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Protecting & Promoting Unity

March 17, 2024 Preacher: Jeff Griffis Series: Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles

Scripture: Acts 21:17–26

Protecting & Promoting Unity – Acts 21:17–26

PRAY & INTRO: Protecting and promoting peace is not as easy as it sounds, as easy as it rolls off the tongue. If our unity is shallow, it’s extremely fragile. Even if our unity runs deep because of common core convictions in Christ, it is still at risk because of sin and various potential complications.

And yet…

The unity we have in Christ is worth protecting and promoting.

Unity in the church is so vital that we should be willing to go the extra mile as peacemakers.

In our text for today, the Jerusalem Elders and the Apostle Paul set us a great example to follow for the kinds of sticky situations we might have to navigate but to make wise efforts from our side to protect and promote unity.

Acts 21:17–26 ESV

17 When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. 18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. 25 But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them.

When handling a text like this, a hard question may arise: Is Paul consistent in his theology and behavior (between Acts and his letters)? The answer is yes. If we presume the answer is no, we won’t even interpret this section correctly. If we presume yes, then what happens makes perfect sense with Paul’s consistency.

With that assumption that God’s word is consistent with itself, here again is the other question we are setting out to answer today: Why does Luke care to include this in his narrative, and why should we care, about James’ and Paul’s efforts to correct misconceptions and promote unity in the Jerusalem church?

BecauseThe unity we have in Christ is worth protecting and promoting.

That’s what we aim to understand and apply from this text today. In spite of unity among the church leaders, especially on the most important things, a problem has been brewing, so the Jerusalem elders present a plan, and Paul willingly and promptly submits to going the extra mile, being a peaceable as possible. The unity we have in Christ is worth protecting and promoting.

First… See the Jerusalem church’s reception of Paul and Co. as exhibit A that…

The church is united because of what God has done in us through Christ. (vv. 17-20a)

We see the unity in the body of Christ in the way the church receives fellow Christians, and we see them all united in their response to God’s saving work among the Gentiles. 

  1. 17 “Received us gladly” as welcome friends and unified members of Christ’s church, even after being away for quite some time and having a different ministry emphasis (not only to Jews in diaspora but especially to Gentiles). - illustrate: missionaries traveling…
  2. 18-20a The next day Paul and the rest of his missionary team gets to meet with James and the other Elders of the Jerusalem church. Notice again how servant leadership (shepherding) has shifted from the Apostles to local elders. James is the half-brother of Jesus, not the James who is one of the Apostles. He’s a prominent local elder in Jerusalem.

Most significantly for our purposes today, see how these servant leaders are united in enthusiastic joy and praise to God for his work through other people in other places and ministries. -illustrate: the guys describing their recent work with pastors/churches in India…

Paul relates some of the things God did among people in the various places on this missionary endeavor (Paul had so before, returned and gave them an update on the mission work, but Ephesus and its region would be a major emphasis this time, no doubt. And like we said when we taught through it, young Eutychus falling out a window in Troas while Paul preached long into the night would have been a highlight for all, especially bc it turned out so well with him being raised back to life. The good-natured jokes and laughter would have been plentiful for a bit.)

This group meeting together, united on the most important things, now turns to a specific issue in Jerusalem that could be problematic for Paul’s ministry there and is a threat to unity in the local church, which could ripple through the whole church everywhere.

[repeat previous sub-title]

Even so, problems will brew that threaten unity and need to be addressed. (vv. 20b-21)
  1. 20b The elders respond (our text rightly says they respond bc verbs are plural). Still it is possible or probable that James is their spokesman in this response and recommendation.

But the point they make is how Jewish the rapidly growing Jerusalem church is. The believers there number in the thousands, and they are zealous for the law. In context, these are distinguished from Judaizers, who treat Jewish tradition as salvific, for themselves or for Gentiles. These Jews are believers who continue to observe ceremonial aspects of the law but do not view the law as a means of salvation.

  1. 21 Then the Jerusalem elders bring up that the Jerusalem Christians at large have been told (and the implication clearly is that the elders themselves know this to be untrue) that Paul is against Jews practicing the law. He has supposedly been teaching against the ceremonial aspects of the law to diaspora Jews, telling them to forsake Moses: don’t circumcise your sons or keep Jewish customs.

We know for sure this is false for at least couple of reasons: Paul was even willing to encourage Timothy to be circumcised, although he didn’t have to be (Acts 16). Would that same Paul who’s willing to do that, for peace and ministry opportunity, discourage Jews from circumcising their own kids? No. Would he remind them that such does not save those children? Yeah. (False accusations usually twist something close to the truth.)

Another reason we know this is false is that several times it is clearly implied that Paul himself continues to observe Jewish feasts and customs. Why did he want to make it here by Passover, and then, when he couldn’t do that, still worked to make it by Pentecost? Bc he’s eager to observe the feasts when he can. It’s also true that we can also picture Paul being less strict about some Jewish ceremonies when he’s among Gentiles, because he doesn’t believe them salvific either way. (You’ll notice that Paul must believe this is an area of Christian freedom, and in that he is consistent, just as he is consistent that none of these observances are meritorious for salvation or even make you a better Christian.)

