troublemaker," had come to corrupt their faith with his "false teaching," as well as defaming and defiling Judaism. Indeed, James and the elders warned Paul of this --- these Jews zealous for the Law "have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs" (vs. 21).

The spiritual leaders in the Jerusalem church were concerned that Paul's presence would be the source of serious problems. After informing him of the situation, they said, "What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come!" (vs. 22). It's interesting to note that although they pose this question to Paul, they don't wait for his response. They immediately inform him of the "solution." In other words, they had discussed this whole scenario long before Paul ever arrived in Jerusalem. One can just imagine the "brain storming" that must have gone on in their meetings prior to Paul's arrival. "He's on his way here! The non-believing Jews are going to have a fit! The legalistic believers are going to be stirred up! What are we going to do?!" In these meetings they had devised a plan. "Therefore, do what we tell you" (vs. 23). Initially, they ask Paul "What is to be done?," and then in the very next breath they say, "Do what we tell you." In short, this had already been worked out to their satisfaction; a plan had finally come together, and if Paul would just put it into action, all would be well ... or so they hoped. Essentially, it was an effort to appease Jerusalem's non-believing Jews, as well as those still zealous for Law within the church, by projecting the appearance to both groups that Paul was still "one of them," at least in some key areas regarding law and tradition.

Presenting the Plan to Paul

The plan which was presented to Paul that day is outlined for us in Acts 21:23b-24 --- "There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the Law." The identity and nature of this vow has been the subject of some speculation among scholars, but the vast majority feel it was most likely the Nazirite Vow. The particulars of this dedicatory vow can be read in Numbers 6. Some of the wording of our text in Acts 21 lends itself very readily to this interpretation, which a comparison of the two readings will quickly reveal. The fulfillment of this vow, however, required certain ritual acts be performed and certain animal and grain offerings be made at the temple. Some believe that engaging in such activities is in direct conflict with the Christian faith, and thus they regard Paul's yielding to James and the elders as sinful.

Reflecting Upon Paul's Actions

Brother W. Terry Varner, in a newsletter called Bible Light (published by Frank Starling out of Paducah, Kentucky, an acquaintance of Gobel Music, who wrote Behold the Pattern some years back), penned an article titled "Did Paul Err In Keeping The Law?" (July/August, 2004, p. 6-7). In this article the author takes the position that not only Paul, but also James and the Jerusalem elders, committed SIN in the sight of God by returning to the observance of Law. Varner wrote, "I do not see HOW one can conclude anything other than Paul sinned in keeping the Law in Acts 21:20-36." He further noted, "I do not believe what James suggested and what Paul did, under the circumstances, even if they believed themselves to be correct, was correct in God's sight." Varner declares that these men "compromised their faith."

Bro. Varner was additionally concerned with how Paul's compliance with the terms of this vow would impact his observance (or lack thereof) of the Lord's Supper. One of the conditions of the Nazirite Vow was that during the "days of purification" one must refrain from drinking wine (the fruit of the vine). "When a man or woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to dedicate himself to the Lord, he shall abstain from wine and strong drink ... neither shall he drink any grape juice, nor eat fresh or dried grapes. All the days of his separation he shall not eat anything that is produced by the grape vine, from the seeds even to the skin" (Numbers 6:2-4). "Afterward the Nazirite may drink wine" (Numbers 6:20). If indeed this was a Nazirite Vow in Acts 21, as most believe it to have been, then during the period of purification (which Josephus indicates was customarily a period of 30 days) Paul and these four brethren would have been forbidden by the Law of Moses to partake of the cup in the Lord's Supper. Terry Varner wrote, "Would one reason from this that Paul and the four forsook the Lord's Supper for the 30 days? To me this is a real problem." This just compounds the SIN of Paul and these men, according to Varner.

