How to Uphold, Suppress, or Reject the Gospel (Acts 21:17-36)

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Acts 21:17-36

Rev. Erik Veerman


How to Uphold, Suppress, or Reject the Gospel

Sermon Manuscript

Well, we’ve made it to last section of Acts. We have 7 chapters left and we’ll wrap up in 3-4 months. Since it’s been a couple of weeks, let me give you some reminders and context. Last time we travelled with Paul on his way to Jerusalem. Paul was with Luke, Luke the author of Acts, and several other believers. They just arrived in Jerusalem. So, this morning’s text focuses on their initial time in Jerusalem.

As I read, you’ll hear first, that Paul and the others met with James and the Jerusalem elders. James was the leader of the Jerusalem church. He’s also Jesus’s brother. James’s parents were Joseph and Mary. We were introduced to him back in chapter 15. He’s also the same James that wrote the book of James in the Bible.

The second thing that I want to point out is that there are two group of Jewish people here. It’s important to understand that distinction. First, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Some tension in the church had built up because of them. We’ll get into that.

But when we get to verse 27, there’s a second group of Jews. These are not the same people. This second group are not Christians. Some of them had come from Asia and stirred up the rest of the Jews in Jerusalem.

Hopefully that will be helpful as we read.

The reading of Acts 21:17-36

This morning, I want to bring you in to my study. I want to give you a little insight into how the sermon sausage is made, so to speak. Of course, you may not want to know!

Most weeks I decide on a sermon title first before I write my sermon. Really, that’s because of when the bulletins are printed. Well, my first sermon title was this: “There’s no sermon title this morning.” I almost went with that.

In my preparations I read and listen to the passage multiple times. Usually that helps me grasp the purpose and some application. After that, I come up with a title. Next, I will work on an outline, and then write my notes.

Well, this is a challenging text. It’s not so much what is happening. We can follow that. Rather the difficulty is over why it’s included in the book. Really, whether James and Paul were being faithful or not.

At this point, I thought to myself, “well, I’m not the first one to struggle with these verses, so let me see what other pastors have to say.” The late RC Sproul came to mind. He was a pastor and theologian… probably the clearest thinker and teacher of the last 50 years. I don’t have RC’s Acts commentary, but I knew he preached through Acts a few years ago. So, I went onto Ligonier Ministry’s website. I found Sproul’s Acts sermons… but lo and behold, he skipped over these verses. Or maybe he did preach on them, but asked that that particular sermon not be posted. The funny thing is another pastor I looked up also didn’t have a sermon for the verses.

It even occurred to me that maybe I could conveniently start down at verse 26, and nobody would notice. Well that wouldn’t work, because Amy would be the first one to notice.

The challenge is there are different layers and unanswered questions here.

• One layer is all the gossip and presumption that happens in both groups of Jews – the believers and unbelievers. We’re going to get into that one.

• Another layer involves Christian legalism. Are these Jewish Christians putting the law in front of the Gospel? That’s a good question to ask. It has bearing for us.

• The biggest question is whether the apostle Paul was being faithful by following these Jewish customs. One commentator wrote that Paul’s actions were a colossal mistake. He believed Paul gravely sinned here and risked the ongoing unity of the church. But yet another commentator thinks that Paul’s heart and actions were faithful. That they’re a model for us.

So you see, a little difficult to navigate.

But here’s where I ended up and I hope and I have been praying that it’s helpful.

If you look on the back of your bulletin, you’ll see the outline. You probably already noticed I do actually have a real title. “How to Uphold, Suppress, or Reject the Gospel”

These verses are kind of like a how to guide. They center around three different responses to the apostle Paul’s Gospel work and message.

• First, how to uphold the Gospel – that’s the first 3 and ½ verses… James and the elders response.

• Second, how to suppress the Gospel – that’s the Jewish Christians. They were covering up the Gospel. Really, they had their priorities out of line.

• And third, how to reject the Gospel. That’s the response from the unbelieving Jews who sought to kill Paul.

