Tragic Hero (Part II) – Acts 21:17-36

by Roger McCay
8 November 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 21:17-36
Link to Audio Version

A good trap is not seen by the prey until it is sprung. Traps by their nature are devious. They work best when they can catch their victim off guard, and especially when the victim loses situational awareness. This is very true in the Christian life. The enemy sets traps for us, looking to tempt us and lead us into sin, as we follow after the Lord along the Way.

A particularly devious trap is one of sinful compromise. This one can blast us even when are moving forward with the best intentions and motives. With a laser focus on that goal, that mission, that ideal, the trap can be sprung on us out of the blue. “If you just do this, you can achieve that goal you want so bad. It’s just a little thing, a little compromise, no big deal. Isn’t your goal noble and worthy? No one’ll get hurt.” Thus caught off guard, we can find ourselves justifying in our minds sinful means in order to achieve holy ends. The thing is, holy ends do not ever justify sinful means. Christians are called to be holy in all our conduct, like the Lord we follow (1 Peter 1:15-16).

Last week we took a look at Paul’s journey to Jerusalem. We saw how Paul was so obsessively bound and determined to get there, in order to accomplish his, Paul’s, purposes (what I’m sure he considered the best of intentions). He was so bound and determined that he obstinately refused to listen to God’s command not to go to Jerusalem; God’s warnings as to the terrible things that would happen to him there, if he did go; and the pleading and wise counsel of notable Christians to not go to Jerusalem. Yet, Paul’s emotions had overcome his reason, and (typical to a tragic hero) his fatal flaw (obsessive obstinacy) dominated him, so he went to Jerusalem, knowingly going into peril.

What was the peril at the end of the road in Jerusalem for Paul? The easy answer is that Paul was going to be beaten and arrested, which Paul knew about and to which he resigned himself. But there was an even more insidious peril waiting him there (which he didn’t expect), a trap of sinful compromise set in the Jerusalem church.

Starting in Acts 21:17, Paul was received by certain brothers in the Jerusalem church, who received him gladly. This was not the whole church, but a welcoming committee, of sorts, putting him at ease. On the next day Paul, with his travelling companions (Luke and those mentioned in Acts 20:4), met with the elders of the church. The twelve apostles had, apparently, all gone by this time. But there were quite a number of elders, moderated by James. One scholar I read said there were 70 elders, just like there were 70 members of the synagogue.[1] If so, that makes sense, as the church in Jerusalem was huge with thousands of Jewish members (v. 20).

Coming before the gathered elders, Paul greeted them, introduced his traveling companions, and testified to all that God had done through his ministry among the Gentiles. Most likely, too, Paul also handed over the very large sum of money he had managed to raise for the Jerusalem church. Indeed, presenting this gift (which was designated for the poor and for general offerings – 24:17) seems to have been a (if not the) primary goal of his visit to Jerusalem. The overall purpose of the gift was towards showing the love of the Gentile churches towards the Jerusalem church, with Paul hoping that it might bring credibility to his ministry (Rom. 15:31) and help to unify the church (unity being an essential element in church health and evangelism—John 17:21, 23; 1 Pt. 3:8; Rom. 15:5-6). This desire for acceptance and unity was due to Paul knowing there was a huge, growing rift between the Jewish and Gentile Christians over the issues of law and grace.

However, you’ll notice Luke does not mention the money. Chapter 24 is the only place Luke mentions it, but only in the context of Paul’s speech to Felix. Luke’s lack of mention of such a significant event here is strange. It makes you wonder. Luke was there; the money gift was a big deal. Paul had spent a lot of effort on getting it all together from the various churches and transporting it, even writing about it, particularly in 1st and 2nd Corinthians, trying to wrangle more money out of the believers in Corinth (1 Cor. 16:1-3; 2 Cor. 8-9). Why deliberately omit it? Well, considering what happens, perhaps the simple answer is that Luke did not mention the pay-off of the money since it utterly failed to accomplish Paul’s purpose, contributing nothing at all towards his credibility or unity in the church.

