Acts 21:17-26

If I told you there was a New Testament believer who esteemed the law, made offerings at the temple, and circumcised at least one of his friends, you might think, “there goes someone who needs to hear about the grace of God!” Yet the apostle Paul did all these things. Why? To win Jews to Christ…

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. (1 Co 9:19-20)

No one thinks that Paul was confused about grace. I’ve never heard anyone say that Paul mixed grace with law. So how is it that when Paul acts Jewish we think, “he’s being strategic in his witness,” but when James does it we think “he’s preaching mixture”? When Paul writes a whole chapter urging believers not to eat food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8) we think he’s being wise and considerate, but when James writes a single verse saying the same thing (Acts 15:29) we think he’s preaching law. Go figure!

Most people think James was confused about grace for no other reason than that’s what we’ve always been told. But as I explained in Part 1 of this study, we really don’t know much about James. Even so, the balance of evidence suggests that he and Paul were very much on the same grace page (see Part 2). In Part 3 we looked at the decisive role James played in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. In what was one of the most significant church discussions in history, James clearly identified himself as being firmly in the grace camp. But what are we to make of his words in Acts 21?

The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.” (Acts 21:18-24)

What is going on here? One moment James et al. are praising God for what He had done through Paul’s ministry, but the next they are wringing their hands over a rumor that Paul is telling foreign Jews to abandon the law. James wants to send a message to the Jews that Paul, like any good Jew, is living in obedience to the law. Surely this is evidence that James did not fully understand the gospel of God’s grace?

Three choices

Once again we are faced with three choices. Either James was preaching law, grace, or mixture. If you think James was preaching law as a means for salvation, how do you account for the fact that he praised God for Paul’s report? The Gentiles were being accepted by God through grace alone. They weren’t getting the law preached to them because James had earlier decided this wasn’t the right thing to do. It is unthinkable that James could trust in the law yet rejoice over grace. They are mutually exclusive options.

So then he must’ve been preaching mixture – a little law plus a little grace. But how then do we account for Paul’s behavior? Paul had dedicated his life to testifying to the gospel of God’s grace (Acts 20:24). Paul was highly sensitive to mixture. When Peter got a little confused about grace, Paul opposed him to his face (Gal 2:11). Paul would let nothing muddle the message of grace. So why didn’t he confront James in this passage? Because James was not preaching mixture.

So what was James doing? What was his motive for suggesting the purification rite and why did Paul go along with it?

Houston, we have a problem

To understand James we need to understand the people he was trying to reach. James identifies them in the passage above:

You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. (Acts 21:20)

We are so performance-minded in the modern church that we think James is bragging about the numbers of people getting saved, but there’s more to it than that. Look at how the Message Bible translates this verse:

Just look at what’s been happening here – thousands upon thousands of God-fearing Jews have become believers in Jesus! But there’s also a problem because they are more zealous than ever in observing the laws of Moses. (Acts 21:20 MSG)

James, or someone from his church, is describing Jewish believers who still lived under law. Perhaps because of their cultural heritage they had not yet received the revelation of God’s all sufficient grace. They had some understanding of the work of Christ, but they were still trusting in their observance of the law. This was a big problem in the Jerusalem church where some of the believers still identified themselves as Pharisees (Acts 15:5). Some of the legalistic believers had even gone out to other nations – against James’s wishes – spreading their message of religious works (Acts 15:24).

All things to all men

How do you tell an orthodox Jew about the good news of God’s grace? I’m not entirely sure, but according to James and Paul, one thing you don’t do is flaunt your freedom by trampling on laws they still value. Do this and you will offend them closing any door you may have had for the gospel.

To reach the lost you have to identify a common ground. You have to speak their language. To catch a fish you have to think like a fish. Both James and Paul wanted to win Jews for Christ and if that meant shaving your head, no problem. It was James’ idea, but Paul had done something similar before (see Acts 18:18). Paul said he was free but fully prepared to make himself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible. This is not hypocrisy. This is the apostolic heart of Jesus identifying with the lost in order to reconcile them to God.

So we begin to see that James was preaching neither law nor mixture. His heart was the same was the same as Paul’s. Both were prepared to identify with the legalistic Jews in order to win them to Christ. In the final part of this series on James – the Misunderstood Apostle, we will pull all the pieces together.

20 Comments on Acts 21:17-26

  1. Hi Paul, I see your argument about Paul and James living like Jewish beleivers who still follow the law because they don’t want to trample over their new found faith.But surely they had a mandate to preach and teach grace despite these new beleivers. I presume from the day of Pentecost the Apostles didn’t preach a mixture of law and grace when they met together and followed the Apostles doctrine (Acts 2:42).

    • Hi Peter, Acts records a number of sermons as do the Epistles. We have hard evidence that the apostles preached pure grace, even James (contrary to popular belief). The post above does not touch on the message, but one method used to win the lost.

      Jesus went into the houses of sinners; Peter went to Cornelius; Philip went to Samaria; Paul went to Antioch and countless synagogues; James presumably went to the temple. When Paul visited James, he went to the temple too. What’s the common thread? They all went to places where the kingdom of God had not fully come. They went there because if you want to win the lost you have to go to where the lost are.

  2. John Fazio // May 18, 2011 at 3:36 am // Reply

    I really enjoyed this piece. Thank you.

  3. Very good commentary. I was struggling with this passage but this explanation was very helpful.

  4. I may finally have a tiny bit of understanding on this issue. Thank you so much for this series on James and also for all of your posts!

