Welcomed by Brethren Part 3 of 4

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

22 What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that thou art come.


It is evident that the Jewish church in Jerusalem regarded Paul as a troublemaker. He attracted trouble and riots everywhere he went, and the last thing they wanted was a riot. They fully expected trouble to erupt once Paul’s presence in Jerusalem was known to the unbelieving Jews, but instead of suggesting to Paul that he leaves Jerusalem, the elders had evidently worked out the possible solution among themselves of a means whereby Paul could by example demonstrate that he was still true to the Jewish law. This they now suggested to him (vs. 22-24). What they wanted was to exhibit Paul as a pro-Judaistic Christian—one of their own kind— “For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh” (Galatians 6:13). Paul, of course, thought the whole thing was so much nonsense, but he was always the most conciliatory of men when no vital principle of the faith was involved. Besides, what he wanted more than anything else was to have a ministry to his Jewish fellow-believers. He was willing to become all things to all men if, by so doing, he might be able to win some (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).


23 Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them;

Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; Them take, and purify thyself with them (23, 24a). There were four Jewish Christians, who appear to have been members of the church and, who had taken upon themselves a temporary Nazarite vow—a rather extreme expression of Jewish piety—but were now unable to afford the expense involved in terminating the vow. Paul himself had taken a vow sometime before, possibly while in Corinth during his second missionary journey (18:18). At the Corinthian seaport of Caesarea, he had shaved his head, indicating that the vow was over (18:18), and conceivably the apostle was purifying himself with the four men in order to participate with them in making an offering to legally terminate his own Nazarite vow. Vows are not part of New Testament Christianity. They are essentially Jewish in character. We rarely find them mentioned in the New Testament and never in the epistles. The fact that Paul would take a vow is not to be interpreted as something recommended for Christians. Paul was a Jew as well as a Christian, and he lived in a transitional period when the church was struggling to get out of the Jewish cocoon in which its life began. Paul’s purpose in taking a Nazarite vow was in keeping with his passion to reach the Jews of his day for Jesus. It underlines his determination to do everything in his power to reach the Jewish people. He would bend over backwards to do so. He would do anything short of compromising his own convictions in the gospel.

24 Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law.

The four were nearing the end of the period of their vow and soon would be completing it with the customary ceremony in the Temple. This involved cutting their hair and burning it as an offering, which suggests that it was a Nazarite vow (18:18). In addition, a number of costly sacrifices were required—a male and a female lamb, a ram, and cereal and drink offerings (Numbers 6:14).

The Nazarite vow itself was a Mosaic institution. The Nazarite was to let his hair grow long, was to touch no dead body, and was to abstains from partaking of the fruit of the vine. It seems that four of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem had taken a Nazarite vow and then had allowed themselves to become ceremonially defiled. Under the Mosaic law, ceremonial defilement called for ceremonial cleansing.

Paul was asked, probably by James, to join the four and bare the expenses of these rites {7] (perhaps the men involved were too poor to pay their own way out of the ritualistic predicament in which they had landed themselves), which included the cost of a dozen prime animals as well as the rest of it, just to prove he was still a Jew, albeit a Christian Jew. But, if it would reconcile his Jewish brethren, Paul was willing to do it. Aside from paying their expenses, Paul’s role in the matter is not altogether clear. He obviously did not join in the vow because the minimum period for a Nazarite was 30 days, and only seven were involved here (v. 27). Also, it could not have been a matter of a Nazarite “purification” ceremony in which he participated. There was such a purification ceremony in connection with Nazarite vows, but it was not a regular part of the Nazarite commitment; rather, it was a special provision in case the one under the vow came into contact with a corpse or became otherwise defiled (Numbers 6:9-12). That could not be the situation here because the Nazarite who underwent the purification had to begin the minimum 30-day period of the vow all over again (Numbers 6:12). The most likely solution is that Paul was the one who underwent purification. Often a Jew on returning to the Holy Land after a sojourn in Gentile territory would undergo ritual purification. Paul, having just returned from an extended stay in Gentile lands, would be considered ceremonially unclean. He, therefore, needed to undergo ritual purification before participating (as their sponsor) in the ceremony marking the end of the four men’s vows. There were regulations covering Nazarite vows in Numbers 6:1-21, and there is a provision covering accidental defilement (9-12). The period involved was seven days (Numbers 19:12), which fits the present picture (21:27). Paul thus underwent ritual purification to qualify for participation in the completion ceremony of the four Nazarites which took place within the sacred precincts are of the Temple. This would be a thorough demonstration of his full loyalty to the Torah, not only in his bearing the heavy expenses of the vow but also in his undergoing the necessary purification himself{6]. The hope evidently was that the Jews would see Paul performing a purely Jewish ritual in the Temple, and that news of it would offset the rumors that surrounded him.

By taking part in this purification ceremony Paul was not violating his principles. He would never have asked a Gentile Christian to do what he did, and he probably would not have recommended a Nazarite vow to the ordinary Jewish Christians. But he could see nothing wrong in making this gesture of fellowship and goodwill toward other Jewish believers. True, they held the narrowest Judaistic views, and it was unfair of James to make the suggestion at all. It was all in keeping, however, with the narrow, legalistic views of the James’ faction in the Jerusalem church. There is no evidence that Paul’s compliance did the slightest amount of good, but he was in a difficult situation. To comply with their request might cause his Gentile friends to stumble; but to refuse to do so would confirm his Jewish brethren’s already low opinion of him. Of the two evils, he chose the lesser, judging that the conscience of his Gentile friends, enlightened by his own teaching (Romans 14:1-15:7), was far stronger than that of these Jewish Elders, bound as they were by traditions and shackles that kept them imprisoned to obsolete forms and ceremonies.

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