Daily Bible Studies & Sermon Notes

Legalism or Liberty
Pastor Steve Schell
Acts 21:17-28
Two people can do the same thing, and one of them pleases the Lord but the other does not, because two people can do the same thing for different reasons. And there is no area of life where this is more true than in religious matters. The difference between legalism and liberty is a very fine line, and it’s very easy to cross that line without even knowing it, and, in my opinion, that’s the root of the problem we’re reading about today. The threat of persecution was constantly hanging over the heads of the church in Jerusalem, and it was their desire to avoid persecution that pressed them to appear as obedient to the Law of Moses as possible. If the church in that city was perceived in any way to be a force that turned Jews away from Judaism, they would be, and were, attacked. They would face physical violence, people would lose their jobs, unbelieving spouses would divorce them, families would disinherit them, property would be seized; they would become outcasts. In fact, even if they themselves kept the Law, if they were suspected of being in relationship with people who had stopped keeping the Law, or if they had supported someone, like Paul, who was preaching salvation by grace rather than Law-keeping, they would be attacked. So to protect themselves, they tried to observe the Law as fervently as possible, while still believing in Jesus. But as the years went by, it appears some hearts, maybe many hearts, became so fervent for the Law that the truth that salvation comes by faith in Christ alone had grown weak, or possibly disappeared altogether. Some may have drifted across a fine line.
Paul in Jerusalem (Acts 21:17-29) • DBS (Sun-Sat)

Troubling Questions
This is a difficult passage. It’s confusing and it raises some troubling questions. The whole situation is obviously a blunder, but we’re not sure who to blame. So let’s try to answer some of those questions before we move on.

1.Question: Was Paul teaching Jews to stop observing the Law?
Answer: No, he taught that Jews should stay Jews and Gentiles should stay Gentiles (1Co 7:17-24). But remember, when we talk about the “Law” this way we’re talking about the ceremonial elements of the Law, not the eternal moral principles of the Law. We’re talking about outward behaviors like circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, foods, wearing certain garments, touching people with disease or the dead, keeping the feasts of Israel, and animal sacrifices. No one was suggesting that the Ten Commandments didn’t matter anymore.

2.Question: Was Paul teaching something new, or was he simply continuing to teach what Jesus taught?
Answer: Jesus came into conflict with Judaism over the same issue. Paul’s problem was that he understood what Jesus had said, and what He had accomplished on the cross, and he refused to compromise. Jesus was not just another teacher, and He was not just a human Messiah. He was, and is, the divine Son of God. He is the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mk 2:28) So coming to earth introduced an entirely new season of walking with God. Listen: “No one sews a patch of un-shrunk cloth on an old garment, otherwise the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear results. No one puts new wine into old wineskins, otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins” (Mk 2:21, 22).

In other words, the grace and power of Christ cannot be contained in the old forms of the Law. His followers are not to try to return to carefully observing Jewish ceremonies, but as Jesus did, to focus on bringing people to faith in Him.
God never intended the Law to be worshipped. He never intended it to be a ladder to heaven, so in that sense Jesus was not introducing something new, He was restoring God’s original perspective. But His arrival brought to light what had been partial or misunderstood and showed us the truth; and it instantly brought conflict (Mk 1:40-3:6):
• Faith was now to be focused on Him, not the Law.
• Observing religious ceremonies or disciplines were not as important as rescuing people.
• Faith in Him, not keeping the Law, is what saves people, and that was true in the Old Testament as well, though they had far less information about Him. Righteousness has always come through faith.
• The grace and power of Christ cannot be expressed by the old forms of the Law. The old had to give way to the new. T o try to do both at once will destroy a person’s heart or a church (new cloth, new wineskins).

3. Question: Then how was it possible for Paul to take part in a Nazarite vow without violating his conscience?
Answer: It was not a problem for him because he was able to do it for the right reasons. First, he was able to participate in the vow as an act of worship to God. In no way did he think he was earning righteousness. And second, as an evangelist, he was always careful to respect the conscience of those he was trying to reach: “To the Jew, I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews, to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without the Law, as without the Law, though not being without the Law of God, but under the law of Christ (Mt 22:35-40), so that I might win those who are without the Law” (1Co 9:20, 21).
So, what we’re seeing Paul doing in Jerusalem is nothing more than he has been doing in city after city. In this case he wants to reach out to the Jerusalem church and help them understand grace more deeply, so he did what they asked.

