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To the End of the Earth (49): Paul, James, and Legal Issues: Christianity Gets Complicated

Series: To the End of the Earth

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Jun 24, 2007

Acts 21:15-26

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The Lord's Day Evening

June 24, 2007

Acts 21:15-26

To the Ends of the Earth

“Paul, James, and Legal Issues: Christianity Gets Complicated”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Please be seated. Now turn with me once again to The Acts of The Apostles. We pick up the reading this evening in the twenty-first chapter, at the fifteenth verse.

We left the Apostle Paul last Lord's Day evening. He had made his way from Miletus up the shores of Ephesus and Asia Minor. He’d made a journey along the southwest shore of Asia Minor. He caught another ship that took him all the way to the port city of Tyre, in Syria. There he had met, you remember, with the church, and the brothers and sisters in the church at Tyre had urged him not to go to Jerusalem. The next day, he caught another ship…or perhaps it was five days later…as I now recall it was five days later he took another ship down to Ptolemais, then to Caesarea, there met again with the church at Caesarea, with Philip and others. And once again the brothers and sisters in the church at Caesarea urged the Apostle Paul not to go to Jerusalem. The grammar of the passage at that point suggests to us very strongly that Luke also was urging the Apostle Paul not to go to Jerusalem, but Paul was determined to go to Jerusalem.

We pick up now the reading as Paul makes his way from Caesarea upwards to Zion and to the holy city; beginning then at verse 15 of Acts 21. Before we read the passage together, let's come before God in prayer. Let's pray.

Father, this is Your word holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. Help us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Verse 15:

“And after these days we got ready and started on our way to Jerusalem. And some of the disciples from Caesarea also came with us, taking us to Mnason of Cyprus, a disciple of long standing with whom we were to lodge.
“And when we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. And now the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. And after he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 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; 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. What then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses in order 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. 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.’ 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.”

Amen. And may God bless to us that reading of His holy and inerrant word.

We are walking here on eggshells. You have got to appreciate that as we read this passage together. There's something about this passage which brings to mind perhaps for some of you as we read it together that the best of men are only men at their best. Perhaps you are saying to yourself as you read this passage, “If only Paul had listened to those men and women in Tyre and Caesarea…if only Paul had listened to Luke, and not gone to Jerusalem, he wouldn't find himself in the mess that he's in now.”

The fourth century preacher and theologian, Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople and an important figure, you can somewhat sense when he's preaching through The Acts of The Apostles…you can sense the misgivings of some of his audience; and he says to them, “Condescension is what this is. Do not be alarmed.” Well, alarmed no doubt some of them were, and alarmed, I suspect, no doubt some of you are; and there is one in this pulpit, I can tell you right now, who is alarmed. We’re walking on eggshells here.

Paul has made it clear for the last two years, ever since he was in Ephesus, some point in his three-year stay in Ephesus, he felt this burden, a burden of the spirit, to go to Jerusalem, his ultimate destination. And indeed, it is the primary focus of Luke as he tells the story. His ultimate destination is to go to Rome. He wants to go to Rome. Eventually he wants to go as far as Spain. But first he must go to Jerusalem. Three times we've been told in chapters 19 and 20 of Paul's intention to be in Jerusalem by Pentecost.

He goes against all advice. The church in Tyre and the church in Caesarea had by the Spirit told him that he should not go; that if he goes to Jerusalem, he can expect trouble. Only trouble awaits him if he goes to Jerusalem. But go he does. And they’re staying now this evening, as we pick up the story, they’re staying in the house of a man called Mnason. He's a Cypriot. He's a Hellenistic Jewish convert. He's a convert, the text says, from the beginning. That is, from the time of the earliest inception of the gospel in Jerusalem, perhaps before the martyrdom of Stephen. He's probably a friend of Barnabas, who was also from Cyprus and Paul's one-time traveling companion. No doubt they picked up news of Barnabas–and you remember Barnabas has taken John Mark to the island of Cyprus.

