Did Paul compromise the gospel he preached?


We read in Acts 21:26 that the apostle Paul cleansed himself and entered the Temple to announce the end of the days of cleansing and offered sacrifices. Did not the apostle Paul compromise the gospel he preached, and why was it necessary to do so?

To understand the purpose for which the apostle Paul entered the Temple and offered sacrifices for him and the four brothers, it is important to understand the context that governs the interpretation. We read in Acts 21:17 that Paul came to Jerusalem where he met Jacob and the elders of the church to whom he recounts in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry, which is why the brethren glorify God. There is, however, one concern.

And when they heard about them, they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to abandon Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. (Acts 21:20-21 NASB)

Failure to keep the Law of Moses was punishable by death – “Take such a man from the earth! He is not worthy to live!” (Acts 22:22). Disobedience to the Law of Moses was the main charge against which the Jews sought to kill the apostle Paul (Acts 21:27-30).

crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who instructs everyone everywhere against our people and the Law and this place; and besides, he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place!” (Acts 21:28 NASB)

To show respect for the Law of Moses, James and the elders of the church counseled the apostle Paul to do the following.

 So what is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.  Therefore, do as we tell you: we have four men who have a vow upon themselves;  take them along and purify yourself together with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and then everyone will know that there is nothing to what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also conform, keeping the Law. (Acts 21:22-24 NASB)

The church asks Paul to pay for four other men who had taken a vow, to cleanse himself with them, so that everyone would know that Paul obeyed the law, especially since the one who paid for others was considered a religious person, proving identification with the Jewish people. Paul does not oppose the requirement of the brethren which doesn’t contradict the decision of the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21), nor his teaching that Jews and Gentiles cannot be saved by the Law.

Then Paul took along the men, and the next day, after purifying himself together with them, he went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them. (Acts 21:26 NASB)

Paul has already been described in previous chapters as taking an oath.

 Now Paul, when he had remained many days longer, took leave of the brothers and sisters and sailed away to Syria, and Priscilla and Aquila were with him. Paul first had his hair cut at Cenchrea, for he was keeping a vow. (Acts 18:18 NASB)

The oath mentioned in both texts refers to the oath of the Nazirite, mentioned in the book of Numbers.

But if someone dies very suddenly beside him and he defiles his consecrated head of hair, then he shall shave his head on the day when he becomes clean; he shall shave it on the seventh day. Then on the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves or two young doves to the priest, to the entrance of the tent of meeting.  And the priest shall offer one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering, and make atonement for him regarding his sin because of the dead person. And on that same day he shall consecrate his head,  and shall live his days of consecration as a Nazirite for the Lord, and shall bring a male lamb a year old as a guilt offering; but the preceding days will not count, because his consecration was defiled.Now this is the law of the Nazirite when the days of his consecration are fulfilled: he shall bring his offering to the entrance of the tent of meeting. And he shall present his offering to the Lord: one male lamb a year old without defect as a burnt offering, one ewe lamb a year old without defect as a sin offering, one ram without defect as a peace offering, and a basket of unleavened loaves of fine flour mixed with oil and unleavened wafers spread with oil, along with their grain offering and their drink offering.  Then the priest shall present them before the Lord and offer his sin offering and his burnt offering.  He shall also offer the ram as a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, together with the basket of unleavened bread; the priest shall also offer its grain offering and its drink offering. The Nazirite shall then shave his consecrated head of hair at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and take the consecrated hair of his head and put it on the fire which is under the sacrifice of peace offerings. And the priest shall take the ram’s shoulder when it has been boiled, and one unleavened loaf from the basket and one unleavened wafer, and shall put them on the hands of the Nazirite after he has shaved his consecrated hair. Then the priest shall wave them as a wave offering before the Lord. It is holy for the priest, together with the breast offered as a wave offering, and the thigh offered as a contribution; and afterward the Nazirite may drink wine.’ “This is the law of the Nazirite who vows his offering to the Lord according to his consecration, in addition to what else he can afford; corresponding to his vow which he makes, so he shall do according to the law of his consecration. (Numbers 6:9-21 NASB)

Paul’s cleansing must be seen in the context of keeping the Nazirite oath that was kept for at least thirty days.

What the apostle Paul does is in perfect harmony with the biblical principle set forth in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 (NASB):

To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might gain Jews; to those who are under the Law, I became as one under the Law, though not being under the Law myself, so that I might gain those who are under the Law; to those who are without the Law, I became as one without the Law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might gain those who are without the Law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak; I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some. 

In conclusion, we can say that this case was a matter of Jewish custom and not of salvation or holiness. Paul acts according to cultural sensitivity and the Jewish context without compromising the gospel. Moreover, in the context of many accusations against Paul by the Judaizers and many false apostles that overthrew the faith of many, Paul listens to the wise counsel of James and thus, directly and indirectly, destroys many of these accusations. We cannot consider this case as a compromise or failure of the apostle Paul. Paul is willing to do this in order to preserve the unity and opportunity to share the gospel. Many times in ministry we may be asked to engage in cultural practices, not because they must be respected, but so as not to hinder the possibility of sharing the gospel.

I recommend that you study the course Precept Upon Precept — Acts.

Translated by Didina Vicliuc