Tension Brewing: Acts 21:17-26
“17) After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. 18) And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19) After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20) And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; 21) and they 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. 22) What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23) Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24) take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law. 25) But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.” 26) Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them.” Acts‬ ‭21‬:‭17‬-‭26‬
Religious jealousy is deadly. This text is both sad and tragic. If understood correctly, it was not the Orthodox Jews who hated Paul, it was his Jewish brethren who believed in Jesus but were also zealous for the Law.
James and the elders were glad to see and hear testimony from Paul about what great things God was doing doing among the gentiles, and yet they were rightly concerned. The verdict of the Jerusalem council had been celebrated by the gentiles, but not embraced by the Jewish believers. (See Acts 15)
This resulted in three problems. First, the gospel was not clearly defined and defended. Second, it created a split between the Jewish church and the Gentile church. And finally, it fueled open hostilities between the two groups.
A full generation of believers were left confused and divided over this dilemma. Significant resolution did not come until the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the temple system in 70 AD. The book of Hebrews was written to show that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the sacrificial system.
When you do the math, the sacrificial system remained intact for around 40 years after the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Think of the confusion faced by the early church. Some scholars see this dilemma being the issue addressed in Hebrews 6:1-8. Some were abandoning justification by faith in Christ alone and returning to the Law and its system of works surrounding the temple.
Notice in Acts 21:18, James was the leader in Jerusalem that welcomed Paul but was concerned about the implications of him being in the city. His tone of voice betrayed the tension and his concern that a major clash was about to explode in Jerusalem over Paul’s presence. At the same time, some see Paul’s insistence to go to Jerusalem as intentionally provoking the inevitable collide.
According to Acts 15:13, it was James that brought resolution to the Jerusalem council. At the same time, the books of James and Galatians have been held in tension by scholars for centuries. They beg the question; “Is justification by faith alone or are works of the Law also needed?” Martin Luther wanted to remove the book of James from the Bible.
Ironically, God used Roman hostility and the persecution of both Israel and the gentile Christians to help bridge the chasm. They suddenly needed one another.
Unfortunately, Christianity has endured centuries of splits, tension and divisions between denominations and churches. Wars have been fought between competing Christian groups. Much persecution has come not from the world but from different segments within the Christian church.
It appears from this text that Paul’s afflictions and persecution was not from the Romans, but from believing Jews. History screams at the church to focus on Christ and the gospel. It is always disastrous when religious zeal replaces a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Daily Bible Commentary By Terry Baxter: Cofounder of GoServ Global