As it was, the Jerusalem elders, happy with the money (Who wouldn’t be?) and the news of God’s work through Paul’s ministry, glorified God. Yet the elders saw a problem (vv. 20b-21):

20b 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.

The problem the elders brought up was that Paul, who proclaimed God’s grace in Jesus Christ over the law for salvation, had limited to no credibility with their church.

Why? It’s as pastor and author James Boice explains, “The Jerusalem church was trying to maintain not merely the moral standards of the law of Moses, which are binding upon all men and women, but also the Law’s system of ceremonial purifications and observances.”[2] As we know, those were abrogated, no longer valid under the New Covenant of Jesus Christ (as they were fulfilled by Jesus Christ), the New Covenant being the next dispensation of the one large Covenant of Grace in the Scriptures. The church was trying to keep one foot in both worlds—the Jewish world and the Christian world. There was a lot of pressure to keep up Jewish appearances in Jerusalem, so the church compromised.

You may remember in Gal. 2:11-13 how Peter was even pressured and succumbed to this pressure, but was rebuked by Paul. Paul writes:

11 But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

Well, sometime shortly after that incident, the Jerusalem council was held (Acts 15). There, they made a decision to not pressure the Gentiles to submit to the yoke of the Jewish laws (Acts 15:10), a decision which James mentions in v. 25 of our passage today. Yet, notice Paul’s rebuke of Peter emphasized the fact that even though Peter was a Jew, there was no requirement for him when it came to those ceremonial laws. Peter was perfectly right before God to live and eat like a Gentile Christian—truth for every Jew. Yet, also notice the men who pressured Peter came from James, and Peter feared them. Barnabas even succumbed to their pressure. And now James had tremendous sway over the whole church in Jerusalem. So, while the Jerusalem church seemingly let up on the pressure on the Gentiles, they continued in their own “foot in both worlds” ways, under the yoke of the law, while claiming grace in Christ.

Predictably, because of this compromise of the gospel and the influence of the elders, the church body was confused as to aspects of Christian doctrine when it came to law and grace. Then there were these twisted rumors about Paul and his teaching, which were oversimplified misrepresentations. So, from a muddled point of view and misled with twisted facts, they were concerned, if not outraged, thinking Paul had abandoned the Jewish world and taught Jews to likewise abandon practices that were important to them as Jews. As for the condition of the church in Jerusalem at this point, Kent Hughes sums it up: “The mother church was a compromising, prejudiced church, and her sins of lying gossip and spineless accommodation eventuated in Paul’s rejection.”[3]

And now, without being invited, Paul shows up in Jerusalem. What then is to be done? (as the elders say in v. 22). Well, notice there is no suggestion of the elders doing anything to correct the problem in their church. Rather than responding with grace towards Paul, they crushed him with the law (something typical of legalists, by the way). Rather than take a stand for Paul and proclaim the truth about his teaching and ministry to their own church, they cowardly put the problem on Paul’s shoulders, unfairly testing him. They offered him a compromise, leading him by the nose with the hope it would help him accomplish his good intentions, where his monetary gift had failed.

And, although this comes later, notice how the Jerusalem church eventually, with the exception of Paul’s nephew (Acts 23:16-22; if he was a Christian) … the Jerusalem church ends up abandoning Paul in his need, when he was trying to do what they asked. Well, A.D. 70 was fast approaching, and these events took place around A.D. 57.

Now, without us going into the Nazarite vow’s details (found in our OT reading today in Num. 6), Boice summarizes the request they make of Paul:

We have four men who have taken a vow and will be presenting themselves at the temple. We would like you to join them. They are poor people. They are not able to pay for the sacrifice that is part of the ceremonial purification rite. We’d like you to pay for that sacrifice, go through the days of purification yourself, and then join with them as the sacrifice for sin is made in the temple area.”[4]

Why do this? The elders told him in Verse 24b, “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.”

Due to the Jerusalem church’s compromises, and Paul’s desire for unity, Paul found himself in a carefully laid trap. Once again, due to his fatal flaw, obsessive obstinacy, his tunnel vision blinded him to God’s will. Paul agreed to do this thing.

Yet, there were two major problems with this: the purification rights and the sacrifice for sin. Though, before we get to those, consider the question. Does this compromise not fit with Paul’s ethical position—given in 1 Cor. 9:19-22? Verse 20 is particularly relevant:

“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.”

Well, several things. 1) Paul was also already on the road of disobedience by going to Jerusalem in the first place. 2) Paul is not there trying to win Jews to Christ; this is a totally different situation. 3) How could it be brotherly love to deceive the church and reinforce their compromise? 4) You may remember from before, that the first question of the Christian ethic is “What is the will of God?”

Paul knew better. He knew that the same action is not necessarily right and ethical in every circumstance, which is the major problem with applying a generalized ethic. This is why he could, on the one hand, circumcise Timothy for the sake of evangelism enabling Timothy to enter into the synagogues with Paul without controversy (Acts 16:3). And then, on the other hand, why he could say he’d rather false teachers, Judaizers, “emasculate themselves” than insist on circumcision—part of their faith plus law heresy (Gal. 5:12). In one case it’s morally right, the other morally wrong.

Even so, in this case he carried his ethic too far into a sinful compromise. Why? The bottom line is that Paul, in agreeing to do what they asked, agreed to compromise the gospel. And, I have to say, just thinking of that makes my heart clench.

First of all, purification rights are utterly wrong for Christians, whether Jew or Gentile. Why? Well, the simple answer is that Christian’s are purified because of the blood of Christ shed on the cross—the perfect and only sufficient sacrifice in which all our sins are atoned. Concerning this 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us [purify us] from all unrighteousness.”

We are purified, sanctified, through of the work of Jesus Christ. We are made holy, and this is perpetual—Paul himself wrote of this extensively in his epistles. All our sins are forgiven, washed away by the blood of the lamb. To go through a ritual purification at the temple is, as Boice puts it, “a virtual repudiation of Christ’s completed work.” [5] In other words, it’s practically an acted-out denial of the gospel. This sounds horrible, but think about it. In the purification ritual, the apostle gave an acted-out message communicating that the imputed righteousness of Christ was not enough for justification and sanctification (definitions of which are before you from our recitation of the catechism earlier in the service). It affirmed the faith plus law position that had so corrupted the Jerusalem church. I am certain that Paul’s intentions, his motives, were otherwise, but actions speak volumes to those watching, and the Jerusalem church was watching closely.

Likewise, animal sacrifices are utterly wrong for a Christian, Jew or Gentile, to make! And note that the offerings mentioned in v. 26, concerning this Nazarite vow, specifically included an animal sacrifice for sin (Num. 6:14). The animal was presented to the priest. The worshipper confessed his sins over the animal. And the animal was killed as a substitutionary atonement for the worshipper’s sin.

Why was this so wrong? Well, I mean, it seems self-evident from a Christian perspective why, but consider one man’s apt explanation:

“Paul’s error was worse than mere hypocrisy [which Peter had been guilty of and Paul called him on], though it was that too. It was a compromise of the gospel. The same apostle who had written so many New Testament books, the man who had argued so forcefully that we are saved by Jesus Christ alone was about to go to the Jewish temple and in the presence of the very priests who had crucified the Lord, there participate with others in a sacrifice of an animal that was meant to be an atonement for his sin. That is, he was about to turn his back on the only sufficient sacrifice of Christ.”[6]

Hebrews 9:11-12 teaches:

11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.

Christ secured an eternal redemption with his blood for the forgiveness of sin. In every way, sacrificing an animal after this fact, having received Christ’s benefits, is wrong. For Paul, not only would it be morally and ethically wrong in itself, it would be, perhaps, even worse, as it would be a leading of the church astray.

