Welcomed by Brethren Part 2 of 4

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

19 And when he had saluted them, he declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry.

On an earlier occasion—at the Jerusalem conference—when Paul gave a report of his successful Gentile mission, it was met with stony silence (15:12). The phrase “declared particularly” means “reported in detail, item by item,” that is, Paul shared accurately each one of the things that had occurred since the last time he was in Jerusalem. As always (14:27; 15:4, 12), Paul gave all the credit and glory for his accomplishments to God.

20a And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said. . .

Now his report was received with greater enthusiasm (see v. 19). The elders “praised God” for the fruits of Paul’s work among the Gentiles. At the Jerusalem conference they had endorsed Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, and so they naturally received the report of his missionary successes with some elation. But Paul’s success had created some problems for them, and now they related those to him. Probably James spoke for the group.

20b . . . and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law:

Their new situation was partially due to their own success in the Jewish Christian mission and the many thousands of new converts who had been made. There were many among Paul’s listeners who had stirred restlessly as his remarkable story unfolded. What was so marvelous about thousands of Gentiles being saved? After all, they could tell of thousands of Jews being saved, and their converts were “zealous for the law.”

What a letdown for Paul. Here was the death knell to his hopes that the rift between Jew and Gentile in the church might be bridged by the Gentile gift and by the story of the gospel in Gentile lands. Here he came up against narrow-minded religious pride and the belief that nothing would ever change so long as Jerusalem and the Temple{10] stood as symbols for Moses and the law.

They were all “zealous for the law.” Faithfulness to the Torah was nothing new for the Jewish Christians. Basically, that was what the agreement at the Jerusalem conference was all about. The Jewish Christians would remain faithful to the Jewish law, but Gentile converts would not be subjected to it except for the special provisions of the Apostolic Decree (v. 25). What was new to the present situation is hidden in the word “zealous.” Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem probably was in the spring of A.D. 56 or 57 during the procuratorship of Felix. Josephus described this period of the mid-50s as a time of intense Jewish nationalism and political unrest. One insurrection after another rose to challenge the Roman overlords, and Felix brutally suppressed them all. This only increased the Jewish hatred for Rome and inflamed anti-Gentile sentiments. It was a time when pro-Jewish sentiment was at its height, and friendliness with outsiders was viewed suspiciously. Considering public opinion, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles would not have been well received. The Jerusalem elders were in somewhat of a bind. On the one hand, they had supported Paul’s witness to the Gentiles at the Jerusalem Conference. Now they found Paul a persona non grata and his mission discredited not only among the Jewish populous, which they were seeking to reach, but also among their more recent converts. They did not want to reject Paul. Indeed, they praised God for his successes. Still, they had their own mission to the Jews to consider, and for that Paul was a distinct liability. The elders were especially concerned that Paul’s presence in the city not cause division or disruption among the “thousands of Jews . . . zealous of the law (Acts 21:20).

You get the impression that the legalists had been working behind the scenes. No sooner had Paul finished his report than the elders brought up the rumors that were then being circulated about Paul among the Jewish Christians. It has well been said that, though a rumor doesn’t have a leg to stand on, it travels mighty fast!

21 And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are

among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs.

Jews from the Diaspora (dispersion) were likely the ones who spread the reports among the Jerusalem Christians that Paul was inciting Jews to abandon their ancestral customs—these “men of the circumcision” went out of their way to hound Paul and to hinder his work (11:2; 15:1-5). The more he spoke of the doctrine of salvation by grace, the more he was falsely accused of telling the Jews of the Diaspora to forsake (turn away from) Moses. The rumor started by them was that he was encouraging Diaspora Jews who lived in his Gentile mission fields to forsake the law of Moses and to abandon the practice of circumcising their children. Almost the same things were said about Jesus and Stephen: He was teaching the Jews to forsake the laws and customs given by Moses.

The Jerusalem Jews had been well stuffed with the lies the Jerusalem church elders now disclosed to Paul. These were serious charges, for these matters struck at the very heart of the Jews self-identity as the people of God. The Torah, particularly in its ceremonial aspects, set them apart from all other people. Circumcision, in particular, was a sort of badge, a physical mark made in the flesh of every Jewish male on the eighth day after birth to denote his membership in God’s covenant people{5]. Would Paul have urged Jews to abandon this “sign of the covenant”? There is certainly no question that he argued strongly against seeing circumcision as a guarantee of salvation. It could be no substitute for faith in Christ, for becoming a new creation in the Spirit (Galatians 5:6; 6:15). Consequently, he adamantly opposed circumcision of his Gentile converts. But there is no evidence that he ever encouraged Jewish Christians to abandon the practice and considerable indications to the contrary (Acts 16:3; 1 Corinthians 7:18).

The same can be said for Paul’s attitude toward the Torah in general. He rejected flatly the supposition that the law could be a means of salvation. He saw faith in Christ, not law, as the sole basis for one’s acceptability to God. He adamantly opposed anyone who sought to impose the Torah on his Gentile converts, and this was very much within the spirit of the Jerusalem conference (15:10, 19, 28). But there is no evidence that he urged Jewish Christians to abandon their ancestral law, and Acts would indicate that he himself remained true to the Torah in his own dealings with Jews (18:18; 20:6; 23:5). In short, Paul saw one’s status in Christ as surpassing the distinction between Jew and Gentile— “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Being in Christ neither required that the Gentile become a Jew nor that the Jew cease to be a Jew (1 Corinthians 9:19). Still, there may have been a grain of truth in the rumor that Paul was encouraging Jews of the Diaspora to abandon the Torah. It would not have been Paul’s having actually urged the Jews to do so but rather the social situation of Paul’s Diaspora churches. In the Diaspora, Jews who became Christians would almost inevitably have transferred from the synagogue to the predominantly Gentile churches. Acts 19:9 would indicate that this had been the case in Ephesus. Having left the base of support for their Jewish identity in the synagogue, there would be the natural inclination to adapt to the ways of the Gentile majority in the Christian churches. Whether or not this was the case, Paul himself had not urged Jewish Christians to abandon the Torah, and there is no evidence that the elders themselves lent any credence to the allegations. Still, they had to deal with them. Paul’s presence would soon be known throughout the Jewish Christian community (v. 22). Something had to be done to offset the rumors, because the Jewish Christians believed the lies. We are not told whether or not James believed these rumors about Paul, but evidently, the majority of the Christian Jews did. Paul was presumed guilty until he proved himself innocent.

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