We have noted several unanticipated characteristics of the Jerusalem church at the time of the council meeting of Acts 15:
- James, the half brother of Jesus, has risen to a position of authority over the elders and apostles, although he is not one of the men chosen by Christ to “reign over the twelve tribes of Israel” in the Kingdom (not one of The Twelve).
- A subculture of believing pharisees has been allowed to persist in the Jerusalem church that actively teaches that believers must be circumcised to be saved
- The theology of the Jerusalem church continues to anticipate the prophetic restoration of David’s Kingdom, expecting believing Gentile worshipers to participate in Jewish Temple ceremony as proselytes.
- The Antioch church considers itself to be under the authority of the Jerusalem church, desiring the approval of the Jerusalem elders and apostles for the theology and work of Paul and Barnabas.
We might also assert that there are differences between these two churches in their commission and in the content of their message, although it has little to do with the passage at hand other than to illustrate the mindset of each church. Consider Peter’s message to Cornelius (a Gentile) in Acts 10:34-43, which ends with “And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” Compare this to Paul’s message to the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13:15-41, which concludes with “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.” Peter, the Apostle to the Jews and initial leader of the Jerusalem church, has not arrived at an understanding that Christ has taken the Law of Moses out of the way, while Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles goes beyond Peter’s message to Cornelius, and asserts this truth, even to a Jewish audience! We should not be surprised, then, to find elements of the Law remaining in the Jerusalem church’s theology — and rightly so, for the Jerusalem church and her leaders are the embodiment of the church during the Millennial Kingdom, the keepers and vendors of access to God in those days to come. But that program has been temporarily set aside so that the mystery hidden in other ages might be brought in — that Gentiles and Jews alike have direct access to God through one mediator on an equal footing, and without the Law of Moses and its ceremonial requirements. This is the heart of the difference between the Great Commission which anticipated the Kingdom, and Paul’s greater commission concerning the mystery of the Age of Grace.
So is there any evidence that these attitudes and theology actually persisted in the Jerusalem church? Indeed, I have alluded to three such passages before and we will discuss two of them again here. I’ll not go through them verse by verse, but ask that you refresh your memory by reading them for yourself again as we consider each one.
Galatians 1:15 – 2:14
Paul presents a chronology of his interaction with the leaders in the Jerusalem church for the benefit of his converts in Galatia, who are in danger of forsaking their freedom in Christ to go back under the legalism of Moses’ Law. Notice that the visit after fourteen years is markedly different in every aspect from Luke’s description in Acts 15. These are not the same event, in spite of what the section headings in your Bible might say! To say that they are would require us to make Luke — and the Holy Spirit who inspired both Paul and Luke as they wrote — liars! This cannot be tossed off as differences between Paul’s and Luke’s writing styles, for both authors are decidedly factual in these passages.
Representatives with James’ authority (which James denied in Acts 15) described by Paul as “the party of the circumcision” have come to Antioch and created a controversy. Paul’s language in v6 suggests that Paul’s mindset at the writing of the letter to the Galatians was one of independence from the leadership in Jerusalem, considering himself to be of equal authority and not bowing to their “reputation”. He clearly distinguishes his role from that of James, Peter and John as a minister to the Gentiles, while they minister to the “circumcised.” What’s more, this passage indicates that it was only James, Peter and John who gave Paul “the right hand of fellowship” concerning these differences, and not the whole leadership of the Jerusalem church.
The requirements to be placed on Gentile believers in Acts 15 were very specific — no circumcision, but don’t do what would make one “unclean.” Here in Galatians the requirements are only to remember the poor. Clearly the events of Acts 15 are not included in Paul’s chronology in Galatians!
As time passes we discover that even though James, Peter and John gave approval to Paul for his message and ministry, James persists in supporting “the party of the circumcision.” (Remember, this is by God’s design, as the Jerusalem church was created as the prototype of Millennial Kingdom churches, which would see the restoration of Temple worship. That has not changed.)
This passage is pivotal in the ministry of Paul. He has just completed his third missionary journey and is on his way to Jerusalem with a contribution for the poor from the Gentile churches he has founded. He has been a reasonably free man, travelling wherever the Spirit has led him. The events in this passage change all of that — from here on, Paul is a prisoner of the Roman government.
Paul himself is not only a Jew but a Pharisee. Even though he has become the Apostle to the Gentiles, he still has a heart for his own nation. (See Romans 9:1-5) He has hurried at the end of his most recent missionary travels to reach Jerusalem before Pentecost (Acts 20:16). I believe Pentecost was important to Paul for two reasons. (1) It was a traditional Jewish Old Testament feast that, as a Pharisee, he wished to honor. I described in detail in the posts concerning Acts 2 the traditional requirements upon practicing Jews to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the high feasts, no matter where in the world they lived. (2) Pentecost was the historical “point of origin” of the Jerusalem church. Paul would later write “One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5) So we know that as the Apostle to the Gentiles observance of the High Feasts was meaningless. But Paul also wrote “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law.” (I Corinthians 9:19-20).
