Acts 21:20
And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law:
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(20) They glorified the Lord.—The better MSS. give, “they glorified God.” The tense implies continued action, and although its meaning would be satisfied by assuming mere ejaculations of wonder and praise, it is, at least, not improbable that there was a more formal thanksgiving.

How many thousands of Jews there are which believe.—Literally, how many myriadsi.e., tens of thousands. The numbers seem large if we think of the population of Jerusalem only, but the crowds that came from all quarters to the Feast of Pentecost (see Note on Acts 2:1) would fully justify the statement. The speaker here is obviously St. James, as the president of the assembly. There is no trace of the presence of any of the Apostles.

They are all zealous of the law.—Better, the word being a substantive and not an adjective, zealots for the law. The term was an almost technical one for the most rigid class of Pharisees. (See Note on Simon the Canaanite, Matthew 10:4.) So St. Paul describes himself as in this sense a “zealot” (Acts 22:3; Galatians 1:14).

Acts 21:20-21. When they heard it, they glorified the Lord — The Lord Christ, for this wonderful demonstration of his presence and grace, with his servant; and said, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe — Many of these, doubtless, had come from different parts of the country, and some, probably, from remote provinces to Jerusalem, on occasion of this feast. Well might our Lord compare his religion to a grain of mustard-seed, seeing it had spread so extensively in so short a time. Its beginning was small, the instruments employed in propagating it apparently mean, the prejudices and obstinacy of the Jews very great, and yet, in about twenty-eight or thirty years after the ascension, the number of those who had embraced it, and were at one time in the same city, is stated at many thousands, or rather myriads, (μυριαδες,) or ten thousands. And they are all zealous for the law — For the whole Mosaic dispensation, as supposing it to be of perpetual obligation on all the Jewish nation, without excepting those that had embraced Christianity. And they are informed of thee — Through the prejudice and falsehood of thine enemies; that thou teachest all the Jews to forsake Moses, &c. — This, it appears, was a false charge brought against Paul. We have no proof that he taught the Jews to forbear circumcising their children, or to forsake the law of Moses. On the contrary, it seems, knowing that law to be the civil or political law of Judea, he always enjoined them to comply with its institutions, as the means of preserving their political rites and privileges, till Jerusalem should be destroyed, (which he foresaw it would be,) and their commonwealth dissolved; even as he enjoined the converted Gentiles to obey the good laws of the countries where they resided. What he really taught concerning the law of Moses was, that neither Jew nor Gentile could be saved by its institutions, which was the doctrine likewise of James, and of the elders, and of all the more intelligent members of the church at Jerusalem; as is implied in what James says, Acts 21:25; as touching the Gentiles which believe, we have concluded that they observe no such thing. For if the Gentiles did not need to observe the law of Moses, obedience thereto could not be necessary to the salvation of any person whatever.

21:19-26 Paul ascribed all his success to God, and to God they gave the praise. God had honoured him more than any of the apostles, yet they did not envy him; but on the contrary, glorified the Lord. They could not do more to encourage Paul to go on cheerfully in his work. James and the elders of the church at Jerusalem, asked Paul to gratify the believing Jews, by some compliance with the ceremonial law. They thought it was prudent in him to conform thus far. It was great weakness to be so fond of the shadows, when the substance was come. The religion Paul preached, tended not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it. He preached Christ, the end of the law for righteousness, and repentance and faith, in which we are to make great use of the law. The weakness and evil of the human heart strongly appear, when we consider how many, even of the disciples of Christ, had not due regard to the most eminent minister that even lived. Not the excellence of his character, nor the success with which God blessed his labours, could gain their esteem and affection, seeing that he did not render the same respect as themselves to mere ceremonial observances. How watchful should we be against prejudices! The apostles were not free from blame in all they did; and it would be hard to defend Paul from the charge of giving way too much in this matter. It is vain to attempt to court the favour of zealots, or bigots to a party. This compliance of Paul did not answer, for the very thing by which he hoped to pacify the Jews, provoked them, and brought him into trouble. But the all-wise God overruled both their advice and Paul's compliance with it, to serve a better purpose than was intended. It was in vain to think of pleasing men who would be pleased with nothing but the rooting out of Christianity. Integrity and uprightness will be more likely to preserve us than insincere compliances. And it should warn us not to press men to doing what is contrary to their own judgment to oblige us.They glorified the Lord - They gave praise to the Lord for what he had done. They saw new proofs of his goodness and mercy, and they rendered him thanks for all that had been accomplished. There was no jealousy that it had been done by the instrumentality of Paul. True piety will rejoice in the spread of the gospel, and in the conversion of sinners, by whatever instrumentality it may be effected.

