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

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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