Between a Rock and a Stoning (Acts 21:17-36)

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Have you ever been in a situation in which you felt that, regardless of the direction you chose, the results were not going to be pretty? Perhaps after looking back on a situation you conclude that, ultimately, you were (as they say) damned if you did, damned if you didn’t? Perhaps this is how Paul felt as he came into Jerusalem for the last time. Like his Lord before him, Paul knew that going to the Holy City would culminate in tragedy. Yet, as with Jesus before him, such tragedy would eventually result in triumph.

Paul had been warned on several occasions of trouble ahead in Jerusalem. This so-called City of God was sadly no friend of grace, and most clearly it had increasingly become a hateful foe of gospel grace. Though the Lord had done a wonderfully gracious work of establishing a large church in Jerusalem nevertheless tensions that had existed some twenty years earlier (with Paul, then Saul, leading the wave of persecution) had only been exacerbated. Nationalistic fervour was on the rise and, with it, religious zeal for customs and traditions—minus the power of God—was increasing.

This was a time of intense Jewish nationalism and political unrest. One insurrection after another rose to challenge the Roman overlords, and Felix brutally suppressed them. This only increased the Jewish hatred for Rome and inflamed anti-Gentile sentiments. It was a time when pro-Jewish sentiment was at its height, and friendliness with outsider was viewed askance.1

Many sociopolitical factors had combined so that Jerusalem, the city where God had put His temple, was a haven of godlessness and a true enemy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Little surprise that a man now deemed a traitor to Judaism would face intense opposition. Yet this was not the only problems that Paul would face.

According to 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, Romans 15:25-27 and Acts 24:17, the fundamental driving reason behind Paul’s trip to Jerusalem was to bring a love gift from the Gentile churches to the “mother church” in Jerusalem. “The presentation of this collection was the chief motive of Paul’s going to Jerusalem. And he felt it absolutely necessary to present it personally to the Jerusalem church so that it be viewed as a true symbol of faith and unity.”2

It is interesting, by the way, that this was the pattern of the New Testament, as opposed to the more Western idea in which the “mother church” funds the “daughter church.” Anyway, this act had a significance which perhaps we cannot fully appreciate in our day and culture. But once we consider it, I suspect we will understand how enormous it was.

To the Jewish mind God, had chosen Israel as His special people; as His chosen nation. Of course, this cannot be disputed, for certainly the Old Testament makes this very clear. But even a superficial reading of the Old Testament will soon reveal that the reason God chose them was so that ultimately all the nations would be blessed in Christ. Israel was chosen as the vehicle for the carrying of the blessed Messiah, but the Messiah came to bless all peoples. In fact, the Jews would boisterously sing such hymns as Psalms 67 and 96, which made this very point. They were blessed to be a blessing (see Genesis 12:1-3).

As we learned in Leviticus, God regulated the life of the nation of Israel by numerous laws, which were intended to keep Israel separate from the nations. It might be helpful here to point out that the term “nations” is the same word in the original language for “Gentiles.” The older, more archaic word “heathen” was the same. It carried the idea of “common,” and hence the older term “profane.”

It is necessary to make this point so that we will understand that the reason that all nations outside of the Hebrew nation were considered “common” was simply because they were not chosen by God to be the nation through which Jesus would come. The term, however, was never meant as an indicator that they were by nature any more sinful than the Jews, and neither were they any more worthy to be damned than the Jews. In fact, as the story of the Passover reveals, the Jews deserved to die as much as did the Egyptians. That was the very reason that the Jews were required to slay and apply the blood of the sacrificial lamb.

The Levitical laws were a means to preserve the nation, thereby preserving the promised seed. As Israel lived a distinctly different lifestyle from that of the surrounding nations (the Gentiles or “heathen”) they were being protected from becoming assimilated. It is a fact of history that such “ghetto” living does preserve a way of life. But once again, their exclusivity was only to be temporary—until Messiah came. Then, such distinctions were to fall away as God made His church a multinational one.

Unfortunately, however, the nation responded to such gracious privileges as many do: They became proud and hence self-righteous. Such arrogance usually manifests itself in tribalism at best and outright racism at worst. The latter was the fallout for Israel.

The Jewish nation saw itself as so wonderful that, when a Jew returned to Jerusalem after a trip abroad, he was required to wipe the dust off his shoes lest he contaminate the holy and exclusive city with Gentile soil. The Jews were religious, but while they had a form of godliness, they denied its power (2 Timothy 3:5). And with such a denial they became devilish. They became the enemy of God and hence an enemy of the gospel—the gospel which was making such inroads into the defiled world of the Gentiles.

