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The Primacy of God

Acts  21:17 - 22:30

If there is any striking characteristic of the great saints, it is this: they put God first in all things. This section of Scripture gives us some good examples of this attitude. It's a bit long - but worth it.

(Acts 21:17-40 NIV) When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. {18} The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. {19} Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. {20} When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. {21} They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. {22} What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, {23} so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. {24} Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. {25} As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality." {26} The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them. {27} When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, {28} shouting, "Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place." {29} (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple area.) {30} The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. {31} While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. {32} He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. {33} The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Then he asked who he was and what he had done. {34} Some in the crowd shouted one thing and some another, and since the commander could not get at the truth because of the uproar, he ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. {35} When Paul reached the steps, the violence of the mob was so great he had to be carried by the soldiers. {36} The crowd that followed kept shouting, "Away with him!" {37} As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, "May I say something to you?" "Do you speak Greek?" he replied. {38} "Aren't you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the desert some time ago?" {39} Paul answered, "I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people." {40} Having received the commander's permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd. When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic :

(Acts 22 NIV) "Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense." {2} When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet. Then Paul said: {3} "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. {4} I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, {5} as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished. {6} "About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. {7} I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, 'Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?' {8} "'Who are you, Lord?' I asked. "'I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,' he replied. {9} My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me. {10} "'What shall I do, Lord?' I asked. "'Get up,' the Lord said, 'and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.' {11} My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me. {12} "A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. {13} He stood beside me and said, 'Brother Saul, receive your sight!' And at that very moment I was able to see him. {14} "Then he said: 'The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. {15} You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. {16} And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.' {17} "When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance {18} and saw the Lord speaking. 'Quick!' he said to me. 'Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.' {19} "'Lord,' I replied, 'these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. {20} And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.' {21} "Then the Lord said to me, 'Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'" {22} The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, "Rid the earth of him! He's not fit to live!" {23} As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, {24} the commander ordered Paul to be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and questioned in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. {25} As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, "Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn't even been found guilty?" {26} When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. "What are you going to do?" he asked. "This man is a Roman citizen." {27} The commander went to Paul and asked, "Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?" "Yes, I am," he answered. {28} Then the commander said, "I had to pay a big price for my citizenship." "But I was born a citizen," Paul replied. {29} Those who were about to question him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains. {30} The next day, since the commander wanted to find out exactly why Paul was being accused by the Jews, he released him and ordered the chief priests and all the Sanhedrin to assemble. Then he brought Paul and had him stand before them.


There is a certain attractiveness in appearing bold and unconventional. The teenage rebel is a fixture in films; and Hollywood could not do without the "mature" adult who defies the "prudes." But the church is where reality truly strikes, and we know that we have a duty to others.

Relationship between Paul and the church at Jerusalem

You can see the primacy of God in the way that Paul brings his report to the church. He does not report to them as if he were an independent force; rather, he is reporting as a missionary dependent upon them. Indeed, his report is not about what he did, but what God did.

James, in return, points out what God has been doing in the church at Jerusalem - and that this has brought about a difficult situation. There is no note of condemnation; indeed, James is quite specific that this is a local problem, and he is appealing to Paul as a brother to help them with it. Both are concerned for the unity of the church; both are concerned that the faith of others is undamaged.

The issue: how to deal with the weaker brother

James outlines the problem quite simply:

·         God has been pleased to provide many converts to the faith among the Jews.

·         These people still follow the Law of Moses. This is not prohibited to a Christian, nor is it required - but their faith does not yet allow them to dispense with it. They sincerely believe it is necessary.

·         They also think that Paul doesn't follow the Law. Note that the problem is not with what Paul is teaching the Gentiles; it's what they've heard about his teaching the Jews.

Note the response: it is not to teach this Christians to be Gentiles. Rather, it is to show them - in action - that Paul is following the Law! We need first to take a look at this vow:

The vow in question is a form of the Nazarite vow. It requires the Jew to abstain from meat and wine for 30 days; to worship daily in the Temple for seven days, and on the last day to present certain ritual (and expensive) sacrifices. It is a vow of thanksgiving, of praise to God. Most men could not afford to do this, as they were day laborers. They would starve before they could complete the vow. But a rich benefactor might share the vow with them - participating as they do - and pay their expenses. This was a doubly pious act for the Jew: first for the vow itself, and secondly for the charity which allowed others to give this act of devotion to God.

The principle Paul and James are following is clearly laid out in Romans:

(Rom 14:1-8 NIV) Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. {2} One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. {3} The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. {4} Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. {5} One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. {6} He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. {7} For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. {8} If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

James and Paul see the weaker brother. Rather than proclaim their own correctness of doctrine, they accept those weaker brothers and try their best to strengthen their faith and promote harmony within the body of Christ.

We often see such things and say, "doesn't this set a bad example? Isn't Paul being inconsistent?" We ought not to worry so much about it. Rather, we should give glory to God by tending to his body, the church, in all things.


Hidden in this passage is another problem: the Roman commander mistakes Paul for some revolutionary. We often hear that we must do this or that "to preserve the character of our witness." In other words, we don't want to have others mistake us for the frauds around us. Hear John Chrysostom on the point, however:

Then let us not grieve that heresies exist, seeing that false Christs wished to attack even Christ both before this and after; with a view to throw Him into the shade, but on every occasion we find the truth shining out transparent. So it was with the Prophets: there were false prophets, and by contrast with these they shone the more: just as disease enhances health, and darkness light, and tempest calm. There is no room left for the Greeks to say that (our teachers) were impostors and mountebanks: for those (that were such) were exposed. It was the same in the case of Moses: God suffered the magicians, on purpose that Moses might not be suspected to be a magician: He let them teach all men to what length magic can go in making a fantastic show: beyond this point they deceived not, but themselves confessed their defeat. Impostors do us no harm, rather do us good, if we will apply our mind to the matter. What then, you will say, if we are partners with them in common estimation? The estimation is not among us, but with those who have no judgment. Let not us greatly care for the estimation of the many, nor mind it more than needs. To God we live, not to men: in heaven we have our conversation, not on earth: there lie the awards and the prizes of our labors, thence we look for our praises, thence for our crowns. Thus far let us trouble ourselves about men--that we do not give and afford them a handle against us. But if, though we afford none, those choose to accuse us thoughtlessly and without discrimination, let us laugh, not[1] weep.