The unity that we have in Christ is worth protecting and promoting, but there will always be problems that threaten our unity. We when perceive a problem that needs to be addressed, the Jerusalem elders show us that… 

We should protect unity by correcting misconceptions and commending personal sacrifice, without equivocating on core truths. (vv. 22-25)
  1. 22 (In the realm of correcting misconceptions…) Even though Paul is falsely accused, it would help squelch the false accusations if Paul showed that he himself is perfectly fine with Jews practicing Jewish traditions as long as everyone remains clear that such things do not merit salvation.

And there’s a bigger picture too! Clarity is needed concerning the behavior and traditions of Jewish Christians versus those of Gentile Christians. And Paul in particular can help with Christians being united on the main things when some personal traditions might be different. - Illustrate: practicing the Lord’s Table slightly differently…

(Again, in a case like this Paul and his companions are uniquely able to be peacemakers among Jewish believers and Gentile believers.)

  1. 23-24 Plan from the Jerusalem elders: Paul, here’s what we think you can do in this situation to promote unity. (and make an effort to prove that accusations about your teaching are false)

We have four guys who need to complete the purification process at the end of (what appears to be) a Nazirite vow. (a vow they would have taken for a purpose and for a season): ritual purification and shaving off the hair they had been letting go during the time of their vow.

Paul does not seem to have presently been under such a vow (this time), but he could still go purify himself (according to the law) after returning from an extended stay in Gentile lands (making him ceremonially unclean). 

“Thus all will know…” (24b)

So, correcting misconceptions… and they know they’re asking Paul to do this is personal sacrifice: One, it’s expensive (which he’ll pay for out of his own pocket), and two, it seems likely that Paul would not have come up with this idea on his own.

  1. 25 They end by saying: To be clear, we are not in any way suggesting that this impacts the clear decision we agreed upon concerning the salvation and practice of the Gentile Christians. They are referring to the decision of the counsel in Acts 15, which was then disseminated to the churches (and received with joy).

Now, a recommendation to correct misconceptions and make personal sacrifices to protect and promote unity is one thing, but what then will be Paul’s response?

Paul’s immediate compliance shows us that…

We should promote unity by willingly, submissively, and sacrificially going the extra mile as peacemakers. (v. 26)
  1. 26 James’ recommendation strives to protect Paul’s gospel ministry and promote peace. Paul sees the wisdom of it, and so he peaceably complies because submitting in this promotes unity in the church. Paul promotes unity by submitting to the recommendation from the Jerusalem elders.

Evidently with no complaint and with a joyful attitude, Paul promptly does what they have asked him to do. (“Do therefore what we tell you,” they had said. 23a) -Doing what they asked him to do, promptly, and with a good attitude. Sounds like how some of you have defined obedience to your children: doing what is asked, right away, joyfully.

Paul’s behavior is an astonishing practical example of a Biblical principle for us to follow! [repeat subtitle]

Note that Scripture tells us in other places that we should be peacemakers. Hear some examples from Jesus and Paul:

Matthew 5:9 ESV

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

This is from the Beatitudes introduction of the Sermon on the Mount. … Or consider something Christ says closer to the end of that same teaching session:

Matthew 7:12 ESV

12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Do you want others to make efforts to live at peace with you? So you also should do for others.

Or what about these straightforward words from Paul:

Romans 12:18 ESV

18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

[read twice]

Conclusion: As Peaceable as Possible

Let me ask again, is Paul being consistent in this passage with his own theology and teaching? Absolutely. Paul believes that…

The unity we have in Christ is worth protecting and promoting.

To be certain, not all confrontation or conflict should be avoided (not by a long shot), but there’s a whole lot of stuff that we can just let go, and ways that we can be more considerate, and ways that we can even curb our own freedoms for the sake of those around us.

Before we close, let’s list some practical ways Scripture helps us apply attitudes and behaviors that will help us to live at peace.

To be as peaceable as possible, we must be willing to repent and ask forgiveness for wrongs we’ve committed. (Jam 5:16a) (To repent is to agree with God about your sin and turn from it… toward him. To ask forgiveness includes acknowledging specifically to the other person your sin and the harm it causes.)

We have to be willing to forgive wrong committed against us, and to be restored to one another. (Col 3:13)

We have to stop being right about everything. We must be more humble than that. (“not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think” Rm 12:3 - When you insist on being right about everything, you are thinking of yourself too highly.) Try the magic words: “You might be right.”)

We must be willing to let other members of the body function in their roles and responsibilities. (Rm 12:4-5)

We must be humble, gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love. (Eph 4:2)

We have to make real efforts to understand the perspectives of others. (submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, Eph 5:21)

We have to be willing to sometimes give up our own preferences and opinions and instead to promote the good of others (and perhaps their preferences above our own). (Php 2:3-4)

We must at times be willing to limit the practice of certain Christian freedoms for the sake of those around us (1 Cor 8:9-13).

So yes, we must be wise and bold about the gospel and Biblical truths or else there is no church, and no real unity in Christ to protect and promote. But then we must be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Eph 4:3)… so that we will be effective in obedience to the call of Christ on our lives, that we will be growing to maturity (Eph 4:13) and proclaiming the gospel with boldness and clarity (Eph 6:19).

Let us aim to be as Biblically faithful as we can to protect and promote unity, so that such peace among us will allow us to focus on doing more important things.

Colossians 3:15–16 ESV

15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

PRAY

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