Of course, I’m not trying to teach you how to suppress or reject the Gospel. These examples just help us know when we are. And the question I want you to ask yourself is this: Am I upholding the Gospel, or am I suppressing the Gospel, or am I rejecting the Gospel? It’s one of them.

How to Uphold the Gospel

So first, how to uphold the Gospel.

Imagine the scene. Paul and the others had arrived in Jerusalem. The group included Luke and Timothy, and Trophimas along with several others from Galatia, Asia minor, Macedonia, and Greece. If you want to read the list, you can go back to chapter 20 verse 4. Some also from Caesarea were there. Jewish and Gentile believers together.

And Jerusalem was bustling with activity. It’s the late 50s in between the Passover and Pentecost celebrations. Many, many Jews were in the city, making their annual pilgrimage.

The day after Paul and his companions arrived, they met with James and the elders. Verse 18. I mentioned James earlier – the leader of the church in Jerusalem. With him were the elders. Some estimate there were 50 to 70 elders. These were the leaders of the Jerusalem church. The church numbered in the thousands. Greeks and Hebrews. Some of these elders were converted Jews, some Gentiles.

And so Paul and his team and James and his elders all got together. Maybe in a room this size. It was both a reunion and an introduction. Paul had met James on a couple of previous occasions, but the believers with him from the northern Mediterranean regions were meeting James and the elders for the first time.

It was a celebration of sorts. The Jerusalem Church leaders warmly received them (verse 17). They called them “brothers” (verse 20). And all of these leaders had a heart for unity – unity between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. We get a clear sense of that in how they received each other and their desire to see unity later in these verses.

So the first way to uphold the Gospel is this: Joyfully receive one another in Christ and seek unity in him. You’ll see that subpoint in the outline.

Paul and James and the others modeled that for us. What unified them was the Gospel of Jesus. And when I say Gospel, just to be clear, I’m speaking of Jesus ministry on the cross -His death and then his resurrection. As the apostle Paul says in his letter to the church in Ephesus, chapter 2. God has made us one by breaking down the wall of hostility. He was saying, we are one in Christ – believers from all over the world - every tribe and tongue and nation.

When we recognize and receive each other in in Christ, no matter our background, our ethnicity, where we’re from… we are upholding the Gospel.

And part of that. Part of upholding the Gospel is to celebrate God’s Gospel work around the world. Look at verse 19. “He related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.” Paul testified not to his work, but to God’s work. That’s what it says.

It’s exciting to hear about God’s work in Christ all over the world. Their hearts were overjoyed as Paul shared story after story of new churches, conversions to Christ, God’s Spirit on the move. Look at verse 20, “And when they heard it, they glorified God.” Upholding the Gospel involves giving glory to God for his work among the nations. That’s the second subpoint.

God is at work, in Christ. He’s living and reigning in heaven, right now. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is at work throughout the world. This is the message of Acts! Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Tucker, and the ends of the earth!

So let’s celebrate what God is doing here, in Tucker, and next door in Clarkston, and in Atlanta, and… if I can name some of the other places that we’re connected to… India, Honduras, Africa, Peru, the Middle East, and Austria. May we each and our church uphold the Gospel. May we be unified in him and celebrate God’s work and his word to the ends of the earth. Amen?

How to Suppress the Gospel

Well, as you know, because we read it… things in the Jerusalem church weren’t all rosy. After their time of glorifying God, James informed them of the troubles.

The summary is this: the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem thought that Paul was discarding the law. They thought Paul was telling Jewish converts to Christ to (1) forget about Moses, (2) to not circumcise their children, and (3) to let go of their ceremonies.

They were misinformed. We’ll come back to that in a minute. Their concern caused disunity and a lack of trust. Of course, James and Paul and the others wanted to restore unity. So, James had come up with a plan and Paul signed onto it. Paul would help with and participate in a Nazarite vow. It was a Jewish custom spelled out in the book of Numbers, chapter 6. You may remember a couple of chapters ago, Paul had participated in this kind of vow before. It involved cutting his hair at the completion.

They wanted to show the Jewish Christians… that their perceptions were wrong.

The big question is, did Paul and James make a big mistake here? Were their actions faithful to the Gospel? Or were they legalistic? I’m going to say… I don’t know! I’m not sure.

