Answering Questions about Acts 21:17-26

Muslims bring up this passage all the time, because James and the Jerusalem Church wanted Paul to be a good witness to the Jewish disciples and the unbelieving Jews, and the apostle Paul participating in Jewish temple sacrifices (the Nazarite vow – see Numbers 6:13-21) seems to contradict the teaching principle that Christ was the final sacrifice for sins – in Romans 6:10; I Peter 3:18; and Hebrews 7:27; 8:1-13; 9:12; 9:26; 10:10-14 (Christ was the final sacrifice, “once for all time”, “the new covenant”, etc.).  The question is why would James and the Jerusalem insist upon this, seeing that Christ is the final sacrifice?

A Muslim put up a video by a Jewish Rabbi on this question also, and did not seem to get an answer from the Christians he asked. 

Granted, at first, in a surface reading, this seems like a difficult issue.  This passage in Acts 21:17-26 is also the basis for some scholars believing that the Jewish disciples had a different belief / gospel than the so called “Pauline Christians” and they then make a big theory that the Jerusalem church, led by James and Peter, was not Trinitarian nor believed in Jesus as Son of God or “God in the flesh”; and that justification was not by faith alone, etc. (which would contradict Acts 15 and Galatians, which shows us that the Jewish disciples and Paul were completely in agreement on the gospel.)

If you keep reading all of Acts 21 to the end of chapter 28, you will see that this incident was what led to Paul’s arrest and being taken to Rome.

Acts 21:17-27 is historical narrative (what actually happened), and took place around 57 AD; after Paul wrote the book of Romans (during the time of Acts 20:2-3). It is not a teaching passage; so Romans 6:10; 1 Peter 3:18 and Hebrews 7:27; 8:1-13; 9:12; 9:26; 10:10-14 (once for all time) are the teaching principle, and the fact that Paul goes along with James in order to be sensitive to the Jews does not contradict, since Paul may have been wrong in doing that (we don’t know as the text does not say; only that it caused other Jews to attack him and lead to his arrest); – but God allowed him to do it in order to get him arrested, taken to Rome, and give 2 more opportunities for him to explain himself and his testimony, after Acts chapter 9, in Acts 22 and 26.

So, Paul was being sensitive to the Jewish disciples in Jerusalem and to James’ advice (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-23), but the unbelieving Jews from Asia (Acts 21:27) saw him there in the temple and assumed he was defiling the temple by bringing Gentiles into the temple.

This led to a mob scene and beating Paul and then the Romans arrested him (Acts 21:33) – the rest is about Paul’s defense (apologia / απολογια ) and opportunity to give his defense of his faith in Christ and as a Roman Citizen, to appeal to Caesar and go to Rome. It fits with the purpose of the whole book of Acts to show how the gospel spread from Jerusalem to the uttermost parts of the earth, Rome being the capital of the pagan Empire at the time and symbol of the gospel spreading into major Gentile lands. (see Acts 23:11)

It seems that the text in Acts 21 does not answer the question as to whether Paul (and James’ counsel and desire) was contradicting the book of Hebrews (written later in AD 68) or Romans 6:10 (written a little before the incident) or 1 Peter 3:18 (once for all time, used there also for Christ’s work on the cross, 1 Peter written around 64 AD.)

The apostle Paul may have thought in his mind, “I am doing this to be a good witness to the Jews (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-23); and I take these sacrifices as symbolic looking back to the sacrifice of Christ; and for the opportunity to be able to explain that these sacrifices are pointing to Christ as the final sacrifice”. The temple was still standing and operating, so it seems like a transitional period.

But neither James nor Paul require the Gentiles (Greeks, Romans, other cultures) to do the sacrifices. So it seems that Paul takes James advice to do the ritual, in order to show respect to the Jews.  So Luke, the author of Luke-Acts is illustrating the principle of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, and also showing how he is a student and fellow missionary on Paul’s missionary team.  See the references to Luke in Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 24 and 2 Timothy 4:11; and the consistent teaching about the Lord’s supper in 1 Corinthians 11:20-34 with Luke 22:19-22; and Luke’s testimony of Jesus and the resurrection in Luke 24, and the necessity of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and that the truths of Jesus suffering death, atonement, resurrection, and the preaching of that message to all nations were all written in the OT Scriptures.  Also, the “we” passages of Acts 16 onward, show where Luke joined the team.  All of these things together along with the testimony of the early church fathers demonstrate that Luke-Acts has apostolic authority and consistency with the apostle Paul’s teachings about Christ and salvation.

