Summary: A message of encouragement when you've been misunderstood, from Paul's ordeal in Acts 21:17-36.
INTRODUCTION: A couple of hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing; his eyes are rolled back in his head. Terrified, his friend whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services.
"My friend is dead! What can I do?" he cries over the phone.
In a calm, soothing voice, the operator says, "Just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead."
There is a moment of silence, and then a single shot rings out.
The guy's voice comes back on the line: "Okay, now what?"
Misunderstanding can lead to comedy (e.g. Seinfeld, Abbott & Costello's "Who's On First") but also:
I. MISUNDERSTANDING CAN LEAD TO MISTREATMENT
A. Professional translator Nataly Kelly tells the following story about what journalists have called the "$70 million word." In 1980, 18-year-old Willie Ramirez was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. His friends and family tried to describe his condition to the paramedics and doctors who treated him, but Willie's family only spoke Spanish. They told the hospital staff that Willie was “intoxicado.” The word is what translators call a "false friend"—it doesn't mean what you'd assume it means. In Spanish, intoxicado refers to a state of poisoning, usually from ingesting something toxic to the system. Ramirez's family was trying to say that Willie was suffering from food poisoning—literally, "he is poisoned."
But when the doctors grabbed a hospital staff person to translate for the Ramirez family, the staff worker said that Willie was "intoxicated." The doctors treated him as if we were suffering from an intentional drug overdose. Willie was misdiagnosed and, because of the wrong course of treatment, became a quadriplegic. The hospital finally settled in court with the Ramirez family for $71 million.
Misunderstanding can lead to mistreatment, and painful consequences. Have you ever been misunderstood? It’s a terrible feeling when someone takes what you have said or done and misunderstands or misrepresents it. It was a feeling Paul would become well acquainted with. [READ Acts 21:17-26]
B. When Paul and friends arrive in Jerusalem, they are warmly welcomed and then the next day they go to visit James and the church elders. (Peter and John seem to have left the city.) This meeting was not without tension:
1. James and Paul had become the representative leaders of two Christianities, Jewish and Gentile. They had met several times previously, including at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).
2. During the intervening years, however, the movements they led had grown considerably under God’s hand. Here, as they greeted one another, each was flanked by fruit of their respective missions: Paul by his companions from the Gentile churches (including our author Luke), and James by the elders of the Jerusalem church.
3. So when Paul and James faced each other in Jerusalem, there could have been a painful confrontation. But both apostles were attuned to the Spirit. As before, the evidence of God’s grace towards Gentiles was indisputable, and the only appropriate response was worship. I think the joyful praise of James and the elders was not grudging, but spontaneous and genuine.
4. Paul presented to the Jewish church offerings given by the Gentile churches of the west (which Luke mentions only later in chap. 24). Besides an expression of loving Christian responsibility to the poor, this offering was an important symbol of solidarity between Gentile believers and their Jewish brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. This moment was important to Paul, which is why he urged the Roman Christians to pray with him that his “service in Jerusalem would be acceptable to the saints there” (Rom. 15:31).
C. But the elders have a concern that they raise with Paul (20-21). What was this about?
1. It was not about the way of salvation—Paul and James agreed that this was through Christ, not the law—but about the way of discipleship.
2. It was not about what Paul taught the Gentile converts, but about what he was teaching the Jews who lived among the Gentiles (21).
3. The issue was should Jewish believers continue to observe Jewish cultural practices of the law? It was rumored that Paul was teaching them not to. And some Jewish Christians were abandoning their Jewish practices.
You can see how the rumors got started.
4. But, it was a misunderstanding. There was confusion between Paul giving permission vs. Paul giving a command.
5. The leaders of the church therefore suggested something practical that Paul might do in order to make clear that these accusations against him were false:
a. There were four men in the church under a Nazirite vow.
b. The termination of their vow would be accompanied by the offering of a sacrifice at the temple, and it was proposed that Paul should pay the expenses of the sacrifice on their behalf.