At the end of Acts 21, we encounter a text that is important for reading the rest of Paul’s letters. Paul will spend the rest of his career discussing how the Gentile believers relate to the Jews and the Law that God had given them. Let’s look at a text that shows some of the controversies that were going on and how Paul responds:
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. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you 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. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”
First of all, note that thousands of Jews in Jerusalem believed. The Greek word here is related to “myriads,” which often is translated “tens of thousands.” So there was a very large group of Jewish followers in Jerusalem, one of the areas where Jesus had encountered much opposition.
While it’s difficult to guess the number of Jews who believed in Jesus, an estimate of 10% has been considered reasonable, given the response in Jerusalem. This would mean that there was actually a large favorable response among Jews to Jesus, and that they did not entirely reject Jesus as Messiah. Tensions between Jews who believed and those who didn’t became worse and worse over time, and this is reflected in their persecution of the early believers. Later, as more Gentiles entered the church, the church became more hostile toward the wider Jewish world. Soon it encouraged Jewish believers to leave behind their religious beginnings.
The Jews who did become followers of Jesus were “zealous for the law.” This is a positive statement from James, showing that since they became Jesus’ disciples, they were passionate about observing the Law as Jesus did. Jesus lived perfectly according to the law, and he summarized it with two statements — love the Lord with all of your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. It seems that Jesus’ disciples would have done their best to follow his example. However, they also believed they are under the New Covenant of forgiveness through Jesus’ atoning death. For them, this does not make them less interested in living the way God said he wanted.
Later in the passage, they discuss the fact that even though believing in Jesus has made the Jews more observant of the Torah, the church has decided that it is not necessary for the Gentiles to observe every stricture of the Torah. This has created quite a controversy, and rumors are flying that go beyond the truth. If Paul has told the Gentiles they don’t need to become circumcised Jews, has he been discouraging Jews from observance too? Of course not. He just needs to show the believers in Jerusalem that he has not tried to undermine God’s laws, and still faithfully observes them himself.
This whole text may surprise readers who have believed that Jesus and Paul preached a gospel that negated and disparaged God’s laws. In contrast, they are both careful observers of the Law, and
have a positive view of the commandments God gave. Since Jesus summarized the law by saying it taught us how to love God and love other people, how could it be bad? Yet it was not necessary for the Gentiles to observe it as they did.
Israel had been called out as a nation and commanded to be separate from Gentiles on Mt. Sinai. Now, it will be a huge question for them of how God wants Jewish believers to live together with those who are not under his first covenant, but now together with them under the new covenant God made through Christ for the forgiveness of sins. That will be much of what the rest of the New Testament addresses.
To explore this topic more, see chapter 21, “Requirements for Gentiles” in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2006, p. 141-44.
For a more detailed treatment of this discussion, see my three part article, “What it Means to Fulfill the Law.”
Photo: Dimnent Chapel [Public Domain]