Someone may object at this point, “But what’s the big deal? What difference did it make that Paul went to Jerusalem, even if he was out of the will of God? Certainly many of us do similar things. Didn’t God just say, ‘Well, alright, let him do it; I’ll get him on the right track later’?”
We find the answer to those questions as we read on in the story, for we learn that Paul’s disobedience quickly led to something quite bad. The problem I am referring to is not his arrest and imprisonment, from which he was not released again, at least not in the context of this book, but to something that almost became a terrible compromise of the Gospel.
To understand it, we have to understand something about the church in Jerusalem. It was composed largely of Jews who wanted to maintain as many of their Jewish traditions as possible. There are ways in which that might be done rightly, at least in part, just as German Christians can retain certain German customs while still being Christians, and Asians can retain certain Asian customs, and so on. But it was more complicated than that in this case, because so much of the Jewishness of the church was wrapped up in traditions that had been fulfilled and even abolished by Christ’s coming. The Jerusalem church was trying to maintain not merely the moral standards of the Law of Moses, which are binding upon all men and women, but also the Law’s system of ceremonial purifications and observances.
When Paul and the other missionaries began to establish Gentile churches this became an immediate problem because, as Paul taught the Gospel: 1) no one is saved by keeping the old ceremonial law or even, for that matter, by trying to keep the moral law; people are saved through believing in Christ and His work alone; and 2) because the Gentiles had not even been under the law historically, as the Jews had been, there was no reason to impose it on them. Thus, when keeping or not keeping the ceremonial law became an issue in the church, Paul, the defender of Gentile freedom, argued forcefully that Gentiles were to be allowed to stand fast in their liberty.
This put the Jerusalem church in a difficult position. It was composed almost entirely of Jews. It existed in the midst of a surrounding Jewish culture. Yet it was supposed to be Christian. What was it to do about the traditional Jewish ceremonies? Apparently, the believers tried to walk a tightrope with one foot, as it were, in both camps.
It was against this murky background of compromise that Paul was himself almost trapped into compromise by coming to Jerusalem. The leaders of the church approached him and said something like this: “Paul, we know that you are right in insisting that no Christian has to keep the ceremonial law. You have stood for Gentile liberty, and you have been right in that. But you have to understand that we have a difficult situation here. We live in a Jewish culture, and there are many people in the church who just do not see it your way. They think that you are trying to destroy their traditions and that you are even harming the cause of religion. We would like to dispel that idea. So what we suggest is this: we have four men who have taken a vow and will be presenting themselves at the temple. We would like you to join them. They are poor people. They are not able to pay for the sacrifice that is part of the ceremonial purification rite. We’d like you to pay for that sacrifice, go through the days of purification yourself and then, at the end of it, join with them as the sacrifice for sin is made in the temple area.”
This was what we would call realistic politics. Quite simply, it was a compromise. The same apostle who had written so many New Testament books, the man who had argued so forcefully that we are saved by Jesus Christ alone, was about to go to the Jewish temple and, in the presence of the very priests who had crucified the Lord, there participate with others in a sacrifice of an animal that was meant to be an atonement for his sin. That is, he was about to turn his back on the only sufficient sacrifice of Christ. I know that as Paul made his way to Jerusalem on this last journey he was not thinking of these things. Paul did not know that this compromise was going to be suggested. But that was the reason God had been trying to hinder him from going. When he persisted in his own way, he got trapped in the compromise.
It is always that way when we are out of the will of God. Temptation comes, and we do not even recognize that it is temptation. Instead we say, “Well, there’s something to be said for that. Maybe that is what I should do.” So the stand we should take is undermined, and the Gospel we should defend is compromised.