Note: This article was originally posted on October 20, 2005.
The point of this article is to express how I differ strongly from the godly, English forefather, G. Campbell Morgan in the interpretation of Acts 21:17-26. The applications of this New Testament story are far-reaching into the 21st century over how we ought to relate to one another in the body of Christ. But I find this window to early church life still a point of tension today in 2005. First, let me say. I do not even begin to set myself on equal plane with Morgan, a servant of Christ, who a century ago greatly defended the integrity of Scripture against the deceitful attacks of “Modernism.” G. Campbell Morgan formed embankments, made strong the battlements; he held his sword
faithfully. I would be happy to possess just a portion of his character, forged in the fires of combat. But like Luther of long ago, I think he missed the connecting harmony and warmhearted brotherhood sought by James and Paul.
Here is what Morgan writes in his commentary, The Acts of the Apostles (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1924). It behoves you to look over carefully what he says concerning the situation in Acts 21:17-26. Out of respect, I have provided much of his extended argument.
“These must have been sad days for Paul. He would think of the days of Stephen long ago, and of his four previous visits to Jerusalem. He had never been welcome there.
“These elders seem to have had no conviction that the zealots of the law were wrong. They did no ask Paul for a concession, but for a vindication, which is quite a different matter. They asked him to deny the rumor that he had abandoned rites and ceremonies, by observing these. The principle underlying their appeal was that of policy. Whatever their view, they must surely have known Paul’s attitude. Their request for vindication before the believing Jews was dishonest. They knew that he had personally abandoned the observance of rites and ceremonies. These elders in Jerusalem had been in close touch with all his movements, they had read his letters, and certainly at this time the Galatian letter, and the two Corinthian letters were written. At Antioch he had rebuked Peter for dissimulation, and now they asked him to practice dissimulation.
“That leads us to consider the consent of Paul; and as in looking at the advice of the elders we observed the purpose and terms of the advice; so here let us consider the purpose of his consent, and the terms of that consent.
“Directly we turn from the advice of these men which was that of policy and dishonesty withal, to the consent of Paul, and begin to look at the purpose of his consent, we have moved on to an entirely different level. I put that emphatically, because I hold that Paul made the greatest mistake of his ministry on this occasion. Yet we have to recognize the fact that the reason of his consent was not that of expediency merely, not that of policy, but that of devotion. The reason of his consent here is most perfectly declared in his matchless words in the Roman letter:
“I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience bearing witness with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing pain in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were anathema from Christ for my brethren’s sake, my kinsmen according to the flesh: who are Israelites, whose is the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises, whose are the fathers, and of whom is Christ as concerning the flesh, Who is over all, God blessed forevermore.
“This was not the action of man politic, expedient, and attempting to manipulate the circumstances to prevent a breach of the peace, or a riot in Jerusalem. It was not the action of a man trying to save his own life. It was the action of a man who passionately and earnestly desired to do anything, if by the doing of it he might deliver the message to his brethren, and win them. Look at the action in itself. It was the doing of that which was of no value to him. It was the consent to an appearance, contrary to conviction. Yet was he justified?
“What was the issue? This issue was the failure of the purpose of the elders. They sought to maintain peace. Peace was not maintained. What they did, provoked the very riot they fain would have obviated. Again,—and here the language needs to be more tender, and the sympathy far greater—the issue was the failure of the purpose of Paul. He sought by that accommodation, contrary to his own conviction, to gain an opportunity of testimony to his brethren, and he lost his opportunity. His brethren were not won, and the last word of the paragraph is the same cry hurled after him that was hurled after his Master, ‘Away with him.’
“The teaching of this incident is that love must ever be loyal to truth. To sacrifice a principle for a moment in the hope of gaining an opportunity to establish it afterwards, is always to fail. We never win an opportunity that way. It is in our moments of highest spiritual exaltation that we need to be most watchful against the possibility of compromise. Men who would never compromise in order to save their own lives, are in danger of compromising in the hope that they may help others. If it is a stern word, if it is a hard word, it is a word of infinite love, it is the word of eternal truth; that by compromise we never establish a principle. Even though we hope to gain an opportunity by the doing of it, we lose it.