A little Jewish girl who had just been informed of the difference between Jews and Gentiles once came to my wife in excited and said, “Mrs. Van Meter, guess what? I am Jewish . . . and you’re a reptile!” Clearly, she meant “Gentile,” but sadly many Jews in New Testament times considered Gentiles to be little better than reptiles.

Once you grasp this paradigm of the first century Jew, it will help you to understand the significance of what Paul and the Gentile churches were doing with this love gift. It would be like the South African black churches back in 1948 taking up a collection from other black congregations as a love gift to Hendrik Verwoerd and his local church. Seriously—this was huge!

Paul wanted to make a practical statement that the wall of division had been broken down between Jew and Gentile by the power of the gospel. He was making a statement of conciliation, a practical statement expressing the unity of God’s people. In fact, I would go so far to say that Paul was seeking to make a statement concerning the unity of all peoples in the sense that all are sinners and that all need the same Saviour.

Once you grasp this historical reality, it becomes easier to understand Paul’s drive, his inner compulsion to go to Jerusalem—risks and all. And it therefore helps you to understand the passage before us now.

In this account, Luke records what transpired upon Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem. What began as a gracious scene tragically turned to a riot. Paul was almost put to death, but for the intervention of a Roman military captain. In a tragic irony, a Gentile occupier of the Holy City saved a Jewish man from a Jewish mob.

This is a very interesting historical account, which provides much insight into the historical situation faced by the early church. It also informs our thinking both principally and practically concerning Christian liberty. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it highlights the characteristic of humility in the life of the servant of God. In our study, we will focus on these matters as we see Paul between a rock and a stoning.

A Warm Reception

Arriving in Jerusalem, Paul and his companions initially received a warm reception.

And when we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. When he had greeted them, he told in detail those things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord.

(Acts 21:17-20)

The word translated “gladly” literally means “with pleasure.” This strong word is used in Acts 2:41 to describe how the first converts in Jerusalem received the gospel on that epic Day of Pentecost twenty years earlier. There was great joy as Paul and several Gentile companions came and fellowshipped with other Christians in Jerusalem.

The next day the leadership of the church gathered along with the pastor-teacher, James. Though Peter was the apostle to the Jews, James (I believe that this James was James the less, one of the twelve apostles) was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. We see here a practical demonstration of the principle that those who humble themselves will be exalted. James “the less” was faithful and was given the blessed privilege to lead this first century church. Truly, the one who is faithful in least will be given responsibility over more.

As this group of leaders met, Paul recounted the amazing work of God in saving Gentiles all over Galatia and Asia Minor. He did so “in detail,” which means that he gave particular details rather than a general summation of what God was doing amongst the nations. This was not the first account of God’s work in this regard. In chapter 15, Paul had previously met with probably many of the same leaders when he recounted God’s gracious work of salvation amongst the nations. But that was many years earlier. Now, they heard that God was continuing to build His church amongst the nations.

When they heard this report they “glorified the Lord.” That is, this gloriously good news of the powerful effects of the good news caused these men to worship.

This is the goal of the gospel: for the Lord to be glorified among the nations by the powerful effects of the gospel, and for His people to glorify Him for such glory. In fact, this is why there is always a sense of excitement about the World Outreach Celebration at BBC. This is to be a missionary’s goal for his ministry and the focus of his prayer letters. God is doing a worldwide work of grace and we need to hear such good news.

One final note should be emphasised: Paul did not take the credit for his ministry but rather gave credit to whom credit was due: the Lord (see Jonah 2:9).

A Slanderous Accusation

Despite the warm reception that he received, Paul had to, as he usually did, face some harsh criticism from his enemies in Jerusalem:

And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law; but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. What then? The assembly must certainly meet, for they will hear that you have come.”

(Acts 21:20-22)

To remain in the ministry for a considerable length of time is evidence of the grace of God. My father-in-law pastored the same local church for 35 years. There are not many with such a testimony. Due to what is often a subtle yet constant experience of being misunderstood and/or misrepresented, many grow weary and look for greener pastures. The result is that the church often loses some very fine pastors. Thankfully, Paul never resigned, but I do think he was resigned to the reality that he would continually be misrepresented and his motives questioned. After all, people can be nasty, as Paul discovered once again in Jerusalem. False rumours had been floating around and, as we will see, such misrepresentations nearly led to his death.

