Did Paul Sin in Submitting to the Temple Ritual?

Wayne Jackson
One of the most controversial contexts in the book of Acts has to do with Paul’s activity in the Jerusalem temple, as recorded in Acts 21. Did the apostle violate the law of God in “purifying” himself in that ritual? Some so claim, but is this a necessary conclusion?

“Did Paul sin when he ‘purified’ himself in the Jerusalem temple, according to the record in Acts 21?”

Here is Luke’s record of the incident in question.

“Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them went into the temple, declaring the fulfillment of the days of purification, until the offering was offered for every one of them” (Acts 21:26).

In order to put this matter into proper focus, some background relative to the passage needs to be considered. With some minor adaptation, we will introduce the follow material from our commentary, The Acts of the Apostles — From Jerusalem to Rome.

At the conclusion of his Third Missionary Journey, Paul and his companions finally came to Jerusalem. This was the fifth (and final) time Paul had visited the city since he left on his journey of persecution for Damascus (9:1ff). Luke affirms that when the company arrived at the sacred city, “the brethren received us gladly” (Acts 21:17). The language suggests a reception without reservation.

Earlier, when Paul penned his letter to the saints in Rome, he asked for their prayers to the end that upon his arrival in Jerusalem, the “ministration,” i.e., gifts of benevolence, “might be acceptable to the saints” (Rom. 15:30-31; cf. Acts 24:17). He was not disappointed. Their prayers were answered. It was a time of wonderful rejoicing.

On the following day there was a special meeting. The missionary group was there and so were the Jerusalem elders, together with James, Jesus’ half-brother (cf. chapter 15). Paul greeted the brethren and then, item-by-item, rehearsed (imperfect tense — the narration took a while!) the events of his labors among the Gentiles, giving all glory to God (vv. 18-19).

The Jerusalem saints were delighted at the success of Paul’s ministry, and they kept on praising God (imperfect tense) for the salvation of lost souls. Paul had successfully removed himself as the center of attention. Eventually, though, they got around to telling the great apostle about a problem they felt was serious. In the section that follows (20ff), the Bible student encounters what this writer considers to be one of the most challenging episodes in the entire book.

Gently, the Jerusalem brethren explained to Paul that thousands of Jews had “believed,” i.e., they had been converted to Christ. This reference to a vast harvest from among the Jews reveals how abbreviated the record in Acts has been. The term “believed” is employed to summarize their obedience to the gospel.

Though these multitudes had become Christians, they had not arrived at the full realization that the introduction of Christianity made the law of Moses inoperative as a redemptive system. Accordingly, these new Christians still circumcised their children (as a covenant sign), and they observed many of the “customs” of the Mosaic regime.

Here was the problem: a report had been circulated widely that Paul went about constantly teaching that Jews, especially those who lived in Gentile lands, should “forsake,” (apostasia – cf. “apostasy”) Moses. “Moses” stands for the Old Testament economy. They apparently had concluded that Paul opposed any sort of connection with the Hebrew system, which was not true. The apostle himself had circumcised Timothy in order to prevent offense to the Jews (16:3). Paul had not opposed observing certain elements of the law — provided the intent was not to seek justification on that basis.

The apostle was not insensitive to the feelings of his Israelite kinsmen. But that had become his reputation. Though James and the brethren did not agree with the assessment that Paul radically opposed the law, they felt the matter needed remedy in some fashion. It must be added that these Jerusalem leaders probably did not have a completely accurate view themselves as to what Paul was practicing and teaching. What could be done to defuse this volatile situation? The Jewish antagonists were bound to hear that Paul was in Jerusalem, and there would be trouble. The following solution, therefore, was proposed.

There were four Hebrew men who had placed themselves under a vow (likely a Nazarite vow). It was near the time for that ritual to be consummated by a purification ceremony in the temple. It was suggested, therefore, that Paul identify with them, paying their temple fees, and, “purifying” himself along with them. Such a procedure was allowed under the law. This would be done so that the Jews in general might see that Paul was “walking orderly, observing the law.” Gentiles, of course, were under no such constraints, as indeed the conference in Jerusalem had established (chapter 15).

Paul agreed to the suggestion. The following day the apostle, along with the four men, went to the temple where the sacrifices would be offered. The process was initiated, which would be culminated a few days later. Not only were the four “purified,” but so was Paul—though likely not for the same reason. There is no evidence that the apostle was under a vow. However, since he recently had been in Gentile territory, he would be viewed as ceremonially “unclean,” hence would need to purify himself in order to partake with the others (Simon Kistemaker, Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990, p. 760). The minute details of the whole process are not recorded.

