Sermon on Acts 21:17-26 – “When Others are Blessed”

Sermon on Acts 21:17-26 – “When Others are Blessed”

Sermon for Sunday Evening, October 22nd, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)


Luke is back with Paul here as he write “WE had come to Jerusalem.”

They’ve made it. This was their destination, to reach Jerusalem. And despite the hardships of travel in the ancient world, and despite the warning against going there, Paul and Luke (and perhaps others?) have made it to Jerusalem.

There is a real sense in which this the capital of the faith. Though Jesus was born in Bethlehem and lived in Nazareth of Galilee, he was crucified, died and buried just outside the walls of Jerusalem. And Jerusalem had long been the capital of the Jews. This was probably also the place of the largest gathering of believers in the early church. And it was where “James and all the elders were present.”

I have trouble keeping the various James’s straight in the New Testament.

In Acts 12 there was James the brother of John who was killed by Herod “with the sword.” That was the apostle James, the son of Zebedee.

The James we find here in Acts 21 is James, the brother of Jesus. He is a leader in the church at Jerusalem. But there are other leaders there as well. Hence the text says “James and all the elders were present.”

And we find that Paul and Luke are warmly welcomed by these churchmen in Jerusalem. “The brothers received us gladly.” You can see there the equality which they all have. They are all “brothers.” No one is greater than another. And you can see the unity they have; unity in Christ. This is the only true unity there is; agreement on the truth of Jesus Christ. Though Paul and Luke had been traveling, away in Europe and among Gentiles, and James and the elders were in Jerusalem among Jewish Christians, they had unity in their teaching. Thus Paul and Luke were received gladly.

Imagine being there in Jerusalem, hearing from Paul and Luke who had just been on a remarkable journey. You’d be very glad to receive them because (first) as fellow Christians you’d be glad that they are alive! And then, you’d want to hear everything they have to tell you about their travels. You might be interested to know “what is is like in Greece” or in Rome. Tell us of your adventures at sea. If you had never left Jerusalem these would be fascinating subjects.

But that is not where the discussion went. Because there is something for more interesting than accounts of travel. Of greater interest is “the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.”

What had God done among the Gentiles? He had brought them to faith! He had grafted them in. Fulfilling the prophecies of the Old Testament.

[Isa 9:1-2 ESV] 1 But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.

[Isa 42:6 ESV] 6 “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations,

[Isa 49:6 ESV] 6 he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

[Psa 86:9 ESV] 9 All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.

[Hos 2:23 ESV] 23 and I will sow her for myself in the land. And I will have mercy on No Mercy, and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’; and he shall say, ‘You are my God.'”

All of these prophecies have been fulfilled. The nations, the gentiles, are coming to faith in Jesus Christ.

So Paul says in Ephesians 3:4-6

[Eph 3:4-6 ESV] 4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

That is what James the elders are glad to hear.

And Paul could easily tell them of the specifics; the number of people saved in the various places he preached. Since he had last been in Jerusalem for the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), he had seen the Lord bring to faith Lydia and her family in Thyatria, and the Philippian Jailer and his family, and people in Berea, and Athens, and Corinth, and Ephesus. So there was a lot on which to bring James and the elders up to speed.

Matthew Henry: Observe how modestly he speaks, not what things he had wrought (he was but the instrument), but what God had wrought by his ministry. It was not I, but the grace of God which was with me. He planted and watered, but God gave the increase. He declared it particularly, that the grace of God might appear the more illustrious in the circumstances of his success.

But I want to focus this evening primarily on verse 20:

20 And when they heard it, they glorified God. [REPEAT: 20 And when they heard it, they glorified God.]

Note what they DID NOT DO. They did not have jealousy. They were neither jealous of the Gentiles for having such profound conversion experiences, nor were they jealous that Paul had had so much success.

Maybe they were having converts in Jerusalem. But it is unlikely they were so successful as Paul was. But it is NOT A COMPETITION.

This is important as we look from church to church. And we hear about a revival somewhere. Should we be jealous? Or should we respond like James and glorify God.

That is who gets the glory. God. Not Paul, not Luke. And for the converts in Jerusalem it is God who gets the glory, not James.

The broader application is that we should praise God for the successes and blessings of other people. That is hard to do. Praise God for the success and blessings which other people receive.

It is easy to say “praise God” when WE are blessed.

But when we struggle, when failure after failure comes to us, and we see someone else EASILY having success, that is tough.

But all good things come from God. And all glory is His.

When our neighbor is greatly blessed, this does not harm us. Would we rather than were cursed than blessed? I hope not.

We shouldn’t be jealous or hate groups either. For example, we shouldn’t be jealous of doctors for being successful.

The economist Thomas Sowell explains that a lot element of hatred of Jews in the world is the product of their success. The Jews in many places started in poverty and they rose up financially, those whom they passed didn’t like it. Rather than saying “this is a good thing that these people have had success” there is jealousy.

Matthew Henry has a good conclusion in this whole discussion: God had honoured Paul more than any of them, in making his usefulness more extensive, yet they did not envy him, nor were they jealous of his growing reputation, but, on the contrary, glorified the Lord. And they could not do more to encourage Paul to go on cheerfully in his work than to glorify God for his success in it; for, if God be praised, Paul is pleased.

How can we direct our efforts away from jealousy and envy?

We can can our blessings.

We can remember the great blessing of our salvation in Jesus Christ. Everything else trifles in comparison.

Now, as for the remainder of our passage. Paul is warned that the Jewish believers may be led astray if they see Paul not following Jewish customs.

Verse 20:

20 And when they heard it, they glorified God. AND they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed.

The word AND here is “te.” It really should be translated “but also.” There is praise of God, BUT ALSO a troubling situation that must be addressed.

The Jews get a wrong view of what Paul is teaching. He has taught that the laws are no long necessary. But they seems to think Paul is saying something stronger, that they MUST forsake the laws.

So James and the elders ask Paul to prove his position with actions.

“Do therefore what we tell you.”

“We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.”

And then they reference the conclusions from the council of Jerusalem:

25 But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.”

So what does Paul do:

26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them.

Here, I suggest Paul is following his own teaching … “be all things to all people.”

[1Co 9:19-23 ESV] 19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

The phrase then, “be all things to all people” doesn’t mean to “compromise” but to “be inoffensive in every way except in the matter of the cross.”

So in the current situation, for Paul

ADDING the Jewish laws would be an unnecessary burden to the Gentiles. It would be offensive.

And DELETING the Jewish laws would be an unnecessary burden to the Jews. It would be offensive.

So Paul avoids offense.

Now in both of the actions and statements of James and the elders we see great wisdom. They are right in glorifying God and right in their request of Paul. There is wisdom in the plurality of elders; in multiple men of God working together.