With him are nine men — at least nine men, and some others from Caesarea. The nine men have come from Macedonia and Galatia, and Achaia. From Macedonia, Sopater and Aristarchus and Secundus; from Galatia have come Gaius and Timothy; from Asia have come Tychicus and Trophimus. And then there's Luke. And then there's a ninth, who isn't mentioned by Luke. And in all probability he's a representative of the church of Corinth, and his name is Titus. There's a long-standing tradition that Titus is actually Luke's brother. So in this evidently large house, nine plus some others — perhaps fifteen, perhaps twenty men are staying in this house of Mnason on the outskirts perhaps of the city of Jerusalem.

And then the next day…trouble. It's the big meeting with James and all the elders.

I want to ask three questions. Why did Paul want to go to Jerusalem? How was Paul received in Jerusalem? And what did Paul do in Jerusalem? That's the path we want to travel down tonight.

I. Why did Paul want to go to Jerusalem in the first place?
And it's not given to us in all of its detail here. Luke will hint about it later in Acts 24. When Paul is giving his defense before Felix and he's giving an account of his life, he’ll tell us that the reason why he came to Jerusalem was in order to bring alms, in order to bring the collection. You remember of course that this has been a great burden of the Apostle Paul for a long time now, from at least the time he was in Ephesus and probably even before that; from the time that Agabus — way back in Acts 11 — had prophesied a famine in Jerusalem. And you remember a collection had been taken in the church of Antioch. Barnabas had taken it to the brethren in Jerusalem. The idea had been sown in Paul's mind that he would gather a collection from the churches in Galatia, from the churches in Macedonia, from the churches in Achaia, and churches representing largely Gentile congregations, and that he would bring this offering - he would bring this collection to the church in Jerusalem, a largely Jewish Christian congregation. If we had time now we could examine some of the letters that Paul has just written in the last couple of years–the letter, for example, to Corinth…the two letters to Corinth…I Corinthians 16: “Now concerning the collection….”; II Corinthians 8 and II Corinthians 9 is a lengthy discussion about the collection and about principles of giving toward this collection. Romans 15 mentions this collection. Paul had been writing these letters to Corinth, to Rome, in which part of what he had been addressing was this burden, this spiritual burden that had been placed upon his shoulders that he would gather a collection. [Not, now, what we've just done in here. Not the weekly collection. Not collection for helping the local ministry.] But this was a special collection. He had told the Corinthians that they were to do just as he had told the Galatians: that on the first day of the week they were to give a certain proportion of their income towards this collection to meet famine relief of their brothers and sisters in the largely Jewish church of Jerusalem.

You understand what's going on here. Paul has it in his mind that this collection would be a tangible token by which the suspicions of the Jewish brothers in Jerusalem about the Gentiles would be alleviated. Paul would bring this gift…he would bring this substantial collection to Jerusalem and their fears and their concerns and their worries and their suspicions would be evaporated. Paul's concern, you see, is the unity of the body. It is the potential that existed — and a very real potential that existed — of a fractioning, of division between the largely Jewish congregation in Jerusalem and the largely Gentile congregations in places like Galatia and Macedonia and Achaia. He had written — or at least he will write — to the Ephesians that one of the principles of the gospel is that it breaks down the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile. Paul…and this is the staggering thing…. You remember when the brothers in Caesarea were pleading with him, and Luke along with them pleading for him not to go to Jerusalem, and Paul says to them, “Why are you saying this to me? I am ready to go to Jerusalem and to suffer, and even to die.” Why was Paul ready to die in Jerusalem? Was he ready to die over money? No! He was ready to die because of his burden for the church of Jesus Christ.

Now, my friends, I'm not sure that many of us here can enter into that mindset. You know, if I were to ask you, “Are you ready to die for the unity of the church?” I'm not sure that the question would make sense to us. I think we have to ask a much lesser question: What are we willing, as we heard this morning (and isn't it fascinating how the Philippian epistle that we're studying in the morning dovetails with much of the discussion here in Luke's Acts?)…the question that was put before us this morning was that question: What are we willing to give up for Jesus? And Paul is ready to put everything on the line for the sake of the unity of the church of Jesus Christ. What does that say to you tonight? Where in the orders of importance of all the things that concern us in the Christian life…where does the church come? Where does the body of Christ come? I'm not sure that we understand the question that I'm asking tonight. I'm not sure that I understand the question. Am I ready to die for the church? But you see what a Christ-like thing that was? Because for Paul, Christ had been prepared to lay down His life for the church, and there was this very real potential that the church, the Jewish church and the Gentile church, could seriously divide. And Paul had hoped and believed (and he believed it was the Spirit that was teaching him this) that this collection would be the very means to bring this division to a head and bring peace, and lasting peace, into the church. It was that important to the Apostle Paul.

