I have to begin by thanking Dr. William J. Larkin for showing me something I had not previously noticed in Acts. I am very familiar with Paul’s Nazarite vow in Acts 21, but I had never noticed that Paul did this more than once!! Larkin’s IVP New Testament Commentary on Acts, when addressing verse 18:18ff says,
At Corinth’s eastern port city, Cenchrea, seven miles southeast, Paul cuts his hair, signaling the beginning of the end of a Nazirite vow (Num 6; m. Nazir). Evidently he had begun this vow after either the Macedonian or Corinthian vision, as a sign of earnest beseeching of the Lord for success in the mission to which Paul had been called (Acts 16:9-10; 18:9-10). Now in thanksgiving Paul ends the vow and thus recognizes that the Lord made good on his promises….
…Though Paul receives a positive response to his synagogue preaching (dialegomai, 17:2, 17; 18:4; see note at 17:2)—he is asked to stay longer—he makes a hasty departure. Though the time is short, perhaps he is still intent on getting to Jerusalem by Passover. The sea lanes opened on March 10, and in A.D. 52 Passover was in early April (Bruce 1988:356). Or he is hurrying there to complete his vow…
Here is a major challenge for Christendom. More than once, Paul (Rabbi Shaul) is seen partaking in a Nazarite vow. If you read Numbers 6, you will see the reason this is such a challenge is that to complete the vow, Paul has to offer multiple sacrifices in the Temple.
We see evidence of this in a much larger scale in Acts 20:21-26 when Paul not only pays for his own sacrifices, but pays for four other men to perform the vow with him… That amounts to:
- Five male lambs
- Five ewe lambs
- Five rams
- Five grain offerings (unleavened bread with special oil)
- Five drink offerings.
Big expense and a major sacrificial undertaking after Paul’s third ‘missionary’ journey. He has already written,
Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ…
Larkin minimizes it and attempts to explain it away as ‘Jewish custom’ in this manner:
The church leaders counsel Paul to combat words with action. Four pious but indigent men in the congregation have taken on themselves a Nazirite vow of limited duration (Num 6). By abstaining from products of the vine, not cutting their hair and avoiding ritual impurity, they have been showing thankfulness for past blessings, earnestness in petition or strong devotion to God. The multianimal sacrifice and cleansing ceremony at the end of the vow period, when the hair is cut and offered to God, is financially prohibitive (6:13-20). Paul is asked to bear the expenses of the four. This was a commonly recognized act of piety (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 19.294). To do so he must go through a seven-day ritual cleansing himself, because he has recently returned from Gentile lands (m. Oholot 2:3; 17:5; 18:6; Num 19:12). The intended result is that the rumors about Paul will be shown to be baseless and he will be seen living in obedience to the law. Lest Paul’s action be misunderstood in another direction, as making Jewish custom normative for Gentile Christians, the elders hasten to add that the Jerusalem Council decree is still in place (see discussion above at Acts 15:20, 29). It is repeated here in essential detail.
(Patience, we’ll address the last two sentences in a minute.)
Paul is taking a Nazarite vow (Numbers 6), under the recommendation of James the Just, and performing it to demonstrate that he is
- keeping the Torah, and
- NOT teaching against it!
Hello! By performing the vow he is obedient to Torah!
Larkin refers to this as ‘Jewish custom.’ I refer to it as the breathed Word of God! (I think the One who breathed it would agree with me…)
Larkin rightly says the intended result is that Paul will be seen as ‘living in obedience to the Law.’ Does Larkin mean that they are only doing it for appearance? Wouldn’t that be deceptive? Sin? Or, does he mean that Paul is indeed walking according to the Law?
Either, Paul is ‘living in obedience to the Law,’ or he is not. He cannot do both. The Law says, in Deuteronomy 13 that one who teaches against the Law is to be put to death… Paul knows this. That is why this matter of false testimony was so serious! If any of these charges of teaching against Torah, or acting against the everlasting covenant could be proved, then the Jews against Paul would have had a case! Notice the false charges of teaching against Moses are a major theme! (Acts 6:11-14; 21:24; 25:7) They resort to FALSE charges precisely because he is NOT teaching against Torah! He may be teaching against the customs of the elders, but not the Torah! He examples Torah obedience over and over in Acts. He NEVER examples disobedience!
In fact, just as Larkin labels it, Torah obedience IS piety!
Now, let’s look at Larkin’s immediate ‘back-pedaling’ for Gentile believers. From the previous quote,
Lest Paul’s action be misunderstood in another direction, as making Jewish custom normative for Gentile Christians, the elders hasten to add that the Jerusalem Council decree is still in place (see discussion above at Acts 15:20, 29). It is repeated here in essential detail.
Larkin fails to understand why the Jerusalem Council decree is mentioned in connection with this Nazarite vow. In fact, he believes it is mentioned for the exact opposite reason it is actually stated. The reason it is mentioned is as a reminder that the Council had clearly instructed Paul and all believers to teach the basics of Torah to new Gentile believers so that they would be cleaned up and accepted into the Synagogue to learn Moses (Torah) on the sabbath (Acts 15:20-21)! Mentioning this act by the Council is public evidence and a reminder that Paul was previously instructed to be sure to ‘walk orderly, keeping the law,’ and to teach Gentile converts in like manner. And, he had complied! (Otherwise, the Nazarite vow would have been a lie!)
As we have previously discussed, Larkin conveniently ignores Acts 15:21 because it does violence to his thesis of a ‘law-free gospel.’
Again, I am not picking on Larkin, I just happen to have his commentary on Acts and it is a good representation of some fallacies in Christian theology. Truly looking at the Scriptures reveal the falsehood.
Bottom-line: Sacrifice is not a ‘Jewish custom,’ and Paul’s participation in such was not out of step with the Jerusalem Council’s decree or Paul’s understanding of the everlasting nature of God’s Torah. Rather, we do not understand and obey God’s law because we have been taught falsehood that we have inherited from generations of theologians that were off the track.
Next: Assumptions, Biases and Misdirection!