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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.