A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 21:18-26. Paul meets James. (continued).
So ‘*what shall we do?’* James asked Paul. The law-zealous Jewish Christians ‘*will certainly hear that you have come (22), so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow (23). 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’ (24), or ‘are a practicing Jew’ (NEB). The reference to the four Jewish Christians shaving their heads indicates that they have taken a Nazirite vow (Nu.6:1ff.; cf. Acts 18:18ff.). James’s proposal in relation to them was double. First, Paul should ‘join in their purification rites’. Commentators are not agreed about what James had in mind. Perhaps he wanted Paul to identify himself with the four either at the conclusion of the thirty-day period of their vow or on some special ritual necessary because they had contracted defilement during the same period, Or it may mean that Paul had a seven-day purification ceremony of his own to undergo because during his long absence from Jerusalem the Jews regarded him as having become levitically unclean. Secondly, James proposed that Paul should ‘pay their expenses’, which could have been quite substantial.
Having referred to the scruples of the Jewish Christians (20-24). James turned to the corresponding responsibility of the Gentile Christians. ‘*As for the Gentile believers*,’ he said, the controversy had been settled some years ago at the Council of Jerusalem, as Paul knew well, for ‘*we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality*’ (25; cf. 15:20, 29) – four cultural practices, as I argued in chapter 11.
Paul agreed with James’s proposal, and began as soon as possible to comply with it. *The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them* (26).
We can only thank God for the generosity of spirit displayed by both James and Paul. They were already agreed doctrinally (that salvation was by grace in Christ through faith) and ethically (that Christians must obey the moral law). The issue between them concerned culture, ceremony and tradition. The solution to which they came was not a compromise, in the sense of sacrificing a doctrinal or moral principle, but a concession in the area of practice. We have already seen Paul’s conciliatory spirit in accepting the Jerusalem decrees and circumcising Timothy. Now, in the same tolerant spirit, he was prepared to undergo some purification rituals in order to pacify Jewish scruples. James seems to have gone too far in expecting Paul to live ‘in obedience to the law’ (24) in all matters and at all times, if that is what he meant. But Paul was certainly ready to do so on special occasions, for the sake of evangelism for example (1 Cor. 9:20) or – as here – for the sake of Jewish-Gentile solidarity. According to his conviction Jewish cultural practices belonged to the ‘matters indifferent’, from which he had been liberated, but which he might or might not himself practice according to the circumstances. As F.F.Bruce neatly put it, ‘a truly emancipated spirit such as Paul’s is not in bondage to its own emancipation’. But James manifested a similarly sweet and generous mind both by praising God for the Gentile mission and by accepting the offering from the Gentile churches. It is not a *quid pro quo*, almost a bargain, as some commentators have represented it (‘We will identify with you by accepting the Gentile offering, if you will identify with us by accepting Jewish observances’). It was rather a sensitive, mutual Christian forbearance. The unbending prejudice and fanatical violence of the unbelieving Jews, which Luke describes next, stand out in ugly contrast.
Tomorrow: Acts 21:27-36. Paul is assaulted and arrested.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.