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The Scriptorium

Paul and the Law

Paul loved, even in the face of trouble. Acts 21.20-26

Paul’s Legacy (11)

Pray Psalm 19.12-14.
Who can understand his errors?
Cleanse me from secret faults.
Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins;
Let them not have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
And I shall be innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable in Your sight,
O LORD, my strength and my Redeemer.

Sing Psalm 19.12-14.

(St. Christopher: Beneath the Cross of Jesus)
Who, Lord, can know his errors? Oh, keep sin far from me!
Let evil rule not in my soul that I may blameless be.
Oh, let my thoughts, let all my words before Your glorious sight
be pleasing to You, gracious Lord, acceptable and right.

Read Acts 21.1-26; meditate on verses 20-26.

1. What did Paul agree to do?

2. Why did he do this?


The elders in Jerusalem knew that what the Jews were saying about Paul was not true (vv. 20, 21, 24). Paul was not telling Jews not to circumcise their children or to abandon their traditions. Nevertheless, James and the brethren wisely believed that some condescension to Jewish sentiments was appropriate, and Paul agreed. To the best of our ability, without compromising the Gospel, we must be ready to meet people where they are.

Don’t read anything negative or paternalistic into that word condescension. Jesus con(with) descended (came down among) to us in order to lift us up to the Father, and we recognize that as a supreme gesture of love. The elders and Paul hoped he might be able to do the same. But there are no guarantees.

Paul was not obligated to submit to the ceremonial laws or traditions of the Jews. He understood what the writer of Hebrews would later elaborate in detail, that, with the coming of the great High Priest, these laws had been abrogated (Heb. 7-9). But submitting to them was not sinful, at least, not to the extent Paul did (cf. Num. 6.2, 13, 18). To offer a sacrifice would have been sinful because Jesus is the final sacrifice; but submitting to a vow and a period of separation for the purpose of holiness is perfectly acceptable, especially within this context. As Paul showed in Acts 17, we can and should meet people “on their turf” to the extent that we can do so without violating the Gospel or the Law of God.

Paul kept the Law of God and instructed us to do so (cf. Rom. 3.31). When the Law is rightly understood no contradiction exists between it and the Gospel.

Treasures Old and New: Matthew 13.52; Psalm 119.162
Paul had been warned by his friends in many cities not to go to Jerusalem because trouble awaited him there.
Ironically – and tragically – that trouble would come from within the very community who should have perceived the truth of Paul’s message – those who believed in God and honored the Law which Paul also honored (v. 11). Sadly, persecution and trouble can also arise from within the ranks of those who should share our views.

David understood this, and Jesus, and Paul, and all those who are persecuted, identify with his prayer: “For it is not an enemy who reproaches me; then I could bear it. Nor is it one who hates me who has exalted himself against me; then I could hide from him. But it was you, a man my equal, my companion and my acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked to the house of God in the throng” (Ps. 55.12-14).

But, as Solomon said, “That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1.9).

Church history shows us that bad things have happened to believers from within the ranks of their fellow Christians. We see that already in the book of Acts (15.1 2)! Many of us know from personal experience the cruelty that can be perpetrated by those we were together with in the house of God. We must guard our hearts against becoming a source of trouble, keeping our affections focused on Jesus and His love, and not allowing them to lapse into mere self-interest (2 Cor. 6.12). Schisms, blame-laying, gossip, jealousy – Paul knew them all, and we will, too. But remember what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said about the inevitability of sin: “Let that come, if it must come, only not by me!”

Such problems will not occur if we are filled with the Holy Spirit’s power to live out the fruits of His personality in: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5.22, 23). Paul’s problems came both by those who did not have the Spirit, and throughout his ministry by those who claimed they did (cf. Gal. 1.6-9).

We must at all times strive to maintain love: “Let brotherly love continue” (Heb. 13.1). How? “For this very reason, giving all diligence, add to our faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love” (2 Pet. 1.5-7).

There is no room for hatred or jealousy when our lives are filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul’s attempt at peacemaking was indeed a gesture of love; much to be admired and emulated. But like Jesus – and like many other believers – he was attacked despite his loving gesture.

Problems and injustices will come; but we must hold on to love and make sure that, when troubles come, they do so “not by me.”

For reflection
1. What causes gossip, division, jealousy, and other problems in local churches? How can you keep from being party to such things?

2. Paul showed his love for God and his neighbor (the Jews in Jerusalem) by keeping the Law. What should we learn from him about the role of God’s Law in our lives?

3. What does it mean for you to “Let brotherly love continue” in your Personal Mission Field? In your church?

The religion Paul preached, tended not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. He preached Christ, the end of the law for righteousness, and repentance and faith, in which we are to make great use of the law. Matthew Henry (1662-1714), Commentary on Acts 21.19-26

Pray Psalm 19.7-11.
Praise and thank God for all His Word – the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, the Gospels and Acts, the Epistles, and the Revelation. Ask Him to give you a greater hunger for His Word and greater delight in reading and studying it.

Sing Psalm 19.7-11.
(St. Christopher: Beneath the Cross of Jesus)
The Law of God is perfect, His testimony sure;
the simple man God’s wisdom learns, the soul receives its cure.
God’s Word is right, and His command is pure, and truth imparts;
He makes our eyes to understand; with joy He fills our hearts.

The fear of God is cleansing, forever shall it last.
His judgments all are true and just, by righteousness held fast.
O seek them more than gold most fine, than honey find them sweet;
be warned by every word and line; be blessed with joy complete.

T. M. and Susie Moore

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Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. For sources of all quotations, see the weekly PDF of this study. All psalms for singing are from The Ailbe Psalter (Williston: Waxed Tablet Publications, 2006), available by clicking here.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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