Thou seest, brother - The language of tenderness in this address, recognizing Paul as a fellow-laborer and fellow-Christian, implies a wish that Paul would do all that could be done to avoid giving offence, and to conciliate the favor of his countrymen.

How many thousands - The number of converts at this time must have been very great. Twenty-five years before this, 3,000 had been converted at one time Acts 2, and afterward the number had swelled to some more thousands, Acts 4:4. The assertion that there were then "many thousands," implies that the work so signally begun on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem had not ceased, and that many more had been converted to the Christian faith.

Which believe - Who are Christians. They are spoken of as believers, or as having faith in Christ, in contradistinction from those who rejected him, and whose characteristic trait it was that they were unbelievers.

And they are all zealous of the law - They still observe the Law of Moses. The reference here is to the law respecting circumcision, sacrifices, distinctions of meats and days, festivals, etc. It may seem remarkable that they should still continue to observe those rites, since it was the manifest design of Christianity to abolish them. But we are to remember:

(1) That those rites had been appointed by God, and that they were trained to their observance.

(2) that the apostles conformed to them while they remained at Jerusalem, and did not deem it best to set themselves violently against them, Acts 3:1; Luke 24:53.

(3) that the question about their observance had never been agitated at Jerusalem. It was only among the Gentile converts that the question had risen, and there it must arise, for if they were to be observed, they must have been imposed upon them by authority.

(4) the decision of the council Acts 15 related only to the Gentile converts. It did not touch the question whether those rites were to be observed by the Jewish converts.

(5) it was to be presumed that as the Christian religion became better understood - that as its large, free, and catholic nature became more and more developed, the special institutions of Moses would be laid aside of course, without agitation and without tumult. Had the question been agitated at Jerusalem, it would have excited tenfold opposition to Christianity, and would have rent the Christian church into factions, and greatly retarded the advance of the Christian doctrine. We are to remember also:

(6) That, in the arrangement of Divine Providence, the time was drawing near which was to destroy the temple, the city, and the nation, which was to put an end to sacrifices, and effectually to close forever the observance of the Mosaic rites. As this destruction was so near, and as it would be so effectual an argument against the observance of the Mosaic rites, the Great Head of the church did not suffer the question of their obligation to be needlessly agitated among the disciples at Jerusalem.

20-25. they glorified the Lord, &c.—constrained to justify his course, notwithstanding the Jewish complexion of the Christianity of Jerusalem. Glorified the Lord; acknowledging all in that great work of the conversion of the Gentiles to have been from God; and that Paul that had planted, and Apollos that had watered, were nothing, 1 Corinthians 3:6,7.

Thousands of Jews; tens of thousands, as the word does usually signify; a definite for an indefinite number, signifying very many: and considering out of what small beginnings, and by what despicable means, and all within the space of about five and twenty years, this grain of mustard seed had spread itself; and add to this, that they were Jews, that obstinate and prejudiced generation, who are here spoken of, and they were then so many, so wonderfully many, who believed.

All zealous of the law, of ceremonies, and concerning forbidden meats, &c. For the decree of the apostles, Acts 15:29, concerning these things, did only respect such as were converted from paganism to the faith of Christ; and the Jews that were converted before the dispersion by Adrian, the Roman emperor, many years after this time, did not thoroughly understand their freedom from that law, but were under the burden of it, as appears by several ecclesiastical writers.

And when they heard it,.... The narrative of the wonderful spread of the Gospel among the Gentiles, and the numerous conversions of them:

they glorified the Lord; or "God", as the Alexandrian copy, the Vulgate Latin, and Ethiopic versions read; as Paul ascribed all to God, so they give the glory of it to him, and in this they were both agreed:

and said unto him; perhaps James in the name of them all, and as their mouth:

thou seest, brother; for so he was to James, both as a believer, and a minister of the word, and as an apostle:

how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; there were many thousands converted at Jerusalem upon the first preaching of the Gospel, after Christ's ascension; see Acts 2:41 and the number might be much increased since; though it may be, that reference is had not only to the number of the members of the church at Jerusalem, but to all the believing Jews in Judea, who were now come up to Jerusalem, to keep the feast of Pentecost; since it is in the Greek, "how many myriads there are", and one myriad contains ten thousand:

and they are all zealous of the law; of the law of Moses, of the ceremonial law, as Paul might see by their being at Jerusalem, to keep this feast; for though they believed in Jesus of Nazareth as the true Messiah, yet they had not light enough to see, that he was the sum and substance of all the ceremonies of the law, and that they all ended in him; and therefore were zealous in the observance of them, and could not bear to hear of their abrogation.

