Arrest in Jerusalem

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If you have been the victim of a fake news story, you can sympathize with Paul’s dilemma in Acts 21. He has risked his life to preach the Gospel in Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus, but when he arrives in Jerusalem with a substantial offering he has collected for Jewish church members, James and the church elders confront Paul with a rumor spreading among their church members:

You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. (Acts 21:20, 21)[1]

The Jerusalem elders should have taken the lead in rejecting these obviously false reports. Instead of urging Jews not to circumcise their children, Paul had circumcised Timothy, who he called “my true son in the faith” (Acts 16:1-3, 1 Tim 1:2). And Paul had not taught Jews to turn away from Moses. Paul wrote to believers in Rome that the Jews “have been entrusted with the very words of God” (Romans 3:2). Paul valued the Mosaic Law, but he taught both Jews and Gentiles to reject the keeping of the law as a means of salvation. The difference between rejecting Moses and rejecting the keeping of the Mosaic Law as a means of salvation was subtle, and slander doesn’t notice the subtle distinctions that divide truth from fiction.

The accusation that Paul told all the Jews not to “live according to our customs,” could have been made against Peter who in Antioch lived like a Gentile, eating with Gentile believers, until “certain men came from James.” Then Peter “began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group” (Gal 2:12). James himself had declared at the end of the first Church council that Gentile believers should not be burdened with circumcision and the Law of Moses except for the requirements of abstaining from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality (Acts 15:29).

Why did James and the Jerusalem elders not allow Jewish believers the same Gospel freedom given to Gentiles? And why didn’t James and the Jerusalem elders vigorously defend Paul against the fake news circulating among their members? Instead of defending the one they had earlier called “our dear friend” and commended as one who had risked his life “for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:25, 26), they ordered Paul to prove his innocence by joining in ceremonial purification rites with four men who had taken a vow and by paying the expenses for the men’s temple sacrifices and rituals. “Then,” the elders told Paul, “Everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law” (Acts 21:24).

With Paul’s history of being attacked by Jews the question must be asked, “Who thought it a good idea for him to go the temple to fulfill a vow? Was there no other way to prove that Paul supported Jewish culture and customs? Why order Paul to put his life in jeopardy over charges the leaders knew were false?

One answer might be that the leaders living in Jerusalem did not understand the issues faced by those sharing the Gospel in the real world. They were isolated by the walls of Jerusalem and Judaism. Could our church today be in the same position on our institutional islands where thousands with multi-generational Adventist pedigrees live, work, and worship? What if we sailed with Paul beyond our protected waters and immersed ourselves in the currents of modern life? Then we might understand its issues, its anger, and what part of the Gospel it needs most.

Ben Witherington, III notes that the plan of James and the Jerusalem elders, “must be seen at least in part as an exercise to change public perception rather than regulate Pauline practice.”[2] Their emphasis on outward perception rather than inward obedience and motive is common to all legalistic communities and may explain why they did not refute the “fake news” about Paul. In a community which was still zealous for the law, the leaders, just as Peter had been in Antioch, were more afraid of public perception than they were of false Gospels. Instead of defending and protecting Paul, the Jerusalem church elders decided to protect themselves from their member’s anger at Paul.

But why did Paul go along with the elders’ scheme to convince Jerusalem Christians that he had not abandoned his cultural identity? After telling the Galatians: “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (Gal 1:8), and after opposing Peter “to his face” for compromising the Gospel in Antioch (Gal 2:11), why did Paul take the men and purify himself with them? (Acts 21:26) That resulted in Paul’s arrest after Ephesian Jews spotted Paul completing the purification rites in the Temple and tried to kill him by spreading the false report that he had defiled the temple by bringing Greeks into its courts (Acts 21:28).

Consider how much pressure others were putting on Paul. The Jews treated him as an apostate, and fellow Christians labelled him unorthodox. By the time of his arrival in Jerusalem, Paul had ample evidence that he would be arrested (Rom 15:30-31; Acts 20:22-23; 21:4, 10-14). Church leaders failed to defend Paul against false rumors, they ordered him to complete exhausting purification rites and, after Paul gave them the substantial member assistance offering had collected for Jerusalem members, they charged him for the expenses of the four other men’s purification rites! Paul could easily have felt emotionally drained, abandoned, and hopeless.

Ellen White, who herself has been the victim of fake news from friend and foe alike, gives another explanation for Paul’s concession that combines compassion and gospel clarity,

Paul realized that so long as many of the leading members of the church at Jerusalem should continue to cherish prejudice against him, they would work constantly to counteract his influence. He felt that if by any reasonable concession he could win them to the truth he would remove a great obstacle to the success of the gospel in other places. But he was not authorized of God to concede as much as they asked.[3]

How do we know when we are conceding too much? Which hills should we die on? What is the difference between contextualizing and compromising the Gospel? Compromise is often associated with more liberal viewpoints, but in Acts 21-23 it is conservative Jewish Christian who have compromised the Gospel by their zealousness for the law. Legalism turns our obedience into the means of our salvation and changes our motive for living a holy life from love to selfishness. We obey God’s Word to save ourselves rather than as our response to God’s grace. The obedience of faith becomes obedience for self.

But the Gospel can also be compromised by liberalism. Instead of being liberal and generous with others because we believe that God gives everyone the freedom to choose their actions and destiny, we can distort the doctrine of free will into a desire to be free from God’s sovereignty, to decide for ourselves the terms of our covenant with God. So, both legalism and liberalism compromise the Gospel. Legalism denies the Gospel by replacing Jesus’ finished work for us on the cross with our own works. Liberalism denies the Gospel when it replaces God’s sovereignty with our own sovereignty. Ultimately, the Gospel is compromised when one’s guiding motive changes from love for others to self-preservation.

Although Paul may have conceded too much by following the advice of church leaders, his motive never changed. Paul loved his fellow Jews so much that he wished he were “cursed and cut off from Christ for sake of my people, those of my own race” (Romans 9:3). He was motivated by a love for others so intense that he told his companions just prior to his arrest in Jerusalem, “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). No wonder Jesus came to Paul in his Jerusalem prison cell and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome” (Acts 23:11).

Why ultimately was Paul arrested and imprisoned? Was it God’s plan? Was it Paul’s compromise of the Gospel? Was it the false news reports spread both by Christians and Jews? Was it Jewish exclusivism, the motivation for the anti-Gentile bias held by both Jews and Christians? Was it the threat to Jewish identity created by Paul’s evangelistic success among the Gentiles? Or was Paul’s arrest and imprisonment ultimately the result of both Christians and Jews believing a fake Gospel, the false claim that one’s salvation is dependent on one’s works rather than the works of Christ?

Which fake gospels threaten to imprison us today? Whether we are tempted by Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, Liberalism, Individualism, Materialism, New Ageism, Atheism, Capitalism, Socialism, or Communism, our only safety is to cling to the cross of Christ. In the words of Isaac Watts:

When I survey the wondrous cross

On which the Prince of glory died,

My richest gain I count but loss,

And pour contempt on all my pride.

 

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,

Save in the death of Christ my God!

All the vain things that charm me most,

I sacrifice them to His blood.

           

Until his retirement in June, Douglas Jacobs was professor of Homiletics and Church Ministry in the School of Religion at Southern Adventist University. When he is not kayaking or bicycling, he is a research professor in SAU’s School of Religion and Health Ministry coordinator for the Collegedale Church of Seventh-day Adventists.

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[1] All Scripture references are taken from the New International Version, 2011 edition.

2 Ben Witherington, III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 650

[3] Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2005), 405.