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"For the Sake of Unity"


Read: Acts 21:17-26

We continue in Acts 21 this week as we follow Paul and his companions to Jerusalem.  In their first recorded conversation there, they discover they are headed for troubled waters.  It is evident from the start that potentially fierce Jewish opposition awaited them and the prophecies of Paul’s future imprisonment surely looked closer to fulfillment.  In the first four verses of today’s text, Luke labors to show that the leaders of the Jerusalem church, James the brother of Jesus and enough elders to shepherd a church numbering in the thousands—they were in lockstep with Paul.  Paul recounts in detail to the leaders what God had done among the Gentiles during his recent journeys and the leaders “glorified God” at these reports.

However, the leaders were not representative of all the Jerusalem church.  We read in verse 20, “And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed.  They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs.”  The Jews in the Jerusalem church had believed a lie about Paul.  Paul never would teach a Jew NOT to circumcise his child or in any way forsake the Law of Moses or Jewish customs.  This lie threatened the unity in the church between the Jewish and Gentile believers. 

This text presents us a case study outlining some of the major sources of both division and unity in the church.  We know that unity is vitally important to Jesus because he prays for it three times in his high priestly prayer in John 17.  At one point he prays, “22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.  Listen to these reasons for unity in the church.  First, because—for the sake of unity he gave to the church the glory God had given to him. Second, because division in the church obscures the profound truth that Jesus is in us and the Father is in Christ.  In other words, that Christ’s redemptive work has organically unified the church with the Godhead, thus bringing it into intimate fellowship with the Trinity.  Third, he prays for unity so that the world will, through that unity, know that the Father sent the Son and loves the church as he loves Christ.  Those are all ENORMOUS, profound, transcendent reasons Jesus prays for unity in the church that speak of the essential relationship between Christ and his church. You can see why Jesus has such a stake in church unity.

From the text let’s first look at three causes of division in the church as we see them here in Jerusalem.  The first cause of division in the church is the influence of lies rooted in Satan’s desire to divide.  Division is often the result of a spiritual attack against the church and that’s obviously part of what is happening here. Think about what Satan could use to bring division in the church.  First, these Jews in Jerusalem have spent most of their lives looking at all Gentiles as subhuman dogs.  You did not go under their roof, eat with them, nor did you associate with them unless it was absolutely necessary.  Gentiles were unclean before a holy God—idol worshippers—part of the oppressive Roman Empire. They ate pig flesh and were not allowed in the temple.  That was the view of these Jews for most of their lives.  Then the gospel breaks in and tears down the walls separating Jews and Gentiles.  But as we all know, old habits and attitudes die hard and oneness with the Gentile believers was not something even Peter initially found easy, much less the Jewish church at large.

On the other hand, the Gentiles knew the Jews hated them and considered them sub-human dogs which didn’t exactly promote good will. For their part, for most of their lives, these Gentiles considered the Jews atheists because they wouldn’t worship the gods of the Roman Empire.  The Jews mutilated their own sons by circumcising them and the Gentiles didn’t understand the strange practices associated with Judaism--their restrictive food laws and refusal to work on the Sabbath.  It’s into that volatile cultural, spiritual and religious environment that the gospel comes.  Paul says in Ephesians chapter two that the Gentiles “who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law and commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”

The power and supremacy of the gospel is radiantly manifest in its capacity to bring these two very different and hostile groups into one church where they not only coexist together, but show sacrificial love to one another.  Only the gospel can tear down those kinds of racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural divisions.  Satan however has this historic animosity between the Jews and Gentiles to try to use as ammunition to blow holes in this gospel-driven unity.  With all that ammunition at his disposal, if he could not bring division to these two historically divided groups, then his impotence against the unifying power of the gospel would be openly exposed.  A defeat here for Satan would confirm all that Paul and the other apostles had been teaching about the overcoming power of the gospel and that is a truth Satan has always worked to obscure and conceal.

We see his finger prints all over this tension in Jerusalem because at the center of this hostility between the Jews in Jerusalem and Paul is…a lie.  “…they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs.”  That’s a bold-faced lie.  As we have seen in his missionary journeys, Paul never did that. We know that he wanted to arrive in Jerusalem before Pentecost because he wanted to celebrate that very Jewish feast.  So a lie has been spread among the Jerusalem church and lies are a sure indicator of Satan’s involvement because Jesus calls him “the father of lies.”  He seeks to exploit the wobbly trust the Jerusalem Jews had for Paul and his ministry to the Gentiles by spreading the lie that his ministry to Jews consisted of  trying to turn them into Gentiles.  There was no role for the law or Moses, no circumcision and obliteration of Jewish customs. That lie—ignited the already combustible environment between the Jews in Jerusalem and this apostle to the Gentiles.  Sometimes division among God’s people is caused by Satan and the lies he spreads in the church.