This whole scenario with Paul and these four Jewish believers, who were "zealous for the Law," does seem to pose a difficult doctrinal dilemma. What are we to make of the request of James and these elders? What are we to make of Paul's apparent willing compliance with such a request from them? Did Paul sin? Did James and the elders from the Jerusalem church sin? Was this an abominable lapse in judgment on the part of these otherwise giants of faith? Is Paul's credibility now on the line? Is his teaching and theology now to be called into question? Isn't this completely inconsistent with all his previous doctrine, firmly and boldly delivered, with regard to the preeminence of grace over law? Should the epistle to the Galatians, which was written almost a decade prior to this event, now be cast from the canon as invalid? These are critical questions, and not a few scholars, as well as lay people, down through the ages have asked them. One of the readers of these Reflections from the great state of South Carolina recently wrote, "I would be interested in seeing your analysis of this passage. It is very controversial in many of our assemblies." Indeed it is. Thus, I believe some responsible, and prayerful, reflection is called for!

There are two major concerns over the example of the apostle Paul (not to mention James and the elders) in this account from Acts 21 --- (1) That Paul may have sinned by engaging in a Jewish form of worship or service, and (2) there is an almost pathological terror on the part of the patternists that Paul might NOT have sinned by his actions! The ultra-conservative factions within the church are especially concerned over the latter possibility as it seems to suggest, they fear, one may "cross party parameters" with the apparent approval of God. This, of course, would be a death blow to their separatist, isolationist policies of exclusion of all but those who adhere to their own narrow, patternistic perceptions and practices. It is little wonder, then, that they must find a way to condemn Paul's actions in no uncertain terms! To approve them would prove fatal to their dogma.

It is important to note that nowhere in the context of Acts 21, or anywhere else in the NT documents, is this action by Paul, or the advice by the leaders in Jerusalem, condemned. Indeed, there is not even a hint in the biblical record that this event was in any way viewed with disfavor by either God, His inspired writers, or the church. All of which proves even more discomforting and disconcerting to those who must prove it "sinful" in order to maintain their separatist dogma. It is my conviction that Paul, as a Christian, engaged in a Jewish practice at the temple involving animal and grain offerings, and that he did so with God's full approval and without sin. The question that must be addressed, therefore, is how was he able to "return to the law and customs of the Old Covenant" without violating the spirit of the New Covenant or contradicting his teachings regarding grace and law? I believe the answer to be quite simple.

The Solution

The solution to this apparent dilemma is that Paul, as well as the spiritual leaders of the early church, and many of the members as well, saw no problem with Jewish believers continuing to observe certain aspects of their previous religious tradition, as long as these customs, traditions and lawful practices of the Old Covenant did NOT supplant the atoning work or sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and as long as they were not observed and practiced for the purpose of acquiring or maintaining justification or salvation. If they were merely actions designed to display love and reverence toward their God, or in some way to help them in their walk with Him, then such actions were not condemned. In other words, many of the former customs and lawful practices of the Old Covenant were not forbidden to the Jews who had embraced Christ Jesus, they were merely no longer necessary. Nevertheless, they were NOT sinful if engaged in by these Jews, as long as they understood their lack of efficacy in the process of justification and salvation.

If Paul was guilty of a "return to Law" in Acts 21, with regard to the conditions of a Nazirite Vow, then he was also guilty of a return to law in Acts 16, with regard to the circumcision of Timothy. Scripture makes no such assertion against Paul, however. Neither shall I. When one truly perceives the purpose and motivation for Paul's actions, and when one keeps such customs, traditions and lawful acts in their proper perspective, one will quickly discern that NO sinfulness exists. These are neutral acts, in and of themselves. Guilt can only be assessed in such cases when one's intent violates given principles and precepts of our Father. Paul was not wrong, for example, in circumcising Timothy so as not to cause a stumbling block to those Jews whom he sought to evangelize; the Judaizers, however, were wrong for associating circumcision with salvation, and for seeking to bind their conviction upon others. Freedom in Christ allows us to engage in such activities, but that same freedom forbids us to bind such activities upon others. Romans 14 is a marvelous commentary on the application of this principle in the church.

