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Did Paul Keep The Law?

Did Paul Keep The Law?

by Richard F. Nichols

Published in
The Christian Informer
January 2004


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Last updated:
April 8, 2004.

Does the Divine record show that the apostle Paul kept the Law of Moses under any circumstance? This very question was being asked during his own ministry. Acts 18:18 says, "And Paul after this tarried there yet a good while, and then took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila; having shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow."

Upon his return to Jerusalem with the contributions from the Gentile churches to relieve the poverty of the Jewish Christians in Judea, Luke the writer states, "And the day following Paul went in with us unto James: and all the elders were present. And when he had saluted them, he declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that thou art come.

"Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law. As touchIng the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication.

"Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them. And when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews which were of Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him, Crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man, that teacheth all men every where against the people, and the law, and this place: and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath polluted this holy place" (Acts 21:18-28)

From Paul's own writing we read, "And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law" (1 Corinthians 9:20-21). PAUL'S RESPECT FOR THE LAW

Although he knew and taught everywhere that the Law of Moses was nailed to the cross and that no one was obligated to keep its commands for salvation, Paul's great respect for the Law is clearly seen in his actions and writings alike. He states that the "law is holy and the commandments holy and just and good" (Romans 7: 12). He described himself as having been a strict observer of the law, "a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee." Evidently, no one tried harder to be justified by the Law than did Paul. When he was on trial he said of himself, "I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day" (Acts 22:3).

However, in writing to the Romans and the churches of Galatia he insists that without the Crucifixion no man could be justified by the law for no one could keep it perfectly, but salvation came only through the grace of God by faith in Christ Jesus. Neither before nor after his conversion did Paul set aside the law of God merely for convenience. Since he described himself as "a Hebrew among Hebrews" before his conversion, afterward he could very well be called "a Christian among Christians." THREE ISSUES

In this study we will look at three issues which come up in respect to this question. The first is-

"Did Paul teach the Jews not to circumcise their Children?"

Paul had a deep respect for God's Law issued by Moses. He had a love for his own people, national Israel, and honored his heritage as a Jew. When Jewish customs which would not compromise his Christian princip1es could be kept he did them. However, his enemies misrepresented Paul saying that he taught "the Jews among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs" (Acts 21:21). This allegation, of course, troubled some Jewish brethren.

At the meeting of the Apostles in Acts 15 Paul declared that his teaching among the Gentile converts was that circumcision was not necessary for salvation. Nowhere do we find evidence that Paul taught Jews not to circumcise their children in respect of their heritage. In fact, that Paul might win some, he had the half-Jewish Timothy circumcised. "Him would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek." (Acts 16:3: also see 1 Corinthians 9:20,21 above).

Nevertheless, Paul refused to have Titus circumcised because the Judaizers were trying to bind circumcision upon him and others as being necessary to salvation. To clearly show this to be false teaching Paul rejected the pressure to have Titus circumcised.

The second question is-

"Did Paul violate his own teaching when he helped the four men pay their charges?"

After his third missionary Journey, when he arrived in Judea, James advised Paul to help four poor men fulfill their obligation from their vow (Acts 21:23-26). This was an attempt to avoid a great uproar and to silence the false reports being circulated about his teaching. The four were apparently under a Nazarite vow (Numbers 6). Under such a vow they were not to eat any product of the vine, nor come near any dead body, nor to make themselves unclean for their father, mother, brother, or sister when they died; also as an evidence of this vow (Numbers 6:3-7). Afterward they were to present an offering when the days of the vow were completed.

"Did Paul violate his own teaching when he kept a vow at Cenchrea?"

There were other voluntary vows which many Jews kept which did not involve the necessary elements of the Nazarite vow (See Leviticus 27:2; 1 Samuel 1:11 and 2 Samuel 15:7). We infer from Acts 18 that this was Paul's case when he had preached a year and a half in Corinth. The Scripture says that persecution came upon Paul and he was brought before the Jewish council and he "after this tarried there yet a good while, and then took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila; having shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow." This evidently was simply a voluntary vow for it didn't carry with it all those other elements.

In the case of the four at Jerusalem in Acts 21, we understand that "the person who paid the expenses for the poor devotees who could not afford the necessary charges shared the vow so far as that he was required to stay with the Nazarites until the time the vow had expired. For a week, then, Paul, if he accepted the advice of James and the elders, would have to live with the four paupers in the chamber of the temple set apart for this purpose; and then pay for the sixteen sacrificial animals and the accompanying meat offerings.

