15. And after those days we packed and went up to Jerusalem.
Now the “many days” of verse 10 are completed, and the time to move on to Jerusalem has come. Thus Paul and his companions take up the luggage that they have with them and go up to the capital city of Israel. Probably this was a feast time, and many other Israelites were going up to Jerusalem as well, so Paul and his companions were more or less lost in the crowd.
16. Also some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us and brought with them a certain Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we were to lodge.
Paul and his companions do not go to Jerusalem alone. They are accompanied by some of the disciples from Caesarea. This would make sense if what we have suggested was true, and they were going to Jerusalem for one of the yearly feasts. The brethren who were in Caesarea who were still law-keeping Israelites would have needed to go to Jerusalem to keep the feast as well. The opportunity to accompany Paul there was a help to him, and a great privilege to them as well.
Those who accompany Paul bring with them a very important personage. This is a man named Mnason from the island of Cyprus, the very home of Barnabas. His name means “Remembering,” and this man had much to remember indeed, for he was an early disciple. The word “early” here in Greek is archaios, and means “from the beginning.” This must certainly mean, at the very least, that he was one of the earliest of believers, who had been a part of the great unity in Jerusalem. Yet this could take Mnason back further than that. He might have been one of the one hundred twenty who were already disciples at Pentecost, or even back to the early parts of the Lord’s ministry at the baptism of John the Identifier. This would seem most likely to us. At any rate, this man has been a believer from the beginning, far longer than either Paul or Luke have been. He accompanies them to Jerusalem, for they are to lodge with him. Having been part of the great unity in Jerusalem, this man must have had a place to lodge ready for him in the city, and he now will host Paul and his company there.
17. And when we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.
In this manner Paul and his companions arrive in Jerusalem, where the brothers there receive them gladly. They all know of Paul now, and his faithful and loyal service among the nations. So he is welcomed into their company with gladness. It is good to see that hard feelings about his former persecution of the people of this city have been left behind. Paul is received here with gladness, and as a brother. This was as it should have been. May we likewise be ready to receive with gladness even the worst of men whom God has redeemed and changed into servants for Himself.
18. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.
The next day Paul goes in along with Luke and the rest of his companions to James, the Lord’s brother, who seems to have charge over the ekklesia at Jerusalem at this time. Moreover, all the elders are there present. The word for elders here is presbuteroi, and means all the representative men. These are those who were set as representatives of the believers in Jerusalem. There is no word here that the twelve apostles are present. One could assume so, but this is not stated. In Acts 15, we had “apostles and elders” listed in verses 2, 4, 6, 22, and 23, and again in 16:4. Yet here the word “apostles” is omitted, so this would seem to us to be significant. It could well be that by this time they trust James completely to “hold down the fort” while they are gone, and so all of them are off serving the Lord in other places.
19. When he had greeted them, he told in detail those things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
Paul greets them. There could have been some formal aspects to this, as well as personal words of greeting to those he has known in the past and is now seeing again, as well as some introductions to those who have not met him before. Yet when the greeting is finished, he gives his report. The report he gives, we read, is to tell them in detail those things which God has done among the Gentiles through his ministry. This is similar language to what we read in Acts 15:4. These are not the things Paul has done, as if he was the one in charge of doing them. Rather these are the things God has done through Paul’s ministry. He was God’s apostle, and God was acting through him in all that he did.
This report is basically an update. He has already given such a report back in Acts 15:4, and again more formally in Acts 15:12. Many of these elders were present then, and so this is filling them in on what God has done with Paul since that time. Some of the elders may not have been there the first time, and some there the first time may now be absent. Significantly absent are the apostles, who were mentioned so prominently the first time, as well as Barnabas, who had been Paul’s friend and companion when he gave that earlier report. Of course, as we saw, Paul has many new friends and companions who have accompanied him to this meeting.