A second cause of division is related and that is our willingness to listen and believe slander.  Part of what makes this episode sickening is that before Paul had even entered the city, these Jewish believers had already tried, convicted and sentenced him—without ever letting Paul take the witness stand.  That’s wicked.  There were good reasons why these Jews should NOT have believed these lies.  First, they were being circulated about a chosen apostle of Jesus Christ who, second--had the full support of Peter, the elders of their Jerusalem church and the lead elder James, the brother of Jesus.  Rather than approach the elders about these rumors asking if they were true—rather than wait for Paul to arrive and ask him about his ministry to the Jews in Gentile lands—rather than give charitable judgment as the Scripture teaches—they declare him “guilty as charged.” 

It’s easy for us to cluck our tongues at this, but this happens all the time in the church today.  Ask God sometime to bring to mind people you have formulated a negative opinion of solely on the basis of what you have heard about them from others.  You’ll be surprised how many of them there are.  If my good friend or relative, so and so says such and such about her, then I will just assume they are guilty of the accusation.”  Proverbs 17:4 says, 4 An evildoer listens to wicked lips, and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue.”  The Proverbs places the liar and the one who listens to him on the same footing—they are both evil doers and liars.

In First Samuel 24, David spares Saul’s life even though Saul was chasing him down to kill him.  After Saul had left the place where David could have killed him but didn’t, David cried out to him, “…Why did you listen to the words of men who say, “Behold, David seeks your harm?  Part of Saul’s sin was in believing bad reports about David, rather than getting his information directly from David.  We do this all the time.  We even confront someone about an alleged misdeed they have done before we have even heard their side of the story—because someone we trust told us about it.  When we listen to these kinds of bad reports—about leadership in the case here in Jerusalem, without going to the source and asking him/her about it, we are promoting division and are unwittingly being used as a tool of Satan.  Part of building a community of peace in a church is developing an environment, modeled by the leaders where, when a bad report is given about someone, others in the body gently correct the person giving the report and then if deemed necessary, go to the person in question to inquire, not accuse in order to discover the truth.  If the accusation is trivial, then give the accused person the benefit of the doubt and assume some misunderstanding has occurred. Paul says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

A third cause of division is our vulnerability to deception that comes when our zeal is paired with ignorance.  The Jewish leaders tell Paul in verse 20 that these believing Jews in Jerusalem.  “…are all zealous for the law.”  The Jerusalem church was a power keg waiting to explode because they combined the highly combustible mixture of zeal and ignorance.  We’ve already seen their ignorance of Paul’s ministry to the outlying Jews in their willingness to believe a lie about it.  It’s because they lived in the fog of ignorance about Paul that they were vulnerable to the lie.  Here, we see that they add to their ignorance zeal for the law.  We are so much more vulnerable to deception on issues we are passionate or zealous about.  This is because our passion or zeal can cause blind us and cause us to make reckless judgments and statements.  Often our zeal is rooted in our own selfishness or prejudices.  We are zealous about our kids learning to do the dishes because they need to learn responsibility!  That’s fine, but if we could search our hearts it might also be because we absolutely loathe doing the dishes.   

It can be about doctrinal issues--we are zealous for a certain position on predestination.  That can be a good thing—we’re free to do that.  But zeal is dangerous when it is paired with ignorance or a misunderstanding of those who don’t agree with you.  If you believe in predestination, then you believe in a God who arbitrary and cruel!  No, they just have a different understanding than you do of God’s sovereignty as it relates to salvation. This combination of zeal and ignorance leads to foolish arguments and unnecessary division.  You may feel zealously that your newspaper should be in your box by seven am.  But it’s sinful when, from your blinding zeal, you chew out the News Tribune rep. about your late delivery only to discover out that, unbeknownst to you, the man who delivers your paper died last week and that’s why delivery has been temporarily delayed.  If you had been less zealous and/or less ignorant of the truth, you wouldn’t have made a fool of yourself to the newspaper.  Our zeal should be for truth—not to get our way.  If our zeal is for truth rather than a selfish desire, we would have channeled our zeal for an early paper delivery to call and inquire—not accuse as to why the paper has been late rather than assuming gross incompetence.  Many people in church are zealously opposed to a particular decision leadership has made.  The problem is often they allow their zeal to blind them to the fact that they are ignorant of rationale the leadership had in making the decision—only that they disagree with it.  We must understand the issues before in our zeal we are critical of those who disagree with us.

