Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Jul 2 2013 - Acts 21:17-36 – To the Jews I became a Jew

Jerusalem seems to have been full of dangers for Paul. Amongst these were some Jewish Christians who believed that Paul was undermining the observance of the law among Jews of the Diaspora where he had been preaching. The rumour had gone around that Paul was telling Jews – presumably Jews who had come to recognise that Jesus is the Christ – that they need no longer circumcise their children. Paul was encouraged to pacify this party by showing his devotion to the law. He was asked to participate in a ceremony of purification along with four other men who had taken a vow, and to pay the expenses of all of them. Paul had no objection to this practice, he had taken a similar vow himself when he was in Corinth (see Acts 18:18). So he acceded to their request.

Paul’s concern to act the Jew among his fellow Jews was far more that a pragmatic ploy. Paul is clear that in preaching Christ he is not preaching a new religion. Jesus is the Christ: the one who fulfils the promises made to Abraham; the one who has come to establish a kingdom far greater than that of his father David. He has come not to overthrow all that was spoken beforehand but to bring it to fulfilment – to its proper conclusion. Paul doubtless longed that his fellow Jews – especially Christian Jews – might be freed from all manner of burdensome traditions, but he did not want them to be liberated from their Judaism. He was happy to work within Judaism to convince his brothers and sisters that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the hope of Israel.

Yet it was this very act which resulted in Paul’s arrest. While in the Temple, Paul was recognised by some Jews from Asia (it was the Hellenistic Jews who again stirred up trouble). They had seen Paul in the city earlier in the week when he was accompanied by a Gentile from Ephesus. These Jews begin to shout that Paul was seeking to overthrow Jewish customs, seeking even to destroy the sanctity of the Temple. So Paul, who had entered the Temple to uphold the law, was dragged from the Temple as a threat to the law. He would have been killed by the angry mob but for the intervention of the Roman authorities who took him into custody.

Was Paul wise to go along with this attempt to placate the sensitivities of Jewish Christians? It’s a nice question for debate, but it is also a very real and practical question for ourselves. When is it wise to go along with the plans or observances of others to demonstrate solidarity and preserve unity and when should we stand apart and challenge their assumptions and practices? When should we be a Jew to a Jew and a Greek to a Greek and when does faithfulness to Christ demand a more confrontational approach? All too often our approach is based more upon temperament than the demands of the particular situation. To respond wisely to the various situations we face requires the leading and enabling of the Spirit of Christ.

Father God, we recognise our weakness and how easily we persuade ourselves to conform to others around us for the sake of peace when we need to be conformed to Christ and have a transformative influence on others. Or we are abrasive and disruptive in our dissent from others, sanctifying our awkwardness with the claim that we are standing out for the gospel. Lord, forgive us. Make us more like the Lord Jesus and by your Spirit give us the wisdom to know how to act and react to each situation in a way that will bring glory to your holy name.

Peter Misselbrook