Paul, throughout his ministry, sought to show the Jews "that their ceremonies were useless, but not destructive; that they were only dangerous when they depended on them for salvation" (Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 860). With regard to the four men under a vow (Acts 21), Clarke observes, "Had they done this in order to acquire justification through the Law, Paul could not have assisted them in any measure with a clear conscience; but, as he did assist them, it is a proof that they had not taken this vow on them for this purpose" (ibid). Brother J.W. McGarvey wrote that Paul "never lost sight of the distinction between that which we are at liberty to do for the sake of others, and that which we are bound to do in order to obey God" (Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, p. 207). Paul, therefore, "found no fault with the Jews who continued the observances of the law; instead he had only tried to convince them that the observance was no longer binding on their consciences" (ibid). The legalists, on the other hand, "held these observances to be matters of duty, while Paul held them to be matters of indifference" (ibid). Thus, Paul "denied their necessity to the salvation of souls" (H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, p. 340). Brother Boles correctly observes, "Since the law of Moses contained some ceremonial rites, these could be observed for the sake of peace and harmony without violating" any of God's precepts or principles (ibid, p. 342).

Paul's freedom in Christ "allowed him both to observe the Law and not to observe it, as expediency might dictate, because he regarded it as no longer necessary to salvation" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18). He himself would write to the saints in Corinth, "To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under law, as under law, though not being myself under law, that I might win those who are under law" (1 Cor. 9:20). "And I do all things for the sake of the gospel" (vs. 23). Paul considered himself free to observe certain aspects of the Mosaic Law, although he did not regard himself as being under that law. Thus, one's freedom does indeed allow one to mingle with those of differing convictions, even participating with them, and yet to do so without sin. Thus, it is not surprising to find even Paul himself, on an occasion previous to the one in Acts 21, apparently taking a Nazirite Vow --- "In Cenchrea he had his hair cut, for he was keeping a vow" (Acts 18:18). Was this also a sinful act on Paul's part? Of course not! Those who say it is, say far more than Scripture does! They speak where God has not ... for God has not declared it to be a sinful action. Thus, by what authority do we?


Did Paul sin when he followed the advice of James and the Jerusalem elders? Absolutely NOT. "He cannot be fairly charged with a compromise of his own gospel principles. On the contrary, he was acting in strict accordance with his own stated policy in 1 Cor. 9:20. A truly emancipated spirit such as Paul's is not in bondage" (Dr. F.F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts, p. 432). "The ancestral customs were to him religiously indifferent" (ibid). "The practical lesson, therefore," according to The Pulpit Commentary, is that such observance of laws and customs and traditions "is lawful and right, provided no essential truth is sacrificed" (vol. 18). And no essential truth was sacrificed or compromised by Paul's actions.

There is application for us today in this instructive example of the apostle Paul. There are many areas of law, custom, and tradition, even aspects of the Old Covenant, that we may observe today without sin. The only dangers associated with such is that we may, in time, tend to view them as necessary to our justification or salvation, and/or that we may try to bind such a false conviction upon others, even severing fellowship with them if they should happen to differ with us. Otherwise, we are free in Christ in such matters, and are neither the better nor the worse for observing, or choosing not to observe, such customs, traditions and laws.

Sadly, however, "There will always be a party of irreconcilables" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18). "Where there is an arrogant assumption of infallibility, and an overbearing spirit of domination, men prefer the forcing of their own opinion upon others to an equitable compromise, and they love subjugation more than peace" (ibid). There is a spirit of sectarian intolerance alive and well in the One Body, and it is keeping brethren separated from one another. We have divided ourselves into warring camps of contentious contenders for our own narrow perception of "the faith once for all delivered." We have formed countless feuding factions, when we should be promoting family. The cause of this shameful condition is that we have too often sought uniformity of sect, rather than unity of Spirit. Paul knew the difference between essentials and non-essentials, and it expanded the parameters of his fellowship. If only more today could perceive that same truth.