20. And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law;
When these elders hear Paul’s report, they glorify the Lord. There is no reluctance or hanging back here on the part of these people. They are excited to hear about what the Lord has been doing through Paul. Now, they are eager to report the success that the proclaiming of Christ has had in Judea as well. They point out to Paul what they believe he has observed already during his one day spent in the city. That is that there are myriads of Jews who have believed. The word here “myriads” means tens of thousands. This phrase would not have been used unless there were at least close to a hundred thousand Jews who believed. This is a huge number, and so we see that the message of Christ had been far from unsuccessful in and around Jerusalem. There were myriads of Jews who believed, and this affected the city to such an extent that they were certain Paul had observed this just by traveling through it. The evidence did not point to the idea that “the Jews rejected Christ,” as many believe and teach. The evidence shows that the gospel had a profound effect on all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
Now, the elders point out to Paul another fact they consider to be wonderful. That is, that these myriads of believing Jews are all zealous for the law. The word in Greek is a noun zelotes, and means they were zealots or enthusiasts for the law. This was exactly as it should have been, for the law was God’s way of life for the people of Israel. Now that they had a closer relationship with God through their faith in His Son, these Jews did not find it burdensome at all to keep the law God had given His people. Instead, they were zealous to do it, and looked at it as a privilege now to serve Him by living this lifestyle. The law had become their way of walking worthy of all Christ had done for them, and their means of showing their dedication to the Lord they now served.
Moreover, since they were living in and around Jerusalem, it was relatively easy for these Jews to keep all the commandments and ordinances of the law, since they had ready access to the temple and its ritual. This is something that the Jews out among the nations did not have, living much too far away from these things to keep the laws that demanded access to the temple and priesthood. Those outside the land could not keep the law, so it had become a great burden upon them that Christ rescued them from. For these people, however, the law was not only possible but also a joy to keep, and they went after keeping it with great zeal.
21. but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.
Now these elders bring up a difficulty that these enthusiastic and zealous law-keepers have. They have been taught a false report about Paul, and apparently it is not one that these elders have been able to completely dissuade them from believing. That is, they have been informed that Paul teaches all the Jews who are among the nations to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor walk according to the customs of the law.
Now while many would step in here to say that this report was correct and this is exactly what Paul was doing, if we have been more careful in our observation as we have studied our way through Acts, we will know that this is not the case. We saw in Acts 16:3 that Paul took Timothy “and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek.” Timothy was a man who was living according to the law, as he had been taught by his Jewish mother. However, because of his Greek father, he had not been circumcised. Paul, by circumcising him, brought him squarely into the camp of the Jews among the nations who circumcised their children and who walked according to the customs. Paul did not discourage Timothy from doing this. Instead, he supported him doing it, and even circumcised Timothy himself!
The reality of the matter is explained by Paul in I Corinthians 7:17-20.
17. But as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk. And so I ordain in all the churches.
Paul assures the Corinthians that what he is telling them here is the same thing that he ordains in all the churches. And what is it that he is telling them? He is instructing each one of them to walk as God has distributed to him and as the Lord has called him. This makes sense, and is exactly what every believer should do. But Paul explains further what he meant in the following verse.
18. Was anyone called while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised.
While less sensible men might talk of surgical procedures whereby one who was circumcised could become physically uncircumcised again (!), those of us who look at the text more carefully and soberly can see that what Paul is referring to here is the way one walks, as we have it in verse 17. If anyone was called to Christ while walking in the lifestyle of a circumcised man, he was to continue in that walk. He was not to decide that now that he had Christ, God’s commands through Moses no longer matter, and thus give up on them. No, he was to live that lifestyle, much as these Jerusalem Jews did, with a renewed zeal based upon his newfound relationship with Christ. To do anything else would be either to suggest that the law was a bad thing, which it was not, or that faith in Christ is an excuse to sin, which it is not. However, if any man was called to faith in Christ while living the lifestyle of an uncircumcised man, not keeping the law or its customs, he was not to decide that now he would start to walk the walk he had formerly rejected and start keeping the commands he had formerly ignored. That would suggest that faith in Christ is insufficient, but that a man has to keep the law or Christ isn’t enough, which is completely untrue.
19. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters.
It is clear that this kind of command would produce two classes of believers, one who was keeping the law to obey God’s commands, and another who was not keeping the law to obey God’s commands. Yet though this would seem like it is contradictory, Paul assures the Corinthians that it is not. The reason is that neither the circumcision lifestyle nor the uncircumcision lifestyle are anything of themselves. It is keeping the commandments of God that really matters. So whether God has commanded me to keep the law or not to keep it, either way it is obedience that is the ultimate good.
20. Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called.
This is his conclusion upon the matter, and the summary of his teaching. The circumcised are to continue to walk in the circumcised manner. The uncircumcised are to continue to walk in the uncircumcised manner. Each is to remain as he was when he was called to faith in Christ.
So we see that the report these zealous lawkeepers in Jerusalem had heard was entirely incorrect, but it was based on a misunderstanding. What Paul actually taught, and most insistently, was that those who had already given up on the law of Moses were not to start keeping it once they came to faith in Christ. Yet he just as clearly taught that those who were keeping the law of Moses as much as they could were to continue to do so. He had never taught any Jew who lived according to the law and the customs outside the land to stop doing this, or to stop circumcising his children and teaching them to do this. This report was entirely untrue, and misrepresented Paul’s ministry and what it was all about.
It is interesting to note that the word apostasia that occurs here for “forsake” is only used elsewhere in II Thessalonians 2:3 of the “falling away” that must come first before the Day of the Lord comes. Here there was clearly a moral forsaking in mind. No one was being taught to physically depart from Moses, as some are making the word in II Thessalonians 2:3 out to be saying. This word is about a moral departure, not a physical one.
22. What then? The assembly must certainly meet, for they will hear that you have come.
Now, the elders suggest, they need to decide what to do in response to this false report believed by the majority. They are sure that the assembly, that is, the great multitude of believers will come together to meet when they hear that Paul has come to Jerusalem. At this gathering, the issue of his teaching is sure to arise. They know that something must be done to prepare for this, to demonstrate that the rumor against Paul is not true.
23. Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow.
The elders have a plan for meeting this situation. Probably they had discussed this plan in advance, and had already determined what they thought Paul should do. Since these were God’s elders, we have every reason to believe that this was God’s plan as well, and that He was the One Who had determined this way for His apostle Paul to demonstrate the falsehood of these claims against him.
The elders reveal that they have four men who have taken a vow. These men are believers, as is revealed in the fact that the elders say they “have” them. The vow they have taken is doubtless a Nazirite vow, as we can see from the next verse.
24. Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law.
The plan the elders have is for Paul to fulfill his own vow, probably the one we discussed earlier that compelled him to come to Jerusalem for this feast, along with four other men. Moreover, Paul will pay the expenses of these four other men. The result will be that they may shave their heads. The shaving of the head here gives away the fact that this must have been a Nazirite vow, for that is how the Nazirite vow was completed, as we can see from Numbers 6.
13 ‘Now this is the law of the Nazirite: When the days of his separation are fulfilled, he shall be brought to the door of the tabernacle of meeting.
Of course, by the time of Acts 21, the tabernacle of meeting had been replaced by the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem.
14. And he shall present his offering to the LORD: one male lamb in its first year without blemish as a burnt offering, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish as a sin offering, one ram without blemish as a peace offering, 15. a basket of unleavened bread, cakes of fine flour mixed with oil, unleavened wafers anointed with oil, and their grain offering with their drink offerings.
So these were the expenses Paul was to pay. Not only was he to pay for his own purification, but also that of four other men. This means he would be paying for five male lambs in their first year without blemish for burnt offerings, five ewe lambs in their first year without blemish for sin offerings, five rams without blemish for peace offerings, five baskets of unleavened bread, five or more cakes of fine flour mixed with oil, five or more unleavened wafers anointed with oil, and five grain offerings and five drink offerings.
