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When a person becomes a Christian, what becomes of his or her religious past? Must all previous pious practice be left behind? Or may some be made fit patterns for the new life in Christ? A patient thinking through of Luke's teaching on the Christian, the Old Testament law and religious tradition, as modeled in Paul's conduct, will give us guidelines by which we can make judgments about our own religious past.
At the home of Mnason, Paul receives a "warm welcome" from fellow Christians. Since Luke does not specify that only like-minded Hellenistic Jewish Christians so greet Paul and his party, we should probably think of a delegation representative of the whole Jerusalem church. From them news of his coming would filter back to all segments of the church (v. 22). The next day there is a respectful reunion, an official reception by the chief elder, James, half-brother of Jesus, and the church's ruling elder board (see note at 15:13). James receives a solemn greeting from Paul, perhaps an embrace, a kiss and a verbal greeting such as "Hail!" "Peace be with you!" or "Grace and peace to you!" (Windisch 1964:500).
Then Paul offers a praiseworthy report. As at the Jerusalem Council, he reported in detail (idiomatically, "one item after another") what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry (Acts 15:12, 14; also see 14:27; 20:24). Luke's phrasing reminds us that anything accomplished through a ministry from the Lord, for the Lord and in his name is, in the final analysis, accomplished by the Lord alone. This is a necessary reminder, for often we are so busy doing our demographics, planning our outreach strategies, preparing our people and materials for our next big advance for God that we forget that he must do the work. True ministry for him will always be ministry by him.
When the elders heard this, they praised God (edoxazon, "were glorifying"). Not unlike Jesus' "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem (Lk 19:37-38), Paul's arrival is surrounded by praise. Interestingly, after reporting the glorifying of God at Jesus' birth, for his teaching and especially his healing ministry, and at the way he died, Luke makes the salvation of the Gentiles his crowning reason for praise (Acts 11:18; 13:48).
Indeed, if we bear the mark of grace we will respond in praise when we hear of saving grace coming to others. That grace will be especially evident when they are persons against whom we were formerly prejudiced because of race, class or culture. Praise for their salvation is the only proper starting point for building a framework of harmony within which all can deal properly with their religious past.
In full spiritual unity, the elders point out to Paul that massive numbers of Jews, . . . all of them . . . zealous for the law, have become believers. These may be the converted Pharisees of Acts 15:5. Literally "zealots for the law," they lived out their loyalty to God by combining ardent nationalism with strict observance of the whole Mosaic code. Phinehas, Elijah and the Maccabees were their worthy predecessors (Num 25:10-13; 1 Kings 19:10, 14; Josephus Jewish Antiquities 12.271).
These converts have been particularly troubled by reports that Paul has been teaching Diaspora Jews to turn away from Moses. This phrase translates apostasia, which refers to either political or spiritual rebellion (2 Chron 29:19; 1 Macc 2:15; Acts 5:31, 39; 2 Thess 2:3). Specifically, Paul is alleged to have instructed these Jewish believers to stop having their children circumcised and "to stop walking according to the customs" (so the prohibitions should be understood).
While it is easy to see how such implications might be drawn from Paul's teaching of a law-free gospel, there is no evidence that Paul ever instructed Jewish Christians this way (Rom 2:25-30; Gal 5:6; 6:15). In fact, Paul was most scrupulous not to offend the conscience of the "weaker brother," the Jewish Christian who maintained ancestral customs, and even went so far as to have Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3; Rom 14:1--15:13).
Our religious past can make distortions of the truth attractive to us, especially those that reinforce our pride in loyalty to our traditions. What can be done to overcome such falsehood, which always threatens to bring disunity to the church?
The church leaders counsel Paul to combat words with action. Four pious but indigent men in the congregation have taken on themselves a Nazirite vow of limited duration (Num 6). By abstaining from products of the vine, not cutting their hair and avoiding ritual impurity, they have been showing thankfulness for past blessings, earnestness in petition or strong devotion to God. The multianimal sacrifice and cleansing ceremony at the end of the vow period, when the hair is cut and offered to God, is financially prohibitive (6:13-20). Paul is asked to bear the expenses of the four. This was a commonly recognized act of piety (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 19.294). To do so he must go through a seven-day ritual cleansing himself, because he has recently returned from Gentile lands (m. Oholot 2:3; 17:5; 18:6; Num 19:12). The intended result is that the rumors about Paul will be shown to be baseless and he will be seen living in obedience to the law. Lest Paul's action be misunderstood in another direction, as making Jewish custom normative for Gentile Christians, the elders hasten to add that the Jerusalem Council decree is still in place (see discussion above at Acts 15:20, 29). It is repeated here in essential detail.
The next day Paul begins his own ritual purification and declares to temple authorities the date that the Nazirite vow, here called the days of purification (Num 6:5 LXX), would be completed through a sacrificial ceremony (m. Nazir 6:7).
What does the elders' counsel to Paul say about Luke's view of Christians and their religious past? Before we can draw general principles, we must deal with unique and theologically significant factors concerning the Jewish law. At its core was divine revelation in three aspects: moral, civil and ceremonial. Surrounding that were oral tradition and rabbinic exposition. Luke's use of terminology often prevents us from easily distinguishing which aspects of the law he is referring to. Still, Luke's use of the term customs does seem to show he is aware of the difference between divine revelation and human tradition (15:1; 21:21; 26:3; 28:17). And there may be a distinction in Luke's thinking between the moral, ceremonial and civil aspects which will enable us to make decisions about normativeness based on content (Lk 10:25-28).
If we focus on the divine revelation component of a Jewish Christian's religious past, the Old Testament law, we can see Luke says it has no relevance for salvation (Acts 13:38-39; 15:10-11). While the moral aspect is universally normative (Lk 10:25-28; 18:18-23), Luke also sees a positive use for the ceremonial laws, to aid Jewish Christians in the expression of their piety. He does not make these laws binding on Gentiles, however. Only when Gentiles are in the company of Jewish Christians with scruples should they keep ceremonial ritual purity, and then not beyond what God mandated in the Old Testament for aliens living in Israel.
What guidelines does this incident yield for today? There is a large measure of freedom, but that freedom is to be used to promote (1) the advance of the gospel and (2) the unity of an ethnically diverse church. So long as our conscience is not bound by non-Christian traditions and practices and the Christian gospel is not syncretized with the thought behind non-Christian practice, our pre-Christian religious past, properly cleansed, may move into a transformed spiritual future.