The Jews zeal toward the Law probably caused them to be blind to their ignorance of Paul’s ministry to the Jews.  At least two lessons here: first, we must be careful about what we are zealous about—I can get worked up over the most petty, stupid things.  Being zealous about a paper delivery time or kids doing the dishes are indicators that we aren’t nearly zealous enough for God.  Many in the church are far more zealous about the size of the federal government or the deer hunting opener or in their opinions of the Vikings or Packers than they are for the gospel.  Many are much more easily angered by a person who threatens those things than we are with people who distort the gospel.  Second, we owe it to others to root our zeal in the truth—not what we have heard second-hand, or what we think might be the truth.  Go to the person and ask him/her if a bad report you heard about them or something they did that negatively impacts you is accurate.  Our zeal should be under the Spirit’s control—whether it is in doctrinal, political, professional or personal matters.  Otherwise, when zeal and ignorance are combined in the church, division will result.

This text also has much to teach about how to preserve unity.  I find two elements necessary for unity in the church seen here.  First:  Unity must be sought on an ongoing basis—not only when conflicts arise.  One of the striking details of this narrative is that James and the elders had evidently not worked very diligently to promote or inform the church of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles or regularly have them pray for him and his work. The leaders weren’t ignorant of Paul’s ministry. They had been at the Jerusalem council when the question of the Gentiles was formally hammered out.  Yet they evidently didn’t do much to inform the church on that topic.  There was a vacuum of understanding about his apostolic ministry and we know what happens when there’s a vacuum—something fills it—in this case, lies about the nature of Paul’s ministry. 

If unity in the church is to be preserved, the leadership cannot work to build it only in times of church conflict—it must be ongoing.  We are working to build a culture of peace here where the inevitable brushfires of conflict are smothered before they become fire storms.  We teach each Membership Class the commitments the church and the members make to each other about how to preserve peace in the church.  We also will be hosting a two-day regional Peacemaker Conflict Resolution Training Conference at the end of April where nationally known speakers will minister.  The Church Board has voted a significant sum of money to provide scholarships to some people who would be effective peacemakers.  When those people hear someone being slandered in the hallway or prayer meeting, they will confront it up front before any of its bitter seeds can be planted in people’s hearts.  Unity is preserved by that kind of body life and it’s not just for people who are trained in conflict resolution, it’s for all of us.  The lie we tell today to one person—the zealous ignorance we express today could eventually cause significant division and publicly dishonor God.  Unity must be sought on an ongoing basis, not just when conflict arises.

Let’s read verses 23 and following to find another element of unity.  James and the elders have a plan to dissipate the divisive feelings that they ask Paul to execute. 
23 Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.”   Verse 26 continues, “26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them.” This probably means that four believers in the church were under a Nazirite vow as described in Numbers chapter six.  It was probably for 30 days where they would abstain from wine or strong drink, avoid any defiling contact like touching a corpse and would leave their hair uncut.  At the end of the month, they would present an offering of one male lamb, one ewe lamb, a ram and food and drink offerings along with the hair they had grown out.  It was not uncommon for another Jew to associate himself with the person(s) under the Nazirite vow by paying for their offering—it was considered “a pious and charitable thing” that a devout Jew would do.”[1]  This is what the leaders asked of Paul.

In order for him to do this, he had to first go through Jewish ritual purification as we see in verse 26, but he was probably not taking the Nazirite vow, only making sure that he was not ceremonially defiled.  His purification would be completed after seven days. James and the elders hoped that this overt practice of Jewish religious ritual and Paul’s willingness to pay for these animals—which would have been a healthy sum of money—would compel the Jews into seeing that Paul was not only NOT dissuading Jewish believers from Jewish customs—he was practicing them himself.  They wanted to convey that Paul was not against the law, but was, as it says in verse 24, “living in observance of the law.”  Before we continue, if we are to understand this intervention we must clarify what was Paul and the Jewish believer’s relationship to the law.  They were zealous for it, but what does that entail for a Jewish believer after Christ?

