The church further observed that it was impossible Paul's arrival in the city should remain unknown. His renown was too great to allow him to be concealed. Paul's public appearance in the streets of Jerusalem would attract a crowd of curious spectators, most of whom would be violently hostile.
It was therefore of importance that Paul should do something to disarm this hostility, and to refute the false stories which had been circulated concerning him.
The plan the church in Jerusalem recommended was that Paul should take charge of four Jewish Christians, who were under a Nazarite vow, accompany them to the temple, and pay for them the necessary expenses attending the termination of their vow. Agrippa I., not long before, had given the same public expression of his sympathy with the Jews, on his arrival from Rome to take possession of his throne. And what the King had done for popularity it was felt that the Apostle might do for the sake of truth and peace.
Paul's friends thought that he would thus, in the most public manner, exhibit himself as an observer of the Mosaic ceremonies, and refute the accusations of his enemies. They added, that, by so doing, he would not countenance the errors of those who sought to impose the Law of God upon Gentile converts; because it had been already decided by the Church of Jerusalem, that the ceremonial observances of the Law were not obligatory on the Gentiles.
It is remarkable that this conclusion is attributed expressly, in the Scriptural narrative, not to James (who presided over the meeting), but to the assembly itself. The lurking shade of distrust implied in the terms of the admonition was certainly not shared by that great Apostle who had long ago given to Apostle Paul the right hand of fellowship.
We have already seen indications, that, however strict might be the Judaical observances of James, they did not satisfy the Judaizing party at Jerusalem, who attempted, under the sanction of his name (Acts 15; See Galatians 2:12) to teach doctrines and enforce practices of which he disapproved.
The partisans of this faction, indeed, are called by Apostle Paul (while anticipating this very visit to Jerusalem) "the disobedient party" (Romans 15:31). It would seem that their influence was not unfelt in the discussion which terminated in the resolution recorded. And though James acquiesced (as did Apostle Paul) in the advice given, it appears not to have originated with himself.
The counsel, however, though it may have been suggested by suspicious prejudice, or even by designing enmity, was not in itself unwise. Apostle Paul's great object (as we have seen) in this visit to Jerusalem was to conciliate the church of God in Palestine. If he could win over that Church to the truth, or even could avert its open hostility to himself, he would be doing more for the diffusion of Christianity than even by the conversion of Ephesus. Every lawful means for such an end he was ready gladly to adopt.
Paul's own principles, stated by himself in his Epistles, required this of him. The apostle had recently declared that every compliance in ceremonial observances should be made, rather than cast a stumbling-block in a brother's way (Romans 14). He had laid it down as his principle of action to become a Jew to Jews that he might gain the Jews, as willingly as he became a Gentile to Gentiles that he might gain the Gentiles (see 1Corinthians 9:20).
Paul had given it as a rule, that no man should change his external observances because he became a Christian; that the Jew should remain a Jew in things outward. Nay more, he himself observed the Jewish festivals, had previously countenanced his friends in the practice of Nazarite vows, and had circumcised Timothy, the son of a Jewess.
So false was the charge that Paul had forbidden the Jews to circumcise their children. In fact, the great doctrine of Apostle Paul concerning the worthlessness of ceremonial observances rendered him equally ready to practise as to forsake them. A mind so truly catholic as his was necessarily free from any repugnance to mere outward observances; a repugnance equally superstitious with the formalism which clings to ritual. In his view, circumcision was nothing, and uncircumcision was nothing; but faith, which worketh by love. And this love rendered him willing to adopt the most burdensome ceremonies, if by so doing he could save a brother from stumbling.
Hence Paul willingly complied with the advice of the assembly, and thereby, while he removed the prejudices of its more ingenuous members, doubtless exasperated the factious partisans who had hoped for his refusal.
Thus the meeting ended amicably, with no open manifestation of that hostile feeling towards Apostle Paul which lurked in the bosoms of some who were present. On the next day, which was the great feast of God called Pentecost, Apostle Paul proceeded with the four Christian Nazarites to the Temple. It is necessary here to explain the nature of their vow, and of the office which he was to perform for them.
The Nazarite Vow
It was customary among the Jews for those who had received deliverance from any great peril, or who from other causes desired publicly to testify their dedication to God, to take upon themselves the vow of a Nazarite, the regulations of which are prescribed in the sixth chapter of the book of Numbers. In that book no rule is laid down as to the time during which this life of ascetic rigor was to continue: but we learn from the Talmud and Josephus that thirty days was at least a customary period.
During this time the Nazarite was bound to abstain from wine, and to suffer his hair to grow uncut. At the termination of the period, he was bound to present himself in the Temple with certain offerings, and his hair was then cut off and burnt upon the altar. The offerings required were beyond the means of the very poor, and consequently it was thought an act of piety for a rich man to pay the necessary expenses, and thus enable his poorer countrymen to complete their vow.
Apostle Paul was far from rich; he gained his daily bread by the work of his own hands; and we may therefore naturally ask how he was able to take upon himself the expenses of these four Nazarites.
The answer probably is, that the assembled Elders had requested Paul to apply to this purpose a portion of the fund which he had placed at their disposal. However this may be, Paul now made himself responsible for these expenses, and accompanied the Nazarites to the Temple, after having first performed the necessary purifications together with them before God.