Vol. 4, No. 5
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Luke recorded in Acts 21:26-27 that Paul purified himself in the temple along with four other men and paid their expenses. Did Paul sin?
Four possibilities have been suggested: (1) Yes, without question he sinned. (2) Yes, but qualified by saying it was a mistake but perhaps not a sin. (3) No, but with some reservation as to his doing what was right. (4) No, he did not sin but did absolutely what was right.
All four answers pose some problems, but if number four is not the correct, we have some serious problems. Notice the following:
(1) If Paul sinned, then he did so at the advice of James, Jesus' inspired brother who wrote the book of James.
(2) If Paul sinned, then he did so based on the advice of elders who were probably inspired. The letter sent to the Gentiles by these same Jerusalem elders stated that it seemed good to the "Holy Spirit" (Acts 15:28), which must mean that they were directed to their conclusion by the Holy Spirit.
(3) If Paul sinned, he did so as an inspired apostle after calmly considering the rightness or wrongness of his act. Some have pointed out that Peter made a mistake (Galatians 2:11-13) by withdrawing from eating with the Gentiles. Peter did this under social pressure to conform to a social tradition not to an inspired brother of Jesus and Jerusalem elders. Paul acted based on a doctrinal principle not on a social principle. Peter was corrected by Paul for what he did, an indication that God wanted this recorded event to show Peter was wrong in what he did.
(4) If Paul sinned in following the advice of James and the elders, how do we know that James and the elders were right and made no mistake in their earlier conclusion that the Gentiles did not have to keep the law and be circumcised (Acts 15:23-24)?
(5) If Paul sinned, why did the Holy Spirit have Luke record this without any indication that Paul did wrong? Why did no one correct Paul since there would have been prophets in Jerusalem whom God could have sent to correct him?
What message were James, Paul and the elders sending the Jewish believers scattered among the Gentiles? It was that Paul was not "saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs" (Acts 21:21, NJKV). The report concerning Paul was wrong. Paul was not teaching that they were to forsake Moses and that they were not to keep the customs.
What Paul did in purifying himself in the temple was to send the message that what he did was "walk orderly and keep the law" (Acts 21:24). Did Paul's practice contradict his teaching? Absolutely not!
When he was among the Jews, he lived like a Jew. Why did he do this, because he considered himself a Jew (Acts 22:3) and a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). He could circumcise Timothy when among the Jews because there was nothing wrong with observing the law for "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything" (Gal. 5:6; 6:15). Paul was keeping his rule, "To the Jews I became as a Jew ... to those who are under the law, as under the law" (1 Corinthians 9:20).
More than likely in accordance with the law concerning vows, he shaved in Cenchrea (Acts 18:18). He hurried to Jerusalem to be there on Pentecost, which might have been so he could keep the feast (Acts 20:16).
Paul himself was an example to the Jews that a Christian who was a Jew could continue to keep the law. We have another test case. Notice the statement concerning Ananias whom Jesus sent to Paul to tell him what to do to be saved, "Then a certain Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good testimony with all the Jews who dwelt there, came to me" (Acts 22:12-13). Notice, he was devout according to the law. Surely Jesus did not send someone who had not been baptized to tell Paul to be baptized (Acts 22:16). We can assume Ananias was a Christian. As such he devoutly kept the law, even to the degree he was highly respected by the Jews.
The earlier ruling by the Jerusalem apostles and elders that the Gentiles did not need to keep the law applied only to the Gentiles (Acts 15:19, 23-24). The implication is that the Jewish Christians could keep the law.
Paul's purification in the temple was not in order to make a statement that the Jewish Christians among the Jews must keep the law to be saved. Paul, as an apostle never, taught that; however, he did not teach that they should not keep the law for they were permitted to do so if they chose to keep it. Romans 14 shows that Christians are permitted to observe the law including both Jews and Gentiles. If a Christian wants to rest on the Sabbath according to the law, no problem. If he wants to observe the food laws, no problem.
Having stated all this, the truth is that Christians have no right to bind the law on other Christians. Paul clearly showed this in refusing to allow Jewish brethren to force Titus to be circumcised (Galatians 2:3-5). Christians have liberty in Christ to keep the law or not to keep the law. By purifying himself in the temple, Paul by example taught that principle.
What Paul did not teach was that Jews or Gentiles must keep the law in order to be justified or saved. Such a teaching would be abhorrent to Paul (Galatians 2:16). He clearly stated, "But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident" (Galatians 3:11).
The report that had reached Jerusalem was a misrepresentation of Paul's teaching. He taught that Jews could not be justified by the law. He did not teach that they could not keep the law.
The question that is difficult to answer is, "How could he offer animal sacrifice?" The answer might lie in the fact that purpose might make the difference. Perhaps he could offer sacrifice as a matter of no consequence and not for the purpose associated with the law. He taught that Christians can eat foods sacrificed to an idol as a matter of no consequence so long as one did not eat in honor of the idol (1 Corinthians 8:7, 8; 10:25-29). Could he offer sacrifice but not for the purpose of forgiveness with the realization that such was the penalty required under the law but not required of Christians? That is the difficult question to answer.
Paul did not teach that Jews who became Christians must not keep the law. This would be contrary to his practice and teaching. Also he did not teach that they had to keep the law, and especially not that they had to keep it to be justified. He stated that those who kept the law in order to be justified by the law were severed from Christ and fallen from grace (Galatians 5:4).
Christians have freedom to observe the statutes of the law if they choose to do so but only if they understand that they are not observing it in order to be saved. Paul's purification in the temple taught a very important lesson for all Christians.
If these conclusions are not true, then we must question any principle purposed by James and the elders. Shall we conclude that Gentiles need to keep the law in order to be saved (Acts 15:11) and question the inspiration of the book of James? Was Luther correct when he stated that the book of James is a "book of straw?" The best conclusion is that James and the elders gave the right advice and that Paul acted correctly.