SOME PROBLEMS WITH PAUL AND THE LAW
T. PIERCE BROWN
For about 40 years or more I have had a little problem with Acts 21:24. Back then I did not know that J. W. McGarvey had lived or written. H. Leo Boles had not yet written his commentary, and even if I had known of them I did not have the money to buy them. What few preachers I knew were itinerant “meeting” preachers, and I did not get a chance to talk with them, for children were seen and not heard. So I just had to get along by myself.
When many years later I managed to find McGarvey’s Commentary on Acts, I was thrilled by his tremendous ability and Bible knowledge, but found myself questioning a few of his conclusions, although very few. Most of his comments relative to this verse are outstanding, but one part of his conclusion I seriously question. Stated briefly, he concludes that Paul could not have done in his later life what he did in Acts 21:24ff, but because the Holy Spirit guided into all the truth by small steps, he could THEN make vows or take actions commanded under the law which he could not have done later.
I believe that conclusion to be dangerous in its implications and results. My conclusion is that anything the Apostles did with the approval of God then, we can do now (with the exception of the miraculous powers and authority they had as Apostles which others did not have then and do not have now). One may say, “Peter did not understand the Great Commission at first, and had to be led to see its application in the case of Cornelius, so we know there is progressive revelation and progressive insight.” The difference is that Peter did not live up to the revelation he had at first, and he was shown to be wrong in attitude and practice. Nothing of the sort is true in Paul’s case.
Let us examine that premise further. Circumcision was a part of the Law of Moses. Using the thesis assumed by McGarvey, one might assume that Paul might practice and authorize circumcision in the early days of the church when revelation was not complete, but refuse it after later revelation. But such is not the case. He authorized and practiced circumcision as a matter of expediency (as in the case of Timothy), but if someone wanted to make it a part of the Christian System or relate it to salvation (as in the case of Titus), he “gave place, no not for an hour.”
Again, commanding to abstain from meats was a part of the doctrine of devils, and thus condemned (1 Tim. 4:3). But if a brother chose to practice abstaining from meats and eating herbs, even though it was a part of the law of Moses, he was (is) allowed to do so (Romans 14:2-3). In fact, Paul himself commanded to abstain from meats (1 Cor. 8:9-14) in some circumstances, but was not teaching the doctrine of devils. Nor was one of the instances simply that the Holy Spirit had revealed a different or more advanced truth. It was true then, and it is still true, that for one to teach that one MUST abstain from meats (in general) is a doctrine of demons. But one should still do it if eating meat would cause a weaker brother to sin.
Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 9:20-23 that “to the Jews I became as a Jew that I might gain the Jews,” was not applicable ONLY in the first few years of his Christian life before he had the whole truth revealed unto him. It was true ALL of his Christian life, and just as applicable for us.
To illustrate: If I had been in Japan before WWII and Emperor Hirohito had passed by, I would have taken off my shoes, or bowed from the waist, or done whatever was proper to show respect for his position. The native Japanese might have been bowing to him as the Sun God. I would not. I would have refused to bow or take off my shoes if they had required it as an act of submission to him as Lord.
Again, if I am on a school program such as a commencement exercise with Rabbi Berstein, “Father” Finnegan, or “Reverend” Smith, I bow my head when either of them leads a prayer, although I believe Proverbs 28:9 applies, and their prayers are an abomination to the Lord. But I refuse to invite them to occupy my pulpit or lead a prayer where I preach. It is not because I have learned a new truth, nor is it a contradictory position. In the first case, I am not compromising any truth. In the second, I would be.
These things merely illustrate the principle that Paul taught, and which I believe. I have the freedom to do many things in one context that would be inappropriate and even sinful in another. Let us get beyond these broad principles and get to specifics. Was it wrong for Paul to take a vow (Acts 18:8)? I know of nothing in the Bible that suggests that it was wrong, or that it would be wrong for us to do so now.
Although Paul was accused of teaching them to forsake Moses, NOT to circumcise their children, NOR to walk after the customs (Acts21:21), he had done neither. He taught that salvation was not in obeying the law of Moses, and no one had a right to bind any part of it on us as a part of the Christian system. There is no evidence that it dawned on him slowly and was revealed a little at a time.
The only things that I know of that we cannot do that the law of Moses taught are some things that relate to the worship of God. For example, if I do not choose to work on the Sabbath day, I may refuse to pick up sticks, or walk more than 3/4 of a mile, and you have no right to accuse me of anything wrong. I am not allowed to do anything that would relate it to salvation, or bind it on you, however. I may circumcise my sons if I choose, and it is none of your business, but you must refuse to let me make it a part of the Christian system. If a man died beside me, and I want to shave my head and bathe once or seven times, it is no concern of yours. If I want to eat herbs instead of meat, subscribe to Prevention Magazine, or do bodily exercise, which profits little, it is no concern of yours.
When we start ASSUMING things about the story, then come to conclusions about our ASSUMPTIONS that contradict the teachings of Paul or any other inspired writer, we are in trouble. We may normally ASSUME those people in Acts 21:23-24 were under a NAZARITE vow. Can you prove it? We normally ASSUME that the purification that Paul practiced involved animal sacrifices for sin. Can you prove it? We may ASSUME that “an offering should be offered for every one of them” includes Paul and that the offering was an animal sacrifice for sin! But you couldn’t prove it if your life depended on it.
I have the right to ASSUME that these four who took the vows were Jews, not Christians. They shaved THEIR heads, but that had nothing to do with Paul, even though he had a right to shave his head and take a vow if he wanted to, as a Christian. He did not learn anything later that changed that.
When verse 26 says, “an offering should be offered for every one of them” many ASSUME that this was an animal sacrifice offered for sins. One has no right to assume that. Rather, a statement of Paul in Acts 24:17 throws a little light on it. He says, “Now after many years I came to bring alms to my nation, and offerings.” He was worshiping “after the way which they call heresy” (Acts 24:14) so his offerings had nothing to do with offering sacrifices for sin. He was bringing offerings and alms for HIS NATION.
The rites of purification had nothing to do with purification from sin or forgiveness thereof. Do you think that a man on whom a dead rat fell was guilty of some sin and had to offer an animal sacrifice in atonement for it?
I have the right to do today, in principle, what I know Paul did. I may not have the right to do what many persons ASSUME he MIGHT have done. All I know that Paul did was to purify himself (whatever that involved), which DID NOT involve any sacrifice for sin, but was related to NATIONAL RITUALS that had to do with LEGAL purification. Perhaps a keen awareness that the Mosaic system had to do with NATIONAL responsibilities as well as RELIGIOUS ones would help in our understanding the situation. He says he was bringing alms to his nation. Is that a sin? Did he have to get a more advanced revelation from the Holy Spirit about that?
If I went into Africa today and some tribal custom came up that did NOT involve my participating in false doctrine, false worship, or that compromised the gospel plan of salvation, I think I could participate in their NATIONAL rituals without sin, whether it involved shaving my head, or even doing what they required to make me fit to engage in some national ceremony. To be “ceremonially clean” and to be cleansed from sin are two far different things.
Paul saw no conflict between the two, and neither do I. And the more I study the matter, the more convinced I am that any truth to which the Holy Spirit later led Paul did not conflict with any truth he then knew. It is true that the Holy Spirit gave “progressive revelation,” but it is not true that the later revelation was in conflict with the former.