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 everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.” (verses 20-24)
Paul is a man of deeply-held convictions – immovable when he senses the Lord’s calling. In the events described immediately before this passage, Paul is resolute in continuing his journey to Jerusalem, convinced the Spirit has directly called him to do so, even though others, with Spirit-given insight, warn him of the danger that awaits. Paul will not allow himself to be swayed by others when obedience is at stake.
But he also knows how to be receptive to others’ wisdom, indeed submissive to their opinion and direction. That’s what we see in this instance. Arriving in Jerusalem, Paul is informed by James (Jesus’ half-brother and seemingly the leader of the Jerusalem church) that many of the Jewish Christians in the city had heard a rumour that Paul was denying his Jewish heritage and urging others who had become followers of Jesus to do the same. The issue had to do with adherence to Jewish traditions and customs, not as a means of salvation, but as ongoing practices of spiritual devotion. In reality, Paul was happily committed to these elements of his Jewish roots.
So, James urged him to debunk the rumours by openly engaging in a public Jewish devotional practice. There were four men in the local community who had taken a vow (likely a Nazirite vow, as described in Numbers 6). They were now going through a purification rite. James urges Paul to join them and pay the expenses.
It would be very easy to imagine a strong-willed man like Paul saying simply, “Forget it!” One can almost hear him going on to say, “Why should I need to prove my credentials? If people have an issue with me, that’s their problem! I’ve been given freedom.” Have you ever heard such responses made? Have you ever given such a response yourself?
Paul, of course, doesn’t go there, for two reasons. Firstly, he cares too much about the Body of Christ. If his own free behaviour could end up affecting a sister or brother badly, Paul will choose to constrain himself rather than wound someone else. Using the example of food, he says, “if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall” (1 Corinthians 8:13). Such prioritizing of concern for others ends up determining Paul’s response in this present case. If joining the purification rites defuses animosity and promotes unity, he’s all in.
Secondly, he’s not afraid of the word “submit” – indeed, he champions it. Elsewhere he’ll say, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). That’s what he lives out in this passage. He submits to James’ wisdom. Sure, it inconveniences him – but no matter. Sure, it wasn’t his own idea – but he puts aside pride. He submits, to his brother out of reverence for Christ.
Interestingly, this submission involved Paul going to the temple, which ultimately led to great trouble (see the next section). But, in the process, there was potential for healing in the Christian community itself.
Weighing it all together, I imagine Paul thought it was worth it.
Lord, by your Spirit, keep me as flexible as possible when the well-being of your Body is at stake. Through it all, keep me submissive to brothers and sisters, even as you yourself demonstrated by washing feet and laying down your life.
Reflect: Do you find it easier to “stand your ground” or be “flexibly submissive”? Reflect. Talk it through with the Lord.