BUFF SCOTT, JR.
Did The Apostle Paul Err On
[Paul’s Humanity in Question]
The following letter from one of my readers motivated me to write this feature on the possible blunders of Paul. After reading the passages regarding Paul’s conduct, our reader concluded he [Paul] made a mistake on at least two occasions. “Buff, will you expound upon Paul’s conduct in Acts 21:20-26 and 24:10-12, when he participated in Jewish rites and, on another occasion, ‘went up to Jerusalem to worship,’ as per the Law of Moses? Just what is incorporated in his behavior, especially since the Old Law of Moses ended at the cross? Why did he participate in Judaistic rituals?” —Karan
After assessing this matter carefully, I am led to believe Paul was either trying to appease his enemies and his Jewish believers or he made a mistake in both cases. I’ll go with the latter position, although appeasement is implied. I believe Paul goofed in both cases.
It was not unusual for Paul to try appeasement to satisfy his critics, as the above scriptures strongly indicate. But in taking this route, I’m convinced he erred in judgment. As noted in Acts 21, he participated in Jewish rites to soothe the sentiments of Jewish Christians who still believed in the Old Law
and practiced many of the Jewish rituals.
It is of interest that the mistakes of many of God’s chosen servants are recorded in scripture. It is chronicled that David, a man after God’s own heart, committed adultery and murder. Although the apostle Peter was led by God’s Spirit to write to fellow believers, his behavior was less than perfect, for Paul verbally disciplined him when he [Peter] played the part of a hypocrite by discriminating against Gentile believers. Paul said, “I opposed him to the face, because he was clearly in the wrong” [Gal. 2:11-13]
We ought to make a distinction between divine inspiration [revelation
] and human behavior. Paul, for example, did not receive his divine theme from man. “Rather,”
he said, “I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” [Gal. 1:11-12]
. Many of God’s servants were divinely inspired to write and speak, but their behavior was not divinely infused. Even old Abraham, although adored with humility and obedience, made mistakes. His nephew Lot made a mistake when he “pitched his tent toward Sodom” and later moved his family into that sexually-perverted city. Some of the old prophets blundered as well.
Why, then, should we think it strange that Paul made mistakes in his behavior? If Peter blundered, why not Paul? Paul was just as behaviorally infallible as Peter. So, yes, it seems that the great apostle Paul was human after all. This was the man who told others that the Old Law
, with its commandments and regulations, had been abolished [Eph. 2:14]
. Yet he participated in the very rituals and regulations that ended at the cross! Divinely inspired? Yes. Humanly fallible? Of course.
The notion has been advanced that Paul did what he did because he was desirous of “becoming all things to all men” that by any means he might win some. After all, to the Greeks he lived like a Greek and spoke Greek, and to the Jews he lived like a Jew and spoke Hebrew.
Assuming Paul’s fallible humanity was exhibited on the two occasions alluded to above, he was no less an apostle of Messiah Jesus, and no less a believer. All of us are sinners. It is that some of us are redeemed
sinners, others are unregenerate
sinners. All of us make mistakes. God’s grace compensates for the mistakes and blunders of redeemed sinners. If not, the road to heaven will be difficult to negotiate.
Paul was both accommodating and mistaken. For if Judaism’s rituals and regulations ended in Jesus, and they did, and if Paul knew this, and he did, how then could he consistently participate in those very acts while teaching others they were no longer valid and authoritative? I still believe Paul wanted to pacify his brethren, as well as some of his enemies, in the two cases addressed.
You see, Paul knew about the Old Law of Moses
as surely as I know about Catholicism’s teachings and methods. He knew the OId Law
was invalid and ineffective. He proclaimed this truth and told the Galatian believers they had deserted Jesus by turning back to the Old Law
, or, as he phrased it, “...turning to a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all” [Gal. 1:6-9]
In reality, the Old Law
vs. the New Order
. The entire Galatian letter addresses the Old Law
and its demise. Why, then, did Paul take part in a system of religion that, to him, “is really no gospel at all”? My answer: His humanity was showing!
I’m convinced he blundered in his accommodating gestures. Peter blundered, why not Paul? Did Paul make a mistake when he and Barnabas parted company because he [Paul] refused to take John Mark with them on a journey? They had a sharp disagreement [Acts 15:36-39]
. Their humanity was openly conspicuous. They mistakenly acted like children.
As to Paul circumcising Timothy, it was done to facilitate Timothy’s ministry, not done as a religious ritual. On the other hand, Paul explicitly participated in religious rites which, he said in a number of his epistles, were dead letters, non-authoritative, and ineffective. He took part in dead acts and dormant ordinances. There’s no parallel between the two incidents.
There is one other interesting note in all of this, however. With the exception of animal sacrifices, many of the early Jewish believers, during the formative
years of the new order, continued many of the Jewish traditions and rituals. That was understandable. But Paul was an Apostle, a special Ambassador of our Lord. He knew better!
Okay. Let me close by saying Paul was one of the greatest. But he was human, as was David and Lot and Abraham. They all made mistakes. They all erred in judgment and in behavior. They all miscalculated. So do we. But God's grace balances everything out
. Without God’s grace “kicking in,” none of us will reach God’s eternal glory.