Yesterday we observed Paul’s courage in setting his course for Jerusalem, knowing there would be suffering ahead for him. In today’s read of Acts 21:17-23:35, that suffering begins to unfold. As he arrives in Jerusalem, James and the other elders of the church warn him that his reputation has preceded him. The Jews believe that he is encouraging the people to abandon the teachings of Moses by not circumcising their children or following their customs. They encourage Paul to keep a low profile and to make a point of joining some other men in a purification rite at the temple.
Paul agrees to this. For a week, things are calm, but in the end, it backfires as he is falsely accused of taking a Gentile into the temple. The mob attacks him, he is thrown into prison, and later has to be secreted out of Jerusalem when a plot to kill him is revealed. He is taken to Caesarea to have his case heard by Felix, the Governor.
Why would Paul agree to a purification rite that he knew was unnecessary based on his faith in Christ? Was he compromising his beliefs, giving in to legalism to save his own skin? Or was he simply exercising wisdom?
I believe this was a case of what Paul described earlier in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:
“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.”
Paul participated in a public Jewish worship ceremony to show his support and love for the Jews. He has already told us that the sacrifices, purification rites, feasts, etc. were simply a shadow of what was to be fulfilled in Christ. They no longer had the same meaning to him personally, but to dismiss them outright would be disrespectful to the people he was trying to reach. By participating, his goal was to build a bridge, showing them honor and respect.
How does this translate into our culture today? Obviously, we wouldn’t participate in something ungodly or offensive to God simply to “win” someone, but like Paul, there may be opportunities to honor a friend of a different faith by joining them in their celebrations or traditions. Our world today is unique, in that people from all different cultures can live just across the street from us. We may see them at the gym, or the grocery store, at our local coffee shop, or at the Dollar General! They may work in the next cubicle. As we have opportunities, we should be forming friendships and building bridges, and demonstrating a sincere interest in who they are and what they believe. By learning about their faith, we can earn the privilege of sharing ours.
That’s what Paul did, you know…when he was finally brought up before the crowd that was calling for his arrest. He stood up and simply shared what had happened to him on the road to Damascus. He told them he had met the Savior. And I have to believe there were some in that crowd who did believe, and whose lives were changed because he was willing to go right into their midst, and “become all things to all men” so that some would be saved.