  5. Hello,

    First, this site is awesome. I have only recently come upon it but it’s been a blessing. I realize this article is old but hopefully you still read the comments. I was just in a 2 day long debate over whether Paul stayed faithful to the law and thus wants Christians to do this. This came out of someone saying Christians should honor the sabbath and keep it holy. I’ve read your other articles on it which were awesome. My question is this: If Paul is not under the law (Romans 6:14 and elsewhere), is it a lie he was following the law still after conversion? “Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.” – If it’s not a lie, then why was Paul being obedience to the law of moses if he was not under it. Did he obey only parts of it? Is this a model for Christians? Isn’t it unwise to try and follow the Mosaic law for danger it would become a source of self righteousness or increase sin like the law always does by exposing our inability to live up to it?

    Thank you so much and God bless!

    • We are definitely not under the law and it insults Jesus to insist that anyone live under it. It amounts to saying, Jesus can’t save or sanctify you. That said, Paul did observe the law on occasion. Why? To impress the Lord? To score spiritual brownie points? Not at all. Paul said all those who rely on the law are under a curse (Gal 3:10). That’s strong language. He’s saying you’re cursing yourself if you put your trust in the law instead of Jesus.

      So why did Paul sometimes observe the law? He did it to win people for Jesus. He did it so he could preach the gospel. :To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law” (1 Cor 9:20).

      BTW, don’t waste days arguing with people about the law. Paul also said “to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts” (2 Cor 3:15). That veil is not lifted by debate.

  6. I am richly blessed Paul by this commentary. I knew the Apostle Paul observed the Law and feasts and customs to win these Jews to the gospel of Grace just as you say, it is clear. Yet, today we have mixture preachers who are shading outside the lines. They are saying observing ALL the Ten Commandments, including the Sabbath, and celebrating the feasts, is living in real freedom, and showing solidarity with Israel. It proves our love to Jews to institute Jewish customs with a little Jesus mixed in, in our church services.
    They’ve pointed out passages such as this to “prove” its New Covenant to observe and celebrate the feasts and customs. Proof enough we need to keep preaching Radical, Pure, Hyper Grace!

  7. Acts is significant because it shows clear, concise, unambiguous statements and questions to Paul about if he keeps the law (Acts 21 -24). Not only do we have this, but unlike anywhere else in the Net Testament, we see “action”. For example, in Acts 21:17-26, we see Paul doing three things:

    – Asked if he keeps the law

    – Says he keeps the law

    – Performs a seven-day vow that this found in the law

    The entire purpose of Acts 21 – 24 was to illustrate verbally and physically to the Jews that he still keeps the law. Unlike the ambiguous statements found in his epistles, this commentary makes it clear that Paul keeps the law. Remember what Paul said when he was on trial for being accused of preaching to not keep the law, “But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets.” (Acts 24: 14) The way this article was written, you are implying that Paul was lying and sinning when he kept the law.

  8. Initially the Jerusalem church was governed by the twelve… It’s unclear as to what theological differences remained between James and Paul; “Cephas” (whom in my opinion was a different person from that other Cephas, Peter) may have been closer to Paul theologically but he was inconsistent socially, because he feared the conservatives. Apparently James at the very least tolerated by the people, whereas Peter and Paul were almost killed, which was why James continued to be head elder of the Jerusalem church in relative safety (and even won many converts, all of whom were “zealous for the Torah”) until AD 62 when the religious authorities killed him on technicalities pertaining to the Torah. The people seem not to have been very happy about the murder of James (see the account in Josephus). Why the difference in the way the people felt about James compared to how they felt about the twelve and Paul? I think the answer is that James’s view of the Torah differed from that of the twelve and of Paul, and that his view was more acceptable to the people.

  9. Hi,

    Im confused about this passage. Doesn’t Paul and James kinda deceive the jews?

  10. Dr Arnold Abel // May 4, 2022 at 11:24 pm // Reply

    The James spoken here in Acts 21; is he James, one of the twelve apostles or James, the brother of Jesus Christ who wrote the book of James? I’m confuse here!

    • This is not James the brother of John who was beheaded with a sword (Acts 12:2). This is James the step brother of Jesus who had an encounter with the risen Lord and became the leader of the church in Jerusalem (1 Cor. 15:7, Gal. 1:19).

      • Mark Viray // December 28, 2022 at 1:46 am //

        Hi Paul

        Thank you for this very informative topic about book of James and his teaching.

        I already understand that this book of James is written for 12 tribes of Israel scattered abroad and not for Gintiles, but i have a very limited words and verse to justify it, especially why Apostle Paul or other apostle tolerate James teaching of laws, dispite of our time of Grace and the believer will be save by faith alone.

      • You’re welcome, Mark. Although James wrote for a Jewish audience, he also wrote for believers (see Jas. 2:1, 5:14). In my view, James is a mis-understood apostle who did not preach a different message from Paul. I will have more to say about James in the coming year.

  11. Paul Ngotho , Nairobi Kenya. // January 2, 2023 at 12:22 am // Reply

    I stumbled on this controvery while reading “Paul A Novel” by Walter Wangerin in Christmas 2022. I am still tring to reconcile St. Paul voluntarily eating unclean foods with the Gentiles and then on returning to Jerusalem again voluntarily being shaved to undergo ritual cleansing. Why did the temple curtain break when Jesus died? Doing different things in different places “to spread the Gospel” in incongruent with the Gospel and with Paul’s writings or his character. If Iam wrong, and I could well be given the excellent contributions above, then Christians are free to live like chamelions, which blend with the environment.

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