In the light of John 4: 20–24, how could Paul claim before Felix that “I went up to worship at Jerusalem” (Acts 24: 11)?
The Scriptures are now complete with the final truths being recorded by Paul (see Col. 1: 25). While John wrote later, his ministry, however, is on the line of recovery rather than revealing what is essentially new. The difficulty expressed in the question is largely of the questioner’s own making. The assumption that is made is that we can take what we now know and apply it to those who lived before that revelation was complete and expect them to act in accordance with it.
Let us consider John 4 first. John begins his Gospel by viewing the Lord as already rejected by Israel, as John 1: 11 indicates. In keeping with this rejection, we find that the Lord “left Judaea and went away again unto Galilee”, followed by the telling words “And he must needs pass through Samaria” (John 4: 3, 4). This is the setting. Yet though rejected and away from Judaea, He nonetheless defends the inherent rights of that nation saying to the Samaritan woman “Ye worship ye know not what; we worship what we know, for salvation is of the Jews” (v22)—a salvation yet to be realised by Israel when their rejected Messiah comes in glory. The pretence of Samaria was a rival religion based on the Pentateuch alone and centred on Mount Gerezim. However, the days of both Jerusalem and Gerezim were numbered as centres of worship, for the Lord declared that “[the] hour is coming when ye shall neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem worship the Father” (v21). But what was then historically future, was already morally present for He also went on to say “But [the] hour is coming and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth” (v23, my emphasis). As ever, what is recorded in John’s Gospel, anticipates the present time. Worship would be “in spirit” in contrast to the legality that characterised Judaism and “in truth” in contrast to the false pretence of Samaria. But the actual words yield even more instruction for our souls, for in Greek when two nouns are linked by a conjunction (“and”), the second noun (“truth”) can be taken adjectively to intensify the meaning of the first (“spirit”). In English this can be expressed by saying ‘that worship of the Father by the true worshippers shall be truly spiritual’. This is what we should have now in Christianity, though sadly much of what is offered as worship is little more than modified Judaism.
Coming now to Acts, we must ever remember that throughout the history detailed there, Israel was still a nation, still publicly owned of God, Jerusalem stood, the temple continued to function, the priesthood operated and the sacrifices were still offered. Yes, the Assembly was also there but the distinctions between Jew and Gentile were still upheld as is clear from Acts 15. There is as yet no concept of the Assembly as the one body, with Gentile and Jew having equal status. In a word, Acts is a transitional book and the events recorded in it must be interpreted with that in mind. Accordingly, we read of the occasion in question that Paul “hastened, if it was possible for him, to be the day of Pentecost at Jerusalem” (Acts. 20: 16). He told Felix not only that “I went up to worship at Jerusalem” (Acts 24: 11) but also “after a lapse of many years I arrived, bringing alms to my nation, and offerings” (v17). His position as a prisoner followed his acceding to the advice of James to pay the expenses of four men who had taken a Jewish vow “and be purified with them” (see Acts 21: 21–24). All of this belongs to Judaism, not the present truth of Christianity. Now going up to Jerusalem to worship is clearly in conflict with John 4: 23. Did Paul err? No, for Israel was not as yet set aside by God. Paul was a Jew and during this transitional period of the Acts as he reminds us in 1 Cor. 9: 20 (an epistle written during that period) “I became to the Jews as a Jew, in order that I might gain the Jews: to those under law, as under law, not being myself under law, in order that I might gain those under law”. Hence such actions, while wrong now, were perfectly in order then. Immediately after his imprisonment at Jerusalem, we read “But the following night the Lord stood by him,” words surely confirming rather than criticising his previous actions. Not only that, the Lord went on to say that “for as thou hast testified the things concerning me at Jerusalem, so thou must bear witness at Rome also” (Acts. 23: 11). This would be the final testimony to Israel, given to the leaders of the Jewish dispersion, as recorded in Acts 28. On that occasion the judgment of Is. 6: 9, 10 is quoted for the last time in the NT, thus sealing that nation’s fate. Then, and only then, is the way open for the present truth of the one body, as recorded in the prison epistles, to be made known with its accompanying truly spiritual worship independent of place.