{4} And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law:

(4) In things indifferent (of which sort the traditions of the Pharisees were not, but rather the ceremonies of the Law, until the time when Christian liberty was more fully revealed to the Jews) charity exhorts us to conform or apply ourselves willingly so far as we may, to our brethren who do not stubbornly and maliciously resist the truth (but are not thoroughly instructed), especially if the question pertains to a whole multitude.

Acts 21:20-21. The body of presbyters—certainly headed by its apostolic (Galatians 1:19) chief James as spokesman—recognises with thanksgiving to God the merits of Paul in the conversion of the Gentiles, but then represents to him at once also his critical position toward the Palestinian Jewish-Christians, among whom the opinion had spread that he taught all the Jews living in the διασπορά among the Gentiles, when preaching his gospel to them, apostasy from the law of Moses. This opinion was, according to the principles expressed by Paul in his Epistles (see especially Rom., Gal., and 1 Cor.), and according to his wisdom in teaching generally, certainly erroneous; but amidst the tenacious overvaluing of Mosaism on the part of the Judaists, ever fomented by the anti-Pauline party, it arose very naturally from the doctrine firmly and boldly defended by Paul, that the attainment of the Messianic salvation was not conditioned by circumcision and the works of the law, but purely by faith in Christ. What he had taught by way of denying and guarding against the value put on Mosaism (so as to secure the necessity of faith), was by the zealous Judaists taken up and interpreted as a hostile attack, as a direct summons to apostasy from the Mosaic precepts and institutions. See Ewald, p. 563 ff., on these relations, and on the greatness of the apostle, who notwithstanding, and in clear consciousness of the extreme dangers which threatened him, does not sever the bond with the apostolic mother-church, but presents himself to it, and now again presents himself precisely amidst this confluence of the multitude to the feast, like Christ on His last entrance to Jerusalem.

θεωρεῖς] is not, with Olshausen, to be referred to the number of the presbyters present, who might represent, as it were, the number of believers: for only the presbyters of Jerusalem were assembled with James (Acts 21:18), but to the Judaean Christians themselves (Christians of the Jewish land), the view of whose many myriads might present itself to Paul at Jerusalem in the great multitude of those who were there, especially at the time of the feast.

ποσαι μυριάδες] a hyperbolical expression[122] of a very great indefinable number (comp. Luke 12:1), the mention of which was to make the apostle the more inclined to the proposal about to be made; hence we are not, with Baur (I. p. 230, ed. 2), to understand orthodox Jews as such (believing or unbelieving). The words, according to the correct reading (see the critical remarks), import: how many myriads among the Jews there are of those who are believing, i.e. to how many myriads those who have become believers among the Jews amount.

ζηλωταὶ τ. νόμου] zealous observers and champions of the Mosaic law. Comp. Galatians 1:14.

κατηχήθησαν] they have been instructed (Luke 1:4; Acts 18:25; Romans 2:18; 1 Corinthians 14:19; Galatians 6:6; Lucian, Asin. 48) by Judaistic anti-Pauline teachers. Actual instruction (comp. Chrysostom), not generally audierunt (Vulg.), nor bare suspicion (Zeller), is expressed.

μὴ περιτέμνειν αὐτοὺς κ.τ.λ.]

[123] according to the notion of commanding, which is implied in λέγων; see on Acts 15:24.

τοῖς ἔθεσι] observing the Mosaic customs. Comp. τὸν νόμου φυλάσσων, Acts 21:23. The dative is as in Acts 9:31.

The antagonism of Judaism to Paul is in this passage so strongly and clearly displayed, that the author, if his book were actually the treatise with a set purpose, which it has been represented as being, would, in quite an incomprehensible manner, have fallen out of his part. In the case of such a cunning inventor of history as the author, according to Baur and Zeller, appears to be, the power of historical truth was not so great as to extort “against his will” (Baur) such a testimony at variance with his design.

