The very next day after he had arrived, Paul offered the collection of money to James, as the head of the Jerusalem church, and presented the delegation of Gentile Christians as proof of the excellence of the gospel and the transforming power of Jesus’ Spirit within them. Luke, right there at his shoulder, wrote, after greeting them, Paul related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.

Paul talked about what God had done, not what Paul had done. That’s what kept Paul from ever burning out—his perspective of his ministry was not on what he was doing, but always on what God was doing through him. Paul could completely exhaust himself in the Lord’s employ and still count it all joy because it was with God’s wonder-working power surging through him, and not with his own limited resources. He could enjoy with the same awe and wonder the fruit of his labors because it was really God’s fruit, born through Paul.

I’ve often read—and heard—teaching along the lines of observing regular rest, giving the body and spirit time to refresh and be re-energized. This is good teaching, in keeping with God’s institution of the sabbath, at the beginning of time.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.

And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.

So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

Genesis 2:1-3 (NRSV)

Nevertheless, there are times when God asks the extraordinary, just as Jesus seemed to model during His own ministry.

As the apostle John noted years later in his gospel, “the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.‘” Later, Jesus stated an important truth about the pressing time, “We must work the works of Him Who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

When Jesus stole away to pray, it was in the predawn hours, or long into the night, always sacrificing what few hours He had to sleep in order to commune with the Father. He and His disciples ate irregular meals, even to gathering wheat kernels as they walked through a field on the Sabbath, since there was no time to prepare food. This happened so often, the gospels record three important points:

  • The famous feeding of 5,000, one of the rare episodes recorded in all four gospels (apart from Passion Week), occurred because Jesus had been teaching and healing nonstop, and the crowds had finally grown noticeably hungry. The disciples, by the way, had not had a break since Jesus had sent them weeks before on their first missions trip.
  • The feeding of the 3,000 happened after three days of nonstop teaching and healings, and everyone had grown weak with hunger and weariness.
  • In Mark’s gospel, news of the intensity of Jesus’ ministry got back to His family, “and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” This attempt by His own family to restrain Him is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels

Much as Paul practiced the spiritual disciplines of his day, worshiping on the Sabbath, observing the rites, feasts, vows, and sacraments of his Jewish heritage, and much as he regularly worshiped with believers, I think Jesus’ example was ever before him. He knew he “must work the works of Him Who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”

The Jewish Christians praised God after hearing Paul’s report, but it isn’t clear whether James and the Jerusalem church were that thankful for the Gentile Christians’ sacrificial love gift of money. There is no record of them thanking Paul, or even receiving the precious gift that had cost the Gentile churches so dearly to send to them. What is recorded was James’ and the Jewish Christians’ immediate concern and criticism of Paul.

You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law.

They have been told about you that you

1. teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses

2. and that you tell them not to circumcise their children

3. or observe the customs.

What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.

So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law.

Acts 21:20-24 (NRSV)

Many theologians wonder if this is how the Jerusalem church chose to spend the gift of money Paul had brought to them. Paying for the expensive fees of four vows may have represented a compromise that would have enabled Paul to prove his innocence, while at the same time relieve the Jerusalem leadership of the burden of deciding whether or not to accept (Gentile) money from Paul.

What is remarkable is Paul’s gentle and humble spirit towards James and the Jewish Christians.

Paul was determined to illustrate with his life the truth about freedom in Christ, that he was as unified with them in Spirit and in God’s word as he had always been. As soon as James had urged Paul to cover the fees of his fellow Jews, he acknowledged the differences between the Gentile Christians’ observance of God’s Levitical law and the Jewish Christians’ observance, who had grown up with Levitical law.

Paul was eager to bring harmony and unity to the church, to be the leader God had called him to be in setting the tone for reconciliation. Since the sacrificial gift didn’t seem to be doing the great healing work Paul had hoped it would do, he immediately and willingly agreed to James’ suggestion.

James may have been wrong in what he asked Paul to do, but Paul was right to agree. This was living out the principles he had been teaching, to do everything in his power to be at peace with his brothers and sisters, to do what it took to help them grow in Christ.

