Religion can cause such a divide between people equally devoted to their God, even the same God. Sometimes wisdom involves flexibility and accommodation. ◊
Have you ever had an argument with a fellow believer in God over certain acts of religion?
Like the keeping of a literal sabbath (on Sunday) with no work allowed? Or the practice of communion with wine or juice in or out of a Catholic Mass or Protestant church? Perhaps over the modern practice of circumcision at birth, or that of infant baptism via sprinkled water as opposed to adult baptism in a pool of water or even a river such as done by John the Baptist?
How about the drinking of alcohol? Or women in church leadership? Or styles of worship music?
There are lots of areas of division and contention that can drive a wedge between otherwise like-minded and well-intentioned believers in the Christian faith. Even with those that might be considering the Christian faith.
There’s a fascinating episode in ACTS 21 where Paul deftly handles a potential hotbed of religious debate toward a desired outcome.
Paul Travels Forward into Danger
After Paul’s farewell message to the Ephesian Elders (see ACTS 20), he travels for about a month to Tyre and Caesarea on the coast of the Mediterranean and then eventually back to Jerusalem. He is warned not to go to Jerusalem.
We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When it was time to leave, we left and continued on our way. (Acts 21:3-5).
By the way, Paul knows that he’s facing some level of danger in Jerusalem, but he is Holy Spirit-led in his plunge forward for the sake of the Gospel of Christ. Recall in Acts 19:21: After all this had happened, Paul decided in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem, and in Acts 20:22: “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there.”
With this in mind we can better understand Paul’s reply to the disciples urging him to stay away from Jerusalem:
“Then Paul answered, ‘What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus’” (Acts 21:13).
This is an excellent model for us to march forward Spirit-led, not man-led, even when advised by God fearing people. God’s personal mission for each of us, should we choose to accept it, may be fraught with challenges and even danger.
So be it.
Paul’s Accommodation to Avoid Internal Conflict
Once in Jerusalem, Paul confronts another challenge involving delicate variations of belief systems:
When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. (Acts 21:17-21)
In fact, Paul was teaching against following the customs of the law. However, Paul wasn’t degrading Moses so much as preaching the Messiah, Jesus, for whom Moses was a harbinger.
The Elders greeting Paul suggested a plan for Paul to show the Jewish/Christian people respect and accommodation toward Jewish law:
[The Elders said] What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you [Paul] have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.” (Acts 21:22-24)
There were 4 men who were executing the Hebrew Nazirite vow of dedication and consecration to God as outlined in the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers chapter 6. The plan here was for Paul to join these men publically to reinforce the idea that Paul was not anti-Hebrew law.
And Paul does exactly as they asked to appease the Jews who were still struggling with the full freedom in Christ apart from their long-standing Jewish legalism:
The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them. (Acts 21:26)
Compromise or Accommodation?
As an ex-Pharisee himself, Paul respected the beliefs of the Jews and their adherence to the law. He showed great wisdom and discernment in accommodating the sensitive crowd still learning to grasp the full Gospel of the New Way of Christ.
The transformational move from Judaism to Christianity was not easily crossed by all. Paul knew and understood this and was sensitive to the audience he addressed.
Nevertheless, after one week some rabble-rousers stirred up the crowd in Jerusalem against Paul. He is then beaten by the crowd, arrested, and bound in prison chains.
His profound response comes in Chapter 22.
Are you accommodating like Paul?
Though I am free…I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law….To those not having the law I became like one not having the law…so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel… – 1 Corinthians 9:19-23