Just as I would never eat pork or drink wine in front of Muslims (even though I am free to do that – 1 Cor. 9:19-23), and I would take off my shoes when I visit a mosque – I am respecting their custom, even though that does not mean I agree with everything said inside the mosque.
I Cor. 9:19-23 is the principle; and Acts 21 demonstrates that Luke and Paul are consistent with one another.

But later, Jews who have come to believe Christ is the Messiah and the final sacrifice in Hebrews (68 AD), are told that they cannot reject that sacrifice as the final one, and go back to the temple and do sacrifices.  Surely one of the purposes of writing the book of Hebrews around AD 68 was to show that Christ’s death was the final sacrifice once for all for sin (Hebrews 7:27; Hebrews chapter 8; Hebrews chapters 9 and 10, especially 9:12, 9:14, 9:22; 9:26, 9:28; 10:10-14, and 11:40 and 12:24, and 13:20-21) and that it was later after the incident in Acts 21 in 57 AD, is to show that they (Jerusalem church and James) should not do that anymore.

God then destroyed the temple in 70 AD to show that Christ was indeed the final sacrifice.

Addendum (November 28, 2016)

I found an interesting article on this passage here. 

I am still wrestling with what Acts 21:17-26 exactly means, in light of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 and the book of Galatians.

Here is an interesting point that I had not thought about, that the sacrifices at the end of the Nazarite vow were actually not performed yet.  Maybe that is the key to the whole thing, God prevented Paul from violating the principles that will be laid out in the book of Hebrews, written a few years later.

“As James Boice argues (p. 364), the greatest proof that Paul was wrong was that God, who is sovereign over the details of our lives, intervened before Paul was able to offer the sacrifice in the temple and prevented him from doing it.”

About Ken Temple

I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I am a sinner who has been saved by the grace of God alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), through faith alone (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:28; 4:1-16), in Christ alone (John 14:6). But a true faith does not stay alone, it should result in change, fruit, good works, and deeper levels of repentance and hatred of my own sins of selfishness and pride. I am not better than you! I still make mistakes and sin, but the Lord is working on me, conforming me to His character. (Romans 8:28-29; 2 Corinthians 3:16-18) When I do sin, I hate the sin as it is an affront to God, and seek His forgiveness in repentance. (Mark 1:15; 2 Corinthians 7:7-10; Colossians 3:5-16 ) Praise God for His love for sinners (Romans 5:8), shown by the voluntary coming of Christ and His freely laying down His life for us (John 10:18), becoming flesh/human (John 1:1-5; 1:14; Philippians 2:5-8), dying for sins of people from all nations, tribes, and cultures (Revelation 5:9), on the cross, in history, rising from the dead (Romans 10:9-10; Matthew 28, Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24; John 20-21; 1 Corinthians chapter 15). His resurrection from the dead proved that Jesus is the Messiah, the eternal Son of God, the word of God from eternity past; and that He was all the gospels say He was and that He is truth and the life and the way to salvation. (John 14:6)
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3 Responses to Answering Questions about Acts 21:17-26

  1. θ says:

    Early Christians still observed the most important Jewish rite (Feast of Tabernacles) as well as the Passover (Pentecost), by purchasing the Paschal lambs, sacrificing the lamb, and eating it as the feast on a day when Jews mourned.
    Early Christians eat the Paschal lambs still.

    Epiphanius (Panarion – book II and book III) 310-403 AD
    For they choose to celebrate the Passover with the Jews – that is, they contentiously celebrate the Passover at the same time that the Jews are holding their Festival of Unleavened Bread. And indeed, it is true that this used to be the church’s custom – even though they tell churchmen a slanderous thing in this regard and say, “You abandoned the fathers’ Paschal rite in Constantine’s time from deference to the emperor, and changed the day to suit the emperor.” And some, again, declare with a contentiousness of their own, “You changed the Passover to Constantine’s birthday”.
    And much could be said about the good the fathers did – or rather, the good God did through them – by arriving at the absolutely correct determination, for the church, of this all venerable, all-holy Paschal Feast, its celebration after the equinox, which is the day on which the date of the fourteenth of the lunar month falls.
    Now how can this (i.e., celebrating on the Jewish date) be done? The same apostles say, When they feast, mourn ye for them with fasting, for they crucified Christ on the day of the feast; and when they mourn on the Day of Unleavened Bread and eat with bitter herbs, then feast ye.
    But the church observes the Paschal festival, that is, the week which is designated even by the apostles themselves in the Ordinance, beginning with the second day of the week, the purchase of the lamb. And the lamb is publicly slaughtered if the fourteenth of the month falls on the second day of the week – or if it falls on the third, the fourth, the fifth, the eve of the Sabbath or the Sabbath, for the six days are designated for this purpose.
    Let’s see whether the man who said that, didn’t keep the Passover himself. Scripture says, “He hasted to keep the Feast of Pentecost at Jerusalem.” But what Pentecost was Paul keeping if he hadn’t kept the Passover?
    And who, anywhere in the world, does not agree that Wednesdays and Fridays are designated as
    fasts in the church? If, indeed, I need to speak of the ordinance of the apostles, they plainly decreed there that Wednesdays and Fridays be fasts at all times except Pentecost, and directed that nothing at all be eaten on the six days of the Passover except bread, salt and water; and which day to keep, and that we break our fast on the night before the Lord’s Day.