“That is the last word of this story, but there is something else to follow. We shall see how when men fail, even from high motives, the Lord appears, and gently restores them. The apostle was rescued by arrest, and was carried by soldiers up the stairs leading into the castle.
“There are three matters of supreme interest in this story; first, the man; secondly, the mob; and thirdly, the Mother Church. Let us consider them in the reverse order, glancing first at the infuriated and angry multitude of people surrounding this man; and finally, at the man as a prisoner, to the end of the history in this book.
“Twenty years had passed away since the formation of the Church, and the arresting fact here is that the church in Jerusalem is not seen. Paul was not alone, and would have been beaten brutally to death by an infuriated mob, had he not been rescued by the Roman power. When once the seventh chapter of this book of the Acts has been passed, where the record of the first things in Jerusalem come to an end, whenever the Church emerges in her representative capacity, she is seen attempting compromise, pursuing the policy of accommodation. It was a little difficult for her to receive the testimony of Peter concerning the work in the house of Cornelius. She was suspicious of the movement in Samaria. With difficulty there was wrested from her the granting of the charter of freedom to the Gentiles. She pursued a policy of accommodation, receiving into her fellowship those who had made no break with Judaism. James declared to Paul, who had come up bearing with him gifts from the Gentile churches, with the love of his Lord burning in his heart, that there were multitudes of believing Jews, all of whom were observing the rites and ceremonies of Judaism. This was in itself a very remarkable admission and confession. It may of course be said that these men had attempted thus to secure safety. It was undoubtedly the easier path to admit to the fellowship of the Church men who confessed Christ, and really believed in Him, who nevertheless compromised with Judaism, by still observing its rites and ceremonies; but that policy of accommodation, policy of compromise, had weakened the Church.
“The issue is revealed in this page. The Church had no influence in Jerusalem. In this tragic hour, when this man, bearing in his body the stigmata of Jesus, ought to have been welcomed with open heart and arms by the Church; he stood alone in the midst of the pitiless scorn and brutality of an angry mob, and had to be protected by Roman power. The Church had neither power nor protest. She had lost both by her policy of accommodation.”
Morgan is not isolated in his view. Ivor Powell, a minister in the Baptist Union of Wales, joined in agreement. Commenting on Paul, Ivor wrote in The Amazing Acts (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1987), “To say the least, it was surprising that Paul, the indomitable apostle to the Gentiles, should be expected to compromise his message. When he heard the advice offered by the leaders of the church, he must have known he was being made a victim of a political ruse to gain favor with people. His honor was to be sacrificed on the altar of expediency.”
Ivor is especially harsh with the Jerusalem church elders. “How could Paul be expected to stand by and watch as lambs were sacrificed to please God? The elders were blatantly thoughtless for anyone and anything; only their personal desires were important. They asked Paul to do something which at any other time in his ministry he would have condemned. They completely lost sight of God and were dependent upon their own ingenuity. They were crafty counselors whose faith was overshadowed by a political maneuver. It was no cause for amazement, therefore, when their plan backfired and Paul, the great missionary whose parish covered the world, was incarcerated in a dungeon.”
To conclude, Ivor provides a summary statement by Adam Clarke on Acts 21:17-26: “However we may consider this subject, it is exceedingly difficult to account for the conduct of James and the elders, and of Paul on this occasion. There seems to have been something in this transaction which we do not fully understand.”
On the same path, in just this past decade, the Bible study booklet, Acts – The Gospel throughout the World (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1996) seeks to drive home these questions to Bible study participants. “What evidences of compromise do you detect in the Jerusalem church? Why do you think Paul submitted to the request of these elders? Did this accommodation succeed in its intended purpose—preventing a riot (vv. 27-40)? What conclusions can you draw concerning compromise in the church?”