The point is simple: we are not to be concerned with what others think. We are to be concerned with Christ's command. We are therefore concerned with what other Christians think, with a view to keep them from being weakened in the faith. So we appear inconsistent - but in fact we are consistent towards God, keeping him first in all things.

Paul's Defense

Paul's defense before the crowd also shows the primacy of God.


Note first that Paul is really not arguing or speaking in arrogance:

·         There is no sense of "you idiots" in his speech.

·         He asks them to hear his "defense" - the word in the Greek implies a pleading tone.

·         He stresses his one-ness with them: he learned at the feet of Gamaliel, and he learned the Law "of our Fathers."

All this is to gain their hearing. He doesn't need them to listen to him; he needs them to listen to his message - again, the primacy of God.

The point: to win all we can

Paul's purpose here is to win all that he can to Christ. These are the Jews, the people he loves. It is likely enough that most of us would have run from the situation. He sees it not so much a mob as an audience - full of his brothers.

To this audience he now offers his personal testimony. This is an example to us as well.

·         First, I am (like Paul) a witness to what has happened to me. I cannot speak directly to what Paul experienced, but I can certainly speak about what has happened to me.

·         Paul's method is simple and effective: look at Paul before meeting Jesus, and after. Each of us has the same story. What am I without Christ? What can I not be with Him?

Exalting Christ, not himself

Even in his account, he tells us of the supremacy of Christ:

·         "Who are you, Lord?" - Instantly he recognizes that supremacy.

·         He tells them that he has seen "the Righteous One" - which to the Jews meant the Messiah.

·         He is told to "call on the name of Christ" - and the Jew is to call on the name of God alone. Therefore, he is explicitly telling them that Jesus is divine.

The Vow

The center of this lesson, however, is one of the most solemn ways in which we honor the primacy of God - by which we put him first. It is "the vow." We do not use the word very much anymore - except in the context of weddings. Very well, let us examine the concept of the vow, seeing how it is used to put God first - and then see if there are lessons for us in our lives.


My dictionary contributes three points. A vow:

·         Is a solemn promise to God,

·         To perform some specific act or sacrifice,

·         For some specific purpose.

So, in this instance, the solemn promise is to perform ritual sacrifices for the purpose of thanksgiving. Similarly, the wedding vow is a solemn promise (to God, as well as to each other) to cling to each other only, for the purpose of creating a godly family.

A vow must be acceptable to God

We may vow - and God might not be pleased. If we put him first, we will fulfill our vows in his way. The Old Testament gives us two principles:

·         First, the sacrifice to be presented must be without defect:

(Lev 22:21-23 NIV) When anyone brings from the herd or flock a fellowship offering to the LORD to fulfill a special vow or as a freewill offering, it must be without defect or blemish to be acceptable. {22} Do not offer to the LORD the blind, the injured or the maimed, or anything with warts or festering or running sores. Do not place any of these on the altar as an offering made to the LORD by fire. {23} You may, however, present as a freewill offering an ox or a sheep that is deformed or stunted, but it will not be accepted in fulfillment of a vow.

Notice that last line: it must be acceptable to fulfill the vow. It is holy; it is set apart. It will not do for me to place my wife after another woman, or after my career. It is not acceptable to God.

·         The sacrifice must not come from sinful activity:

(Deu 23:18 NIV) You must not bring the earnings of a female prostitute or of a male prostitute into the house of the LORD your God to pay any vow, because the LORD your God detests them both.

Would you accept an expensive gift from your wife if she earned the money as a prostitute? To ask the question is to hear the answer.

It is not sufficient to make the vow. The fulfillment must be acceptable to God, for he comes first. If you are putting your career ahead of your wife, no amount of money from that career will be an acceptable sacrifice for your wedding vow. Put God first.

A vow must not be rash

Have you ever been to a wedding where you knew that the couple were going to regret this - and soon? It is not good to take wedding vows lightly, for God is holy, and what is promised to him is holy:

(Prov 20:25 NIV) It is a trap for a man to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider his vows.

(Eccl 5:4 NIV) When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.

If you place God first in your life, you will consider wisely, well and long before making promises to him - including wedding vows.

God does, however, understand that sometimes we cannot perform our vows because we do not have the means. In that instance, he provides that - under his authority - the vow may be reduced or revoked.[1] The key is this: "under his authority." We are not permitted, for example, to release ourselves from marriage. But under his authority, we are permitted divorce in case of adultery.

Take God seriously. Put him in first place in all things:

·         Put him in first place in your relations with others. Do not cause the weaker brother to stumble, but do what is necessary - however inconsistent it might appear - to uphold that brother.

·         In your testimony to the world, do not defend yourself. Rather, exalt Him.

·         In your vows - your promises to God - take Him seriously. Be quick to perform, and do so righteously.

In all this there is blessing, for as the Psalmist tells us:

(Psa 61:5 NIV) For you have heard my vows, O God; you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.

Put God first - and receive the heritage of those who fear his name.

[1] Leviticus 27:8; Numbers 30:12-14

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