The leaders confirmed to Paul what he already knew (“you see”): that “many myriads” (thousands) of Jews in the city had been converted. The church in Jerusalem was growing steadily. And because the makeup of the congregation was Jewish, the culture of the church was obviously very Jewish. What would this look like?

In keeping with Jewish custom, we would imagine that men worshipped on one side in corporate worship and women on the other side. Daily prayers were offered at or near the temple courtyard. Alms were given (24:17). There was participation in the various prescribed (and even non-prescribed) feasts. Vows were made and male babies circumcised. Various rituals were carried out at the birth of a child, and no doubt dietary matters were closely observed.

The continuation of such practices was a potential source of conflict in the church. We have previously seen this on several occasions.

Because the culture (ethos) of the church was Jewish, there were those (many, in fact) in the congregation who felt threatened by any deviation from this. And for whatever reason, they saw Paul as a major threat in this area. The rumour had been spread (most probably mainly by vindictive and evil Judaisers) that Paul was teaching new Jewish Christians that they were to abandon a Jewish way of life, including its religious customs. It will, however, be helpful to observe that the misunderstanding was on the part of the weak (who really did misunderstand) as well as the wicked (who were simply being maliciously dishonest). We must consider this matter.

On one hand, of course, this was true. Paul taught that salvation is in Christ Jesus alone; not in Jesus plus sacrifices, etc. He wrote both Romans and Galatians to refute the idea there is any way to be justified before God except by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. He made it abundantly clear in those and other letters that no one can be justified by the works of the law. He refused to have Titus circumcised in order to merely make peace with the Judaisers. His words of warning were that if anyone presented a gospel of any works—of Jewish or any other kind—they were to be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9).

But on the other hand, in the case of Timothy (Acts 16), Paul had him circumcised in order to avoid unnecessary obstacles to the preaching of the gospel amongst the Jews. Was Paul inconsistent? Absolutely! A good Christian often is. Christians never compromises principles but they are willing to make concessions when those concessions will help promote the cause of the gospel.

In a nutshell, Paul was being slanderously misrepresented. It would appear that the church leaders understood this yet but could not simply ignore it. They knew that it had to be addressed and they assumed that this was the perfect opportunity. Perhaps they figured that Paul could once and for all put such slanderous accusations to bed. If so, they were sadly wrong.

Before moving on it is worth noting again Paul’s humility. There is no suggestion that he was defensive; instead, he was willing to be a part of a solution. In fact, it is quite possible that this was unwise counsel from the church leadership, and yet Paul submitted to them. This would further indicate Paul’s humility. We can learn from this that concern for an effective ministry of the gospel is far more important than our own vindication.

A Strategic Concession

In vv. 23-25 we find a strategic suggestion from the Jerusalem leadership:

Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law. But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.

(Acts 21:23-25)

At some point in the discussion, someone came up with a plan that was intended to put such misrepresentations and misunderstandings to rest. It would involve Paul openly participating in a Jewish ceremony. The intended effects were that Paul’s critics would see that he was neither opposed to Moses nor critical of the Jewish way of life. He was not “anti-temple.”

Four had men apparently taken a Nazirite vow. The word “Nazirite” means “separation.” The regulations for such a vow are found in Numbers 6. For the entire period of the vow the individual was to abstain from any food or drink that came from grapes, he was not permitted to cut his hair for the duration of the vow, and had to avoid contact with any dead body. When the vow was finished, he was to cut his hair and come to the temple with an offering for sacrifice. His cut hair was also to be burnt on the altar.

While the Bible does not specific the nature of a Nazirite vow, it was usually taken in response to some favour received from God and so was a thanksgiving offering.

These four men, who were obviously members of the church in Jerusalem, were soon to bring their Nazirite vow to its ceremonial conclusion. This took place at the temple. The leaders of the church saw it as an opportune time for Paul to show his Jewishness in such a way that his critics would be silenced. At least, that was the plan.

Paul was encouraged to go along with these men to the temple for this ceremony. Further, he was encouraged to finance their offerings, which would have been a considerable sum (see Numbers 6:14-15). The effect of this, of course, would be to show that Paul was not opposed to ceremonial customs contained in the law of Moses, and his generous financial support would be further vindication of his love for his people. And of course, since this would take place at the temple, the critics could see that Paul was not out to destroy the temple. There is, however, another action here that would further vindicate Paul.

