Does Acts 21 establish the ongoing requirement to keep the sacrificial system and the ceremonial law? I think it actually shows that the ones who think so are actually the ones who misunderstand Paul. Let’s look at the text.
After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. 18 And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; 21 and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. 22 What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law. 25 But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.” 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them.
This text must be read carefully, because it is often talked about by Torah observers as if it says what it does not say. The elders in Jerusalem rejoice at the things that are happening in Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles. Then they raise a concern about Paul and the Law.
For example, 119 ministries reads then says “so obviously Paul kept and taught the whole law”, repeating “whole law” several times, though the passage never says this.
There are two statements in this passage that directly impact the questions regarding Paul and the Law. First, verse 21 is the content of the accusation against Paul.
and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.
Second, in verse 24, James describes Paul’s connection with the Law.
take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law.
Now, before we discuss these in detail, we have to ask. What is the primary disagreement between Torah observers/Hebrew Roots people and other Christians? What is the debate itself, and how does this text shed light on it? The primary disagreement has to do with whether the ceremonial aspects of the Law, such as circumcision and sacrifices, are still binding on all Christians the way they were on the people of Israel before Christ. Torah Observers and Hebrew roots say yes. Most Christians say no.
The question that is not at issue is whether it is now wrong to keep the ceremonial laws. Hebrew Roots and Torah Observance folks are notorious for ignoring the fact that there are actually three categories for the moral status of any activity. Any action can be placed in one of three categories: required, permitted, and prohibited. This is very basic, and all over the Scriptures. For example, for believers, we are required to regularly meet with other believers (Hebrews 10:25), and to forgive those who ask for forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-22). We are forbidden from gossip and strife and other works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). Everything that isn’t required or forbidden is simply permitted. This includes anything that has no moral import at all, such as what color car you choose to drive, as well as things that may have some moral implications, such as eating meat as discussed in Romans 14.
Most Christians believe that the ceremonial laws changed from required (circumcision) or forbidden (dietary restrictions) to merely permitted. A Christian can do them or not, since they were tied specifically to the Mosaic covenant, which is not the covenant Christians are a part of. That is the actual difference between most Christians and Torah observers
However, Torah observers often falsely accuse Christians of saying that what was required under the Mosaic Covenant is now forbidden under the New Covenant. Rather than accurately representing the Christian position, they create a straw-man of the Christian position, in order to more easily attack it. They accuse Christians of teaching people “not to obey” the Law, when those Christians actually teach that some things are no longer required, but are still permitted. To these Torah observers, anything that doesn’t agree with them is “against” the Law of God. I find it ironic that those who claim to care most about righteousness and who accuse others of disregarding the Law of God are the ones who don’t seem to care much about not slandering people they disagree with.
And the really ironic thing is that they misrepresent Christians in exactly the same way that Paul’s accusers misrepresent him. And they are so studiously wrong that they actually think this passage supports their position. They read it that Paul is being accused of teaching people the same thing that Christians believe, that some things in the Law are no longer required in the same way that they were before. But that is not what Paul is accused of. Read it again. Paul is being accused of teaching Jews, who have grown up under the Law, “to forsake” the Law. That is, that it should not be performed anymore, i.e., that what used to be required is now forbidden. Of course, Paul nowhere taught this, on anyone’s interpretation. Most mainstream Christians do not believe Paul taught this. So the issue Paul is accused of actually has nothing to do with the modern Torah observance movement’s disagreement with most Christians.
Secondly, concerning the accusation against Paul, notice that it is specific to the Jewish believers. Paul is not being accused of not teaching Gentiles to be circumcised. Why isn’t that the accusation? Or why isn’t the accusation more general? Because the Gentiles are not required to be circumcised, period. Notice that the requirements for the Gentiles is repeated in this passage. This is about 8 years after the Jerusalem council wrote that letter. Are all the Gentiles still “new believers” as Torah observers often assert? No. Acts 15 and the requirements for the Gentiles was never about “new believers”. Such a concept is completely foreign to the text. The accusation here in Acts 21 is very specific. Paul is being accused of positively instructing Jews to stop keeping the Law, such as circumcision. Paul is not being accused, contrary to Hebrew Roots assertions, of simply teaching that parts of the Law are no longer required as before, or that Gentiles don’t need to begin performing them.
We can see that this is right by the second key verse, verse 24, where Paul is told to participate in a sacrifice. Think about this. What does performing a sacrifice prove about Paul? If he has been teaching people that sacrifices are no longer required, but are now permitted, then it really proves nothing. That teaching is perfectly consistent with offering a sacrifice. However, if Paul had been teaching Jews to stop keeping the Law, offering a sacrifice would clearly contradict that teaching. So when James says this means that Paul is “orderly, keeping the Law”, it means in context that Paul is not forbidding keeping the Law, as shown by performing a sacrifice according to the Law. It does not prove that Paul thinks he has to keep the whole Law as Israel always did. It does not say that. It also does not prove Paul teaches all believers to keep the whole Law, since it isn’t even about Paul’s teaching, but what he does.
Again, Paul’s actions in performing the sacrifice prove nothing whatsoever against the mainstream Christian teaching that parts of the Law are no longer required as they once were. What it proves is that God did not forbid Jews from continuing to perform what they always had. As Torah observers are fond of saying, Paul isn’t our example. Jesus is. Whether any Jewish Christian continued to do things from the Law bears no weight on whether it is required of us.
This same false framing of the Christian position can be seen by the many citations Torah observers make of the early Jewish Christians going into the synagogue on the Sabbath or attending feasts, as if this proves such things were still required. I find it interesting, for all their language about loving the Law, that they think the Jewish Christians wouldn’t keep doing what they loved, even if it wasn’t required.
A final thought on the issue of people accusing or misunderstanding Paul. It seems Hebrew Roots folks are very fond of citing Peter’s warning that people misunderstand and twist Paul’s writings. They like to assume that mainstream Christians are guilty of this. What is interesting is that there is no real mystery about how Paul was being misunderstood at the time. We have it right here. Paul clearly taught a change in the Law. Paul clearly taught that salvation is by faith in Christ apart from the Law. And it is easy to come to incorrect conclusions from these truths. If someone is “zealous for the Law” as the Jerusalem Jewish believers in Christ were, hearing these things could lead them to drawing the false, more extreme conclusion that Paul was actually forbidding Jewish people from circumcising. And for someone who wants to be completely “lawless”, as Peter describes, this could be twisted into thinking that God no longer cares about sin and that people can do whatever they want. Really, these two misunderstandings are pretty much the same, but the reaction is different with different groups.
But of course, we do not need to misunderstand Paul. We can see that Paul’s teachings are in perfect harmony with changes to the ceremonial laws without thinking him guilty of teaching lawlessness. The twisting of Acts 21 is a clear example of grasping at straws in an attempt to find a way around clear passages that teach changes to the Law due to the work of Christ.