Acts 21:17-26 | Circumcision— A Condition Of Heart by Pastor Teddy

Circumcision— A Condition Of Heart


Acts 21:17-26

Key Verse 26


“The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.”


“Why are you weeping and breaking my heart?” (13a) Paul told the people who came to see him off at Philip’s house in Caesarea. It was hard enough for him to know what’s going to happen to him when he would finally get to Jerusalem. He had been informed by the Holy Spirit that in Jerusalem nothing but hardship and prison were in store for him there. And then wherever he went, those who loved him who knew by the Spirit what would happen to him in Jerusalem pressed him not to go until, like the father that he hearing his children’s plea, his heart broke to a thousand pieces. Even then, Paul’s resolve wasn’t shaken. He loved certainly loved his life and no doubt he loved God’s people more than his own life as well. But there was a love in his heart that surpassed them all. It was a love he would never betray. “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” (13b) When they heard this, they all surrendered to the will of God. (14) And finally Paul and his company were now on their way to Jerusalem where our story begins.


But before the prophesy regarding Paul’s hardship and imprisonment actually happen, Luke recounts the events leading up to it. And I think these events hold some amazingly shining truths that we can relate to. So I felt we shouldn’t let the opportunity pass us by without looking closely at them. Let’s see then. Look at verses 18-20. At Paul and his company’s arrival, we see a very warm welcome by the believers in Jerusalem. They genuinely receive Paul and his companions with all their hearts as befits heroes, and rightly so, because Paul had really changed the world in a way with his gospel message. Then as Luke continues they all go to see James, who was the head of the church at Jerusalem in those days; [This is not the Apostle James, Jesus’ disciples, but rather Jesus’ own brother]. And it seems that those present on that day together with James were the elders of the church as well. So Paul greets them and proceeds to report to them in detail the fruits of his gospel ministry among the Gentiles as led by the gracious hand of God. How eager he was to share his testimony among the elders of the church! It was his great joy not only to do the work of God which was to teach and to preach the word of God and to raise disciples for the Lord Jesus among the none believers; but after he had done so, it was even his greater joy to testify to what the Lord had done in and through his ministry. Testifying to what the Lord had done in and through him was very much part of his ministry, a part Paul considered edifying to himself as well as to his hearers. How else would others know what the Lord is doing in his own life, and in the lives of God’s people and in the churches he’s established and worked? Once in writing the Galatians, he tells them the purpose of testifying to what the Lord has done in his life, or what the Lord has done, period! He says: “And they praised God because of me.” (Galatians 1:24) That was his greatest joy. Testifying, or testimony, or when a saint testifies to the word of God working in his or her life, or to the work of God in a life or in a ministry, is clearly for the praise of God! When we forget that, we also forget to testify, and soon we lose the whole purpose of why we even bother with taking the time and making the effort to hone our faith towards testifying to praise of God. We should not forget why we testify. We testify to advertise the wondrous grace of the Lord.


When Paul was done testifying, what did they do? Look at verse 20. They praised God. After that, they also testified and pointed out to Paul that God had also been working right there in Jerusalem as well. Consider, they said the thousands of Jews who have now believed! That was indeed great news. And then they added something that’s a little troubling, considering the meaning of the Lord Jesus’ death and resurrection, and what this gospel of his grace had already fulfilled. They continued saying that all of these thousands of Jewish converts, who are now supposedly believers in Christ Jesus, and followers of his, are still “zealous for the law.” It is troubling because as much as these converts should of course still love the Law of God, respect, obey, hold it dear to their hearts, live by it, cherish it, and whatever else they would like to do with it, since they grew up with it, and it is very much part of their heritage; now that Christ had come to fulfill the Law, and now that they are believers redeemed by faith in his blood, the Law should not be at the forefront any longer. Christ should. Their zeal should be for the Lord Christ who redeemed them. Something already is terribly wrong here. But these elders did not stop there; they had more to say to Paul. Look at verse 21. Read it. “They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.” And as you see, here they’re not talking about Jews, they’re talking about Christian Jews, converted Jews; In other words, Christian converts who should know better. So having a subtle accusation like this for Paul is uncalled for! It reveals so much about them. We can already see that they were corrupted. And we can also see that the church in Jerusalem who allowed them to go unchecked and undisciplined is also corrupted. The church itself was not entirely gospel centered; It was not driven by grace alone faith! And that’s what we call Judaism, a sort of corruption of the gospel whereby some cultural or religious imperative is added to the gospel to complete the process of salvation. The Jews did that back then. God knows even Christians do this today! And why does this church or that church, or even this religion or that religion add something (an imperative such as baptism or circumcision or a certain ritual or ceremony or such) to the gospel to complete salvation (when salvation was already completed by the Lord Jesus through his death and resurrection [1 Corinthians 15:1-4])? Because of ignorance; because it gives them an edge over others; because of evil intent; and there are a myriad other reasons.


