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Acts 21:17-26 – Paul visits James

Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Paul visits James and the elders of the Church there. This is James the brother of Jesus. James and the Jerusalem church elders praise God for the work Paul had done among the Gentiles.

There was an issue though. Jews who had opposed Paul in the Gentile cities would on occasion travel to Jerusalem on pilgrimages and had reported falsely that Paul taught Jews to abandon the law of Moses essentially rejecting the Scriptures and living as Gentiles. This was not true. Paul taught that observance of the law was not necessary for Gentiles becoming believers because salvation is by faith in Jesus. He also taught the Gentiles not to live like Gentiles but to follow the law of Christ of which the law of Moses was a shadow.

The false testimony against Paul was not unlike the false testimony used against Jesus. This false testimony had the potential for God-loving Jewish believers to think that Paul was godless. It also had the potential by association to impede the witness to Jesus amongst the Jews.

James advised that Paul take four men who had just fulfilled their vows as Nazarites and participate in their temple purification ceremonies. Paul himself had undertaken such a vow prior to his last visit to Jerusalem. Paul’s participation would correct the false impression that Paul opposed the law of Moses.

Is there a problem with Christian Paul doing Jewish rituals at the temple? Unlike the rituals done at idol temples these rituals were directed toward the true and living God. Unlike man-made rituals these rituals were God ordained. As Paul would live among Gentiles to bring the gospel to Gentiles so too Paul was pleased to exercise his freedom to live amongst Jews as a Jew to bring the gospel to Jews. In addition to this there was a forty year overlap between the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. During this time, it was possible for believers in Jerusalem to follow Old Testament forms of worship while believing salvation is by faith in the persona d work of Jesus. They could participate in the shadow forms because they believed in the reality those shadows pointed in Jesus. When the temple is destroyed the time of shadows was done away with once and for all.

There is never any doubt though as to how people are saved. James highlights this by recalling the Jerusalem Council many years before – Gentiles are not required to obey the law but to simply forsake all forms of idolatry associated with pagan temples (i.e. sacrifices, rituals and sexual immorality).