II. Now the second question: How was Paul received?

And we have to try now and enter into this evidently large room somewhere, perhaps in one of the many house churches that had established itself in the city of Jerusalem. And James is there (James is the leader of the Christian cause in Jerusalem) and the elders…and you get a sense, especially when they point out there have been thousands of Jews converted in the city of Jerusalem, you get a sense that there are a lot of elders. And that doesn't mean a whole lot here at First Pres, but if I was preaching to a small congregation, I'd have to say, you know, as many as maybe forty or fifty elders [small fry for you, of course]! And Paul is there. I don't know how they brought this collection. Luke doesn't tell us. It wasn't a check. It wasn't a credit card. These were bags of money, and I imagine…I think you have to imagine that some of these brothers were bringing in these great big sacks of money, and there they were in the middle of the floor, and all the elders are sitting around and they’re all facing Paul. Paul begins, and he figures an account of his ministry. He tells of the ministry in Galatia, and Macedonia, and Achaia, and churches like Thessalonica and Philippi, and Corinth and Ephesus and the extraordinary things that God and His Holy Spirit has done through his ministry — how Jews, yes, but largely Gentiles had been brought by the sovereign grace of God into the church of Jesus Christ. And there's a sort of lukewarm response. You have to sense that as Luke is recording this…that they were glad, to be sure, but you get the sense as you’re reading this that there's another agenda on their minds here: ‘This is all very well, Paul, and this is nice, and this is lovely, but let's get to the real agenda here, Paul, and it's you.’

In verse 21: “…And they have been told about you.” These now are the Jews, the thousands of Jews, who have been converted. And they are all, note, “zealous for the Law.” In verse 21,

“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.”

Now can you enter into the bombshell that was? You know, Paul is waiting for “Thank you!” Paul is waiting for expressions of gratitude for the collection that's been his burden for two years that the churches have sacrificed in order to bring to these Jewish brothers, and he's waiting for the “thank you,” and what is he hearing? Gossip! Gossip! Slander! A tissue of lies, because none of what they’re saying in verse 21 is true.

There has been a systematic campaign of whispering in the church in Jerusalem about Paul. They've always been suspicious of Paul. From the very start they were suspicious about Paul. They’re suspicious about the fact that the center of gravity of the church has moved away from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is not the head honcho anymore. Antioch has become far more significant than Jerusalem. The church in Ephesus now is becoming far more significant than the church even in Antioch. Their influence is now waning. I want you to try and imagine what Paul must have felt: the shock; the pain of it. You know, it reminded me of Marcellus’ words to Hamlet…you know, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Something is rotten in the church in Jerusalem here.

What had Paul been teaching? Yes, Paul had been saying that those ceremonial aspects of the Law, those sacrifices, those things that were type and shadow of the coming of Jesus, those things had been fulfilled by Christ. When Christ died and shed His blood, those things had no more significance. There was no obligation, there was no sense of “oughtness” on the part of Jew or Gentile. He forbade those aspects of the Law, but Paul had certainly not been teaching that Jews no longer had to obey the Law, period. Nor had Paul unequivocally been teaching that they must not circumcise their sons. If the reason for the circumcision was a religious one, if they were suggesting that without circumcision you cannot be saved, then Paul was absolutely adamant: you must not circumcise. But if it was merely a matter of social custom, if it was merely a matter of ethnic custom with no religious significance to it whatsoever, then that explains why Timothy was circumcised and Titus was not. I think if you had been in this room you could have heard a pin drop. Paul was not expecting this. I think you can hear Luke saying, “I told you so! You should have listened to me, Paul. We saw this coming.”

