In an earlier post we developed a timeline for Paul’s ministry, demonstrating that the events we have read in a few chapters in Acts actually took years to occur. See the discussion of Galatians 1:15 – 2:9 in Chapter 7 — The Mystery Revealed. We’ll reconsider this passage in next week’s post. Paul’s statements to the Galatians describe a number of occasions on which he interacted with the Jerusalem apostles, none of which match the details of the passage we are now studying. To understand Acts 15 it must be considered in the context of these other visits if we are to grasp the details of the transition from Israel’s Kingdom program to the Age of Grace as it happens gradually throughout Acts.
In case you didn’t read the update on the Mysterious Grace’s home page this week, I’ll repeat part of those comments here. We need to step back for a moment and look at the forest before returning to analyzing the trees! ”A clear understanding of Acts 15 is critical to understanding the dispensation under which we are so privileged to live. Are we, as Gentiles (or Jews, for that matter) still under the Law of Moses or not? Is our salvation a mixture of faith and works? Must we approach God through Israel, or do we have direct access on the merits of grace?” There were apparently believers in Jerusalem who would answer these questions on the side of Moses Law, faith plus works, and access to God through Israel’s ceremonial traditions. Remember, the sect of the pharisees who went to Antioch that began this controversy were believing pharisees!
At the risk of being doubly redundant, here’s a quote from another earlier post — a promise I made to you months ago: “It’s important to note here that the believers who were scattered under the persecution [that began] when Stephen was martyred preached the Gospel only to fellow Jews. They were operating under the Great Commission, according to Israel’s prophetic promises and program! Once they began preaching to Gentiles, do you think they altered their message according to the revelations Paul had received? No! They hadn’t even met Paul yet! These new Gentile believers were under the same program as the Jerusalem church, unaware of the mystery that would be revealed through Paul. They were, in effect, a new breed of Jewish proselyte — they were what I will call messianic proselytes. It isn’t until Chapter 15 that we find these Gentile believers released from the Jewish rules and rituals of the Jerusalem church, at Paul’s urging.”
Let me clarify the term messianic proselytes. (1) They were Gentiles (Jews didn’t need to be proselytes). (2) They believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, that He had died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and that Israel’s leadership was responsible for His crucifixion (see Peter’s first messages after the Ascension.) (3) Their understanding of salvation and its ramifications was based on Israel’s Kingdom program (Christ had not yet revealed the Mystery to Paul or anyone else). Consequently their understanding of how to approach God was very Jewish.
The Jews had been trained since the days of Moses that approaching God could be very dangerous and must be done in very prescribed ways. David found this out when he tried to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Moses said that when Israel lived in the Promised Land, they must come to God at only one place — where the Tabernacle and the Ark were located in Shiloh, and then eventually at the Temple in Jerusalem. Worshiping God in the “groves” and the “top of every high place” was forbidden. Consequently we should not think it strange when believers before the revelation of the Mystery through Paul still think of coming to God through Jewish ritual.
Even Cornelius and his household anticipated that salvation had to come through association with Jewish religion. And indeed they did, for only Jews had the good news and a commission to dispense it. There was a stir within the Jerusalem church when Peter returned and reported that Gentiles too had been saved through faith in Christ, but the controversy had not yet extended to its next logical issue — do they have to be circumcised after believing for their salvation to “stick”? Then Paul and Barnabas go on their first missionary journey, converting Gentiles under the Mystery. There were Gentile believers all over southern modern-day Turkey who had little connection to Jewish ritual, and especially to the rituals of the Temple in Jerusalem. What’s more, the churches established by Paul in those regions were forged in the heat of Jewish rejection, and stood in opposition to the synagogues where Paul first preached in each community. Believers in those churches would not have had access to Jewish ritual such as circumcision, nor would they have wanted it. Whether or not it was clear to everyone then, God had engineered some major differences between Gentile believers, messianic Jews (believing Jews) and messianic proselytes. It is these differences that resulted in the events of Acts 15.
The Conclusion of the Matter
Acts 15:13 — “And after they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me.”
Whoa, wait a minute! I thought Peter was in charge in Jerusalem! Who is this James? It cannot be the Apostle James, for he was put to death by Herod back in Chapter 12! In fact, Peter himself refers to an obviously different James who was still alive after Herod tried to do the same thing to him and he was miraculously released from prison in Acts 12:17. Peter’s statement there clearly associates this James with the believers in Jerusalem — “Report these things to James and the brethren.”
The proper name “James” (Gr. Iakobo, also translated as “Jacob”) appears 39 times in the New Testament as follows:
- 19 times as James the son of Zebedee, brother of John
- 3 times as James the son of Alphaeus
- 9 times as James the half-brother of Jesus, son of Mary, also called James the Younger by Mark
Interestingly, Luke’s list of The Twelve differs by one person from that of Matthew and Mark. Luke identifies “Judas, son of James”, while Matthew and Mark identify this mismatched person as Thaddeus. Furthermore, Matthew says he has another name besides Thaddeus — Lebbaeus! Most commentators and Bible scholars think Thaddeus, Lebbaeus and Judas the son of James are the same person. It gets even more confusing when Luke identifies those in the Upper Room in Acts 1:13 to include James, the father of Judas. So Judas/Thaddeus/Lebaeus may have had both a father and brother named James. On top of that, Jude claims to be the “brother of James” (Jude 1). So that leaves us with six possibilities for the person of James.