Look again at verse 21. So let’s think about their accusation for a moment before we go on. Was Paul teaching the Jews who lived among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses? Of course this is what Paul was teaching the Gentiles. And of course this is what Paul was not teaching the Gentiles. He was teaching them about the Christ, who is far greater than Moses, or any other Prophet who ever lives, since the Christ is the Son of God and the very Promised Messiah whom Moses himself had spoken of in the Scriptures. When speaking of the glorious Christ who alone died for the sins of the world and who alone broke the curse of death by rising from the dead, there is reason in heaven or on earth to talk about anyone else except the Christ and him alone. When talking about the Christ of God, the shining bright star of the universe, there is no reason to talk about the flickering stars of the sky that come and go as the seasons come and go. Even John the Baptist, the Elijah who was to come, and the greatest of the prophets did not dare raise his head in the presence of Christ Jesus and said of him: “He must become greater, I must become less.” (John 3:30) So why would Paul consider teaching the Jews to turn away from Moses when Moses is irrelevant to the message of salvation that Paul brought to all people, both Jews and Gentiles? At the same time, if the Jews whom Paul was evangelizing had their hearts set on Moses in worship, why wouldn’t Paul be compelled to teach them to turn their hearts away from Moses to the true object of Worship who is the Christ? Of course he would! It was his obligation before the living God to do so. Ezekiel’s words must have rung in his heart as he spoke to his people about shifting allegiances from Moses to Christ. “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood.” (Ezekiel 3:17-18) Paul had to speak truth! Doesn’t every Christian also have that obligation to tell an idol worshiper that it’s wrong to worship a statue or an image or a relic or another person or a saint or a virgin or any such thing? Paul must have made every effort to teach both Jews and Gentiles who is most worthy of the heart’s worship and love and affection and submission. He didn’t have anything to apologize for.


There was something else that James and the elders said to Paul. Look at verse 21 again. They said that the Jewish converts to the Christian faith (we’re talking about now-Christians here!), were also informed of another great transgression of Paul— a transgression against the Jewish religion and culture. They said that he teaches the Jews who live among the Gentiles not to circumcise their children or to live according to Jewish customs. We have to use almost the same argument. To begin with let me say in his defense that Paul would never teach the Jews not to circumcise their children. Why, he himself circumcised Timothy because of the Jews who lived in the area who knew that Timothy’s father was a Greek. (Acts 16:3) So there was no basis for that accusation; it was a vicious rumor instigated by those who didn’t like his Bible teaching on the subject of circumcision. What then could he have possibly taught the Jews in regards to circumcision that got them so riled up and hostile to the point of such vicious rumors? Well, we can borrow his own words where he says: “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit.” (Romans 2:28-29) Here what Paul is talking about is repentance; Specifically the Holy Spirit circumcising the heart of a sinner who repents. Something marvelous takes place in that person’s heart. That sinner’s heart is washed, cleansed and purified and made holy to God, set apart as special. And now that heart and life is made ready to live a life that can glorify God and bear fruit for him. That’s what Paul spoke to the Jews about. That’s what they were missing in their lives. And why were they missing it? Because according to verse 21, they held on to too many customs and traditions and forgot why God gave them these rites and rituals in the first place. In other words, as Paul says elsewhere: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s command is what counts.” (1 Corinthians 7:19) What then is God’s command in this case? For the most part it is repentance, repentance, repentance. That is, keeping the heart tender for God and his word.


Let me explain this further a little. I think Paul really tried to explain to the Jews in the Diaspora the true meaning of circumcision so as to bring them to the Christ, since unless a person’s heart is broken for their sins, humbled in their pride, shown their deep enmity and hostility towards God, and in return get a glimpse of God’s love through the sacrifice of his Son, there is no way that that person can bring their heart to bow in repentance or be circumcised of heart. There is no way they would continue in the life of repentance and humility so as to remain in submission to the will of God and live in his pleasure.  To begin with, it was God himself who had instituted the rite (or ritual) of circumcision for his people; and he did it for a very good and magnificent purpose. Circumcision was instituted among them in order to set them apart as Jews— as a unique nation among all nations— as a special people in the world— a people belonging to God— because they were to be a people close to God’s heart— a priestly people set apart to teach the world who God is and draw all people back to God; that is, back to faith in God and back to loving God and obedience to God. How then did that come to be? And how did circumcision of all things become that sign of closeness to God? It happened when Abraham the Father of the Jews spent thirteen years doing nothing but enjoying being an ordinary father to his elder son Ishmael and forgot why God had called him of all people to carry the torch of faith to the world. In his everyday life in this world as a devoted daddy, he forgot that God called him to be a shepherd and Bible teacher to his household; he forgot that it was his responsibility to plant faith and God’s promises in their hearts; he forgot that it was his solemn duty to establish them as God’s servants in a godless world.


