In a pickle

It would be nice to think that every problem has a solution. If we just think hard enough, if we’re creative enough, if we consult the right books, websites, and experts, we can find our way out of any problem.

But that’s not always the way the world works. Not even in the world of the Bible. When Paul, at the end of his final missionary journey, returned to Jerusalem, carrying a generous offering for the poor, he should have received a hero’s welcome. But instead, with Paul in town, the leaders of the Jerusalem church found themselves in a pickle.

. . .

As we’ve seen, Acts 15 was a pivotal chapter in Luke’s tale. Paul and Barnabas were called to Jerusalem to give a reckoning of their ministry among the Gentiles. The most famous of the apostles — Peter, James, and John — were all present at the council.

The three esteemed apostles fully recognized how God’s grace was working through Paul and Barnabas and encouraged them to continue, while they focused on evangelizing their fellow Jews. “They asked only one thing,” Paul later told the Galatians, “that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do” (Gal 2:9-10, NRSV).

True to his word, Paul did just that: he made the rounds of the Gentile churches and took up a collection for the poor in Jerusalem. He then returned to Jerusalem with the money, accompanied by representatives of the Gentile churches. The plan was to arrive during the Feast of Pentecost with the gift.

In Jerusalem, Paul was at first greeted warmly. The following day, he and his companions met with James and the elders of the church; this time, Peter and John weren’t there. When Paul told of everything God had done through his missionary efforts, James and the others rejoiced.

But then the mood turned somber. James and the elders brought Paul up to speed on what had been happening in Jerusalem since he left:

You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. (Acts 21:20-22)

The good news was that thousands of Jews in Jerusalem had come to believe in Christ. The bad news was that they were “zealous for the law” — in other words, militantly defensive about preserving Jewish traditions.

They had heard exaggerated rumors about Paul. It’s true that Paul argued strenuously against compelling Gentiles to be circumcised; that would undercut the gospel message of salvation by grace alone. But he never taught Jewish believers to cast aside Moses or centuries of tradition.

For the most part, he considered the observances permissible but not required for salvation. You want to circumcise your children? By all means. Be my guest. But your children aren’t lost if they’re not circumcised.  Thus technically, on the one hand, Paul was innocent of the accusations. 

On the other hand, as Paul traveled through the empire, preaching in cities and synagogues, bringing Jews and Gentiles alike to the faith, there had to be Jewish converts who did in fact abandon Jewish observances. And Paul, while not telling them to do this, would have been fine with it.

So how did the rumors against Paul get started? No one knows. But imagine that in place after place, a handful of Jews come to believe that Jesus is their Messiah. In the eyes of their neighbors, they start to become less and less Jewish, perhaps even daring to — gasp! — fellowship with Gentiles. And when pressed to justify their scandalous behavior, they bravely and courageously… throw Paul under the bus. “Yeah,” they might respond defensively, “I wasn’t sure about that myself. But Paul said it was okay.”

That’s how these things work.

Now think back to the historical context we described in the previous post. The social climate in Jerusalem was unstable, volatile. Among Jews, anti-Roman and anti-Gentile anger was reaching the boiling point. Negative rumors about Paul’s traitorous behavior were already in circulation.

And then… Paul sauntered into town with an entourage of Gentiles.

James and the elders were in a pickle. They wanted to welcome Paul and his friends, but the optics of doing so were terrible. It would jeopardize their own ministry to the Jews.

Notice, too, that Luke says nothing about handing over the collection. One assumes the money was given, but it probably didn’t have the unifying effect Paul had hoped. The Jews in Jerusalem were in no mood to say, “Oh, isn’t that sweet! Our Gentile brothers and sisters care about us!” The more likely attitude would have been, Take that unclean money out of here and burn it. How dare they!  And James and the others stood to suffer guilt by association.

. . .

So what were they to do? Being creative types, they hit upon a plan to fix the optics. In retrospect, the plan was naive. But the willingness to believe that our solutions are bulletproof seems to be part of the human condition.

What was the plan? Stay tuned.