Since I’ve been studying in Galatians, I thought it might be helpful to take a little detour into Acts for a moment in order to better understand this whole law/liberty issue. In Acts chapter 21, Paul submits to taking a vow. Paul – the freedom fighter. Some may wonder why Paul agrees to do so when he is known for his insistence regarding liberty and freedom in Christ. Why this external ritual? Why the Old Covenant tradition keeping? Isn’t he trying to prove that these things have passed? Why is he taking a vow? I mean, it’s one thing to graciously allow for vow-taking by those who are still bound by conscience to it, but for him, why? Why isn’t he teaching New Covenant grace and freedom in this case?
And when they heard it, they glorified God. 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, 21 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. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 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. ~Acts 21:20-24
At a time when Paul knew he did not ever have to observe this kind of law, Paul not only vowed to do so, but also paid for all the other men as well (like Jesus.) He did everything he possibly could to submit to and respect those whom he was trying to reach with the true gospel. He went above and beyond his “legal” obligations for the sake of peace and the furtherance of Christianity. He sought to prove himself true in the face of the lies and misunderstandings that had been circulating about him in this place.
Even this was not enough to curb the hateful appetites of those who were “zealous for the law” and who had “been told about” Paul.
Rumors and hate speech about Paul had circulated prior to his coming to this city. These religious authorities had made up their minds about Paul long before he ever showed up. They were decidedly angry at, afraid of, and opposed to him from the get-go. Nothing he did to prove himself sincere softened their attitude in the least. When his unnecessary vow is almost complete, these guys pounce. The last thing they want is for Paul to be accepted, esteemed, and listened to by their counterparts and peers. They were the leaders, remember? This town wasn’t big enough for them and Paul both. They weren’t about to lose their authority or respect on account of this guy on their turf no matter how true what he was teaching was. So what do they do about it?
When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia,seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, 28 crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” ~Acts 21:27-28
They lie. They misrepresent Paul publicly. They assume the worst of Paul and tell the world that he has broken the law. They publicly accuse him when he indeed was innocent. They stir up a mob against an innocent man and they seek to kill him claiming that he is guilty of that which they are actually doing. Oh, didn’t that happen to Jesus, too? Yeah. Scare tactics, intimidation, false charges, and mob mentality without a trial. Sounds about right.
Fortunately, Paul was ready. He knew he had been called by God to this city. He knew he would suffer here. He knew he was innocent. Therefore, when Paul was taken into custody, he knew what he must do.
And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying: “Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.” ~Acts 21:40-22:1
Paul defends himself. He uses their language and he speaks in his own defense. He gives his testimony. He tells those who love to hate him that he, too, used to do the same. He gives glory to Christ for his conversion. He explains how the Lord sent him to the Gentiles. Paul is completely honest and straightforward with the men who seek to destroy him out of jealousy, fear, and pride. Instead of recognizing his truth as truth, they more adamantly attack him.
Meanwhile, the legal authorities are still trying to figure out why he’s being accused and attacked (Acts 22:30.) It really makes no sense at all. He defends himself truthfully once more and is disregarded (Acts 23:2.) Paul is exposing their hypocrisy (Acts 23:3.) No religious gurus like that.
Everyone is furious with Paul at this point. Funny thing, Paul is the only one here who is walking in the Spirit and doing the will of God in this situation. Even his own friends and fellow disciples had heard the Holy Spirit concerning his journey here and begged him not to go.
Paul went, though. Paul preached. Paul did all he could to avoid giving offense. His mission was to be a witness, though, not a celebrity. Witnesses don’t need fans, fortunate circumstances, or favorable winds. Witnesses just need facts. And facts Paul had. So, God used Paul in a place where fiction and fallacy was running the show.
for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard ~Acts 22:15
Preaching the true gospel in heavily religious places may find us being dismissed as dangerous, defamed as derelicts, and disregarded as devils. Do not worry, though. Paul and the Holy Spirit have a solution for us:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. ~Galatians 5:16
…”Take courage…” ~Acts 23:11