The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 21:19-26

19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. 25 But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled,[a] and from sexual immorality.” 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them.

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Last week’s entry was about Paul’s preliminary meeting with a small group of Jewish converts from the church of Jerusalem. The following day’s events, described in today’s passage, were with a larger group, led by James (the Just and/or the Less), who wrote the eponymous Epistle. This James was not the Apostle James, brother of the Apostle John, both the sons of Zebedee.

John MacArthur describes the backdrop to this meeting. Also recall that Paul was delivering a sizeable monetary contribution from the Gentile churches (emphases mine):

So there they arrive, and it’s Paul’s time to report. They had the fellowship, passed out the money, though it doesn’t say anything about that. I’m sure they did, and I’m sure that’s what contributed to the gladness, and I know that they accepted it, because the Lord doesn’t have those kind of purposes at that kind of expense without good results. So I’m sure it was a great reception, though the text says nothing about it.

And then they were going to listen to Paul, because Paul was going to report. And so they got together, and the wonderful fellowship; and ol’ Paul had set churches together in Syria, and in Cyprus, and Galatia, and Macedonia, and Achaia, and Asia Minor; and he had had so many fantastic experiences; and Jews were saved, Gentiles were saved, and this and that and the other. And you can just imagine they were all anxious to find out all the details of what had gone on in his ministry, and so he reports to them all this information.

Note how Luke, the author of Acts, expresses the achievements (verse 19). He — nor Paul, for that matter — said that Paul did all these wonderful things. He says that God was responsible. Both commentators — John MacArthur and Matthew Henry — point this out.

MacArthur says:

That’s what I like about Paul. “He declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentile by his ministry.” Now notice he declared particularly. He didn’t speak in generality. He told them incident after incident after incident of what God had done.

Luke was careful to give us examples throughout Acts of God’s work in building the Church:

Acts 14: “He came back from his journey, his first journey.” Listen to his report, I like this: “And when they had come together and gathered the church together, they reviewed all that God had done with them,” – that’s so good, because they see themselves as tools and God’s doing the work“all that God had done with them, and now He had opened the door of faith under the Gentiles.” Isn’t that good?

Chapter 15, verse 12, when they came to Jerusalem, “Then all the multitude kept silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul.” And you know what they did? They declared what miracles and wonders God had wrought.

And, you know, Peter was the same way. He came back. Peter had won a Gentile to Christ. He actually led Cornelius to Christ. Now Peter could’ve come back and said, “I led a Gentile to the Lord. I did.” No, he came back, and he said, “You’ll never believe this. You know what God did? God granted unto the Gentiles life.” God did it.

Always the godly man gives God the credit, right? It’s a simple point, but it’s there. So important. That’s what Peter meant when he said, “If any man speaks,” – 1 Peter 4:11 – “let him speak as of the oracles of God. If any man ministers, let him do it as of the ability which God gives, that God in all things may be glorified.” That’s why the apostle Paul said in Ephesians 3, “I pray that you be filled of the fullness of God, and then you exceeding of all you can ask or think according to the power that works in us,” – and then what? – “that in the church, God may be glorified.” Always the glory is His, always His; and Paul had that kind of mind. The mind of Christ, friends, is the mind of humility; and he gave God the glory. So we see the communion.

Matthew Henry’s commentary points out that there was no envy among the church leaders in Jerusalem because God received the credit:

Paul ascribed it all to God, and to God they gave the praise of it. They did not break out into high encomiums of Paul, but left it to his Master to say to him, Well done, good and faithful servant; but they gave glory to the grace of God, which was extended to the Gentiles. Note, The conversion of sinners ought to be the matter of our joy and praise as it is of the angels’. God had honoured Paul more than any of them, in making his usefulness more extensive, yet they did not envy him, nor were they jealous of his growing reputation, but, on the contrary, glorified the Lord. And they could not do more to encourage Paul to go on cheerfully in his work than to glorify God for his success in it; for, if God be praised, Paul is pleased.

After glorifying God for these church successes, the church leaders told Paul about the many thousands of converts in Jerusalem (verse 20). Older translations use ‘myriads’; a ‘myriad’ means ‘tens of thousands’. Luke stopped giving us a count of converts early on in Acts, because so many in Jerusalem came to believe in Jesus Christ as Messiah.

Then they told him of Judaisers, those ‘zealous for the law’ (verse 20). These were men who believed all converts needed to be circumcised first. They believed a Gentile had to observe Mosaic law and ceremony before he could become a Christian. They were spreading the word that Paul had been preaching against Moses and against circumcision (verse 21).

The Judaisers featured earlier in Acts. In Acts 11, they were angry that Peter, through God’s help, converted Cornelius, a Roman centurion and Gentile, to the faith.

In Acts 15 (here, here, here, here and here), the Jerusalem Council convened to discuss the Gentile question. Peter spoke eloquently, as did Paul, Barnabas and James. The Holy Spirit inspired the church in Jerusalem to unanimously agree on not obliging Gentile converts to follow Mosaic law. They issued a letter to sister churches under the supervision of the one in Antioch (Syria) to that effect (Acts 15:28-29):

2For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” 

Jude Barsabbas and Silas travelled with Paul and Barnabas to deliver that news. The letter from the Jerusalem Council to the Gentiles went via Paul, Barnabas, Silas and Judas Barsabbas to the church in Antioch (Syria). The members of the church in Antioch rejoiced at receiving the news.