Reflections on CD
The 2003 and 2004 archives of my Reflections are now available on two special CD's in your choice of two different formats (HTML or MS Word). To acquire your very own permanent copy of all these in-depth biblical studies for your library (or to give as a gift to a friend or loved one, as several readers have done), go to the URL below for information on how to order:

Reflections from Readers

From a Minister in New Mexico:

I am greatly impressed with your Reflections, especially Issue #162 -- Evangelizing the Enslaved -- in which you wrote about the need to break the bonds of sectarian slavery. I wrote a book which brought to full view the very sectarian slavery you mentioned. I am now in the process of writing another book showing the sting and bitter opposition that comes from brethren when we leave the "religious box" where they seek to keep us. In this book I have tried to be as kind and gracious as possible with those who have tried to destroy me and ruin my influence. I have a stack of letters from Christians who have helped me, such as Carl Ketcherside, Reuel Lemmons, and many from Leroy Garrett. I have eight chapters written for this book thus far, and hope you may wish to take a look at the manuscript. If so, I'll make a copy available for you to see.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Al, you wrote, "I'm thankful that such sermons as this one preached by Jonathan Edwards are a rarity in the church today." To that I say a hearty AMEN! However, you and I, as well as many other loyal readers of Reflections, know that many of our narrow-minded brethren continue to feel, even to this day, just as Edwards did, and more than a few still preach it. Growing up, I was consistently bombarded with the teaching that the least little mistake would condemn me to a torturous hell if not quickly confessed and repented of. Often I would lie awake at night and wonder what I had done or said or even thought during the day that I needed to repent of and ask God to forgive. I lived in constant fear that the trumpet would sound at any moment and I would be found lacking and thus would awaken in the flames of hell. However, I now know that I no longer have to live in fear of the Judgment. Thanks be to God!

From a Minister/Elder in New Jersey:

Hanging Helplessly Over Hell was another insightful Reflections. I agree that faith from fear is not a faith that recognizes what Jesus Christ called the two greatest commandments. Running from Hell is not nearly the motivator as what God has given, and promises to give, to those who run to Him. When we can say like Paul that to die would be gain, then we are evidencing our excited anticipation of the Glory that draws us to the light beyond the end of day.

From a Reader in Canada:

Al, my wife and I are regular readers of your Reflections. In today's article, you mention that fear, as a motivating factor in conversion, is unfounded. I must take exception to your conclusion. You are wrong. I myself am a testimony to the efficacy of warning people of God's wrath to be taken out on the unbeliever. This is truly a frightening thought and ought to be trumpeted from the pulpits along with the Good News. There is a flip side, and I believe that not enough time is spent on the Bad News. Some people need very much to hear about the consequences of spurning God's great and gracious offer. There are people who very much need to hear about the unpleasant side of God's nature. We are not all motivated by syrupy teaching. Some of us need a little salt rubbed into the wound in order to sit up and take notice. I believe that we have, in our attempt to balance the scales, gone too far in relegating the doctrine of hell to a bland and anemic joke in the halls of spiritual academia. Spiritual liberalism has crept into the church, I'm sorry to say. You will probably disagree with much, if not all, that I have said here, but we are free to differ and still be brothers. At the very least, I trust that you will prayerfully ponder what I have expressed. God bless you, Al.

From a Ministry Leader in California:

Brother Al, As eloquent as Jonathan Edwards undoubtedly was, I still think Christ's message of "Sinners in the Hands of a LOVING God" is much more pleasing, persuasive, and powerful than "hanging helplessly over hell" -- (great alliteration, by the way). The concept of eternal damnation for those who reject God certainly has an important place in the gospel message, but it's a terrible way to begin a discussion of God's love for man! I think we're always better off sticking with Christ's approach instead of man's approach.

From a Missionary in Columbia:

Dear Al, I am a missionary to Colombia. Please subscribe me to your weekly Reflections. I like these kinds of studies, and have enjoyed the things of yours I have read.

From a Reader in California:

Dear Al, Your help in times past has been so gratefully appreciated. I have told everyone I can at church, and even outside of church, about your web site. My minister said he has been reading your articles and agrees whole-heartedly with all you have said, and also the manner in which you approach each topic.

If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. I would also welcome
any questions or comments from the readers. A CD
containing these articles may be purchased. Check the
ARCHIVES for details & past issues of Reflections: