Was Paul wrong in going to Jerusalem? There are two sides to the picture. Some commentators have pointed out that in chapter 20, when Paul said that the Holy Spirit had been warning him in every city that prison and hardships awaited him, the first part of the statement also says, “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem” (v. 22). If that means that Paul was being led by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem, it cancels out what I said in last week’s study. But it is ambiguous. One might argue that the words “compelled by the Spirit,” since they lack the word “Holy” before “Spirit,” merely refer to an inner compulsion on Paul’s part. I think this is what it does mean.
Nevertheless, for this reason and perhaps for others, one has to be careful not to claim too dogmatically that Paul was disobeying God in going to Jerusalem.
On the other hand, I would insist that what Paul was prepared to do once he got to Jerusalem was unambiguously wrong. He may have been right in going up to the city, but once he got there and the leaders of the Jerusalem church said, “We have a group of men here who have prepared themselves to go through the Jewish rites of purification and at the end of that offer a sacrifice for their sins. Why don’t you join them and so demonstrate to the large Jewish population that you are not opposed to the laws and traditions of our fathers?”—when that suggestion was made and Paul agreed to do it, he was in error for the following reasons.
First, the idea of purification is itself wrong for Christians. We do not find anything in the New Testament about any rite of purification for Christians. What we do find in the New Testament is the command to confess our sins to God, which is quite a different thing. If we confess our sins to God, pleading the blood of Jesus Christ, which has been shed for us, and when we ask forgiveness, we have the promise of God that “he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). That is different from a purification rite. The reason Christians are not given rites of purification is that our purification is already provided through the work of Jesus. To go through some system of purification is a virtual repudiation of Christ’s completed work.
Second, the rite also involved a sacrifice. It is referred to in Acts 21:26 as “an offering,” but it was not what we mean by “an offering.” When we say, “Let’s receive an offering,” we mean, “Let’s take a collection, give money.” It was not that kind of offering. It was an animal sacrifice, brought by the worshiper and handed to the priest. The worshiper confessed his sin over the head of the animal; then the animal was killed as a substitutionary sacrifice for the individual’s sins.1 It is almost inconceivable that Paul could have been prepared to do that. Yet he was.
We might plead—I am sure we should plead—that he did it with good motives. He loved the Jewish people, and he did not want a schism in the church between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. He wanted to hold the church together as well as show his love for Israel. But right motives do not make a wrong action right. They did not make this right.
What Paul should have done is what he had told the Galatians to do when they were faced with a similar but less serious problem. Legalizers from Jerusalem had come to the Galatian churches, saying that Gentiles could not be saved unless they kept the law of Moses. The focal point of the debate was circumcision. Paul argued in the book of Galatians that if they were circumcised Christ would profit them nothing. He said, “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Yet here Paul himself became burdened.
In my opinion, the great proof that Paul was wrong was that God, who is sovereign over the details of our lives, did not allow him to do it.
It is good God intervenes like this. Sometimes you and I act wrongly. We are prepared to do wrong things—perhaps with good motives, but quite often with bad motives—and God simply slams the door to the action for us. He will not let us do it, because what we do matters to God, even if at the moment it does not seem to matter a great deal to us.
1F. F. Bruce points out that the offering “consisted of one he-lamb, one ewe-lamb, one ram, and accompanying cereal and drink offerings (cf. Num. 6:14f.; Mishnah, Nazir, vi., 6ff)” (F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975], 431).