What then should we do? They will not hear that you have come. – Acts 21:22 (NET)
Verse twenty-two of Acts twenty-one poses a rhetorical question, to which the Jerusalem elders have what takes the appearance of a ready-made response. That question, following up on the not-entirely-accurate suggestion that Paul teaches “all the Jews now living among the Gentiles to abandon Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to their customs” (21:21b---note the use of the word “custom” rather than “law”---a subtle reminder that the then-employed covenant markers were more custom than law perhaps?), was “What then should we do?” (21:22a) Coupled with the lack of accuracy in the statement that leads to the question, one is tempted to hear the prepared response as little more than the feigning of concern, as they say “The will no doubt hear that you have come” (21:22b).
Now, it does exist as a possibility that the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, with whom Paul is here dealing, are simply reporting what they have heard, and that they are relaying the general tenor of the grumblings about Paul that they hear around the Temple and in Jerusalem. However, though again, we do not desire to here dwell on it, this exchange takes on the appearance of an honor competition for position within the church, with the Jerusalem elders seeking to shame Paul. Knowing Paul as we do through his letters, and through Acts, knowing his demeanor in the lead-up to his return to Jerusalem, which he expected to be fraught with troubles, this potential attempt at shaming would probably not have much of an effect on him.
So a suggestion is offered. Paul is told that “We have four men who have taken a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may have their heads shaved” (21:23-24a). Is this talk of Paul needing to purify himself a subtle jab that stems from the fact that he spends the vast majority of his time with Gentiles (echoes of Galatians two ringing in our ears)? The rejoinder to the suggestion, which is “Then everyone will know there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself live in conformity with the law” (21:24), indicates that it is a veiled insult. What they have in mind when speaking about “conformity with the law” is revealed in what follows, as they make reference to an earlier event, saying “But regarding the Gentiles who have believed, we have written a letter, having decided that they should avoid meat that has been sacrificed to idols and blood and what has been strangled and sexual immorality” (21:25). This serves as something of a modified version of the prevalent covenant markers, setting forth the still-underlying position that Gentiles should be required to, in some way, become Jews in order to have the privilege of participation in the blessings of God as a member of the covenant people. Submission to the God of Israel and to the crucified and resurrected Messiah of Israel was simply not enough.
Paul, who, according to what we can find in the twentieth chapter and the first part of the twenty-first chapter, has an inkling as to where all this might be headed, and has already embraced the possibilities, does not argue with the elders. Because he could look upon this activity as being relatively meaningless in the great cosmic, kingdom picture with which he was concerned, and because he had no desire to create disharmony or dissent in the church, “Paul took the men the next day, and after he had purified himself along with them, he went to the Temple and gave notice of the completion of the days of purification, when the sacrifice would be offered for each of them” (21:26).
As Paul is conducting his business in the Temple, something goes horribly wrong. Contrary to what was insisted would be the result of Paul’s activity in the Temple, which was that “everyone will know there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself live in conformity with the law” (21:24b), we read that “When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from the province of Asia who had seen him,” that being Paul, “in the Temple area stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting ‘Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this sanctuary!’” (21:27-28a) So much for expectations. Instead, a near-riot ensues. Of course, what is here mentioned is only half of that which is causing people to take issue with Paul.