He's caught between, well, he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't, now. And James…James says ‘Here's a plan.’ (And you get the sense his plan had been thought up a long time before Paul ever got into this room!) There are four men…it's hard not to think this is a plot! There are four men, and these men are undergoing what looks like a Nazarite vow. And they’re about two-thirds of the way through that vow, and in about a week's time they’re going to have to finish the vow [we've been preached on it in Numbers 6, just a few weeks ago]. ‘Paul, why don't you join them? Why don't you take a ritual purification? It will last a week, and join with them. Pay all of their expenses…the shaving of the head, the sacrifice that would be necessary, the blood-letting sacrifice that would be necessary in order to complete this vow. Paul, if you pay for their sacrifices, that will demonstrate to all the Jewish brethren that you are on the right side here.’

Of course it never did demonstrate that, if you've read through. The Jews never did come to Paul's defense, even though he went ahead and did it.

III. What did Paul do?

This is the third question that I want us to think about briefly now: What did Paul do? What would you do? Is that a fair question? What would you have done? Put yourself in the feet of the Apostle Paul just for a minute or two. What would you have done? What would you have said? What's racing through your mind now? (I wish I'd never come…if that's the way you’re going to be, I'm going to take my money and go home!) But he went and did it. He went and did it.

Now, you need to appreciate a couple of things. This is a very unstable time. The middle of the 50's…this is 57. It's the middle of the 50's, a very unstable time. The Jewish war is about to break out. Felix is the governor, but Felix…one historian said about Felix (a contemporary historian) that he ruled with the instincts of a slave. The next year, in 58, Nero will pull Felix from Judea and put Festus, Porcius Festus, in his place. Then there are the Siccarii. Now I haven't time to tell you all about the Siccarii, but the Siccarii are the assassins. They are the religious fanatics of the Jews in the mid-fifties. They are terrorists. They had already begun a systematic campaign of murdering Jews who showed any sympathy towards the Gentiles. It's an unstable time. You can imagine how sensitive it was for the Jewish Christians, who were showing some consideration for Gentiles. You can perhaps enter into James. You can perhaps understand why John Stott says about James that he had a sweet and generous spirit, that he has a conciliatory spirit, that the solution that he's advocating is a concession in the area of practice only. [Dear John Stott! I owe him my conversion. I owe him everything. Dear John Stott…that is so John Stott.]

But listen to Jim Boice…James Montgomery Boice, author of the Cambridge Declaration on the Inerrancy of Scripture, founder of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church…that James Montgomery Boice:

“This, what Paul did here, was hypocrisy. It was compromise. He was going to offer a sacrifice? In front of the very priests who had killed, who had crucified Jesus? It is,” Boice says, “a turning of his back on the sufficiency of Christ.”

Now, do you understand what Boice is saying? Now, that's strong! Calvin is somewhere in between. What would you have done? What would you have done? He's caught…he's going to be criticized now, no matter what he does.

You know, I don't know what I think. I'm mainly critical. I'm more on Boice's side than Stott's side on this one. Where is the Apostle Paul of The Epistle to the Galatians here? What would the Gentiles think about what he was doing here? Whatever you think, ask yourself another question: Why did Paul do it? Because he loved the church. Whether he was right or wrong–and if you press me, I think he was wrong–if you press me really hard, I think he was dead wrong. If you press me really, really hard, I think he was a fool. But he loved the church, and you have to admire him for that. He's been put in an almost impossible situation now.

No doubt you have a different opinion from me. I'm almost afraid that at least half of you, maybe more, have a different opinion. And that's fine…that's fine. I think the more important thing is, do we even begin to appreciate what it would take for Paul to actually do this? Because whether he was right or wrong, for Paul to do this must have been one of the most difficult things that he ever did. I think his conscience was trying to march right down a line here, and he was tottering this way or that way. But he did it for the church. It didn't work, but he did it for the church. He loved the church that much.

Well, may God give us a least a little morsel of that love for Christ's church, for Jesus’ sake.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You that Your word pierces even to the soul and spirit. We thank you for the Apostle Paul. We love him in the Lord and thank you for him. Thank You for all that he did by the Spirit in giving us so much of the New Testament. We bless You, O Lord, this evening for Your word, and ask now that You would give us a love for Your church — a deep and abiding, and a sacrificial love for Your church. And we ask it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

[Congregational response: Amazing Grace]

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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.