When God finally visited him after thirteen silent years, God’s rebuke was gentle but severe and cut to Abraham’s heart. God told him that he was to blame because he had been walking before his son rather than walking before God as he should. (Genesis 17) What did Abraham then do? Abraham fell face down and repented with his whole heart; committed himself once again to live by faith and holy mission; firmly decided to serve God’s holy purpose in his life and to fulfill the will of God for him and his family. What did God do? God then reminded Abraham of his promises to him adding an eternal dimension to them. He established an “everlasting” covenant of life and promising him and his descendants an “everlasting” possession that could only allude to the eternal life and the kingdom of God promised to the faithful of the Lord. Then God instituted a reminder of this two way covenant with Abraham, a reminder ritual designated as circumcision. Abraham would circumcise himself and his descendants as a reminder that those who belong to this covenant would be a special people, a people belonging to God, a people who walk with God in faith and repentance all the days of their lives, and would inherit eternal promises. Abraham understood this very well, and passed it on to his children and children’s children. Circumcision was special, not because of the flesh but because of the heart and the spirit; because the child of God is close to God’s heart; knows the heart and mind of the Lord, and knows the Lord’s will. The Psalmist says: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted.” (Psalm 51:17; 34:18)


Paul must have been teaching them such things about repentance, and contrition and brokenness and the need for humility of heart before God, rather than the excessive pride they held in being Jews and the children of Abraham who were only outwardly circumcised. He must have mentioned time and again that the time has come for them to have their heart circumcised. In his great love for them and his zeal to see them cross over from death to life, he must have give them gospel facts regarding the Christ who came to fulfill that great and glorious covenant God had made first with Abraham and then repeated to the prophets of all ages. In Christ, those who put their faith in him, and are genuinely repentant for their sins can have their hearts washed, cleansed and purified as God would have them purged from sin. They can be made holy and set apart as special and unique among the nations of the world, and become part of the great body of Christ. The Holy Spirit who lives in them helps them maintain a circumcised repentant heart, so that they bear fruit for the glory of God. Paul’s teaching to these stubborn Jews must have included such words as these: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.” (Galatians 6:15) And perhaps what riled them the most is Paul who considered the Gentiles circumcised and on equal par with the Jews themselves, when speaking of the Gentiles, he said: “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.” (Philippians 3:3)


People make a big deal of outward rituals, ceremonies, customs and traditions, and for the most part appearances— and over the generations even churches seem to have gotten into the habit of it. Division among the churches has so much to do with rituals and ceremonies rather than what is essential of the faith. Sometimes, custom and tradition have gotten mixed in with the gospel message to the point where it was hard to tell which is which. We have experienced that ourselves in our own ministry oversees where missionaries, sometimes quite innocently have mistaken their own cultural habits and customs to be indisputable Biblical ways. And these people who were accusing Paul of disrupting this unholy practice were wrong in a sense. Paul was not teaching the Jews oversees to abandon Jewish customs. Even if he were, he might have been doing so in the spirit of Christ the Good Shepherd as well as in the spirit of World Missions. He is the one who said: “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) Most people who live in foreign lands maintain their own identity and hold tenaciously to their own customs and traditions even if they had been forced to flee their native lands. We see many ethnic groups who had to flee their country because of persecution and abuse, yet when they settle down they try to form communities that resemble those they fled. Some even try to convert the nation they flee to into what they had left behind. Even though it may not make sense, we can understand the strong sense of identity and the strong pull of national pride and ethnicity and such that pulls people together. But the spirit of the good shepherd and that of world mission in Paul, compelled him to put aside all this and to strive to no longer belong to any ethnic group, culture, or ethos but to belong to all and to be all, and for all. Because of that, he became a Jew for the Jew and a Gentile for the Gentile. So many missionaries have followed his example and as painful as it was to abandon the comforts of their own customs and the pull of traditional values, they did in the spirit of the good shepherd and in the spirit of world mission. They were the successful ones whose names shine in history. To these accusers I believe Paul might have said what Jesus once told the Pharisees too: “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3) But of course he didn’t. He quietly submitted to the direction of the elders. And what was that? Let’s see to our surprise.


