Did Paul Keep the Law of Moses?

By Rickie Jenkins

Isn’t it interesting that we are asking this question to-day? For just as today, this question was very much on the minds of people in the days of Paul (Acts 18:18; 21:18-28; 1 Cor. 9:20-21). It is important for us to recognize that Paul had a high regard for the law. He tells us that the “law is holy, and the commandments holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). He described himself as a strict observer of the law, “a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee.” There was no one who tried harder to be justified by the law than Paul. He understood the purpose of the law (Gal. 3:24-25) and was devout concerning the law before he was a Christian as well as after he became a Christian. Oh yes, certainly he teaches, in Romans and Galatians, no man is justified by perfect law keeping but by the grace of God through an obedient faith. But, isn’t that obedient faith an expression of reverence for the law of God? Paul did not set aside the law, whether of Moses or of Christ, for mere convenience sake. If he de-scribed himself as “a Hebrew among Hebrews” before he became a Christian, then today he would be a “Christian among Christians.” We want to look at our question in three ways: first, did Paul teach the Jews not to circumcise their children?; second, did Paul violate his own teaching when he helped the four men pay their charges?; and third, did Paul violate his own teaching when he kept his vow at Cenchrea?

Paul had a devout respect for his heritage as a Jew. In fact, when customary things related to being a Jew could be performed, he did them. Paul’s problems came because people believed false rumors about him. Paul had been represented as teaching “the Jews among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (Acts 21:21). Although Paul had not taught these things, many of the zealous Jews were distressed, thinking that he had. This misrepresentation seems to have grown out of the events of Acts 15 where Paul taught that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised in order to be saved. This teaching infuriated many among the Jews. Yes, Paul taught the Gentiles that it was not necessary for them to circumcise their children as a necessity for salvation. He never taught that Jews could not circumcise their children out of respect for their heritage. In fact, Paul circumcised the half-Jew Timothy because of the Jews in order that he might win some (Acts 16:3; 1 Cor. 9:20-21). He refused to circumcise Titus, not because he was against circumcision as such, but because the Judaizers were trying to bind circumcision upon him and others as necessary for salvation. Therefore, in order to teach the Judaizers that circumcision was not necessary for salvation, Paul did not give in to them for one minute (Gal. 2:3-5).

Furthermore, in order to avoid a tumultuous assemblage and to quiet the rumors being spread about him, Paul was advised by James and the elders to take four men who had taken a vow and pay their vow for them and be purified with them (Acts 21:23-24). These men were evidently under a Nazarite vow (Num. 6). Under such a vow they would let their hair grow, not eat anything from the grape moist or dried; they were not to come near any dead body nor to make themselves unclean for their father, mother, brother, or sister when they died (Num. 6:3-7). They were to present an offering when the days of the vow were completed (Num. 6:13-21). Nowhere is it intimated that Paul took a vow; it is assumed perhaps from Acts 18:18.

According to Vincent, “The person who paid the expenses for the poor devotees who could not afford the necessary charges shared the vow so far as that he was required to stay with the Nazarites until the time the vow had expired. For a week, then, Paul, if he accepted the advice of James and the elders, would have to live with the four paupers in the chamber of the temple which was set apart for this purpose; and then to pay for the sixteen sacrificial animals and the accompanying meat offerings. He must also stand among the Nazarites during the offering of the sacrifices, and look on while their heads were shaved, and while they took their hair to burn it under the cauldron of the peace offerings, and while the priest took four sodden shoulders of rams, and four unleavened cakes out of the four baskets, and four unleavened wafers anointed with oil, and put them on the hands of the Nazarites and wave them for a wave offering before the Lord.” Paying the expenses for terminating the vow of these four certainly did not equate that Paul was also taking the vow. By accepting James and the elders proposal, Paul is simply becoming a Jew to the Jew that he might win some (1 Cor. 9:20-21). For the sake of others he acted. After all, that was what he was encouraged to do, “that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing” (Acts 21: 24).

The letter of Acts 15 still stands. The request being made of Paul does not conflict with the principle nor, in fact, with the teaching concerning the Gentiles. He did not become inconsistent, or compromise his teaching, rather he showed himself a respecter of the old law. Suppose we were to go to a foreign country like Japan. While there, we observe that one of their customs was taking off their shoes before we enter the house. We determine that to be a good practice. So, we begin to take off our shoes before we enter our houses. But, someone comes along and tells us we have to take off our shoes before entering the house or we will be lost. Now what? Taking off our shoes is no longer a matter of custom but a matter of salvation. Can we keep the custom? Yes. Can we make the custom regarding salvation? No.

Now let us briefly look at Acts 18:18 where Paul “cut his hair off in Cenchrea, for he had taken a vow.” A vow was a solemn promise made to God. Vows were used prominently throughout the Scriptures. “Jacob, going into Mesopotamia, vowed a tenth of his estate, and promised to offer it at Bethel to the honor of God (Gen. 28:22). A man might devote himself or his children to the Lord. He might devote any part of his time or property to his service” (Barnes). The most remarkable vow among the Jews was that of the Nazarite. The vow of Paul mentioned in Acts 18 is like a Nazarite vow in that he did shave his head; the vow is different because he did not shave his hair in Jerusalem nor burn it on the alter as Numbers 6:13-18. Vows were also common for Jews to make to God as an expression of gratitude or of devotedness to his service when they had been raised up from sickness or delivered from danger or calamity. No doubt Paul was thankful for all of God’s goodness to him in Corinth and took his vow to show his gratitude. His vow seems to have been a private vow as a result of some mercy received or of some deliverance from danger, not the Nazarite vow, though similar in its obligation.

In spite of Paul’s efforts to become all things to all men in order to win some, there were some who were not satisfied by his attempts. After paying the vow for the four men he was accused of defiling the temple by taking a Gentile into the temple with him (Acts 21:28-29). Isn’t that a stretch? Just because Paul had been seen with Trophimus his de-tractors assumed Paul had taken him in the temple with him. First, the Jews jumped to the conclusion about what he taught because of what they heard about him, and then his detractors judged Paul guilty by association. From the Jews we learn we must be very slow to draw conclusions about what another teaches based on what we have heard. Also, we learn the need to be very careful about judging a person because of his associations. The Jews teach us how not to treat one another. From Paul we also learn how to get along with people and their customs. Paul bent over backward to accommodate the peculiar idiosyncrasies and prejudices of his detractor(s) as well as the rumors about what he taught regarding the law. Let us do likewise. Unfortunately we have all experienced situations like this and, sadly, have been guilty of the same thing as these Jews. We all need to be like Paul (1 Cor. 9:20-21), and we all need to rid ourselves of attitudes like the Jews in Acts 21:18-28.

Guardian of Truth XL: 3 p. 16-17
February1, 1996