Why Did Paul Take the Nazirite Vow?


B'rit Chadashah  Naso
Acts 21:17-26

Why Did the Apostle Paul Take the Nazirite Vow?


Our New Testament portion of Scripture is, not surprisingly, one that deals with a Nazirite vow. And why not. As we considered the Haftarah portion we read that Samson was himself subject to  that which surrounded such a vow. (Judges 13:4) Our story for this B’rit is found in Acts 21.

As interesting as the Nazirite vow is to sort out in its Old and New Testament context, a more important subject comes up to us. It is the Apostle Paul’s adherence or lack thereof to the Torah or Mosaic Covenant. 

In verses 15 through 20 we are introduced to the controversy at hand. Paul and company have just arrived at Jerusalem. Though not mentioned here they have brought with them the collection for the saints that had been previously gathered. (I Cor. 16:1-4) Paul makes his report first to the brethren who receive him gladly, and the next day to James and the elders of the Jerusalem church. Several points are to be noted in the response given to Paul at this second meeting. 

First, James and the elders glorify God. (v. 20) They realize that the work that has been done and the results it gained would not have happened if it were not for the hand of God in all of it. How easy it is for us as believers to look to human hands as being responsible for godly gain. In reality it is always our Lord who gives the increase, while we are just the tools He uses for the task He is to accomplish.

Second, Jerusalem is filled with "myriads" of Jewish followers of Jesus who are "zealous" for the Torah. (vs. 20) As to the actual number it may have reached as high as 50,000 or more. David H. Stern in his Jewish New Testament Commentary (1989, page 301) lays out a complicated yet convincing argument for this large number. As an aside he also calculates that at this time there were very possibly as many as one million believing Jews in the then known world. This potentially large number gives all the more weight to the importance of what is to follow. And that is that...

Third, the believing Jews of Jerusalem have been told that Paul was teaching those Jews living among the Gentiles, to forsake Moses. 

“...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.” v. 21

In the very next verse these Jerusalem church leaders ask, “What then is to be done?” (vs.22) From this point on the remedy for what was falsely believed about Paul is laid out. What is most interesting about this remedy, however, is not the course of action to be taken. It is rather what the text does say and what it does not say about what the Apostle Paul believed and taught concerning the Mosaic Law. But I digress. Here is the remedy that was given to Paul:

“Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 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 orderlykeeping the Law.” vs. 23,24

So, Paul was to put the minds of the Jerusalem believers at rest by engaging in this Nazirite vow with four others who had already began the process themselves. This would satisfy the Jerusalem believers. How? By making them see that “...there is nothing to the things which ...have been told about you.” But, what else does this passage say and what does it not say concerning Paul’s beliefs and life style as it regarded the Law.

A basic principle of interpreting Scripture - that is figuring out what it means - is what is called the golden rule of interpretation. And here is what it says: “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.” So what plain sense might we glean from our passage?

First, what it DOES NOT say. It does not say that Paul was telling Jew or Gentile to forsake Moses. It does not say that Paul was telling anyone - Jew or Gentile - to not circumcise their children. And it also does not say that Paul was telling Jew or Gentile to not live their lives according to Mosaic Law. (v. 21) Amazingly enough there were those then who accused Paul of teaching these very things. And even more amazingly there are those now who with the completed New Testament in hand still accuse Paul of teaching these very things.

And Second, what it DOES say. It does say that the outcome of Paul’s participation in  the Nazirite vow is that all will know that there is no truth to any of the above accusations

Put another way; 
(a) Paul did not tell any Jew to forsake the Mosaic Law 
(b) Paul did not tell any Jew to cease the practice of circumcision 
(c) Paul did not tell any Jew to not live according to Jewish customs. (v. 21) 

OH! And one other thing it does say...

It goes on to say that by keeping this Nazirite vow something else will be known about Paul. Here it is, “...that you yourself walk orderly, keeping the Law.” (v. 21) In the original language the nature of this word is that it speaks of a singular individual who is presently and continuously in the act of guarding one’s self so as to not violate, i.e. to keep, to observe. THIS THEN was Paul’s relationship to the Mosaic Law. 

Let’s remind ourselves of what that golden rule of interpretation said: “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.” Many have brought other passages of Scripture to bear against this passage and others like it, to show that the Law has been made invalid or simply set aside for a time. Certainly there is much debate to be had as it regards all of them. But let’s never forget to let the plain sense of Scripture speak for itself, and then seek no other sense.

So what might we take from this?

As to the Mosaic Law’s validity for life today - where applicable and possible - we must bow to the plain sense of what is said

Paul’s attitude was this:

“...the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” 
Romans 7:12
    
 For I joyfully concur with the Law of God in the inner man.”
Romans 7:22

Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be. On the contrary we 
establish the law.”
 Romans 3:31

Paul would say along with the Psalmist,
“Thy Word (the Law) is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” 
Psalm 119:105

And the Messiah’s words were these:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill (fully preach). For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
                                                         Matthew 5:17-19
As servants of the Great God and King, Jesus Christ His commission should be warrant enough to not only live the Law, but teach it just as He taught it to His disciples. And what was it that He taught? In reference to Mosaic teaching He told His disciples to do and observe as the scribes and Pharisees taught, BUT NOT as they lived. 
“...therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.” Matt. 23:3
And as this wound down to His final words - now for the church to come - He said:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe ALL that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” 
Matthew 28:19,20

Shall we then not go...


Shall we then not do as we are commissioned...