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Does Acts 21 Prove that Paul was Torah Observant?

The life and words of the Apostle Paul are twisted by the Hebrew Roots Movement (HRM) as well as Muslims, because of his clear opposition to the continued observance of the Law of Moses in the New Testament. Some teach that he was an apostate, or a false Apostle, whose goal was to secretly undermine Jesus’ following. Others claim that Paul was submissive to the Law of Moses, basically saying that every Christian, from the time of Paul to the present, has greatly misunderstood his teachings.

Those who believe that Paul was Torah Observant add to Acts 21 their own interpretation, to prove that Paul still followed Old Testament sacrificial laws after he became a follower of Jesus. They believe this chapter proves that Paul was still “Torah Observant” proving that the Law of Moses was not fulfilled by Christ.

Let’s look at what Acts 21 says.

Acts 21:17-24:
17 And when we were come up to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. 18 And the next day, Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 And having saluted them, he gave them a particular account of those things which God had done among the Gentiles by his ministry. 20 And having heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said to him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of believing Jews there are, and they are all zealous for the law. 21 But they have been informed concerning thee, that thou teachest the Jews who are among the Gentiles, to apostatize from Moses, telling them, not to circumcise their children, nor to walk after the customs. 22 What is it therefore? The multitude must needs come together; for they will hear that thou art come. 23 Therefore do this that we say to thee: there are with us four men, who have a vow on them: 24 Take them and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all will know, that there is nothing of those things which they have heard of thee; but that thou thyself walkest orderly, keeping the law. -Wesley NT

James and the presbyters were pleased with Paul’s work at converting the Gentiles (v. 20), however, the “Jewish” Christians were still “zealous observers of the law.” They had been circumcised at birth and strictly followed the Law of Moses all their lives, and even though Jesus had come, superseding the old law, the Jews still wanted to follow it. James informs Paul that the Jewish Christians there had heard that he was teaching against the law and proposes that Paul help four men complete a vow to demonstrate that he still observes the law.

In the next verse of Acts 21, verse 25, James recalls the Council of Jerusalem and what they sent for the Gentiles to follow. However, if we read about the council in Acts 15, Peter declares, “Why, then, are you [some Pharisees] now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples [new converts] a yoke [circumcision and the old law] that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.” (v.10,11) Peter makes it clear that they believe that they are saved through the grace of Jesus just as the Gentiles, and that there is no longer any need for the burden of circumcision and the old law. James then agrees and gives the four things—pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals, and blood—to abstain from.

The question then arises, “what is the reasoning behind James asking Paul to help those men partake of this vow?” Was he afraid of the Jews revolting against them if they openly agreed with Paul about the old law? Did he think it would help Paul to win the Jew’s trust and friendship? The exact answer is uncertain, but our main focus is on Paul, and we do know about his part in the vow that James has asked him to take part in.

Bible Scholars agree that this vow was most likely a Nazarite vow which is explained in Numbers 6:1-21. I, however, will only use certain coinciding verses to explain the vow in Acts 21. It is important to also know that Jewish tradition states that Nazarite vows were taken for a minimum of 30 days, usually longer, depending on the person taking the vow.

Continuing in Acts 21, we learn a little more about the vow and Paul’s role:

26 So Paul took the men, and on the next day after purifying himself together with them entered the temple to give notice of the day when the purification would be completed and the offering made for each of them. 27 When the seven days were nearly completed…

From the two verses above, we see that Paul purified himself with the men and discussed when the purification would be completed. Then verse 27 gives us a time of “seven days.” In Numbers 6:9-12 we can get an idea of the purification process they are discussing:

9 And if any one should die suddenly by him, immediately the head of his vow shall be defiled; and he shall shave his head in whatever day he shall be purified: on the seventh day he shall be shaved. 10 And on the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves, or two young pigeons, to the priest, to the doors of the tabernacle of witness. 11 And the priest shall offer one for a sin-offering; and the other for a whole-burnt-offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him in the things wherein he sinned respecting the dead body, and he shall sanctify his head in that day, 12 in which he was consecrated to the Lord, [all] the days of his vow; and he shall bring a lamb of a year old for a trespass-offering; and the former days shall not be reckoned, because the head of his vow was polluted.