    Eusebius. Church History. Book V, Chapter 25, on Polycrates.
    All these observed the fourteenth day of the Passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. And I also, Polycrates, the least of you all, do according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have closely followed. For seven of my relatives were bishops; and I am the eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven. I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ‘ We ought to obey God rather than man’.

    Methodius, Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Discourse 9, Ch 1.
    When the fruits of the earth have been gathered in, we are commanded to keep the Feast to the Lord, which signifies that, when this world shall be terminated at the seventh thousand years, when God shall have completed the world, He shall rejoice in us.

    Despite its name, the Feast of Tabernacles requires the continuous sacrifice of animals for the burnt offerings from the 1st day to the 8th day.
    Lev 23
    34 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the feast of Tabernacles for seven days unto the LORD.35 On the first day shall be an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work therein.36 Seven days ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the LORD: on the eighth day shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the LORD: it is a solemn assembly; and ye shall do no servile work therein.

  2. θ says:

    In order to make a rebuttal of the citation of Amos 4:13 and Isaiah 57:16 (used by the Tropici and the Arians to prove that the Holy Spirit is a creation), Athanasius in his “Letters to Serapion” argues with a very weak and silly argument by assuming that throughout the Old Testament the Holy spirit is never called “spirit”. In fact, in Hebrew Tanach it is, as in Exo 28:3, Isaiah 4:4, and Isaiah 32:15, wherein the word spirit is just written without article “The”, nor addition of ‘of God’, or ‘of the Father’, or ‘my’, or ‘of Christ’ himself, and ‘of the Son’, or ‘from me’ (that is, from God), or the very term ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘of Truth’.
    It proves Athanasius has a deficiency of knowledge of the Tanach.

    (i) Holy Spirit is just called “spirit”, by which the filthy sins are washed.
    Isa 4:4
    When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning.
    (ii) Holy Spirit is just called “spirit” which was poured on high for a spiritual renewal.
    Isa 32:15
    Until spirit be poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness be a fruitful field, and the fruitful field be counted for a forest.
    (iii) Holy Spirit is just called “spirit” which rested upon the wise elders to make saint garments.
    Exo 28:3
    And thou shalt speak unto all that are wise hearted, whom I have filled with spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him, that he may minister unto me in the priest’s office.

