17 When we reached Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us gladly. 18 The following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After greeting them, he related in detail what God did among the Gentiles through his ministry.
20 When they heard it, they glorified God and said, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law. 21 But they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to abandon Moses, by telling them not to circumcise their children or to walk in our customs. 22 So what is to be done? They will certainly hear that you’ve come. 23 Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have obligated themselves with a vow. 24 Take these men, purify yourself along with them, and pay for them to get their heads shaved. Then everyone will know that what they were told about you amounts to nothing, but that you yourself are also careful about observing the law. 25 With regard to the Gentiles who have believed, we have written a letter containing our decision that they should keep themselves from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from what is strangled, and from sexual immorality.”
26 Then the next day, Paul took the men, having purified himself along with them, and entered the temple, announcing the completion of the purification days when the offering for each of them would be made.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Holman CSB®, and HCSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.
Take these men, purify yourself along with them, and pay for them to get their heads shaved. Then everyone will know that what they were told about you amounts to nothing, but that you yourself are also careful about observing the law.
This is a difficult passage that has created some discussion among scholars. Paul—missionary to the Gentiles—had gone to Jerusalem to tell James and the other apostles about the great work God is doing among the non-Jews.
In return, the Church leaders responded with an equally impressive tale of how the Jewish people in and around Jerusalem responded to the gospel. But there’s more.
The leaders, led by James, expressed concern about Paul’s reputation among the Jews. Rumors were raised about Paul’s teaching, specifically as it related to the Jew’s adherence to the Mosaic Law. At James’ request, Paul relented, following through on a vow that he’d previously made (possibly a Nazirite vow similar to Samson’s in the Old Testament).
The question that’s raised here by scholars is this: did Paul contradict his own writings by following through with religious performance after he’d vehemently defended his belief that faith alone saves an individual? After all, wasn’t it Paul who wrote that such acts could not save a man in the eyes of God?
“Was anyone already circumcised when he was called? He should not undo his circumcision. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? He should not get circumcised” (1 Corinthians 7:18).
And while this particular vow wasn’t related to circumcision (Paul would’ve been circumcised early on as a child being a good Jew), Paul’s thoughts on religious behaviors as “saving acts” was clear. They were pointless. It was faith alone, in the saving work of Christ on the cross that rescued a man—not these empty rituals.
So why the apparent caving in to pressure? Paul surely wasn’t afraid. After all, he’d faced much bigger tests than this. He’d placed his life on the line on many occasions to stand for what he believed. Why this act and why this place?
Two other points in Paul’s history reveal his intent in following through with their request.
The first is found in the book of Acts where it is revealed that “he went on to Derbe and Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a believing Jewish woman, but his father was a Greek. … Paul wanted Timothyto go with him, so he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, since they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:1,3).
The second is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “It is a noble thing not to eat meat, or drink wine, or do anything that makes your brother stumble” (Romans 14:21).
Paul makes it clear. In following Jesus, there are essentials that must not be compromised. Salvation by faith alone was just one of these. However, in areas of a non-essential nature, our willingness to remove barriers might be the difference between our ability to minister to the lost and their rejection of our ministry altogether.
Paul knew that this vow could not save him. But he also knew adherence to it would possibly open the door for hundreds—maybe thousands—more of the Jews to come to a saving knowledge of Christ.
Perhaps Paul had this particular day in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians later on:
“Although I am a free man and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win those under the law. To those who are without that law, like one without the law—not being without God’s law but within Christ’s law—to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so I may become a partner in its benefits” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
- What are some essentials that come to mind when you think about your faith—areas of truth where you know that God would not want you or your family to compromise?
- What are some examples of non-essential teachings in your own life that might be standing between you and someone you are trying to reach?
- What tools do you think God gives us to know the difference?
- How can you practice the principle of “becoming all things to all people” in your own life without compromising on essential truths?