Obviously, these four men who had been assigned to Paul had become defiled during their vow by some form of contact with someone who had died. This is the only explanation for the need of a purification ceremony and short time period of the vow described. Most people end their discussion at verse 26 and fail to include verse 27 and beyond, saying that Paul went in with these men and completed the offerings and sacrifices that were included in the vow. However, if we continue with verse 27 (which we started above), we can see the whole picture and understand that Paul never made an offering or sacrifice:

 27 And when the seven days were about to be accomplished, the Jews that were from Asia seeing him in the temple, 28 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: yea, and hath even brought Greeks into the temple, and polluted this holy place. -Wesley NT (Emphasis added)

Remember in Numbers 6:10 that it wasn’t until the eighth day that the offerings were offered. It hadn’t even been a complete seven days before the mob attacked Paul and dragged him out into the street. How could Paul have offered the sacrifices before the vow was complete?Another issue that needs to be addressed is that Paul wasn’t even taking a vow. Some of those “Torah Observant” people say that Paul took the vow and made the sacrificial offerings.

We can see clearly that he didn’t make the offerings nor did he even partake in the vow. Paul was simply a sponsor to the four men who were taking the vow. In other words, Paul was to pay the price for the offerings and stay there in the Temple with them during the purification process. We can see in verse 24, that James says, “pay their expenses that they may have their heads shaved.” Notice my emphasis indicating that Paul was simply to pay for them to complete the process. He wasn’t included. Through close examination of the Scriptures we now know that Paul didn’t offer the sacrifice that many say he offered, and he wasn’t even involved in a vow. He was only paying for others taking a vow. But doesn’t Paul offering to pay for the sacrifices basically equal him offering the sacrifices? Well, here is the key to understanding Paul. In 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 he says:

 19 For though I am free from all men, I made myself the servant of all, that I might gain the more. 20 To 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: 21 To them that are without the law, as without the law, (being not without the law to God, but under the law to Christ) that I might gain them that are without the law. or offensive unto any, in matters indifferent.  22 To the weak I became as weak, that I might gain the weak: I became all things to all men, that by all means I might save some. -Wesley NT

Paul literally says that he became like those he was trying to win over for Christ. He clearly says that he was not himself under the Law but became like those who still were in order to gain them. Unfortunately for Paul, making the decision to go and do such, nearly cost him his life. Even before Paul made the trip back to Jerusalem, he was told not go as we can see earlier in Acts 21:

 4 And finding disciples, we tarried there seven days, who told Paul by the Spirit, Not to go up to Jerusalem. 5 But when we had finished these days, we departed and went our way; and they all attended us out of the city, with their wives and children: and kneeling down on the sea-shore we prayed.  6 And having embraced each other we took ship, and they returned home. 7 And finishing our voyage, we came from Tyre to Ptolemais, and saluting the brethren, we abode with them one day. 8 And the next day, we departed and came to Cesarea; and entring into the house of Philip the Evangelist, who was one of the seven, we abode with him. 9 And he had four daughters, virgins, who were prophetesses.
Agabus, foretelling what should befall him at Jerusalem, he will not be dissuaded from going thither 10 And as we tarried many days, a certain prophet, named Agabus, came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took up Paul’s girdle, and binding his own feet and hands, said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man whose girdle this is, and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles. 12 And when we heard these things, both we, and they of the place, besought him, not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 But Paul answered, What mean ye, weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem, for the name of the Lord Jesus. 14 And when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be done. –Wesley NT

Paul knew something was going to happen before he made the trip to Jerusalem. The disciples at Tyre tried to prevent Paul from going as well as the people in Caeserea. But Paul was insistent on going (exercising his free will), went anyway, saying “the Lord’s will be done.” The whole reason he wanted to go is found in Acts 20:16:

  16 For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, that he might not spend any time in Asia; for he hasted, if it were possible, to be at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. -Wesley NT

So Paul chose to go saying that he would “die for the name of the Lord Jesus.” We can see from the full chapter of Acts 21 and some of 22 even that God didn’t allow the vow to be completed. Paul was nearly beaten to death outside the Temple, while sponsoring the men of the vow who were following the old law rituals. It was “the Lord’s will”  that Paul didn’t complete that offering, that Paul was saved from sure death and the reason Paul spent the next several years in prison for we read in  Acts 23:11, And the night following, the Lord standing by him, said, Be of good courage, Paul: for as thou hast testified the things concerning me at Jerusalem, so thou must testify at Rome also.

Through a thorough study of Acts 21 to 23, we can see that Paul did not make a sacrifice for a vow, nor was he even involved in a vow himself; it was a sponsorship of four other men taking a vow. It was God’s will that Paul was placed in danger as this not only allowed Paul to testify of Christ but it showed Paul that he had been chosen by Christ and had nothing to prove to others in order to earn their approval. Thus Acts 21 has nothing to do with Paul being Torah Observant but instead proves that Paul did not sacrifice and was shown that he was to do the Lord’s will and not that of others.

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