Zealous for the Law

Acts 21:17-36

Acts 21:17-20a “When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers 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.”
For three and a half verses, what you hope would happen, what should happen – happens. The warmth and acceptance of Christian brotherhood envelopes Paul and his companions. Jews and Gentiles embracing in their common love for the Lord.

Paul’s detailed report of his mission work among the Gentiles in Asia, Galatia, Macedonia and Achaia are confirmation that God has been working powerfully through his ministry. And Luke wants us to hear that clearly as he writes – this isn’t just a puffed up politician bragging about his victories. Luke carefully chooses his words – “Paul reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.”

All of those who are gathered – James (the Lord’s brother) and all of the elders of the Jerusalem church, praise God for what he has done. There is sincerity and enthusiasm, not just a polite “Well isn’t that nice,” while thinking, “Why do we tolerate him?”

If we could emulate that kind of acceptance, capture that kind of genuine enthusiasm when we listen to missionaries report on what God is doing in places far away. If we could rejoice to learn that God is indeed at work in spreading the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ.

But perhaps the truth is, we are too much like the Jews in Jerusalem. The elders knew as well as Paul did that not everybody looked forward to his arrival – not everybody believed that what he was doing was the work of God – not everybody thought that the Gentiles had a place in the kingdom.

James and the elders waste no time in cutting to the heart of their concerns. There are times it would seem when numbers overrule principle, when conciliation is more important than doing what is right. Listen to the concerns – “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 21:20b-21
First, they know the people. “Thousands” of Jewish believers. They are Christians, but they are still Jewish to the bone. That’s not a contradiction –
• They believed wholeheartedly in the sonship and lordship of Jesus Christ.
• He is the Messiah that came as the fulfillment of OT prophecy.
• Salvation was through belief, repentance, confession and baptism.
In this regard, their beliefs were no different that the Gentiles whom Paul had taught.

Being Jewish was a matter of identity – it encompassed their whole way of life and thinking and relating to their world. It permeated their new life as Christians.

They could no more separate their life-long traditions and customs than they could keep their hair from growing. We’ve all got a little of that in us. We don’t think we do, but we do. We’re just a little blind to it. And that’s the worst kind of tradition – tradition that you can’t recognize as tradition – tradition that is so ingrained and second-nature that you accept and defend it as an absolute matter of doctrine.

Let me go a step further. I believe that for the most part these Jews did what they did and believed what they believed out of the deepest sincerity and dedication to God. Paul understood what that was like – in the next chapter when he addresses these same Jews he describes that in himself – Acts 22:3-5 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.”

These Jewish Christians are zealous for the Law – the Law gave their lives structure and stability. In keeping the Law they know what God wants and what God expects of them. They have a passion for obedience.

And let me stop and say, Lord give us that kind of passion for what we believe rather than the lukewarm mediocrity and apathy that characterizes so many of us. What they believed, they really believed, and lived it zealously.
But Paul had also lived his life among them and when he laments their condition in Romans 10, he writes: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Rom 10:1-4)

Living according to God’s laws is one thing – making law-keeping the basis of your salvation and the heart of your righteousness is another. There is a line across which zeal for the Law becomes legalism – and there is no more deadly religious disease than legalism.

Legalism is not just a matter of being zealous for God’s Law, but for law-keeping itself. We like to know where we stand, so we make a list of rules – a check list. These rules become our contract with God – we strike a bargain with God – if we keep our list of rules, God will keep his part of the bargain.
• Legalism nullifies grace – salvation is no longer a gift of God, but a wage owed.
• Legalism convinces us that if I just try a little harder, live a little better, keep the rules a little more perfectly, then I will be deserving of salvation and can feel secure because of what I’ve accomplished.
• Legalism is deceptive because it takes the focus off of God and places it on us. It makes us the score-keepers of righteousness and the guardians of orthodoxy.
• And a person who is wrapped in legalism would never see himself as a legalist – he sees himself as faithful, as a defender of the faith, holding to sound doctrine, following the old paths. But it is not God’s faith, God’s doctrine, God’s paths that they are walking in.