[122] But yet, comp. with Acts 1:15, Acts 2:41, Acts 4:4, Galatians 1:22, an evidence of the great progress which Christianity had thus made in Palestine with the lapse of time.

[123] The Jewish-Christians zealous for the law must thus have continued to circumcise the children that came to be born to them.

Acts 21:20. ἐδόξ.: “recte imperf. quia finis verbo εἶπαν indicatur,” Blass.—θεωρεῖς: the word seems to imply that Paul had already become cognisant of the fact by his own observations in his ministerial work.—ἀδελφέ: St. Paul is recognised as an ἀδελφός not only by St. James but by the assembled elders (see also Weiss, in loco).—Ἰουδ., see critical note.—μυριάδες, cf. Luke 12:1, of a large but indefinite number (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:15), referring to the number of believers not only in Jerusalem but in Judæa present in large numbers for the Feast. The word cannot refer to Jewish Christians in a wider sense, as Overbeck took it, because they would not need to be informed of Paul’s teaching relative to the Mosaic law.—ζηλωταὶ τοῦ ν., cf. Galatians 1:14, Titus 2:14, 1 Peter 3:13 (2Ma 4:2, we have the same phrase, cf. 4Ma 18:12). The extreme party of the Pharisees prided themselves on the title “zealots of the law, zealots of God”; it was a title which St. Paul himself had claimed, Lightfoot, Galatians 1:14.

20. And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord] The oldest MSS. read God. They took up the strain of thanksgiving which had run through all the Apostle’s story.

and said unto him] Their anxiety makes itself apparent at once, and we come here face to face with what must have been one of the greatest difficulties for the early Christians. Before Jerusalem was destroyed there must ever have been at that centre a party zealous for the law, with whom labour among the Gentiles would find small favour.

Thou seest, brother] The verb is not the ordinary one for to see. It implies that there had been an opportunity for the Apostle to behold some Christian gathering. At this feast the Christians would have as much interest in a commemorative assembly as the Jews.

how many thousands] The Greek is “myriads,” but the word is used indefinitely, like our “thousand,” to signify a large number.

of Jews there are which believe] The most authoritative Greek text is rendered by the Rev. Ver.there are among the Jews of them which have believed.” These were persons who, as was not unnatural, accepted Christianity as the supplement of Judaism, but made no break with their old faith, of the observances of which their life-long training had made them tenacious. To such men, as Christianity rested on the Old Testament Scripture, there would seem little need to make a rent between their old life and the new.

and they are all zealous of (for) the law] i.e. rigorous maintainers of all the ceremonial of the Mosaic code. The word is the same as the name of the sect, Zealots.

Acts 21:20. Πόσαι μυριάδες) how many myriads) Comp. Jeremiah 3:14, etc. Among all those by degrees circumcision expired; and of these, without doubt, a great part was mixed up with the Gentiles who believed. Wherefore the seed of Abraham has not perished in so great numbers as you would suppose, during the lapse of so many ages[viz. the centuries of the Jews’ unbelief since their rejection of Jesus when He was on earth].

Verse 20. - They, when they heard it for when they heard it, they, A.V.; God for the Lord, A.V. and T.R.; they said for said, A.V.; there are among the Jews of them which have believed for of Jews there are which believe, A.V. and T.R.; for the Law for of the Law, A.V. They... glorified God. There is not the slightest symptom on the part of James and the elders of unfriendliness towards St. Paul, or jealousy or opposition to his work among the Gentiles (comp. Galatians 2:7-9). The appellation brother is another indication of friendly feeling. Thousands (Greek μυριάδες, tens of thousands). These need not be deemed to be all Jerusalem Jews; if applied to the Church at Jerusalem only, such a word would be probably a gross exaggeration; but there were great numbers of Jews of the dispersion assembled at Jerusalem for Pentecost - probably all the Christian Jews of Judaea, and many from Syria, Galatia, Pontus, and the various countries enumerated in Acts 2:9-11. So that there might be several myriads of converted Jews altogether. All zealous for the Law. This is a remarkable testimony to the unanimity of the Christian Jews in their attachment to the Law of Moses, and throws light upon the Epistle to the Galatians and many other passages in St. Paul's Epistles. It explains the great difficulty experienced in the early Church in dealing with converts from Judaism. Zealous (ζηλωταὶ). So the fierce sect of Zealots were called at the time of the Jewish wars (see Josephus, ' Bell. Jud.,' 4. 6:1, and elsewhere). Acts 21:20
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