With the coming of Christ, the Law takes on a very role and significance for the Jew.  The Mosaic Covenant of Law has come to an end[2] because Christ came to fulfill the law.  In other words, the Law pointed to Christ.  Paul tells us in Galatians that one of the purposes of the Law was that it functioned as a tutor or guardian.  Galatians 3:24-25 says, “24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian,” Tom Schreiner says the law was the babysitter or custodian until Christ came.  Israel had painfully discovered that the Law could not transform hearts because, although it commanded them what to do, it gave them neither the desire nor the ability to do it.  If we are in Christ, we are no longer “under the Law.”  Paul lived in “observance of the Law” but was not “under it” in the sense that he did not depend upon his performance of it for his salvation.  The Mosaic Covenant has been replaced by the New Covenant in Christ where we receive the Holy Spirit who gives us both the desire and the capacity to live out the Law, which is no longer on tablets of stone, but is written in our hearts and minds.

For the Jew, circumcision in the Old Testament was necessary to be included in the covenant community of Israel.  After Christ, it no longer served that purpose—it became a cultural custom or an expression of personal piety.  It’s not a bad thing for a Jewish believer to practice circumcision, but it’s now just a cultural thing—its part of his heritage like Christmas carols are part of our religious heritage.  Because of the cross, circumcision has no significance as it relates to salvation.  It’s irrelevant to it.  Circumcision of the foreskin in the Mosaic Covenant has now been replaced by circumcision of the heart under the New Covenant in Christ.  Colossians 2:11-12 says, “11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, “11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”  

The Jewish Laws all point to Christ who is their fulfillment.  The Passover points to the death of Christ.  The Old Testament sacrifices point to the cross.  Jesus’ death fulfills the sin offering in the Old Testament.  The blood of Christ hearkens back to the blood spilled in the sacrifices in the Old Testament. The temple is now the physical body of the believer and so on….  In Romans seven Paul says the Law is “holy, right, and good” and the moral norms of the Law are still in place.  Its still sin to murder or steal or lie, etc… but now the Spirit gives us the power to follow the internal law on our hearts, not out of oppressive obligation, but because of what Jesus has done for us. The moral commands in the Law become legalism when they are divorced from the gospel.  That is--what God requires of us must always be rooted in what God has done for us.  Romans 12:1-2  says, “1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  The appeal to present our bodies as a sacrifice of worship—the command not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed are both to be done in response to the manifold mercies of God in the gospel.  What God has done in Christ must always precede what we are to do and what we do must always be in response to what God has done for us in Christ.  Otherwise, living in observance of the Law becomes being under the Law—is spiritual bondage.

Now, we can go back to the second element of unity and that is that unity is furthered when believers bend over backward to keep others from stumbling.  We see this in Paul.  Paul had no need to be purified—he was not under the Law, but “to the Jew he became a Jew” so as not to offend their sensibilities. In other words, when it did not compromise the gospel, he was willing to squeeze himself into the cultural mold of others to help bridge the gulf that exists between different cultures.  He did not want those kinds of cultural factors to keep people from hearing his message.  He would never change the message, but he would adopt the elements of the culture that weren’t sinful.  He didn’t do this to be a people pleaser so folks would like or admire him on a personal level.  He did what he needed to do (without compromising the gospel) out of self-sacrificing love to maintain peace and keep from putting up an unnecessary barrier to his message.  We can be so rigid and unaccommodating to other believers and in so doing make unity impossible.  We call things principles and convictions and refuse to budge on them when they are really nothing more preferences or customs.  That shatters unity and is a case where our zeal blinds us to the truth.

When the unity of the church is at stake—when relationships are at stake—are we willing to bend over backwards to preserve the unity or the relationship?  Jesus died for this.  Or, do we let our own selfish desires which we have convinced ourselves are deep moral convictions cause us to sacrifice unity and relationships in the church? The lesson from Paul here is that unity in the church is far more important than my convenience or personal opinions.  If we are to preserve genuine unity, we must all accommodate to each other without sacrificing the truth of Scripture.  This is what Paul did and by God’s grace may we count the unity Christ prayed for as more important than our personal agendas and desires.

[1] Bruce, NICNT Acts, p 406.

[2] I am indebted to Tom Schreiner’s treatment of this in his New Testament Theology, pgs. 646-662.


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