"He must also stand among the Nazarites during the offering of the sacrifice, and look on while their heads were shaved, and while they took their hair to burn it under the cauldron of the peace offerings, and while the priest took four sodden shoulders of rams, and four unleavened cakes out of the four baskets, and four unleavened wafers anointed with oil, and put them on the hands of the Nazarites and wave them for a wave offering before the Lord" (Vincent's Word Studies).

Paying the expenses for the four poor men who had come to the close of their vow signified only that Paul was helping the poor but not also taking their vow. But it seemed enough to these brethren that in doing so Paul would become a Jew to the Jews that he might win some ( 1 Corinthians 9:20-21). He was not acting in this manner to obtain his salvation, but rather for the sake of others. This was what the brethren encouraged him to do so "that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing" as they would put it. THE LETTER OF ACTS 15

The request made of Paul in Acts 21 was in no way a violation of his teaching to the Gentile converts nor of the commands made in the letter to be circulated among them in Acts 15. Paul was not inconsistent, nor did he compromise his own teaching, but he rather showed a respect for the convictions of those who had not yet learned.

Suppose that we were to visit Japan. While there, we observe that one of the customs of the people was to take their shoes off before entering the house. We determined that to be a harmless practice with some virtues and so we began to take our shoes off before entering our houses. But suppose that someone came along and told us that we must take off our shoes before entering a house or we would be lost. All of a sudden, taking off our shoes is no longer a matter of custom but has become a supposed matter of salvation. Can we practice it now? Maybe simply as a custom? Yes, but, we must make it perfectly clear to all that it has nothing to do with our salvation.

Now let us briefly look back at Acts 18:18 where Paul cut his hair off in Cenchrea, for he had taken a vow. A vow like this was a solemn promise made to God. Vows are found throughout the Scriptures. "Jacob, going into Mesopotamia, vowed a tenth of his estate, and promised to offer it at Bethel to the honor of God (Genesis 28:22). A man might devote himself or his children to the Lord. He might devote any part of his time or property to his service" (Barnes' Notes). The most remarkable vow among the Jews was that of the Nazarite. Paul's vow (Acts 18), as we mentioned, is similar to a Nazarite vow in that his head was shaved, yet unlike that formal vow because he did not shave his hair in Jerusalem nor burn it on the altar as was commanded in Numbers 6:13-16. Vows were also common for Jews to make to God as an expression of gratitude or of devotedness to his service when they had been raised from sickness or delivered from peril or disaster.

We have every reason to believe that Paul was thankful for all that the Lord had done for him and accomplished through his work and took this personal vow to show his gratitude. His vow seems to nave been a private matter of gratitude for possibly the mercy Paul had been granted or for some deliverance from danger. Concerning the reason we are not told but it certainly was not similar to the Nazarite vow and its obligations.

Despite Paul's efforts to become all things to all men in order to win some, there were those who were not happy with his efforts. After paying the costs of the vow of the four men, he was accused of defiling the temple by taking a Gentile into the temple with him (Acts 21:28-29). Aren't the enemies of the Cross something?!! Simply because Paul had been seen with Trophimous, his detractors assumed he had taken the man in the temple with him.

First, the Jews jumped to a conclusion about what he taught because of what they heard about him, and then they judged him by his associations. In an attempt to destroy Jesus' influence his enemies pointed out the sinners with whom he associated (Matthew 9: 10,11).

From terrible mistakes of these Jews we need to learn to be very slow to draw conclusions about what another teaches based on what we have heard. Furthermore, we need to learn to be very cautious about judging a person because of his associations. We need to hear for ourselves what a person teaches and kindly enquire if we think error has been taught. We need to personally ask the person himself why he conducts himself so. The Jews teach us how not to treat one another.

From Paul we learn how to get along with people and their customs. The apostle bent over backwards to accommodate the harmless customs around him, and in their misgivings he tried to comfort them, but never compromised the Truth. By always teaching the same things in every place (1 Corinthians 4: 17), he tried to defuse false accusations of prejudice and partiality. He invited his false accusers to come and hear him. Should we not embrace these practices? We all need to be more like Christ and to follow Paul as he followed our Lord and never adopt the attitude of the Jews who persecuted both of them.


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