All Things To All People

(Acts 21:15-26)

The process of evangelism and bringing people to The Lord is an intersesting one. This section of Acts 21 is not about evangelism, but it does show an aspect of it, and more importantly how we should live, act and behave amongst others who do not believe as we do.

Unclean food
Unclean food

There is a fine line in the behaviours described here, which Paul describes in another place and we will look at that too. Paul recognised what needed to be done as he travelled and he was instructed likewise by James, the elders and apostles when he came to Jerusalem.

Paul had learned that the best method of evangelism was to blend in with the locals. He said that he had become all things to all people so as to win the more to Christ. And what we see him doing here when he returned to Jerusalem is the same so that the people would not take offense at what he was preaching.

Paul’s Predicament

Paul had been moving amongst the Gentiles for some years, teaching and preaching the ways of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Christian gospel is quite different to the laws and ordinances of the old covenant in many ways. For example, the laws bind and identify sin in man, but the gospel sets a person free and offers freedom from sin through grace in Jesus Christ. The laws are based upon works and sacrifices to keep the letter of the law, but the gospel is based upon faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to draw us near to God. The law was administered and ordained by a specialist priestly tribe (the Levites) and only the high priest could stand before God in the holy of holies. But in Jesus Christ every person has direct access to God thru Christ and we receive the Holy Spirit from God to administer the gospel in each of us and to transform us into the image of Christ.

Such are the differences between the old covenant and the new covenant that many people believed Paul had turned away from the old covenant. The rumours being spread by those who opposed Paul were to the effect that he no longer accepted the laws of Moses and the old covenant. We see the rumours about Paul expressed in verse 21,

…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.

So we see that Paul was in quite a difficult predicament and one which would not be easy to overcome.

Blending In

The wisdom of James and the apostles and elders of the church in Jerusalem came to the rescue. They instructed Paul to act and behave as all the Jews did when they had been amongst the Gentiles as we see in verses 22-24.

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.

There were certain rites of purification under the old covenant law that the Jews adhered to when they had been amongst the Gentiles. The apostles and elders instructed Paul to follow those rites of purification and to do all that was necessary under the letter of the law.

Why? Both Paul and the apostles and elders knew that this was not necessary under the new covenant so why bother? It was for the sake of the rest of the people. Paul was blending in and behaving in accordance with the ways of the people, the Jews, in Jerusalem. His aim was not to offend any of the people but to show through his own good behaviour that he was doing what was right.

Is This Hypocrisy?

This is a charge that may be laid against Paul or anyone who does a similar thing. Was Paul being a hypocrite in his actions?

No. Absolutely not. For while he recognised these purification rites were no longer necessary under the faith and grace of God in the new covenant, and he knew that ALL men are equal in Christ, the rest of the Jews did not know this. He was doing this purely for their sake so they would not be offended by this new knowledge.

And we see Paul speak of this principle when he talks about the processes of walking in love, for in effect that is what he was doing here.

In 1 Corinthians 8:7-13 Paul talks about the eating of food offered to idols. In essence he is saying that food is food regardless of what has been done with it. He knew that idols are not real and they have no existence and thus food offered to them is just food. But not everyone has this knowledge and some people believing in idols would have difficulties accepting such a position and would consider it a wrong thing to do to take the food offered to an idol and eat it. Look at what these verses tell us.

7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

Paul’s concern is not about eating foods offered to idols but about the effect of doing such a thing might have on others, especially new Christians who had just been converted from religions following idolatry. It is their consciences that are weak from association with idols and who may think that eating food offered to an idol means something more than simple sustenance. And Paul is more concerned about their spiritual health than his own physical well being.

He makes the point that food will neither commend us to God nor cause Him to reject us. Food is just food and means nothing in a spiritual sense. But if the eating of food is a stumbling block or a cause for concern for someone else, then as Paul said in vs 13, “…if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”

All Things To All People

This is what Paul was doing in Jerusalem. The knowledge of the new covenant he had told him that he did not have to go through the rites of purification and the other rites of the Jewish laws. He knew he had been set free from the law and was living in the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.

But so as not to offend the people in Jerusalem he followed the rites of purification even though he knew it was unnecessary. And as James told him, as for the Gentiles, they had sent a letter explaining how they were to behave and what they were required to do and believe under the new covenant.

Paul explains his actions in these things in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 where he says,

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

I mentioned earlier in this post there is a fine line that needed to be walked, and we see that line in this block of scripture. For even though Paul became like those people he was moving amongst on the surface, he did not lose his spiritual worship of God and faith in Jesus Christ in the process.

Instead Paul held strongly to the faith he had in Christ for it was that which guided his life and his actions. When he says he became as one under law to win those under the law, he adds that his behaviour may have been like one under law but he recognised he was set free from law. When he says he became like one outside of the law to win those people, he adds that he was still subject to the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus.

Paul mimicked the people he was moving amongst so that he could reach them with the gospel. He could start with what they had and knew and then begin to teach them a better way as we saw him do in Athens in Acts 17:22-34, which you can read for yourself.

So we too need to learn this same approach for the essence of it is walking in love. We become like others for their benefit because then we may be able to speak the gospel to them without causing offence. But at the same time we hold firm to the faith we have in Christ Jesus so that we do not follow in wrongdoing.

We are unlikely to win anyone to Christ or make any friends through confrontation. You cannot walk up to someone in a stance of opposition and expect them to give you or the gospel a fair hearing if you are condemning them where they stand and how they behave. It is not our place to convict and condemn for Jesus and the Holy Spirit will do those things so that a person recognises the need for a saviour. Our place is to teach, preach and help others to find the way and it will be far easier if, like Paul, we become all things to all people as we walk in Jesus Christ.

(Photo sourced from stock.xchng taken by Martyn E. Jones)

You might also like:

Evangelism Primer From Apostle Paul
Love Is The Answer
Jesus Fulfilled Law
Love Your Enemies
God Is Merciful
Vengeance Is Mine Or Is It
Do You Know How To Set Your Moral Gps
For God So Loved The World
A New Commandment
How To Love Jesus
If You Keep My Commandments
The Joy Of Jesus
Parables And The Love Of The Father
Jesus Prayed For You
Expression Of True Love
In His Violent Death He Loved

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