One thing we learn from reading the NT is that legalism never confines itself to God’s laws – it always expands to incorporate man-made traditions and rules.

We also learn that legalism never confines itself to personal obedience, but demands that same twisted obedience from others – it imposes itself on everybody and judges and condemns those who do not live up to the standards I’ve set for myself, regardless of whether I myself can keep them or not.

Legalism is a dead-end street which can only lead to one of two places – a smug self-righteousness which condemns others, or a frustrated, guilt-ridden paranoia about not being able to live up to our own list of rules.

When Paul wrote to the Galatian churches, they had been infiltrated with legalism and he had some pretty harsh things to say about it –“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? …
All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.”…
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” Galatians 3:1-3, 10-11; 5:1-4.

I said that legalism never confines itself. James and the elders tell Paul that these Jews “have been informed.” I don’t guess they had the critical, self-righteous, hate-filled brotherhood papers we have today – these Jews from Asia Minor came and spread their dissension in person.

Paul had to deal with them over and over as they dogged his missionary journeys, destroying what he worked so hard to establish. From Antioch in Acts 13 to Rome in Acts 28, Luke chronicles the relentless pursuit of the Jews from city to city, openly attacking Paul – but perhaps even more destructively – the damage they did in taking new Christians and imposing up them rules and regulations which had no part in their new covenant through the blood of Jesus.

I want you to hear just how strongly Paul feels about legalism. We tend to brush it off and accommodate it as just a difference of opinion. And we let one or two people take an entire congregation hostage. Paul opposed it fiercely and refused to let it rule. Again, it is in the Galatian letter that Paul confronts this legalism that threatens the Christian’s freedom in Christ –
Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you….
Sometimes legalism comes from the most unexpected of places--
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?...
The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be. Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!
Galatians 2:1-5, 11-14; 5:10b-12.

The elders there in Jerusalem had hoped to pacify these zealous Jews – perhaps conciliate them with some act of Jewish obedience on Paul’s part to assure them that they are mistaken about Paul, and so they talk with Paul – Acts 21:22-24 “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.”

Paul always surprises me – just when I would expect him to stand on principle and say “no way,” Paul does it willingly with a spirit of humble willingness to maintain harmony – the very expression of what he wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Though I am free and belong to no man, I make 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 (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s 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 men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

He willingly undergoes this Jewish ritual of dedication, and pays the expenses for others to go through it with him. Surely, they are pacified – surely Paul has convinced them of his orthodoxy and commitment. Who are we kidding? Nothing Paul could have done would convince them – legalism cannot be conciliated – it refuses to be convinced – Paul stood condemned before he ever got to Jerusalem.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when we read 21:27-29. “When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place.” (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple area.)” The same Jews that had dogged his missionary journeys throughout Asia are now the catalyst to the confrontation in Jerusalem. “This is the man!” They play on assumption and innuendo – facts and truth have nothing to do with their accusations. They don’t want justice, they want to destroy Paul.

Confusion and panic takes over -- Acts 21:30-36 “The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Then he asked who he was and what he had done. Some in the crowd shouted one thing and some another, and since the commander could not get at the truth because of the uproar, he ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. When Paul reached the steps, the violence of the mob was so great he had to be carried by the soldiers. The crowd that followed kept shouting, “Away with him!”

I hope you didn’t miss the striking similarities between the riot that took place in Ephesus when the idol-making silversmiths pumped the Ephesians into a rage and when the Jews do the same thing in Jerusalem. When people are more intent on being right and winning than on seeking truth and following Jesus – you can always write in the bottom line.

Obviously, legalism won’t create a city-wide riot in modern day Glenwood Springs, but I’ve seen legalism tear apart modern day churches. People who demanded that everyone yield to their ideas, their scruples, their list of rules. Legalism has no place in the life of a Christian, or in the life of the church. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free – let’s not surrender again to a yoke of slavery – whether it be the OT Law in the 1st century, or a list of rules of our own making in the 21st century.