Here is the problem: Why would Paul, knowing that the Mosaic regime was obsolete, submit to a “purification” ritual, that would appear to convey the impression that Christ’s blood was insufficient as a medium of cleansing? Sincere Bible students have struggled with this difficulty. Several views have been offered relative to this matter.

  1. Some suggest the event never happened; it is alleged that Luke fabricated the incident in order to show that Paul was a law-abiding Jew.
  2. Others argue that the apostle was sincere in yielding to this procedure; he simply did not fully understand—at this point—that the law had been abrogated.
  3. Many allege that Paul, in a moment of weakness, knowingly sinned, yielding to the pressure.
  4. Some contend that the apostle’s actions were a matter of expediency—in a unique time-period when certain elements of the Mosaic system (particularly civil/ceremonial) gradually were passing away.

Perhaps no suggestion is entirely free from difficulty, in view of the brevity of the record. We would offer, however, the following observations.

First, the notion that Luke invented this narrative to buttress his personal agenda is unworthy of any consideration. It is wholly barren of evidence.

Second, J.W. McGarvey contended that the apostle’s understanding was limited at this point New Commentary on Acts of Apostles, 1892 – Reprint, Delight, AR: Gospel Light, II, p. 208). He thought that if Paul had entertained a clearer perception of the abolition of the law, he would not have done what he did here — especially later on, after writing the books of Ephesians and Hebrews (he assumes Paul wrote the latter).

This position has an obvious weakness. The apostle had written clearly on the matter of the law’s abrogation in other letters that were composed before this incident. And these discussions were not mere passing allusions, as were Peter’s brief references to the Gentiles in Acts 2 (which he did not comprehend at the time, cf. 17,21,39). Rather, Paul’s teaching on the abolition of the law had been clear and definitive (cf. 2 Cor. 3; Rom. 7; Gal. 5). It does not appear, therefore, that this episode can be explained upon the basis of the apostle’s limited knowledge.

Third, some respected men have argued that Paul “slipped” on this occasion, lapsing into weakness; his practice, therefore, was “inconsistent” with his preaching (cf. Francis D. Nichol, Ed., The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Washington, DC: Review & Herald, 1957, p. 405). After all, they contend, if Peter could sin (Gal. 2), so could Paul. We respectfully offer the following general observations on this position.

  1. If Paul is indicted of sin, so are James and the Jerusalem elders, for they asked him to do what he did.
  2. Even if the apostle did err (and we are not ready to affirm that he did), the mere recording of the transgression would not make the Bible culpable. It is not a sin to record the commission of a sin.
  3. While it is the case that even an apostle could sin, as indicated above (cf. Gal. 2:11ff), one ought to be very careful in charging Paul with an overt sin in the absence of explicit testimony. In other words, is one logically forced to this position as a last resort, or is there another possibility?
  4. If Paul erred in this episode, why did he later, in an inspired defense of his ministry before a government ruler (cf. Mt. 10:17-19), appeal to this very incident (cf. 24:18)? Was the apostle led by the Spirit to defend sin? It would seem to me that, in arguing this position, the “cure” is worse than the “ailment.”

Fourth, is it possible that Paul went through this ritual as a matter of expediency in an attempt to relieve a tense situation? Could the apostle have “purified” himself, strictly in conformity to nationalistic Judaism—with no intent whatever of substituting an animal for the precious sacrifice of the Lamb of God? Fervent voices cry: “Absolutely not.” But why not? If the apostle could circumcise Timothy as an expediency, with no design of associating the ritual with salvation (as was sometimes done – Acts 15:1), why could he not have done the same with reference to a sacrifice? To utilize circumcision as a matter of salvation was apostasy (Gal. 5:2ff). To practice the rite in order to remove prejudice—in that era when the law was so freshly abolished—was an exercise of wisdom (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-23). To offer a sacrifice redemptively would have been wrong; but there is no proof that such was Paul’s intention.

It should be noted in passing that ceremonial “purification” did not necessarily involve atonement for personal sin. A Jewish woman had to be “purified” following the birth of a child (cf. Lev. 12:1ff; Lk. 2:22), even though the act of bearing a child is not sinful. Paul’s act of “purification,” therefore, need not suggest that he was seeking personal forgiveness by means of an animal sacrifice. Clearly that was not Paul’s purpose in this temple ritual.

In the final analysis, I must say this. In the absence of more conclusive information, it is unwise to accuse Paul of compromise or sin. As Frank Goodwin observed, “Paul’s conduct in this transaction was perfectly consistent with his previous teaching and practices” (A Harmony of the Life of St. Paul, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1951, p. 121). There may have been a greater good (the unity of Jew/Gentile relations) to be accomplished in this case, than whatever negative “impressions” might have resulted from Paul’s offering of a sacrifice. If one is to err in judging this episode, it is best to err on the side of respect and love for God’s noble apostle.