MacArthur surmises that the Judaisers knew Paul was coming to Jerusalem and began spreading untruths about his teaching. Recall that the truth was that Paul had been converting many Gentiles. That said, he personally still kept with some Jewish traditions himself. The Judaisers wanted to make Paul out as an apostate. As they were in Jerusalem, this had the potential for provoking much tension, which it duly did. MacArthur explains how the Judaisers were stirring the pot:

You see, these things were precious things to these Jewish people. They were their life, their culture, their tradition. And what these people, these Judaizers were doing, was undermining Paul by saying he doesn’t want anything to do with Judaism. He’s a heretic. He’s apostatized. And the word “apostasy” is the word “forsake” right here. He’s apostate. He’s teaching that you should be apostate from Moses. And, boy, Moses was sacred stuff to them.

Believe me, people, Satan is the father of lies. Did you know that? He is a liar from the beginning. The first time he opens his mouth, he’s lying in Genesis; and he doesn’t stop, and he lies incessantly. Even when he sneaks up and tells the truth, it’s for a lying reason. He’s a liar; that’s who he is. You want a good definition of Satan? He is a liar. And you ought to know that, because he lied about everything; and he lies about Paul.

You know something? Paul never taught Jews to forsake Moses, he taught Gentiles not to think they had to become Jews. See the difference? He taught Gentiles not to be circumcised. Why? Because they didn’t need that. He taught Gentiles you don’t need the ceremonies of the law. He did not teach Jews not to be circumcised, and he did not teach Jews not to follow those traditions.

Paul himself wrote that he maintained Jewish traditions in order to convert more Jews. We see this in today’s passage. He wrote about it more at length in 1 Corinthians 19:

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

MacArthur reminds us that Paul also had Timothy, a half-Jew, circumcised for the same reason:

In fact, in the case of Timothy, he actually had Timothy circumcised, didn’t he, Acts 16:2 and 3. The reason he had him circumcised was he was a Jew; he was at least half Jewish, which qualified him; and he said, “If you’re circumcised, you’ll be much more effective in reaching other Jews, because they’ll accept you as a Jew.” He did not teach Jews to avoid circumcision, he did not do that at all. This was a lie, flat out.

The leaders of the church in Jerusalem said that something must be done (verse 22). They commanded Paul — ‘do what we tell you’ — to take a Nazirite vow along with four other men who were undertaking one (verse 23). They also told Paul to pay for the required sacrifices involved at the temple, believing that the Judaisers would see this public act and be convinced that Paul was no apostate (verse 24).

I have written about the Nazirite vow before. Three men in the Bible lived their lives as Nazirites: Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist. Most Jewish men of those eras, however, took short-term Nazirite vows.

Paul had already taken a Nazirite vow before — Acts 18:18-23 — to give thanks for the church in Corinth. He probably did that in Jerusalem.

The Lord gave Moses the protocol for the Nazirite vow in Numbers 6, well worth reading. Nazirite has nothing to do with Nazareth or Nazarenes, by the way. ‘Nazir’ means ‘to separate’; the Nazirite is commanded to separate himself from the world. He grows his hair, takes no strong drink, eats modestly and wears the simplest of clothing. John the Baptist exemplified the Nazirite life perfectly.

The sacrifices at the temple must have cost Paul dearly. MacArthur thinks that Paul probably kept a lot of what he earned in making tents for emergency expenditures. Along with more commonplace sacrifices, expensive animal sacrifices — a one year old male lamb, one ewe of the same age and a ram — were required of each Nazirite (Numbers 6:14). Paul had to pay for five sets of these animals: for himself and for the four men.

The leaders of the church in Jerusalem then explained that Gentiles did not have to follow these rules and they repeated to Paul the text of the aforementioned letter from the Jerusalem Council (verse 25).

Paul duly followed the orders of the church leaders and took the Nazirite vow with the four other men (verse 26).

Next week’s verses continue the story. For those unfamiliar with it, MacArthur has this:

A riot started out, and I mean it was one full-scale riot.

But what is interesting – and I just want to draw this quickly. Listen, what was interesting in this whole deal about the riot was that everybody was screaming their heads off. In fact, the Romans finally came running down the steps of Fort Antonius, and scooped Paul out of the middle of the gang, and tried to save his life. It was such a big mess; they couldn’t get him out of the crowd, they had to lift him up and carry him. They tried to get through the steps, the people were all screaming.

So the Roman chiliarch – the guy who was the commander of the thousand, the head man – he starts yelling out, “What did he do? What are you killing him for?” And he got so many answers, he was so confused, he couldn’t understand anything. He just hauled him off and put him in the barracks. The mob was so messed up and confused, and they were yelling all kinds of things that nobody knew what was going on. And the interesting thing about it is through the entire thing, from beginning to end, Paul never says a word; he doesn’t say anything. He wasn’t standing there screaming, “I didn’t do anything.” He didn’t say anything.

You say, “What does that prove?” I think it just adds support to our overall theme. And what’s our overall theme? The measure of the man is – what? – humility.

You say, “John, how do you see the humility in a man?” I’ll just give you those three things I gave you at the bottom of the outline, listen to them. I see in this beautiful passage the humility of Paul three ways. Number one, verses 19 and 20: his submission before God. He was humble before God. When he came to give his report, he said, “This is what God has done.” That’s humility.

Secondly, he humbled himself before Christian authority. The elders said, “Do this.” He did it. Thirdly, he even humbled himself to suffer the pain of persecution. Why? Because it was God’s will, was it not? Didn’t the Holy Spirit say, “It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen.” When it happened, he was silent.

Beloved, humility is when I am humbling before God, humbling before the leaders of the church who are an authority over me, and humbling myself before the persecution of the world, because my Lord said it would happen if I lived a godly life. That’s true humility. That’s the measure to the man.

Acts is one of the best books in the Bible. Something powerful happens in every chapter. We can be grateful to the Holy Spirit for inspiring Luke to write it.

Next time — Acts 21:27-36

 

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