4. Question: But there’s another side to this issue: Why did James and the elders ask him to take part in a Nazarite vow?
Answer: There’s no way around the fact that they were using their own natural minds to solve a political problem, and what they were asking Paul to say by taking the vow was partially deceptive (v24).

5. Question: What should they have done?
Answer: What they did before (Ac 15): Let Paul meet with the church and answer for himself their charges. But you’ll notice they didn’t, and the question is why. My guess is that they knew what he’d say, and they knew he was right, but they feared that the truth spoken boldly might stir division and bring more persecution (Ga 5:11,12; 6:12-16).

The root of the issue
This is the root of the issue between the Jerusalem church and Paul, and this is not the first time they’ve had conflict (Ac 9:26-30; Ga 2:11-14; Ac 15:1-29). From their perspective they’re trying to survive in a very dangerous environment. That’s why “men from James” chased after Paul from one city to the next. They were trying to convince his Jewish converts to continue observing the Law, or return to it if they had stopped. Because if word got back to Jerusalem that an apostle was turning Jews away from the Law, they would become the target of the angry reaction in their city (Ga 5:1-12; 6:12-16). The motive of these “Judaizers” was self-protection, and undoubtedly they had become convinced be their own arguments, but they didn’t realize they had drifted back toward the line of earning their own righteousness, and they were systematically undermining people’s confidence in the finished work of Christ.

The dangerous gospel
The cultures of this world will tolerate all sorts of religious ideas. Some they’ll believe, others they’ll just laugh at. But there’s something about the gospel of Jesus Christ that makes people angry and makes them want to attack the person who preaches that gospel. Jesus warned us about this. He said, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember, the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me” (Jn 15:18-21).

It’s easy for us, living in a country that still benefits from the religious freedom of our biblical heritage to look at the Jerusalem church and say, “You lacked the courage to suffer for your faith, so you compromised to protect yourself.” But in so many ways they had stood for Christ and hadn’t compromised. That’s why Paul and his team of church representatives brought them a financial offering. So many believers had been fired, divorced, ostracized from their families and synagogues, had their property confiscated, or thrown out on the streets that the finances needed to care for all these “refugees” was overwhelming. But it does appear the years of persecution had taken their toll. Believers had grown weary, and many were living very close to that line between legalism and liberty, so close they didn’t want Paul to explain the righteousness of Christ by faith to their church.

So what is the lesson we learn from this painful encounter? It may be simple, but it’s foundational: There can be no compromise when it comes to the truth of the Gospel... and being faithful to that truth may cost us everything... and being faithful is more than one decision. It’s a lifetime of decisions to trust that we are saved entirely by repentance and faith. Religious observances must be used only as vehicles of worship, never as ways of earning God’s favor. And this applies to the religious disciplines in our lives as well: prayer, fasting, tithing, Bible reading, church attendance, witnessing, etc. Even in these we can drift over that line and become legalistic. There’s something about our flesh that loves legalism. It feels good to think we’ve earned God’s blessings. Without any outside influences, we will tend to invent our own legalisms. They sprout like weeds in a garden. But when we trust them, we deceive ourselves because we never earn anything before God.

Jesus said, “So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done’” (Lk 17:10).

Paul’s warning to those in Galatia who were crossing back over that line, from liberty to legalism, should always be ringing in our ears: Galatians 5:1-11. There is a line. And each of us must tend our own heart and see that we never cross it. Christ alone is our righteousness!

1) Where have you seen in yourself a tendency to become legalistic? How do you deal with that tendency? 2) It’s obvious the Jerusalem leaders were trying to “fix things,” that they were using their own natural reasoning to handle the situation with Paul. But all of us tend to “lean on our own understanding” (Pr 3:5). What do you think was missing in their decision-process? How might this encounter have changed?  

Return to Sermon Notes