The Mystery of Paul in the Temple: Acts 21:23-26
“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 ‭21‬:‭23‬-‭26‬ ‭
The solution of James to prevent a riot actually caused a riot. He instructed Paul to take four other Jewish men who were under a vow and pay their way for purification and keeping their vow in the temple. It is doubtful that Paul’s vow had him present in Jerusalem to keep every temple ordinance under the Law. Christ was his sin offering, so he most likely was offering his valuation as a Jewish man and possibly a thanks offering. The absence of details related to what Paul was doing in the temple sadly leaves many unanswered questions.
Paul’s most previous trip to Jerusalem was to participate in the Jerusalem council. James alludes to this in verse 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.” But Paul was not a gentile believer, he was Jewish. Technically, this exemption did not apply to him.
No matter the extent of his participation in the sacrificial system, the advice from James was acceptable to him. It is here that we are left in the dark as to how much of the ceremonial Law the early Jewish believers kept and practiced. Paul maintained personal liberty to carry out some aspects of the Law. (See 1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
Jesus Himself spent much time in the temple and fulfilled all righteous requirements of the Law. This is why He was baptized by John the Baptist. (See Matthew 3:13-17) It must be remembered that Jesus was zealous for the temple because it was “His Fathers house.” (See John 2:13-17; Mark 11:17) He regarded it as a house of prayer for all nations.
I maintain Paul shared this value with Jesus. His vow included fasting and praying. He was most likely in the temple to keep a seven day fast in accordance with Isaiah 58:5-12. Paul was not backsliding or compromising his doctrine of justification by faith “in Christ”, he was most likely interceding for revival and awakening for all nations.
Jesus came to fulfill the Law. I maintain that God never intended the rift between Jewish and Gentile believers. He wanted the temple system to be an object lesson and talking points to illustrate the gospel. This is the mastery of the books of Hebrews and 1 Peter. We are a living building and a holy priesthood. We are a people for Gods own possession. (See 1 Peter 2:4-10) Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all types, shadows, pictures, illustrations and prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament.
When a Jewish person turns to the Lord, the blinders should be taken away. (2 Corinthians 3:12-18) When a gentile turns to the Lord, the Old Testament should come alive with insights about Jesus Christ. (Read the book of Hebrews) I agree with Paul that the God of this world works hard to blind people to the gospel and run interference against the kingdom of light. (See 2 Corinthians 4:3-4)
Tragically, nearly all pieces of the puzzle of what Paul was doing in the temple are missing. It is a theological black hole. It is at this point in the story that Luke leaves his readers to walk by faith and not by sight. Welcome to the mystery of Christian liberty.
Daily Bible Commentary By Terry Baxter: Cofounder of GoServ Global