On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. Act 21:18-21 ESV
Recently, while doing a study through the book of Acts on the ministry forms, I was struck by the above passage. Paul had just completed his third missionary tour and was now back in Jerusalem. He was updating the leadership about his ministry among the Gentiles. The leaders affirmed Paul’s work among the Gentiles and also testified to God’s amazing work among the Jews, having seen thousands put their trust in Christ as their Messiah.
But then the elders make an interesting request. They asked Paul to join in a vow along with four others as proof that he still lives in observance to the law of Moses (see Acts 21:22-24). And Paul submits himself to this request, joins the four in their purification rights and presents himself in the temple accordingly.
- This incident occurs at least 20 years after Paul’s conversion. Note that the testimony of the elders is that the Jewish converts are ‘very zealous for the law.’ That is, the Jewish background believers were still following OT Jewish customs and forms. They had become even more zealous of their Jewish traditions and the OT ceremonial law.
- Secondly, the elders concern was that Paul’s appearance among these zealous Jewish believers would be cause for a possible conflict. Note that it was not the unbelieving Jews who were their concern, but rather the Jewish believers.
- It was accepted that Gentile converts were not to follow OT Jewish forms and traditions in their new-found faith, other than the few requests established by the leaders mentioned in Acts 15:22ff after Paul’s first missionary tour.
- The elders also assumed that Paul was teaching the Jewish background converts who lived among the Gentiles to leave their Jewish customs and traditions and embrace new forms of worship and lifestyle (Acts 10:21). He did not refute this claim.
It seems that the emergent Church took many years to leave behind their Jewish forms, traditions, and customs and fully establish ‘new wine in new wineskins’ (see Matthew 9:17). As more and more Gentile believers emerged, new forms also emerged with them. Gradually, Jewish forms and customs were left behind. But it was a long process with many challenges.
Bringing significant change to long-held forms or traditions can be arduous and require much perseverance. Don’t be discouraged by the length of the change process. “Mile by mile, it’s a trial; but inch by inch, it’s a cinch!”