Verse 24 says that Paul was encouraged to “be purified with them.” Since the minimum time for a Nazirite vow was thirty days (according to Josephus), this cannot mean that Paul was being encouraged to make one. Most likely, the concept of “purification” was related to the fact that the apostle had been outside of Jerusalem, and in keeping with custom he would need to be purified before entering the temple. The point is that Paul, once again, would have been conforming to Jewish custom, which would give the lie to the charge of his anti-Semitism.

Paul agreed to the plan. He purified himself, paid the expenses of the four Nazirite vows, and went to the temple to carry this all out.

Now, before looking at the fallout from this, we need to spend some time examining Paul’s conduct, for many have accused him of reverting to legalism and hence of compromising the gospel. For instance, Donald Fortner writes, “Acts 21:17-26 is one of the saddest paragraphs in the Bible. A terrible, tragic thing is about to take place. No man was a greater, or more consistent exponent of the believer’s freedom from the law than Paul. Yet here he is about to go back under the yoke of bondage!”3

Nothing could be further from the truth. As John MacArthur points out, Paul “did not sacrifice truth for the sake of expediency but rather this was an act of self-sacrificial humility to promote unity and understanding.”4

Paul was living out Christian liberty, a principle that he explained in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. This was not legalism but an act of love; that is what real Christian liberty looks like. I believe that Erdman captures the true picture when he writes, “He had rejected the law as a means of justification, not as a mode of life; he did not trust to its observance to secure his salvation, but he practiced its ceremonies as one who loved his nation and who was glad to avoid any needless offense to his fellow countrymen.”5

Again, as mentioned, it is quite permissible for a Christian to observe ceremonial laws, and even the dietary laws, as long as they are not doing so as a means of justification. In fact, many might do so due to health concerns, or out of gratitude to God, or as a spiritual discipline. The problem comes when one’s trust is placed in such activities. Romans 14, for instance, makes the case that to observe them is not necessarily wrong. But I do suspect that after 70 AD the break would be a lot clearer and lot “cleaner.”

The point is that Paul was not compromising the truth of the gospel, and neither were these church leaders asking him to do so. In fact, v. 25 makes it very clear that there was no expectation for Gentile Christians to follow suit.

Again, “we must realize that the Jerusalem church was increasingly being caught between its allegiance to the nation and its fraternal relation to Paul’s Gentile mission. . . . They were protecting themselves against Jewish recriminations while at the same time affirming their connection with Paul and his mission.”6

One of the most important lessons which we can take from this scene is the need for humility in the Body of Christ. Paul could have stood his ground and refused to make this concession; however, he saw the opportunity to promote unity and to correct the misunderstandings that could potentially hinder his ministry. Let us learn from this the gospel beauty of self-sacrifice for a higher purpose. That is what Christian liberty is all about. As F. F. Bruce neatly puts it, “a truly emancipated spirit such as Paul’s is not in bondage to its own emancipation.”7

All too often we look at Christian liberty as a matter of what we can do. But, in ,fact the main emphasis in the New Testament on Christian liberty is refraining from doing something out of love for others (see 1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14:1-15:4). True liberty is restraining one’s rights for a higher purpose: the good of others to the glory of God. There is a host of areas in which clarity on Christian liberty is sought: the consumption of alcohol, clothing and modesty issues, a wide range of activities, the celebration of certain holidays, Lord’s Day activities, etc. But let us remember, as we have seen, that the biblical emphasis of liberty is on refraining from activity from the good of others rather than pursuing them for selfish purposes.

One other point is worth noting. We need to be sensitive to the era in which we live and what God is doing in our time. We need to be like the men of Issachar, who knew the times and what Israel ought to do (1 Chronicles 12:32). In other words, we need to be wise and thus winsome (Proverbs 11:30). Let me explain.

The book of Acts records a major time of transition in God’s plan of redemption. Paul understood this and thus his concession as revealed in this passage. Thousands of years of religious culture could not be jettisoned overnight. God did not expect it be so. This is what Jesus meant when He talked about the danger of bursting new wineskins. The church needed to be careful how it managed the change from the old covenant to the new covenant. This scene before us is an example of leaders who understood this. We need leaders like this as well.

We have experienced some of this in our own church. Over time (rather than overnight), we have seen changes in our musical style, church schedules (the move from a centralised midweek Bible study to home group meetings) and certain doctrines (soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, etc.). We have transitioned over time from a staunch KJV-only stance to being more open to newer translations.

