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#carmelprays – Acts 21:17-26

Opening Song: Jesus At The Centre

Read Scripture: Acts 21:17-26

Read passage twice before going through devotion.

Our passage for today begins with Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey. The first day back passes innocently enough with the believers welcoming him “warmly”, probably in Mnason’s house. The next day, given the warnings by the Holy Spirit in previous chapters, Paul’s sense of foreboding must have grown as he made his detailed report to James and the elders of what God had done among the Gentiles. After his report, he also very likely presented the offerings from the Gentile churches to Jerusalem as this was one of his chief motives for coming to Jerusalem.

While James and the elders were happy for what God had accomplished through Paul, they also revealed the fault lines that were becoming increasingly apparent in the mother church. It was increasingly caught between its allegiance to the Jewish national identity and its support of Paul’s Gentile mission. They also falsely accused Paul of antinomianism; or efforts to turn Jewish believers away from the Law. 

It is interesting that Luke does not record whether the Jerusalem church accepted the offering from the Gentile churches. Perhaps with the rising tide of Jewish nationalism and growing body of believers “zealous for the law”, the Jerusalem church felt some pressure to reject the contribution. This would have been disastrous, as it would in effect symbolically sever the connection between the Pauline churches and the Jerusalem church.

The next few verses tells us the compromise that was struck. To continue supporting Paul’s efforts with the Gentiles and accept their contribution, James and the elders wanted Paul to make a token effort of conciliation by participating in a Nazirite vow with four men. He would have to pay for their expenses as a sponsor, go with them into the temple for purification rites and after seven days of his purification (since he had been abroad) be present with them while the four made their final offering. Perhaps the elders saw this as their way of protecting themselves against Jewish recriminations while at the same time being able to support Paul and his mission. They probably also saw this as an opportunity for Paul to burnish his Judaic credentials and refute the accusations of antinomianism. 

Paul’s willingness to accede to this request shows his commitment to preserve Church unity in the face of false accusations. He doesn’t confront those who accuse him and create an even more tense situation. It is worth noting that the Church, even at this infant stage, is already being pulled in different ways by the tensions of the prevailing cultures of the day – between traditionalist Jews and modern cosmopolitan Gentiles of countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. To the credit of the elders of the Jerusalem church, they recognized the importance of unity and were deft on their feet and humble in their heart, acting almost as front-line diplomats, trying to preserve unity in an emotionally charged time. Unfortunately, we know from vs 27 onwards that despite their best efforts, they fail, and Jewish instigators would result in Paul being arrested. But for now, the Jerusalem church should be admired for their efforts to remain as one rather than to separate. It would have been easy for them to distance themselves from Paul’s work, declare that Gentile believers were too “different” from Jewish ones and that Gentiles should perhaps form a separate Christian “denomination”. 

As application, when we think of church unity today, I am reminded of the quote from Archbishop of Spalato, Marco Antonio de Dominis, who wisely said about Christian unity : “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas” or “In Necessary Things, Unity; In Uncertain Things, Liberty; In All Things, Charity (or Love)”. I often wonder if we had the Holy Spirit-led perspective of Paul and the elders of the Jerusalem churches, whether we would have as many denominations as we do today. Let’s be clear, Paul was no ecumenist at all costs – we see him vigorously defending church doctrine throughout the New Testament, but here we see his (and the other apostles’) other side, humbling his heart, taking false accusations in his stead and defending church unity as much as he could, perhaps with Jesus’ prayer of John 17:21 in mind.

Pray in Response

Father, we know that Paul’s wholehearted obedience in obeying the Holy Spirit’s leading and entering into Jerusalem could not have been easy. He knew by taking this step, he would never see the churches he planted ever again (Acts 20:38). We see his sensitive heart in understanding the forces that threaten to pull the early church apart and his meekness and humility in seeking to maximize church unity rather than to separate at the slightest of differences.  We pray for unity in Mt Carmel today. Help us to have a deep understanding of Scripture to discern what is and is not important and to strive for unity with fellow believers as much as is possible.

Response Song: O How Good It Is

By Loh Pin Chuan

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