Do Protestants Have the "Fullness of the Faith"?
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Do Protestants Have the "Fullness of the Faith"?

Blessed, and Persecuted, are the Peacemakers {Acts 21:15–36}

Christians must value unity and resist allowing differences of opinions to break spiritual fellowship (Rom. 12:18). But peacemaking is complicated. The pursuit of unity doesn’t allow us to compromise our integrity. And peacemaking doesn’t guarantee peace.

Paul’s experience in Jerusalem (Acts 21:17–36) opens our eyes to the necessity and challenges of eagerly maintaining “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).

Work for Peace

Paul had been in a hurry to get to Jerusalem, despite knowing he would suffer at the hands of the Jews. But he believed in his mission; he wanted God’s people to know the only Savior, Jesus. And he knew that God could do great things in Jerusalem. After all, he could tell story after story of what “God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry” (Acts 21:19).

The Jerusalem elders glorified God for his saving work outside of Israel, and surely appreciated the offering Paul brought from the Gentile believers to the mother church (Acts 24:17). But they also had concerns about the public relations side of Paul’s ministry. Paul allegedly told Jewish believers not to circumcise their children or practice other traditional customs (Acts 21:21). In reality, to Paul, circumcision was a matter of indifference—it is not a salvation issue, not core to the gospel (Gal. 5:6; 6:15). Jesus’s blood doesn’t need to be supplemented with more blood-letting. But to say that Paul was opposed to circumcision is patently false; he circumcised his own “spiritual son” Timothy (Acts 16:3). And he respected those whose weaker consciences led them to live more circumspectly (see Romans 14). Still, the rumors ran strong.

So the leaders urged a plan for addressing the rumors. To demonstrate Paul’s appreciation for the ceremonial law and the temple, he should join with four men who had taken a Nazarite vow, a special vow of dedication to the Lord outlined in the Old Testament (see Num. 6:1–21). The plan didn’t work as intended, but that doesn’t necessarily prove that it was wrong. In fact, the overall motivation to validate Paul before Jewish believers was right. Paul’s tarnished reputation hindered his ministry. And his love for the truth rightly inspired him to set the record straight. Furthermore, the proposal to undergo a Nazirite vow was lawful (unlike, say, offering a sacrificial goat) and didn’t violate Paul’s conscience (see Acts 18:18 and Rom. 14:23). So Paul willingly humbled himself in an attempt to win people for God (1 Cor. 9:19–23).

So should we. Bear with the weaknesses of others. Go out of your way to preserve peace. Show perfect courtesy toward all people (Titus 3:2). But don’t mistake peacemaking for people-pleasing. True peacemakers have lines drawn by Scripture that they will not cross. People who are constantly saying, “This isn’t the hill to die on” probably don’t have such a hill. Paul was willing to die for the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 21:13); it was for his name that Paul tried to pacify his critics. But he was under no illusion that his opponents would honor his sacrifice.

Prepare to Suffer

Before Paul had fulfilled his vow. “Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him” (Acts 21:27). God may use your peacemaking efforts toward the softening of your opponents. Or, he may leave your opponents as hostile as ever, despite your gesture of kindness. Don’t think something strange is happening if you are mistreated for your long-suffering. Paul’s enemies weaponized his peacemaking attempt, committing several errors that we must avoid.

  • They misstated. Paul teaches “everyone everywhere against the people and the law and against this place” (Acts 21:28). This is false. But a more accurate summary of his position would have felt less compelling. So they smoothed over Paul’s careful theological nuance and used misleading talking points to energize their base.
  • They generalized. Accusations including words like all, always, only, and never are commonly used but rarely true. Use absolute qualifiers only when accurate.
  • They assumed. They “supposed” Paul had brought the Gentile Trophimus into the temple. In the New Testament, Luke’s word for “supposed” typically describes a false assumption. Obviously, Paul would never have tried to win Jewish support by violating a law carrying the death penalty. Instead of supposing the worst (1 Cor. 13:7), we should ask non-leading, non-interrogating questions to enhance understanding, and apologize for false assumptions.

The charges against Paul were bogus. But, reinforced by unethical smear tactics, his opponents stirred the crowd. Agabus’s prophecy came true: Paul was bound by the Jews and delivered into the hands of the Gentiles (Acts 21:11). But in God’s providence, the Roman Gentiles actually rescued Paul. By human calculations, his peacemaking efforts backfired. But God was caring for his beloved child. The text’s last words show that Paul was where he should be, following the Prince of Peace. “The shout ‘away with him!’ which pursued him as he was carried up the steps was the shout with which Jesus’s death had been demanded not far from that spot some twenty-seven years before (Luke 23:18; John 19:15).”[1]

Jesus came to the cross to make peace between God and sinners. Not everyone received him. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Only the gospel frees us from cowering before the opinions of others. Securely held by our Father, we can pursue peace no matter the cost, trusting that God blesses peacemakers (Matt. 6:9).

[1] F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, 411.

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William Boekestein

William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has written several books and numerous articles. He and his wife, Amy, have four children.