The fact is, it takes time to embrace change. Had I sought to enact some of these changes the second Lord’s Day I was at the church, it would hardly have gone over well. When I was growing up in the United States, there was a time when there was great opposition in the church to wearing wire-rimmed glasses. When I had been in South Africa for some time, I was speaking to a group of pastors and missionaries, and I quipped about how silly I found that. Afterwards, an older missionary cautioned me not to joke about issues that were actually very serious issues in his time. He was right. It takes time to embrace change.

We need to be wise and therefore seek to be winsome as we deal with such issues. It is unwise and wrong to needlessly alienate those whom we are seeking to reach; those who need to be reached with the gospel.

A Murderous Commotion

The Jerusalem leaders hoped that Paul’s concession would allow the agitation at his ministry to simmer, but it had quite the opposite effect:

Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having been purified with them, entered the temple to announce the expiration of the days of purification, at which time an offering should be made for each one of them. Now when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the law, and this place; and furthermore he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.) And all the city was disturbed; and the people ran together, seized Paul, and dragged him out of the temple; and immediately the doors were shut. Now as they were seeking to kill him, news came to the commander of the garrison that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. He immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them. And when they saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the commander came near and took him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains; and he asked who he was and what he had done. And some among the multitude cried one thing and some another. So when he could not ascertain the truth because of the tumult, he commanded him to be taken into the barracks. When he reached the stairs, he had to be carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob. For the multitude of the people followed after, crying out, “Away with him!”

(Acts 21:26-36)

Here we have a poignant example of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Paul showed himself to be a good Jew and helped some brothers fulfil the final stage of their Nazirite laws. While he was in the temple doing so, he found himself quite suddenly in the middle of a ruckus. He was accused of bringing Trophimus, a Gentile from Ephesus, into the temple.

Since some of the Jews visiting Jerusalem during Pentecost were from Asia Minor, they would have recognised Trophimus (v. 29). For a Gentile to be in this part of the temple was punishable by death. This was the one case in which the Romans allowed the Jews to exercise capital punishment. Many tablets have been discovered from that era warning Gentiles about the consequences of trespassing on temple property. One such tablet reads, “No man of alien race is to enter within the balustrade and fence that goes round the Temple, and if anyone is taken in the act, let him know that he has himself to blame for the penalty of death that follows.”8

Of course, the accusation was a lie. In fact, in the light of Paul’s attempts to be conciliatory, why would he now jeopardise it all by such a flagrant act of disrespect (regardless of how strong he felt about the unity of God’s people)?

Regardless, the mob seized Paul and attempted to kill him (vv. 30-31). Stott insightfully observes, “the slammed gates seemed to symbolize the final Jewish rejection of the gospel.”9 Perhaps.

God spared Paul’s life by the intervention of a Gentile military commander. Yes, a Gentile rescued a loyal Jew from a murderous mob of Jews! But even as he was bound and carried away (v. 11) the Jews continue to cry out “Away with him!” This was a (familiar) call for his execution (Luke 23:18; John 19:15).

It is clear that Paul’s attempts at being conciliatory were not successful, at least as far as man could see. But subsequent events prove that this furthered the cause of the gospel to the glory of God. We know that, after this point in history, Paul preached the gospel in Rome and even to Caesar’s household (Philippians 4:22). He was free to disciple others. He wrote the prison epistles. No wonder he could call himself “the prisoner of the Lord” (Ephesians 4:1). Others were encouraged by his testimony (Philippians 1:12-14). Indeed, all things worked together for good for those who belong to the Lord.

Perhaps then we can conclude that rather than “damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” it would be more accurate to say that Paul was blessed when he did and he would have missed out on blessings had he not.

When you find yourself in a hard place—even between a rock and a hard place—then follow the example of Paul. Respond with God-centred humility, trusting Him for the outcome that most glorifies Him. After all, Paul was simply following the example of his Lord—the same Lord whom we are commanded to follow.

Show 9 footnotes

  1. John F. MacArthur, Jr., Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 252.
  2. Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:519.
  3. Donald S. Fortner, Life After Pentecost: A Guide to the Acts of the Apostles (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 1995), 253.
  4. MacArthur, Acts, 2:252.
  5. Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 162.
  6. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:519-20.
  7. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 342.
  8. William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 171-72.
  9. Stott, The Message of Acts, 336.