There are optimists, and there are pessimists. The optimists see a silver lining in every cloud; the pessimists predict thunderstorms and electrocution by lightning.
In organizations, the optimists hand problems over to committees and trust that the recommendations will work. They give pep talks. “We got this!” they proclaim enthusiastically. “Let’s do it!”
Meanwhile, the pessimists roll their eyes and sigh. They think the recommendations are doomed to failure. The problem is too big, they think to themselves. It’s too complicated. The plan won’t work.
And unfortunately, sometimes the pessimists are right.
As we saw in the previous post, Paul’s return to Jerusalem put James and the leaders of the church in a bind. They didn’t doubt that God was working through Paul, and wanted to receive both him and the offering he had collected to aid poor believers in Jerusalem.
But angry rumors were circulating about Paul’s traitorous behavior, and animosity toward Rome was running high. Paul couldn’t just waltz into Jerusalem with an entourage of Gentiles. It would look bad for James to welcome Paul with open arms; the church’s mission of evangelism to Jews would surely be compromised.
What to do?
James and the Jerusalem elders had a plan. Luke, telescoping the account, doesn’t tell us how or when they came up with the plan. Chances are, they knew in advance that Paul was coming; the very fact that Paul was able to get together with all the elders (and there may have been a goodly number of them) the day after he arrived suggests that the meeting was arranged. Knowing the volatile attitude of their fellow Jews in Jerusalem, James and the others cooked up their strategy before the meeting and clued Paul in when they met.
Here’s Luke’s report of what they said:
So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law. But as for the Gentiles who have become believers, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. (Acts 21:23-25, NRSV)
Four of the believers in Jerusalem, for unknown reasons, had taken a nazirite vow. As described in Numbers 6, such a vow is a temporary and rigorous dedication or consecration of oneself to God. One of the requirements was to let their hair grow, uncut, until the time of their vow was complete. As we’ve seen, Paul himself probably took such a vow in Corinth (Acts 18:18).
Paul, given his long association with Gentiles, would have been expected to go through a purification rite anyway. That would certainly look good and pious. On top of that, even if he didn’t take on a nazirite vow himself, he could support the four who were under the vow by, well, paying for their haircuts. That would look even better.
James and the elders also reassured Paul that they were not backing down from what they had originally decided about Gentile believers in Acts 15 — Gentiles would not be required to be circumcised or to follow Jewish customs. The main recommendation was to concretely turn away from their formerly pagan ways.
That was the plan, and they seemed confident that it would work. “Do this,” they told Paul, “and everyone will know that the rumors aren’t true. They’ll see that you’re an observant, law-abiding Jew.”
Problem solved. We got this! (High fives all around.)
Did Paul himself think this would work? At that point, there was no one in the world more experienced in being persecuted by both Jews and Gentiles; no one else had had to deal with so many forms of entrenched hatred and hard-headed resistance to the truth.
But he went along with the plan anyway, to the letter. What the heck, it couldn’t hurt. To the Jew, I will be a Jew, if it means the possibility of winning someone to the gospel.
Did it work? As we’ll see shortly, not even a little.