On the one hand, Paul had taught that the Jewish ceremonies and customs pointed to Christ. So by participating in this purification, Paul would have had an opportunity to highlight the cleansing of Christ.

On the other hand, you could make a case that he went too far. I mean, it does seem like James and the Jerusalem elders let this get out of control. They could have clarified things and sought unity in the Jerusalem church.

Well, which was it? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Instead, what I’d like to do is focus on the Jewish Christians. They were suppressing the Gospel. Maybe that word is a little too strong. They were at least distracted from the Gospel. In the outline, by the way, we’ve transitioned to point number 2.

One of the two big problems here is that the Jewish Christians were wrong. In verse 21, they believed Paul was teaching Jewish converts to forego those things I mentioned earlier – to forget about Moses, to not circumcise their children, and to let go of their customs.

Well, that was all false.

• For one, Paul was clear about Moses and the moral law – they were to be living out their faith. The law gave them guidance

• Second, he never said not to circumcise their children. It was their choice. Paul even had Timothy circumcised.

• And third, for Paul, some of the Old Testament ceremonies were important. Passover and Pentecost – they pointed to Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

So, the Jewish Christians created disunity by gossiping and bearing false witness. Yes, maybe the unbelieving Jews started the rumor. But even if so, they bought the lie. Then gossip took over. “Did you hear about that Paul, guy? He wants to get rid of our Jewish identity.” Pretty soon these false rumors had spread throughout the body of Christ.

Friends, it’s so easy to presume. In our minds, we make these narratives about other people in the church. We foster those ideas. Then when we hear something, we jump right to conclusions. Maybe we even share those projections. Before we know it, gossip and false witness have crept in. There’s no better way to tear apart a church.

Have you ever thought something in your mind and then later found out it wasn’t true? It happens all the time in the church. We each need to guard against it. The devil will use it to create disunity and distract us from the Gospel.

It was happening in the Jerusalem church. It’s why James, in his book, speaks about the dangers of the tongue. He writes, “the tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.”

Kids, if you seek to honor God in your words now, it will set you on the path of peace and unity throughout your life. But on the contrary, if you develop a pattern of lying or talking negatively about other people behind their back (like maybe your siblings or classmates), it will be a hard battle to overcome.

Spreading rumors, making wrong assumptions, bearing false witness – they will distract us from the Gospel and hurt the church and God’s people.

Next, the second subpoint in the outline – and it’s related. One of their underlying issues was this: They had more zeal for the law than the Gospel. You see that phrase at the end of verse 20 “They are all zealous for the law.” To be zealous is to be passionately committed to something.

They had exalted their Jewish identity over and above their Christian identity. So, to them, if you were a Jew who converted to Christianity, you still needed to circumcise your children; you needed to keep the Jewish ceremonies. You needed to follow the civil laws of the Old Testament.

This is where they went wrong. Christ had fulfilled those things. They weren’t necessary. To be sure, it was ok for them to keep them, but it was no longer necessary. I’m talking about the Old Testament ceremonies and festivals and such. It’s a matter of Christian liberty for a Jewish Christian to keep some of those things. As long as they testify to Christ in them.

Let me be very clear. This is not anti-law or anti-Old Testament. On the contrary, we’re to pursue righteousness and holiness… God’s moral law. And we believe that the Old Testament ceremonies and festivals point to Christ.

But for these Jewish Christians, besides gossiping about Paul; they also had elevated these practices to a level of necessity. In doing so, they were suppressing the Gospel, the very thing to which these practices pointed.

Now, you may be thinking “I’m not Jewish, so this doesn’t apply.” Well, think about this. We do similar things. God has given us guidance in the Scriptures about the church. This includes our worship and practice. But when those instructions, which are important, when they become the ultimate things we care about, then our zeal for them has eclipsed the Gospel.

May our zeal, as God’s people, his church, be for the Gospel, and from there may we seek to be faithful to his will.

How to Reject the Gospel

So, (1) how to uphold the Gospel, (2) how to suppress the Gospel, and then lastly, (2) how to reject the Gospel.