[Image by moshehar | Pixabay]

2 thoughts on “Acts Wednesday: Chapter 21, Paul and James

  1. I appreciate how this article highlights that there is not a one-size-fits-all prescription for the ministry, and our callings in Christ. Paul’s gentleness with the Jerusalem “pillars” is a great point, too. I had not thought of that encounter this way. Perhaps, as he had prayed about the coming trip there, and about the possibility of conflict, being warned ahead of time by Agabus and other prophets that danger and hardship awaited him if he went to Jerusalem, he had prepared his heart to stay in love and to comply with whatever James might ask. Staying in love in this way is something women in ministry often must exercise, amid requests to curtail our calling which are sometimes quite unbiblical, to preserve unity in love. Though I think this example also shows how this behavior can quench the Spirit and therefore can have far less than the hoped for consequences. Nevertheless, how beautiful is this example by the author of Gal 5:13. Here we see Paul living it. GREAT insight and perspective.

    Your article brings up an interesting question, one that is particularly poignant at this time. And I would love to hear your further thoughts on this, if you have any you want to share. While I am sure Paul still enjoyed celebrating the feasts and other aspects of Mosaic law that he grew up with as a dyed-in-the-wool Pharisee, I question whether Paul was completely observant of Levitical law, though I do know there are those asserting this today, especially from within the Messianic Jewish community, of which I am actually one. I question how he even could, given his frequent travels and while living with non-Jewish Christians most of the last half of his life. Paul wrote on several occasions in ways that indicates that he “lived like a Gentile”, as in Galatians when he rebuked Peter for falling into hypocrisy when “men from James” came to join him after he had been visiting with Paul’s thriving church at Antioch for a time (Gal 2:11-21). If Peter was eating with the non-Jewish Christians, I think we can assume Paul did, too. The food was not kosher. It probably included items that were forbidden by Levitical law. They probably ate with unwashed hands. In this, Paul was following on what Jesus had stated in Mark 7:18-19 and in which Mark, a Jew, noted Jesus’ radical conclusion: “thus all foods are clean”. The full verses go: “Are you still so dull?” He asked. “Do you not understand? Nothing that enters a man from the outside can defile him, because it does not enter his heart, but it goes into the stomach and then is eliminated.” (Thus all foods are clean.)” Also, Jesus repeated this to the dumbfounded listeners three times there in Mark. There are a few other places in Paul’s letters which reference that he not only does not espouse that non-Jewish Christians take on Jewish customs, but indicates he himself did not live this way. Phil 3 comes to mind. Nevertheless, I capitulate to any who would prove otherwise from the scriptures or historical evidence. It surely would put even more weight on how gracious Paul was to take the Nazarite vow along with the three others, according to James request. And though I can’t help but wonder whether God’s grace would have allowed him to put the trip on hold or send a delegation to bring the gift to Jerusalem, Paul’s obedience in going to Jerusalem, knowing what he knew was about to happen, also underscores your point that he did what was above and beyond according to how God led him, as Jesus did, as they were called to do.

    1. Thank you, Danyelle, for your warmth and gracious words.

      And, you bring out an important question about Paul’s relationship with the Hebrew Bible he had grown up with, and had based his life upon, when Jesus stood in his way on the road to Damascus.

      My personal thought (and therefore, not researched, just what I think from having studied the Christian Bible, and in particular, the movement of the 1st century church as described in Acts, and the epistles) is that Paul felt free to observe–or not observe–the festivals, rites, temple practices (apart from the sin offerings), and cleanliness rituals depending on his company and venue.

      I think Paul understood the deep emotional and cultural connection for his people with the Hebrew Bible (whether Torah, or all of it), temple, Jerusalem, and the land itself, as part and parcel with their relationship with God, and with good reason. This had been–at least–a one thousand year, quite passionate as well as turbulent, relationship. Paul showed his facility in being a Jew with Jews, a Gentile with Gentiles, poor with the poor and rich with the rich. He was a very “third culture” adept, which I think all believers really are. We are native citizens (having been born again) of a new people group, a new culture, a new domain. The more we reflect this, the more we are being our true selves.

      Nevertheless, I think Paul very much believed in the fulfillment of the Bible in Jesus, in a literal way. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s spoken word, so that we are brought to new life through God’s word (spoken/published in Scripture/embodied in Christ), in a particular way, because we come through Jesus Who is the Word.

      -IF- I understand this correctly, then the Hebrew Bible showed God->salvation through God’s word (the Bible)->humankind (and in particular, God’s own people). The Christian Bible shows God->salvation through Christ (the embodiment of God’s word)->humankind (everyone, including those of Hebrew descent, must be born into the people of salvation).

      Does that speak to the questions you asked? I’ll give it another shot, if that felt unsatisfying.

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