But now after four pages of giving you the opposing side, let me state briefly, neither Paul nor James were compromising the principle that salvation is grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The main heart motive is not to appease those who are trying to add works to faith in their justification; but the issue is responding in Christian love to practicing, believing Jews.
Here are some of my points of contention:
- Paul’s actions in Acts 21 are what gave him power to maintain his testimony before Felix in Acts 24. The true way of love enables a man to say, “I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day” (Acts 23:1).
- Paul’s actions provide a colorful, sacrificial example of a strong man. This is a far cry from compromising weakness. What Paul talks about in I Corinthians 9:20-22 and Romans 14:5-6, he fleshes out through example in Acts 21. How can this be dissimulation? F.F. Bruce writes, “The wisdom of Paul’s complying with the elder’s plan may well be doubted. Probably he himself was not too sanguine about its outcome; but if his falling in with their proposal would relieve them of embarrassment, he was prepared to bend over backward in applying his stated policy: ‘to those under the law, I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law’ (I Cor. 9:20). Certainly he cannot fairly be charged with compromising his own gospel principles.”
- Think of Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 7:17-19. W. J. Conybeare and J.S. Howson discuss in The Life and Epistles of St. Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprint 1992), “A mind so truly Catholic as his, was necessarily free from any repugnance to mere outward observances; a repugnance equally superstitious with the formalism which clings to ritual. In his view, circumcision was nothing and uncircumcision was nothing; but faith, which worketh by love. And this love rendered him willing to adopt the most burdensome ceremonies, if by so doing he could save a brother from stumbling. Hence he willingly complied with the advice of the assembly, and thereby, while he removed the prejudices of its more ingenuous members, doubtless exasperated the factious partisans who had hoped for his refusal.”
- Josephus describes how Herod Agrippa financed the fulfillment of vows made by Jews. He sought popularity. But Paul? There is a tendency to judge quickly. In this instance with James’ advice and Paul’s financing of vows, we need to take a step back and ruminate. Slowly ruminate. John Stott sums it up well, “It was rather a sensitive, mutual Christian forbearance.” This is the heart I see displayed by James and Paul.
But beyond James, the elders, and Paul, not all involved in that event were right in their attitudes or thinking.
The flaring charge of apostasia is in the text of Acts 21:2l. Surely, many believing Jews were wondering if Paul had gone off the edge into apostasy. Not James, not the elders, but as Matthew Henry says, believers “who could not distinguish upon Paul’s doctrine as they ought to have done, and therefore condemned it in the gross, through ignorance.” Henry, a man of peace, writes correctly, “It is certain the least judicious are the most censorious, the weak-headed are the hot-headed.” This wisdom comes from his father, Philip Henry, who once wrote, “It is not so much our differences of opinion that doeth us mischief, we may as soon expect all the clocks in town to strike together as to see all good people of a mind in everything this side of heaven. It is not so much the differences that doth us mischief but the mismanagement of our differences.” Yes, some of the Jewish believers were wrong in their prejudices against Paul.
But let’s not leave a stinging rebuke only for the Jewish, weaker brother. It is unfair for a believing Gentile, who easily throws off all shadows in his conscience, clinging only to the substance of Christ, to place James and Paul in the throes of compromise and religious expediency. Not every loving adaptation is dangerous to truth. And sometimes, an unbending stance on a certain principle without seeing another is actually slavery. F.F. Bruce suggests, “A truly emancipated spirit such as Paul’s is not in bondage to its own emancipation.” A wonderful need in the body of Christ is men who show prudence in their love for one another.
Our cry is “Give me liberty!” Verily, “Freedom from the Law” is a hymn to sing through the ages! But let’s not forget that during situations and even seasons in our life, love limits liberty in our mingling with the brethren. Paul unfurled this flag in Acts 21 for us to see in our ministry with those of different scruples than us.
Todd Wood is pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He received his B.A. in Missions, M.A. in Theology, and M.Div. from Bob Jones University. But more than anything he hungers for the A.I.G. degree affixed to Apelles (Rom. 16:10).