Returning to our childhood home can be hard, especially if we have changed in ways which are not clear to those still there. Paul has this on a grand scale as he returns to Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, where he spent his younger years and yet where, now, he is seriously misunderstood.
Having worked hard at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, Paul wants now to obey Jesus (Ac 1:8) by going to the place the Romans regarded as the “end of the earth”: Spain. Before doing so, however, he plans on visiting two great cities. He wants to go to Rome, the heart of the Gentile world, with the hope that the Christians there will help him with his Spanish plans (Ro 15:23,24). But before Rome, he is going to Jerusalem, the capital of his own people, the Jews. With him are a team of Gentile converts with him (Ac 20:4) and a gift from the Gentile churches (1Co 16:1-4). Paul hopes that displaying his ministry in this way will provoke unbelieving Jews to recognise that Jesus truly is Lord (Ro 11:11-14). His travel plans, however, are far from certain since he knows the visit to Jerusalem may go very badly for him (Ro 15:30-32; Ac 20:23). The city is already tense about Roman occupation and Paul’s Gentile friendship could be explosive.
Well, Paul’s arrival (v15) is peaceful. He stays, en route, at the home of long-standing believer (v16) before receiving a warm welcome from Christian brothers in the capital (v17): the Lord is kind in the way he grants calm before a storm we have to face. Next, Paul visits James (v18), the Lord Jesus’ brother who now leads the Jerusalem church (the apostles having left) with a team of mature believers. To them Paul gives an account of his ministry among the Gentiles (v19). Their response is very encouraging (v20) – an answer to prayer! It seems that the workable solution which James previously came up with from the Old Testament is still holding (Ac 15:13-21). Amos predicted the return of David’s worship tent where Gentiles would be welcome (2Sa 6:17; Am 9:11,12). In line with that, James said the church could welcome Gentiles to know the Lord with them, so long as certain guidelines were kept to ease Jewish consciences.
However, there have been developments from the Christian activity with Gentiles that need wise handling. Jerusalem believers are zealous for the law (v20), yet have heard that Paul is teaching other Jewish Christians to dump their heritage (v21). The rumour is false; Paul is misunderstood. Rather, he has worked hard on understanding how Jew and Gentile can now be one in Christ, opening up the Old Testament to explain his reasoning and giving a clear theology which goes far beyond James’ quick solution to coping with Gentile believers (eg see Romans). Of course, Paul, like Jesus, has criticised Judaism (Ro 2:24), but he’s not done what some claim. So to scotch the rumours, the leadership team propose Paul undertake a public act of Jewish piety by going with four men to complete their vows (v22-24; Nu 6). James and his team have found a further answer to managing the problem of Gentile believers! And to emphasise their commitment to making this work, they remind Paul that their earlier letter still stands (v25). But though they may feel relief when Paul acts as requested (v26), it’s unlikely he does – trouble must surely still come!
Christians can learn from Paul about living humbly, putting others first. Elsewhere, Paul will live like a Gentile if he needs to, but not in Jerusalem. Amongst Jews, he chooses to be faithful as a Jew to keep the peace (1Co 9:19-23). It is his policy in his personal life not to let his preferences take precedence over others. That’s not because he’s seeking cultural relevance or because he thinks this is a great evangelistic technique; the policy isn’t about the message he preaches or the style of worship that churches should pursue. Rather, this is about his personal friendships with others. He is willing to suppress his own natural desires and preferences, if that let’s him interact freely with other people and maintain bonds with fellow Christians. Not that he would behave sinfully. But where it’s a matter of choice (eg on food, clothes, spending money, visiting homes, family customs, alcohol, etc.) Paul makes decisions which build up love. So should we. This is not hypocrisy (pretending to be what we are not): Paul’s committment to evangelising Gentiles is quite clear in Jerusalem! Neither is this about changing personality (like forcing a quiet person to be talkative). But Christians are to make uncomfortable choices which enable us to stay on good terms with others, even when we are misunderstood. This is the way of love (Ro 13:10)