    Athanasius, Letters to Serapion, epistle 1
    3. ‘We read’, they say, ‘in the prophet Amos, where God says: “I am he that establisheth thunder and createth spirit and declareth unto men his Christ, that maketh dawn and mist, that ascendeth unto the high places of the earth. The Lord God omnipotent is his name”. Hence we believed the Arians when they said that the Holy Spirit is a creature.’ So you read the passage in Amos.
    But that which is spoken in Proverbs, ‘The Lord created me as a beginning of his ways for his works’ — did you not read that? Or did you read it? You explain this passage in accordance with the truth, so that you do not call the Word a creature. But the passage in the prophet you do not explain. Simply hearing the word ‘spirit’, you supposed that the Holy Spirit is called a creature.
    Although in Proverbs it is clearly Wisdom who says ‘created’, yet you do well enough. You explain the text so as not to put the Artificer Wisdom among the creatures. But the text in the prophet gives no indication of the Holy Spirit; it only speaks of spirit.
    Why then, although there is in Scripture a great difference in the use of the word ‘spirit’, and although the text can properly be interpreted in an orthodox sense, do you — either out of love of contention or because you have been poisoned by the Arian serpent’s sting — suppose that it is the Holy Spirit who is referred to in Amos ?
    Only that you may not forget to regard him as a creature!
    4. Tell us, then, is there any passage in the divine Scripture where the Holy Spirit is found simply referred to as ‘spirit’ without the addition of ‘of God’, or ‘of the Father’, or ‘my’, or ‘of Christ’ himself, and ‘of the Son’, or ‘from me’ (that is, from God), or with the article so that he is called not simply ‘spirit’ but ‘the Spirit’, or the very term ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘Paraclete’ or ‘of Truth’ (that is, of the Son who says, ‘I am the Truth’), — that, just because you heard the word ‘spirit’, you take it to be the Holy Spirit ?
    Leave out of account for the moment cases in which people who have already received the Holy Spirit are mentioned again, and places where the readers, having previously learned of him, are not ignorant of whom they are hearing when he is referred to again, by way of repetition and reminder, merely as ‘the Spirit.
    In these cases too it is generally used with the article. To sum up, unless the article is present or the above-mentioned addition, it cannot refer to the Holy Spirit.
    5 . But do you answer the question which has been put to you whether anywhere in the divine Scripture you have found the Holy Spirit called simply ‘spirit’, without the above-mentioned addition and apart from the qualification we have recorded.
    You cannot answer it!
    For you will not find it so in Scripture. But it is written in Genesis, ‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’
    And a little later, ‘My Spirit shall not abide among these men, for they are flesh.’
    In Numbers, Moses says to the son of Nun, ‘Be not jealous for me. Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, when the Lord bestows his Spirit upon them !’
    In Judges it is said of Gothoniel: ‘And the Spirit of the Lord came upon him and he judged Israel.’
    And again: ‘The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.’
    And concerning Samson: ‘The child grew’, it says, ‘and the Lord blessed him, and the Spirit of the Lord began to accompany him,’ and, ‘The Spirit of the Lord came upon him mightily.’
    David sings: ‘Take not thy Holy Spirit from me’; and again, in the one hundred and forty-second Psalm: ‘Thy good Spirit shall lead me in a plain country, for thy name’s sake, O Lord.’
    In Isaiah it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me.’
    And before this it was said : ‘Woe to you, rebellious children ! Thus saith the Lord : You took counsel, but not from me, and made covenants, but not through my Spirit, to add sins to sins.’
    And again: ‘Hear these things. From the beginning, I have not spoken in secret. When it was, I was there. And now the Lord hath sent me, and his Spirit.’
    A little later he speaks thus: ‘And this is my covenant with them, saith the Lord, My Spirit which is upon thee’; and again in what follows he adds: ‘Neither envoy nor angel, but the Lord himself saved them, because he loved them and had mercy on them ; he himself redeemed them and took them up and exalted them all the days of the age. But they were disobedient and provoked his Holy Spirit, and he was turned to enmity toward them.’
    And Ezekiel speaks thus: ‘And the Spirit took me up and brought me to the land of the Chaldaeans, to the Captivity, in a vision, by the Spirit of God.’
    In Daniel: ‘God raised up the Holy Spirit of a young man whose name was Daniel, and he cried with a loud voice, I am clear from the blood of this woman.’
    Micah says: ‘The house of Jacob provoked the Spirit of the Lord’ ; and by Joel, God says : ‘And it shall be after these things that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.’
    Again, through Zechariah the voice of God says: ‘But receive my words and my commandments which I charge by my Spirit to my servants the prophets’; and when the prophet rebukes the people a little farther on, he says: ‘They make their hearts disobedient, lest they should hear my law and the words which the Lord of hosts has sent by his Spirit in the hands of the prophets of old.’
    These few examples we have collected and set down from the Old Testament.

  3. θ says:

    Athanasius also showed how he can’t truly debate the Arians on the Scripture, he just dismisses what is written in Proverbs 8:22 which says the Wisdom (i.e. Jesus in Athanasius’ belief) was created in the beginning. When pressed by the Arians, Athanasius dismisses a functional attribution between Creator (God) and creature (the Wisdom or Jesus) by rather focusing solely on a baptismal title of Father and Son.

    7. But as they plead the passage in Proverbs, ‘The Lord created me, a beginning of his ways, for his works’, adding, ‘See, “He created” He is a creature !’: we must show from this passage too how greatly they err, not realizing the scope of divine Scripture. If he is a Son, let him not be called creature; if a creature, let him not be called Son. For in what precedes we have shown how great is the difference between a creature and a son. And inasmuch as the baptismal initiation is not validly performed into Creator and creature but into Father and Son, the Lord must not be called creature but Son. ‘But,’ says the Arian, ‘is it not written?’ Yes, it is written ! And it is necessary that it should be said. But what is well written is ill understood by heretics. If they had understood and grasped the terms in which Christianity is expressed, they would not have called the Lord of glory a creature nor stumbled over what is well written. They, therefore, ‘knew not, neither did they understand’. Therefore, as it is written : ‘They walk in darkness.’ But as for us, speak we must, that in this matter also they may be shown up as fools, that we may not neglect to answer their impiety, and that they may perhaps even repent. These then are the terms in which we express our faith in Christ: the Son of God, being the Word of God (‘in the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God’), being the Wisdom and Power of the Father (‘Christ the Power of God and the Wisdom of God’), at the ‘end of the ages’” became man for our salvation.

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