Look at verses 22-24. They shouldn’t be concerned about the countless number of Jewish Christians who were zealous for the Law. These should actually be like gentle lambs who follow after the heart of the Christ their Shepherd. They should not listen to rumors and gossip, but should rather be of sober judgment and prayerful, willing to pray and rely on the word of God, and at the least talk with the man Paul to find out the truth from a fellow Christian and brother. But James and the elders were concerned and that’s troubling. And they had a solution which was doomed to failure. They had brought four men who had made a vow of purification, and asked Paul to join in their Jewish ritual. It wasn’t a bad plan, Paul being a Jew and all. It might have worked to convince some that Paul after all had not entirely abandoned his own religious beliefs and traditions; that he had not entirely given up the life he had grown up in, and had not entirely forgotten the temple rites of purification his parents had taught him as every Jewish parent would teach their children. It might have worked, and Paul of course went along with it, like a lamb led to the slaughter. It was a brilliant strategy devised by these elders to convince the countless Jewish converts to Christianity that Paul was just as much still one of us as any. They wanted to be able to say, “See, he’s just like you and me, he shaved his head, he paid his dues, he’s worshiping at the temple according to the Law, and he’s fulfilling everything Moses says we should do. What they say about him isn’t true.” They wanted to be able to say that afterwards, and then have a get together party to initiate Paul into the club. So as I said, it was a brilliant strategy and it might have worked only if it weren’t a compromise; and compromise is the instrument of the devil; and that never works, never ever. Satan tried it on Jesus in the desert; it was brutal, and Jesus said; “Even if I have to die here, I’m not compromising anything.” (Luke 4) Pilate thought he was being clever when he compromised, and lost to the wily Jews, and fell all the way to hell. This church should have prayed and found God’s way, rather than a clever compromise. But Paul went along with it.


Before we go on to why Paul went along with it, look at verse 25. “As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”  In other words, we’re not going to interfere with the Gentile believers at all; we’re going to keep our decision to let them receive the gospel message freely through faith in Christ provided they abstain from these things here that we insist they stay away from. We’re sending them all letters to remind them of what they’re to avoid. That’s for the Gentiles. What they meant to say was that as they would not interfere with the work done among the Gentiles and would not change any laws or rules regarding their lives or the way Paul delivers the gospel message of salvation to them, so also Paul needs remember that he in turn must also refrain fro changing any rules or laws regarding how he preaches to the Jews. He must in turn not speak against Moses nor circumcision nor anything else that seems to be controversial and offensive to the Jewish Christians who have now accused him of such charges. But that in itself seems terribly conflicting. How can one and the same gospel of salvation with one and the same message of salvation be different in content to two groups of people? How can one message say “it is by faith alone, and nothing else is required except that you refrain from eating meat with blood still in it and from sexual immorality”, while the other message says, “it is by faith alone while you keep the law and uphold Moses’ honor and circumcise your children”. It cannot. For that reason, God would soon chastise the Jerusalem church, and make the gospel message one message throughout the whole world for all people, so that by one Lord Jesus and by his one sacrifice, through faith in him by grace salvation is given to those who believe, both Jews and Gentiles. God himself solved that problem and unified or reconciled the world to himself.


Read our key verse 26. “The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.”  The question is why did Paul go along with this compromise without saying a word? Better yet, why go along with this unholy scheme that was sure to failure? Because he had surrendered to the sovereignty of God in his life, knowing that no matter what he does, the end result is the same; his people will ultimately reject him and he will be handed over to the Gentiles and imprisoned for life. But perhaps a better reason Paul did what he did here is because he was a shepherd at heart like his Master Christ Jesus the good shepherd, who was everything to everyone. Listen to what he says to the Corinthians. “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)


What Paul did here was in the spirit of the good shepherd, and the spirit of world mission to bring others to the true gospel. They were caught up in some corruption. They were not free to truly see the glory and beauty of Jesus’ love and grace. So Paul became a slave in the hope of setting them free. At least that was his hope when he agreed to this compromise to go along with these men, shaving off his head and taking on their vows and paying off their purification rites. For the sake of saving lives, Paul did what these Jewish converts should have done and failed to do. As for us we need to learn this spirit from him. We need to clearly learn what the true gospel of God’s grace is, and then we need to hold on to it as to dear life. And then we also need to imitate Paul’s love for testifying to God’s grace. We need to learn this all over again in this ministry— how to testify to the Lord’s grace! And if ay of us are not familiar with repentance (or heart circumcision), this is a good place to learn it, and to become familiar with it. Finally may God give us the grace to part with any customs or traditions that keep us from being “all things to all men” if we are to effectively testify to his grace as we should. We also need to pray that the gracious Lord may pour into our repentant hearts the Spirit of the Good Shepherd and of World Mission. Amen.

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