God, of course was paying attention. God is in the details. He’s totally alert, cannot be trapped by devious traps, and he’s watching over his people, his church, his flock. Oh, thank you, Lord! Thus, God providentially slammed the hammer down and stopped Paul before he could go too far.

The 23d Psalm says that “The Lord is my shepherd…” and it says that “his rod and his staff they comfort me.” Sometimes God allows us to go only so far into sin, but then he pulls us from the brink … We see this here with Paul Acts 21:27: “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.” This was no coincidence. This was God intervening with Paul in his providential way.

The beatings and arrest that follow were foretold, and they now came to be. And while there is irony in the lying accusations of the Jews against Paul, the big irony is that God overcame the sin of the Jews, in their attack on Paul, by providentially stopping Paul along the road of gospel compromise he was barreling down, stopping him before he went through with the sacrifice at the temple on the seventh day. Further, this whole sequence of events brought Paul back to his senses, as we’ll see.

Sometimes the Lord lets us follow our own sinful will, yet only so far before he yanks us back into the fold with his shepherd crook. He also, in the spirit of Hebrews 12, disciplines us (the rod of the shepherd, so to speak) because he is our loving Father.

Paul was a tragic hero, but his fall was not such that ended in destruction. He was a redeemed tragic hero, saved by the Lord. Despite Paul’s terrible mistake and compromise. Despite his missing the mark, his hamartia, the Lord continued to use Paul to great effect as his witness before many, many more people (as we’ll see as we continue our journey through Acts) and even to write several more books of the New Testament.

What an encouragement to us! When we fall, when we miss the mark, there is still hope. There is the hope of divine intervention. There is the hope to continue along in the Lord’s grace and forgiveness, following Jesus upon the path of righteousness. For, like Paul, we all mess up, terribly, sometimes in terrific sin; we all need forgiveness. In Jesus Christ we are forgiven, saved, and brought back into his Way.

My friends, take hope and encouragement from this Word! As you and I are all sinners, this is good news for us. We all understand what it’s like to succumb to temptation, falling into the trap of sin. Once you go down that side-road, it can be very hard to stop. Compromise comes on top of compromise. Sin can get out of control. Sometimes it’s like you know you’re in the wrong, but you just can’t quite stop. It can even be, at times, like you’re a spectator to your own sin, desperate and wanting help. Paul speaks to just this trouble in Rom. 7. He cries out:

22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

But then in relief, he declares our only hope:

 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

If you are a true believer, the Lord is not going to abandon you. He’ll help you. Cry out to him, beg him for the strength to overcome your sin, and he will hear your cry. He gives you the strength. He delivers you. And it may take him providentially bringing down the hammer. It may take pain from the consequences of sin and the Lord’s discipline. But, he’ll carry you through. You are his child, he is your Father, and he loves you with a perfect love.

And as we follow Jesus, let us stay watchful for those traps waiting for us. They’re out there, no doubt, looking to catch you off guard. Know yourself, know your flaws and motives, consider carefully the means you use to accomplish your desires. Watch your heart for temptations, and cry out to the Lord for the strength to overcome. If you find yourself obstinately moving forward with reckless abandon, do a self-check—with the Word of God, the Spirit’s guidance, and the counsel of wise and loving Christians. And listen.

If you are a Christian, when you miss the mark, this does not mean your doom. No, in Jesus Christ we have hope! Despite our sin we can say with Paul, who, in Acts 23:1 shortly after his arrest in Jerusalem and before the Sanhedrin, proclaimed,“I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” This is the man who considered himself the chief of sinners. It is not that we are perfect, but that we are redeemed by the blood of the Lord; righteous not in our own works, but in Jesus Christ.

Because even heroes fall, Christians must be alert for the trap of sinful compromise.


[1] R. Kent Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996), 292.

[2] James Montgomery Boice, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), 359–360.

[3] Hughes, 294.

[4] Boice, 360.

[5] Ibid., 364.

[6] Ibid., 360