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Paul’s Puzzling Pragmatism – Acts 21:17-27


Paul’s Puzzling Pragmatism

Text: Acts 21:17-27, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

Pragmatism. “Whatever works…”. It’s the message of the liberal churches, with their compromise to the prevailing culture of the modern age. Acts 21:17-18 Luke is with him, Timothy too, and the representatives of the Gentile churches. They were welcomed, and the next day they met with the church leadership, James, and the elders.

1 The Demand for Pragmatism. 23 Do therefore this that we say to thee:

Paul’s meeting with the elders went well, and he gave them a detailed account of the work of God among the gentile nations. It was enough to cause the elders to rejoice in God. V19-20 But there’s another matter to be considered:

• Legalism and Cultural Relevance. The Jerusalem church was thriving too – there were now literally THOUSANDS of new Christians in the Jerusalem church, all of them followers of Jesus, and all of them from a Jewish cultural background, and all of them zealous for the Jewish way of life and ‘the Law.’ V20 There’s talk among the Jewish Christians that Paul is telling Jewish people that when they come to Christ, they can ditch their distinctive Jewishness, even that he is telling them not to bother circumcising their baby boys. V21 

• Diplomacy and the Fudge. Paul is standing there before the elders, with an offering from the Gentile Churches, perhaps the result of a hint from James and the others at Jerusalem, Galatians 2:9-10 So, Paul, they may think, is telling Jewish Christians to act like Gentiles, and he’s brought a crowd of Gentiles to Jerusalem, and he’s even brought some of their filthy lucre! There’s no doubt that will make some of the Jewish Christians extremely uncomfortable. Diplomacy is needed. And James has a really good idea. Let’s try a fudge! V22-24

There’s four men who have made a vow and they had been growing their hair, and they would be needing to go to the temple, have their hair shaved, undergo the rituals and make the necessary sacrifices. James suggests that Paul should demonstrate his cultural awareness and be relevant – he should sponsor them. He should go along with them to the Temple, go through the rituals with them, and pay for their sacrifices. And Paul agreed! He really wanted that offering to be accepted, and after all he did believe in being Jewish enough to preach in synagogues, and Roman enough to befriend the gentiles, and teach them the Gospel. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 So Paul acquiesced to James’ request.

(It’s at this point in the narrative that we must note that James’s request to Paul did not actually conflict with the decisions of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. That decision was confined to the Gentiles. V25)

2 The Danger of Pragmatism. 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them.

FF Bruce suggests that Paul must have been uncomfortable at James’s demand. James Montgomery Boice in his commentary on this chapter points out that Paul’s actions were going a step too far.

• Pragmatism and the Gospel. Look at what Paul is going to do. He will associate himself with a ritual that many Jews thought would earn them some merit in the sight of God. The Gospel of salvation by free grace would be totally undermined, and discredited and the distinction between Grace and Works destroyed.

• Pragmatism and Personal Integrity. Not only would the gospel be denied in Paul’s decision to be pragmatic, but his own personal integrity would be destroyed too. This is the man who has already warned the Galatian Christians of this very danger, Galatians 5:1-6 

• Pragmatism and Hypocrisy. Paul is being a complete hypocrite. What he is intending to do at Jerusalem is far worse than what Peter did at Antioch, when he refused to eat with the Gentile Christians. Yet when Peter acted in that manner, Paul accosted him, and publicly rebuked him. Galatians 2:11-14 What hypocrisy!

Now, my contention is that if Paul can fall prey to the temptations to ‘do whatever it takes’ so may we…. I know that I have. For a Christian, and especially for church leaders, pragmatism always waters down the message of the gospel, it destroys ministries, it wrecks churches, it denies essential doctrines and it does the devil’s work for him. Paul has walked straight into it – and he was warned, over and over again by God Himself, not to go to Jerusalem. Finally…

3 The Determent of Pragmatism. 27 And when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews which were of Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him,

Something very strange happens, as it frequently does. The opportunity to ruin Paul’s life’s work and destroy his witness is denied him!

• A strange intervention. Paul’s deep in his betrayal. He has met the four men, has taken them up to the temple, and has begun the rituals of purification. The seven days of purification are almost up, and the sacrifices will be due – when God intervenes in the strangest way. Instead of rescuing Paul from danger, God uses unbelievers to have him arrested! Paul never got the opportunity to destroy his life and witness!

• A shift in direction. Acts changes now. Paul’s life and ministry changes. No more travelling, no more new churches, – Paul has been removed from his role as the missionary apostle to the Gentiles. He will be imprisoned and unlike the earlier experience of Peter, God will not miraculously rescue him. His ministry is not over, but it’s different. He will not be teaching in the lecture halls and from home to home. He will be witnessing before Jewish and Roman officials, and prison guards, and some will come to Christ, and there will be Christians found, even in Caesar’s household.

That should give us comfort. Paul no doubt did what he did for the best of reasons. He was trying to be pragmatic, to deal practically with a situation. Sometimes we too let the Lord down by doing something for the best of reasons only to find that it leads to doctrinal confusion or to ruination of our previous witness, or even to hypocrisy. There is hope. All is not lost. Paul was still useful in the Kingdom. His public ministry is taken from him, but he could still be a personal witness, still write letters to encourage young pastors like Timothy and Titus, still live for God’s glory.

© Bob McEvoy July 2021

From → Acts, Bible Study

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