Making Vows to God
Paul’s Vow in Acts 21:15-26
Compromise or Conviction?
Dr. Jay A. Quine
Paul consents to join in a vow to give the appearance of not invalidating the Law of Moses and the tradition of the elders. There are several options why he does this:
1. Paul was a hypocrite—says E.P. Sanders in his impressive work, Paul, the Law and the Jewish People (p. 3:167). Paul, after all was only human, and finally submitted to the culture of his day. He finally caved in and sacrificed the word of God on the altar of expediency. This position has the advantage that it easily explains the passage, it is really too much to say that Paul would give up so much after all this time, and forfeit the Gospel.
2. Paul’s original hard line view in Galatians had become softened, so that in Romans he writes, “the lay is holy, just and good” (Romans 7:12). Now he sees a continuing place for the law for Jewish Christians. John Drane’s work, Paul, Libertine or Legalist holds to this view (see also German scholar Hans Hubner). So, according to this view, the Jews remain under the Law, but Gentile Christians never under the Law in the first place are not put under it now as believers. However, this makes an unbiblical division that does not appear anywhere in Paul’s writings.
3. The vow did not fall under the ceremonial aspect of the Law, but the civil. Christ’s death put an end to the Law, Romans 10:4, but this was only the religious or ceremonial aspect. The civil and / or moral aspect of the Law continues to this day. Countless groups contend that this is the correct view, but each author divides the ceremonial and civil aspects of the law differently—and it would be difficult to consider what Paul is doing with this vow civil! The very intent appears to be ceremonial cleanliness!
4. The Law of the Old Testament has been replaced by the teaching of Jesus, which is called by James the Law of Liberty, and by Paul the Law of Christ. That is what Paul is doing here—fulfilling the law of Christ. This view is presented by C.H. Dodd, in the Word Commentary on Acts. However, it is difficult to see where Jesus speaks of making this kind of ceremonial cleansing.
So, it is extremely puzzling. To complicate this enigma, Paul states in Gal 2:19, “I through the Law died to the Law.” Also, in Romans 3:31 he affirms we have died to the law. Yet on the other hand he says we fulfill the law through the statement “love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet four verses later he asserts that we are not under the law, “Gal 5:14-18. So why bother with fulfilling it if we are not under it? Rather puzzling!
Paul is using the Law in a wisdom fashion, not as a command, or being under the Law, but using wisdom applying the law in one situation one way, and another situation another way.
This is similar to what Jesus was saying in Mark 2:23-28. Jesus makes a wisdom like statement (“Man is not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath for man”) to explain David’s behavior, and defend the disciples.
It is similar to what Paul seems to be doing with the reference to the Law in 1Cor 14:34. Using the Law in a wisdom fashion by extracting principles from the Law.
Notice also his appeal to wisdom as a manner for living in Ephesians 5:15-ff. (“Walk in wisdom…”)
So, Paul does not live rigidly. But, short of sin and compromise of the Gospel, he is free to adapt to the situation (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-23). To absolve himself from false accusations and to perhaps relieve some pressure on the church by the Jews, Paul wisely agrees to this vow.
How do we use the Law then today? It is there for our guidance counsel, direction and advice. It tells us of our high calling, and calls us to good living. While we are not under it, we can wisely use its principles for out betterment in life.
Therefore, make a vow if circumstances make it the wise thing to do.