The word of the day is “defile.” What makes someone, something, or somewhere holy or unholy? In our reading of Acts 21:26-32, that question put Paul in jeopardy of his life. When Paul entered the temple in Jerusalem, the Jews thought he had brought a Gentile into their holy place. Thus, he had defiled it.
Seeing Paul in the temple courts, “some Jews from Asia” cried, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the Law and this place, and furthermore, he has brought Greeks [Gentiles] into the temple and has defiled this holy place” (OSB 21:28). The claim about the defilement was false, but it started a riot. Paul was saved from death only when the Roman commander sent his soldiers to rescue him. Today we consider what it meant to the Jews to defile the temple and how the faith in Christ has altered what the temple means and how it is desecrated.
We find in our reading that Paul has arrived in Jerusalem and the leaders of the Jerusalem church have received his visit (OSB Acts 21:17). However, when Paul told them about all that God had accomplished among the Gentiles, they wanted to test whether Paul was faithful to his Jewish roots. Setting aside the question of the Gentiles, was he keeping the Law of Moses (OSB vs. 21-22)? Therefore, they proposed that Paul join a group of four men who had taken some sort of vow. Further, they stipulated that he sponsor these pious Jews.
Paul Is Falsely Charged of Defiling the Temple
Paul willingly purified himself, shaved his head, and fulfilled all that the Law of Moses required. At the end of the days of purification, Paul went into the temple with the men to mark the fulfillment of their vow and to make an offering for each one (OSB 21:26).
But when some Hellenistic Jews from Asia spotted Paul in the temple, they supposed that he had taken one of his companions, an uncircumcised Gentile from Ephesus, into the temple. They claimed that Paul was preaching “against the Law and this place”(OSB vs. 28), and when he brought Trophimus into the temple, he proved it—and also defiled the holiness of the temple.
The Temple: the Crux of the Difference
The temple was the crux of the differences between Judaism and the way of Christ. The Lord had driven out the vendors and money changers of the temple, charging that they had made this “house of prayer for all nations” a “den of thieves” (OSB Mark 11:17). Moreover, one of the charges against Jesus at this trial was that he would destroy the temple and within three days, he would build another made without hands (OSB Mark 14:57).
The temple was constructed to separate the ritually pure from the impure. The Gentiles and those Jews who were ritually “unclean” were only allowed in the outer “Court of the Gentiles.” A five-foot wall and fourteen steps separated this courtyard from the inner courts. The second court excluded all but Jews, the third, all that were not ritually clean and purified, the fourth all but priests in their vestments, and the fifth, the Holy of Holy, everyone but the High Priest and then only once a year.
The Background of the Concern for the Purity of the Temple
The Jews were especially sensitive about the temple because of their history. In the Hellenistic era after Alexander the Great, the Seleucid (Syrian) Emperor Antiochus III appointed his deputy to raid the temple treasury[i] (2 Maccabees 3:17). But in response to the people’s prayers, a terrifying vision struck down the emperor’s agent as he tried to enter the temple (2 Maccabees 3:23-29).
However, to unify his empire, the emperor’s successor Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) declared himself to be a god. Unlike his deputy, he entered the temple ( 2 Maccabees 5:15) and plundered its treasury (2 Maccabees 6:21). Then Antiochus Epiphanes made the holy temple of Almighty God into a shrine to Zeus (2 Maccabees 6:2) and sacrificed a pig upon the Altar of Incense (Josephus 1960, Chapter 5). This pollution of the temple was the precipitating event of the Maccabean Revolt.
This background explains why the Jews were so angry about the supposed defilement of their temple. A sign on the wall separating the Court of the Gentiles from the inner courts pronounced that “no alien” should enter within, and those who did were to be killed. Thus, the Jews intended to execute Paul. So that they would not pollute the holy place with violence and death, they dragged the apostle out of the temple and closed the doors behind them (OSB vs. 30).
What Defiles Someone or Someplace?
But what makes something, someone, or someplace common, unclean, and defiled? The Greek word “defile” means to make common as opposed to sacred (Strong’s #2839, 141). But the word defile has a moral connotation. It means that what was dedicated to God and thus made “uncommon” or “sacred” was now polluted.
The Lord responded to the Pharisees who charged that his disciples ate without ritually washing their hands in the “tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:5). He said that the ceremonial washing of pots, pans, and couches and the many other rituals are only outward acts. And they are unnecessary. Because these objects cannot make anyone unholy or holy anyone since they are external. He said, What corrupts is what comes out of the mouth of a man (Mark 7:1-15). The mouth expresses the inner nature of the speaker. Dirty talk is a sign of an unclean heart. Thus, from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts… and every kind of evil (Mark 7:21). “All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (Mark 7:23).
The Book of Hebrews applies this teaching of what defiles to the sacrifices in the temple. The apostle says that the restriction that the High Priest can only go in the Holy of Holies once a year is symbolic. It means that the “gifts and sacrifices” offered in the temple cannot make those who offer it “perfect” in conscience (NKJV Hebrews 9:9). They only concern “foods and drinks, and various washings, and fleshly ordinances which were given until the “present reformation,” that is, until the Christ fulfilled the Law (NKJV Hebrews 9:10).
The Sacredness of the Temple Was Ceremonial
In other words, the sacredness of the temple was a ceremonial holiness. The temple sacrifices dealt with the external status of worshippers according to the labels of ritually “clean” or “unclean,” sacred or profane. They did not change the inner condition of the hearts of those who offered them.
The psalms and the prophets also taught this distinction between outward rituals and the spirit of inner repentance. The psalmist said, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart— These, O God, You will not despise” (OSB Psalm 51:17). And the prophet Jeremiah said, “Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness, That you may be saved. How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you” (Jeremiah 4:14)?
Therefore, the defilement of the temple was ceremonial. It was a sin against the ritual rules of the Law of Moses. The ritualism of the Mosaic Law established the identity of the Jews as the Chosen People of God. Debasement of the temple was, therefore, a transgression against their unique identity.
But now that the Messiah had come and fulfilled the Law, true worship would not be in the temple on Mt. Zion of the Jews nor the temple on Mt. Gerizim of the Samaritans. But the Lord said, “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23).
Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos said, “But for one who is praying, it should make no difference if he is in the train, or in the cave, or on the road. God has made each one of us into a small temple, and we always have it wherever we go (Paisios, 114).
The Temple That Replaced the Temple in Jerusalem
Indeed, there is a temple that has replaced the temple in Jerusalem. Paul said, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own (1 Corinthians 6:19)? We should guard the sacredness of this temple as fiercely as the Jews guarded their temple against defilement.
Josephus, Flavius. 1960. “From the Death of Alexander the Great to the Death of Judas Maccabeus.” In Complete Works of Flavius Josephus: The Antiquities of the Jews Grand Rapids, MI: Kegel Publications.
Paisios, Elder. Spiritual Counsels Vol. II: Holy Cross Monastery.
[i] The Temple kept the collections for the poor and widows but also served as a kind of bank for deposits. The rumor was that it had guarded huge sums of money. But Antiochus also pillaged the temples to pagan gods throughout his empire.