While instructing the Corinthians about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, he says that He appeared to “James” separately from the Apostles. He could have meant separately from the remaining eleven apostles, or a different James than the two who were apostles (son of Zebedee and son of Alphaeus). Luke’s choice of words seem to me to indicate the latter. Of the remaining possibilities, James the half-brother of Jesus seems most likely to be the main player in Acts 15, Acts 21, the Book of James, Jude 1, and Galatians 2. Beyond the lists presented in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels and the first chapter in Acts, the name “James” is used without qualification, as if everyone knows which James they’re talking about. As the half-brother of Jesus he certainly would have been held in high esteem, even though he apparently was unassociated with Jesus’ earthly ministry. How and when he came to believe his half-brother was the Messiah is not revealed to us. Conventional theology assumes that the James who rose to authority in the Jerusalem church was the half-brother of Jesus, one of Mary’s several sons by Joseph, and (for a change) I have no reason to disagree with orthodoxy on this point.
In any case, James seems to be in the position to make the official declaration on the matter brought before the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.
James openly agrees with Peter’s position, and has an Old Testament quotation. ”After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the Tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, in order that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My Name…”
Yes, it’s a glorious quote, and we tend to get glassy-eyed as we read it. Try to set that aside and really think about what this quote describes! It is about the return of the Messiah as King of Israel to restore the Temple after its prophesied destruction. After its restoration the Gentiles who have associated themselves with the Hebrew God will be able to seek the Lord. Implied in this quote is that their seeking of the Lord will be at the restored Temple in Jerusalem, and that they will not be able to do so until the Temple is restored. What’s more, their worship will be on the basis of Temple practices. Surely this is true of the Gentile nations during the Millennial Kingdom after the Tribulation, but it is certainly not true today!
Now here’s the most important point — James’ expectation was that Gentile believers would someday join Israel in Jewish forms of worship, including the practice of Moses’ Law. Indeed, in Acts 21:20 he persuades Paul to take a Jewish vow to prove he is not teaching Jews to forego circumcision by telling him that there are thousands of believing Jews in Jerusalem who are all zealous for the Law. (We’ll consider this in more detail when we reach Chapter 21.)
James, however, agrees with Peter’s wisdom concerning circumcision and other rituals, and pronounces official judgement (the Greek word describes that which happens in a hearing). These are the points of his judgement:
- Gentile believers should not be forced to follow Jewish rituals.
- Gentile believers distance themselves from meat sacrificed to idols.
- Gentile believers should distance themselves from fornication.
- Gentile believers should distance themselves from anything strangled
- Gentile believers should distance themselves from blood.
His reason for not requiring more than this is that Moses’ Law has ample voice throughout the world in the synagogues of the Diaspora. What he has asked them to distance themselves from are the very things that made a practicing Jew unclean under Moses’ Law! Why would he still insist on these things? Because he believed that God would open the Temple to Gentiles when it was restored, and it was unthinkable that unclean Gentiles would be admitted. This is clearly Messianic Kingdom theology, based on Gentile nations being blessed through restored Israel, not in spite of unbelieving Israel. James’ theology did not understand the cleansing power of the blood of Christ as we do today. He was able to accept this lowering of the ceremonial standards because Moses’ Law was still upheld in the synagogues world-wide! Had he truly understood that Christ had taken the Law of Moses out of the way, nailing it to His cross, he would not have held to even these restrictions.
James’ perspective, his world view if you will, was also the perspective of the Twelve, the Council as a whole, and the Jerusalem church as a whole, for James speaks in their behalf from a position of authority. And this is right, for God intended the church in Jerusalem to be the beginnings of the Messianic Kingdom, with the tribulation following rapidly on its heels. God knew the future, however, and the rejection of Israel in spite of the Jerusalem church. So He raised up another way for Gentiles to access His very throne room, separate from Israel’s plan. This separate way, revealed only through Paul, is the Mystery that we proclaim today.
The Council puts James’ judgement in writing in a letter to the Antioch church, and send it with Paul, Barnabas, and two of their own “official emissaries”, Judas called Barsabbas and Silas. In the letter they greet the believers in Antioch (v23), disclaim the teaching of those who had gone to Antioch teaching the need for circumcision (v24), indicate their unity in their decision (v25a), introduce Judas and Silas (vv25b-28), mention the Holy Spirit’s agreement with their decision (v28), list the restrictions upon which they had decided (v29) and wish them well.
The Jerusalem church sent Paul, Barnabas, Judas and Silas on their way back to Antioch with the letter. On arrival in Antioch, they read the letter to the whole church, which resulted in rejoicing because it greatly encouraged them. Judas and Silas preached at length, adding their own personal encouragement and exhortation.
After “some time” the Antioch church was of a mind to send Judas and Silas back to Jerusalem, but Silas decided to remain in Antioch. Paul and Barnabas remained there also for some time teaching and preaching the Word of the Lord along with many others.
In the next post we will take a brief detour of other passages that relate to this event in Acts 15, and then in the following post we will embark on Paul’s second great missionary journey!