These offerings were almost a who’s-who of Old Testament offerings under the law. Notice first of all that a sin offering was included in this. Many people get the idea that, since Christ fulfilled the sin offering, that was the end of the sin offering, and it is never to be sacrificed again. Yet how could this be, if Paul, God’s apostle, was not only making a sin offering for himself, but also paying for four other people to do the same? This shows most clearly that the idea that sin offerings have passed away because of Christ’s offering is not true. The reason we do not do offerings today is not because Christ died, but because of the mystery, and the fact that every nation is now equal in God’s sight. Israel’s privileges, including its religion, have passed away, and will not be renewed until the kingdom comes. Yet when it is renewed, the law will be as well, including all the offerings, sin offering not excluded. See Ezekiel 40:39; 42:13; 43:19,21-22,25; 44:27,29; 45:17,19,22-23,25; and 46:20 for proof that the sin offering will still be offered in the kingdom temple.
Also, this shows us the considerable expense Paul would have to go to to pay for five men to perform all these offerings. Paul must have had a good deal of wealth at this time to afford to pay for all these. Moreover, once Paul did this, no one could argue that this was not a sacrifice. If Paul was willing to pay this much for offerings, it would be proof that would be hard to argue against that he did support the keeping of the law. He would have put his money where his mouth is, and no sensible person could argue with that. Of course, that doesn’t stop modern day theologians from arguing with it.
16. ‘Then the priest shall bring them before the LORD and offer his sin offering and his burnt offering; 17. and he shall offer the ram as a sacrifice of a peace offering to the LORD, with the basket of unleavened bread; the priest shall also offer its grain offering and its drink offering. 18. Then the Nazirite shall shave his consecrated head at the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and shall take the hair from his consecrated head and put it on the fire which is under the sacrifice of the peace offering.
So the shaving of the head to fulfill a vow was a critical part of the Nazirite vow. Since head shaving was part of the vow Paul and the other four will be fulfilling, there can be little doubt but that it was a Nazirite vow that they had taken.
19. ‘And the priest shall take the boiled shoulder of the ram, one unleavened cake from the basket, and one unleavened wafer, and put them upon the hands of the Nazirite after he has shaved his consecrated hair, 20. and the priest shall wave them as a wave offering before the LORD; they are holy for the priest, together with the breast of the wave offering and the thigh of the heave offering. After that the Nazirite may drink wine.’
21. “This is the law of the Nazirite who vows to the LORD the offering for his separation, and besides that, whatever else his hand is able to provide; according to the vow which he takes, so he must do according to the law of his separation.”
So we see the vow Paul and the other four would be fulfilling together. This was part and parcel of the law, and so doing this would demonstrate to everyone who heard of it that the things they had heard about Paul were nothing but empty words. Once Paul had done this, no one could doubt that he himself walks orderly and keeps the law. Yet this does not stop modern Bible expositors from doubting it, who insist that Paul had indeed stopped keeping the law when he had come to faith in Christ. In this they show themselves to have far less wisdom than these Jewish believers of old. No amount of Biblical evidence can stop them from closing their own eyes and stopping their own ears from the truth when they do not want to hear it. Even the plainest actions of the apostle cannot persuade them, when they simply do not want to believe.
25. But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.”
The elders want to make sure everything is clear. They are not adding anything to what they had formerly decided concerning those of the nations who believe. They had already written and decided that they need to observe no such thing as the law and the customs. They are only required to do four things: to keep away from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. We saw these four requirements back in chapter 15, and discussed there what exactly they were and why they were bound on the Gentiles. Yet the point here is that this is all that is bound on the nations. They want it clear that the things they are talking about are regarding the Jews who are among the nations, and has nothing to do with those who are not Jews who are of the nations.