“In my reading I came to Acts 21:26 and found it a bit puzzling why Paul should take a vow, particularly one that involved an offering (presumably not a bloody one).” The verse referred to by the questioner says, “Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them.”
The context in which this passage is found is a rather interesting one and has prompted many to conclude that Paul severely compromised his theological position by engaging in the activities described in this passage. His position with regard to the keeping of Jewish law, as outlined in the letters to the Galatians and the Romans, is clear enough. Justification is by faith alone without the works of the law. This position seemed to be abandoned under the pressure of the many Jews in the church at Jerusalem. He, it is claimed, engaged in various activities that the law required.
So some conclude that, when confronted with the converted Jews in the church in Jerusalem who were still keeping various precepts of the law, and not willing to offend James and the elders of the church in Jerusalem, and frightened by the prospect of persecution (which came immediately after this event), Paul decided that the best course of conduct was to give in to the suggestion of the elders from the Jerusalem church and compromise the position he defined in his letter to the Galatians when he did battle with the Judaizers.
While admittedly this passage is not very easy to explain, one immediately senses that such conduct would have been wholly contrary to the character and commitment of the apostle. We have only to read what Paul endured on behalf of the gospel as recorded in II Corinthians 11 to know with certainty that, when the truth of the gospel was at stake, his courage never faltered and his willingness to suffer was never in doubt.
Yet we must explain the passage. The context describes Paul’s visit to Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey. He had with him the money that was collected in Asia Minor, Macedonia and Achaia for the poor saints in Jerusalem (I Cor. 16:1; II Cor. 8-9). He undoubtedly turned this over to the deacons in the church in Jerusalem.
Large numbers of converts from the ancient Jewish religion had been brought to faith in Christ and were members of the Jerusalem church. Although they firmly believed that salvation was to be found only in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross, they had difficulty, as did the apostles themselves (Acts 3:1; 10), in tearing themselves away from some of the traditions and practices of the law that had been observed for some 1,500 years. Some of these practices were still being observed by the Jewish converts, not because they believed that their salvation was dependent on them, but because they were part of the heritage of the Jews for such a long time.
Something similar can be found in the Orient. While among the unconverted the practice of visiting the graves of one’s ancestors to worship them is common practice, many of those who believe in Christ still visit the graves of their ancestors, not to worship, but as an act of respect by practicing the customs observed in their families. Many similar practices are retained in the celebration of the Chinese New Year among Christians, although the idolatrous aspects of the practices have been completely abandoned. All these things belong in the area of Christian liberty. My wife and I have joined in some of these practices with our fellow saints.
Ugly rumours had circulated among the Jewish Christians in the years Paul had been on the mission field. Whatever may have been the source of these rumours, their general claim was that Paul despised the laws of Moses and taught the Gentiles to do the same. This rumour was, of course, patently false. Paul had done nothing of the sort, but had insisted that the Jewish converts might not, as they did in Galatia, make the observance of them a condition for salvation.
To prove that these rumours were false, the elders in the church at Jerusalem suggested to Paul that he follow a certain course of conduct that was a Jewish practice. It was customary among Jewish converts to take upon themselves Nazarite vows: no strong drink, no cutting the hair or shaving, no touching of dead bodies (Num. 6). The vows were usually made for a definite length of time, and the reasons for taking them were varied.
Four men who had taken Nazarite vows were present in the church. They had fulfilled the days of their vows and were ready to have their heads shaved and to make the necessary sacrifices to demonstrate that their vows were fulfilled. But apparently they did not have the money for the sacrifices—further proof of the poverty of the Jerusalem church. The elders suggested that Paul identify himself with them, pay the costs of the sacrifices, and go with them to pay for and make the necessary sacrifices.
Paul himself did not take this vow that bound the four men to taking vows for one reason or another (cf. Acts 18:18). Nor did he have any objection to going through the process of being released from the vow, even though it involved seven days of purifying one’s self and making sacrifices. If such conduct would help bring about unity in the church of Jerusalem and quell the false rumours that circulated in the church, to engage in these activities in the area of Christian liberty was all for the good.
What we do not know, for the text is silent, are the answers to these questions: 1) Where did Paul obtain the money to pay for the sacrifices? 2) What kind of sacrifices had to be offered? As the questioner suggests, they were undoubtedly unbloody.
This is what Paul means in I Corinthians 9:20-23: “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”
- Volume: 13
- Issue: 22
Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)
Ordained: October 1955
Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965
Emeritus: 2001Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof._Herman_Hanko
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