By Clinton D. Hamilton
Question: Please explain Acts 21:21-26. Why were Jewish Christians and Paul keeping the law?
Reply: Context in which an act is done is extremely important to understand both the purpose and implication of what is done. Let us set this specific occurrence in a larger context of the teaching of the gospel relative to what is required and what is a matter of liberty.
If circumcision is done as a duty in order to please God under the New Covenant, it is condemned. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything (Gal. 5:6; 6:15; 1 Cor. 7:19). Men are not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Christ (Gal. 2:16). If righteousness is by the law, then Christ died in vain (Gal. 2:21). Clearly Paul understood this and his behavior in Antioch against those who came from Judea demonstrated that he fully understood it. These from Judea taught that in order to be saved ‘ one had to be circumcised after the manner of Moses (Acts 15:1). A conference was later conducted in Jerusalem at which Paul was in attendance having been directed of God to go to it (Gal. 2:2). By direction of the Holy Spirit, a letter was sent out that said those who teach circumcision as being essential to salvation under Christ received no commandment for such teaching (Acts 15:24). However, there were certain necessary things which were laid on their conscience: to abstain from idols, blood, things strangled, and fornication (Acts 15:29). It is clearly evident that in the context of being required to keep the law of Moses, including circumcision and sacrifices in order to be saved, there is an unequivocal denial. Men are saved by faith in Christ and not by doing the works of the taw (Gat. 2:16).
However, there is another major part of the larger context that needs to be articulated. Distinctions in food, days, and the like are not now required of God (Rom. 14:1-21). Some individuals, however, may desire to, and believe they should, observe certain distinctions. Those who know better according to the gospel are not to exclude these individuals who do such observances between themselves and God. Each of these persons making the distinctions must act within the permission of his/her conscience (Rom. 14:23). On the other hand, the person with clearer understanding and fuller knowledge must not destroy his brother by putting a stumbling block or occasion to fall in his brother’s way (Rom. 14:13, 20-22). In 1 Corinthians 8-10, there is an extended treatment of the matter of liberty, which in relation to the question raised is extremely informative and helpful.
Foods neither make us better nor worse within themselves because the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). One has the liberty of eating or not eating. However, in some specific contexts, one is not to eat because of the influence or impact that eating would have on certain observers (1 Cor. 8:813; 10:23-33). On the other hand, in certain contexts, one might choose to engage in some specific conduct in relation to the view of another in order to influence that person to do good. One has the liberty to do or not to do the act, but in the particular context he might choose to do what he might otherwise not be disposed to do. Paul argues that he was free from all men (1 Cor. 9:19). However, in some contexts, he might make himself a servant in order to gain more people (1 Cor. 9:19).
To the Jews Paul made himself a Jew that he might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law as under the law in order to gain them that are under the law (1 Cor. 9:20). Likewise, to Gentiles as without the law in order to gain them, although he fully understood that he was under law to God (1 Cor. 9:21). When he was among the weak, he became weak that he might gain them (1 Cor. 9:22). All of this he did for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:23).
Certain customs and practices of the law could be observed as a matter of liberty. But if they were in the context of being essential to being saved, it is no longer a matter of liberty but a matter of conscience. Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3) but evidently in the context that it was not essential but was such an act of liberty as is contemplated in 1 Corinthians 9:1923. However, Titus was not circumcised in a context of its being required (Gal. 2:3-5). There is no question that Paul clearly understood and studiously observed conduct that demonstrated that circumcision and the keeping of the law were not required for salvation under Christ.
In Acts 21, it seems that some were saying that Paul forbade Jews to practice circumcision and other customs of the law (Acts 21:21). It is clear that this was a misrepresentation as the teaching and practice of Paul which were examined in preceding comments show. However, the brethren, who approached Paul understood that the enemies were misrepresenting him. They understood the issue of circumcision had been settled and clearly showed this in their remarks to Paul (Acts 21:23-25). They referred in verse 25 to the decision of the Holy Spirit communicated in Acts 15:29.
Evidently, Paul’s willingness to undertake being at charges for those who were to offer pursuant to what Numbers 6:2-12 directs in the case of the Nazarite vow is exactly what he taught in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. To the Jews he became a Jew that he might gain the Jews. This was obviously in the context of its not being essential to salvation and is entirely consistent with what he did in the cases of Titus and Timothy. There is no implication in the context that what he did was essential to salvation. Had it been, he would not have done it. It was in the context of the liberty he had in Christ. His practice and that of the other brethren was an exercise of their liberty for the sake of the gospel.
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 23, pp. 709, 717
December 6, 1990