It’s time to revisit this passage because we never looked at the last half of the chapter. Right after the elders in Jerusalem told Paul that thousands of Israelites now believed Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah and right after the elders described how zealous all the new believers were for the law, these elders asked Paul to correct a misunderstanding.
Verse 21 says “They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.” In this verse, “they” refers back to the new believers and “Moses” is shorthand for “the law of Moses.” Clearly, Paul has been the target of “misinformation.” Someone wants to cast Paul in a bad light.
Of course, before we draw attention to Paul’s response, let’s take the time to note something very interesting. Compare the words in Acts 6:14b and Acts 21:21b. Isn’t that interesting? The elders of the church in Jerusalem are concerned about the very same things that concerned the elders and scribes of Judaism – namely, the law and the customs handed down by Moses. Keep that thought in mind as we wander a little further into Dr. Luke’s account.
In verses 22-24, the elders ask Paul to go to the temple to make it abundantly clear that “you yourself are living in obedience to the law.” Depending on what Paul believes, he will respond in one of two ways – either do as they ask or point blank refuse. Knowing Paul as we do, we can also assume that if he refuses, it will be with a lengthy, detailed and powerful explanation backed by Scripture.
This is Paul’s chance. Will he take it?
So, what will Paul say to these elders? If he has convictions against obeying the law of Moses, won’t he do as he has done in the past? Isn’t this the same man who many years earlier had dared to openly confront Peter, who at the time was the defacto leader of the church in Jerusalem? (We can read that story in Galatians 2:11-14).
Does this man who has faced ship wreck, riots, imprisonment and whippings suddenly lose his nerve? If he has convictions against this “zeal for the law of Moses” won’t he openly take his stand as he has in the past? After all, this may be his last opportunity to set the record straight. And what better venue than in front of the Jerusalem council.
Surprise, surprise . .
Paul’s response is both stunning and enlightening. He has no verbal disagreement, no arguments and not even a mention of any hesitance to their request. The very next day, he goes to the temple! Even this though, would be arguing from silence – if his actions did not reveal his true convictions. But there is something even more compelling here.
Paul had been warned by the Holy Spirit in every city he passed through on his way to Jerusalem that he was now facing prison and hardships. (v 20:22-23) He knew the stakes were very high. Ultimately, his visit to the temple in Jerusalem – to demonstrate his loyalty and commitment to the law – cost him his life. This one move made him visible to his detractors in Jerusalem who lost no time in accusing him, ironically, of the very thing he was denying by entering the temple courts.
If it looks like a duck . . .
In English, we have a saying that “If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck – then it’s probably a duck.” Again, we need to keep in mind that according to first century historian Gene Edwards, this all happened about 28 years after Pentecost. Almost 3 decades have passed. After all this time and three missionary journeys to the gentiles, Paul is still a practicing Pharisee. How do we know? Because he openly stated this fact before the entire Jewish council or Sanhedrin a few days later. (See Acts 23:6)
To the people of his day, Paul must have looked like a Pharisee, talked like a Pharisee and walked like a Pharisee. Why? Because identifying as a Pharisee was not like joining a club or fraternity. Rather, it was a way of life marked by strict adherence to daily rituals.
So why was Paul accused of being “anti-law” by a few in his own day and by so many in our day? That, my friend, is “the million dollar question”, as we say in the United States of America.
Where do we go from here?
Are you “anti-law?” Do you still think that the apostles were “anti-law?” After connecting these dots in the book of Acts (the Practice) and pondering Jesus words in Matthew 5 (the Proclamation), I have concluded that not only Paul but all the believers in the early church were highly Torah observant.
For modern believers, the evidence for Paul’s “pro-law” position is very important. Why? Because 99% of modern objections to the law, are drawn from things that Paul wrote. If we believe that Paul was “anti-law”, then THAT is what we will see in his letters. When it comes to Paul’s letters, there is of course, another possibility: that our bias causes us to misinterpret what we read. Is there a biblical basis for this statement? There sure is!
The apostle Peter warned us long ago about misinterpreting Paul’s writings. Here’s what he said: ” . . just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15-16, NIV)
Before I leave Acts and start to address some of Paul’s statements that are “hard to understand”, I want to give Paul the final word in this post. In two short sentences, he draws a distinction that totally clarifies what he believes about the law. Listen. “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” (1 Cor 7:19, NIV)