Well, we’ve come to this last section of our text, verses 27-36. Paul had just about finished his purification. That was the last part of the Nazarite vow. He was in the temple. And then things got crazy… got dangerous!

The temple in Jerusalem was the holy place for the Jewish people. They idolized it! They had strict rules. And Paul was enemy number one. The thing is, most of the Jews didn’t recognize Paul. Nonetheless he was on their most wanted list. But it turned out that a group of Jews from Asia did recognize him. We’re talking about the western part of modern-day Turkey. Likely they were from Ephesus. Paul had taught there for 3 years. Remember the mob in the great amphitheater? Well, these Jews hated Paul. They recognized Trophimus, who was a Gentile from Ephesus. Although Trophimus didn’t enter the inner temple court. Yet these Jews claimed he did. He was forbidden in there as a Gentile. In fact, the punishment for a foreigner entering the inner court was death. Inscriptions have been found with this strict penalty.

So, when the Jews thought that Trophimus entered the temple, they were enraged. Ironically, Paul was in the temple finishing a Nazarite vow, yet they blasted him as not caring about the law and the temple.

It was another mob-like scene just like in Ephesus. Mass confusion. Verse 30. “All the city was stirred up.” They all ran together. They seized Paul. They dragged him out of the temple.

They were rejecting the Gospel. They lied. They caused outrage and confusion. Whatever it took, they would do it. This was not new. We’ve seen it before. All throughout Acts, the unbelieving Jews imprisoned and persecuted the Christians and apostles.

There’s a little phrase at the end of verse 30, which I think captures it. They dragged him out of the temple, and then it says, “at once, the gates were shut.” It’s symbolic in a way. They would not hear. They closed the door on the Gospel. They had no interest in considering whether what Paul was saying was true.

Nope. They wanted to kill him. And believe me, mob rule would have prevailed, but the Romans stepped in. Since the death and resurrection of Jesus 25-30 years earlier, this region had only become more unstable. The Romans wanted stability. So, they arrested Paul. Questions would come later.

This was God’s providence. When the Roman guards arrived (verses 32 and 33), they arrested Paul which served to protected him. All the while the mob shouted, “Away with him!” verse 36.

You see, by rejecting Paul, God’s messenger, they were also rejecting Paul’s message – Jesus, the son of God, the promised messiah. They closed the door on him.

People reject Jesus in many ways today. Many don’t think or realize they are rejecting Jesus. But when we come to him on our terms… not his terms, we are rejecting him.

• Some reject Jesus’s exclusive claim that he is the only way to be saved - the only way to become right in God’s eyes. No, that can’t be, they say, there are many paths to God.

• Some intellectually reject Jesus’s own claim of being God - being one with God his Father. Of being God in the flesh.

• Some reject the morality that he taught and lived - a call to purity in heart and actions, a call which begins with repentance… seeking forgiveness that leads to obedience.

• Some will talk and talk about Jesus’s wisdom as a good teacher, his love for the outcasts and sinners. Those are good and true things, yet these same ones reject Jesus’s call to “deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him.”

Maybe there’s not that outer hostility and anger coupled with lies like these unbelieving Jews. But there’s an inner antagonism, a heart and mind closed to even consider the message and the messenger.

Are you rejecting the Gospel? I recognize that maybe most or perhaps all of you here have embraced Jesus as Lord and Savior. But if you’re here this morning and you haven’t. Maybe this is your first time here. Maybe you’re curious about this church thing. Or you’ve been searching for answers. Maybe all your life you’ve rejected Jesus in one of those ways…. But you’ve come to a point of despair or a dead end in your path and you are searching for the truth. Don’t let the path of these unbelieving Jews be your path – closing the door on him. He’s calling to you. He offers his grace.


Wherever you are. If you are either rejecting the Gospel like the unbelieving Jews, or you’re distracted from the Gospel, like the believing Jews. Their zeal for the law overshadowed their zeal for the Gospel and their unity with one another. If that’s you in either case, come to him. Believe for the first time, or return to him and uphold the truth. Joyfully praise God for his Gospel work as did James, and Paul and the Jerusalem disciples.

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