There is some controversy among Bible scholars concerning why Paul ran the risk of going to Jerusalem in spite of prophetic warnings (Acts 21:11), and particularly why did the great Apostle to the Gentiles take a Jewish vow. Did he disobey the Holy Spirit in doing so? Was it all part of God’s grand plan, whereby we have the Prison Epistles? Was Paul’s ministry throttled thereafter, or magnified? Regardless of which of these positions might be taken, I believe that Paul’s statements in I Corinthians 9:19-20 (quoted above), even though it was written in the middle of the second missionary journey years before the incident in the Temple in Acts 21, is a clear and concise explanation for why Paul persisted in this dangerous enterprise. He certainly had reason to believe that God would protect him from whatever the unbelieving Jews might dish out. More importantly, it precisely answers Paul’s reason for taking a Jewish vow — to “win those who are under the Law.”
In any case, Luke describes their arrival. Lodging was arranged, fellowship was enjoyed, but no official business was conducted on the first day (vv15-17). The next day Paul, Luke, Mnason, and unnamed others went to the leaders of the Jerusalem church. Luke’s wording is that they “went in… to James”, and coincidentally all of the elders were present. Why doesn’t Luke mention the Apostles? Were they included among the “elders”? (If so, had they been “demoted” in the eyes of the Jerusalem church?) Were they absent, perhaps scattered because of persecution? Or were they simply not included in this visit? Again, why would Paul go to James and not Peter or John?
Paul relates the details of his most recent work among the Gentiles to James and the elders (v19). Their response was to “glorify God” (Gr. doxadzo, to recognize God as the power behind Paul’s work), AND, as if in reply, to draw his attention to “many thousands… among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law.” It’s almost as if Paul’s description of how many thousands of the Gentiles had believed had to be countered with something better — equal numbers of converts with the added feature that they were zealous for the Law! I’m seriously reading between the lines here, but it seems to me that there is room for the possibility that there was a little jealousy and competition going on!
The leaders go on to tell Paul that he is known to the Jerusalem church in a negative light, as one who teaches Jews everywhere to forsake the Law of Moses, especially when it comes to circumcision. This is a very explosive situation (they are, after all, zealous) that needs to be nipped in the bud. They recommend a public demonstration that Paul also is zealous for the Law by having him join with four other men in a Jewish vow, proving that Paul himself still “walk[s] orderly, keeping the Law.” (v24)
They address his relationship and teaching concerning the Gentiles as unrelated to Paul’s need to take this vow, and remind him only of the exact terms that were stated in Acts 15 concerning Gentile requirements. But of course Paul himself is not only a Jew but a Pharisee as well. And so, IMHO, takes the vow in fulfillment of his desire to make himself all things to all men that he might win the more.
The threat of violence from believing Jews who were zealous for the Law was very real. It needed to be defused. Paul did what needed to be done in the context of the Jerusalem church. Interestingly, part of the vow involved a sacrifice being made for each of the participants at the end of the seven days of purification (v26). Had Paul forgotten that the Sacrifice of Christ at Calvary had ended the need for all further sacrifices? I doubt it, but he was willing to participate in the hope that he might “win the more.” (This was, after all, not a sacrifice to some pagan god, but to the God of both the Jews and the Gentiles, the one true God.) I believe that Paul was fully within his “rights” to reach out to his own race in this manner, and it was not a mistake.
In the end, the trouble in the Temple didn’t arise from believing Jews, but Jews from Asia who had opposed Paul throughout his missionary journeys. These Jews didn’t appeal to believing Jews, but “men of Israel”. No doubt Paul’s participation in this vow did indeed stand him in good stead with believing Jews. It was Paul’s opposition on his missionary journeys that got him in the end!
Now pay attention! The important thing here for the moment is NOT controversies over whether Paul should have gone to Jerusalem or not, or whether he should have taken a Jewish vow or not. It is the window on the nature of the Jerusalem church that is important. It is very different from the churches Paul founded among the Gentiles — of which the churches of today are an extension. (1) It includes many thousands of Jewish believers. (2) They are zealous practitioners of Moses’ Law. (3) Their practice of their faith in Christ is (a) Temple-centered, (b) includes traditional vows of purification, and (c) attains purification by animal sacrifice.
Nothing could be further from our understanding of what Christ accomplished at Calvary, as witnessed by innumerable New Testament passages in all of the epistles, whether from Paul or others! What has happened to the Jerusalem church? I believe that it had irreversibly entered into what it will be once again when the Temple is rebuilt during the Great Tribulation — and that God intended it to do so.
We can legitimately ask, “Just what is it that these Jewish believers believe? Is it the same things that we believe?” The contrast between Jewish and Gentile “believers” could not be more stark or troubling than at the 21st chapter of Acts! This is especially troubling since the Jerusalem church was created under the Twelve (men hand-chosen by Christ) operating under the Great Commission. Did the Jerusalem church “backslide” to a state similar to what the church in Galatia faced, incurring a severe scolding from Paul for “having begun by the Spirit, [were] now being perfected by the flesh?” No indeed. They were carrying out the prophesied consequences of the Great Commission in obedience to God and the Holy Spirit for them but not for us!
Jewish believers believed…
- Jesus of Nazareth was the prophesied, long-anticipated Messiah
- Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified, buried, and arose from the dead as proof that He was the Son of God
- In so doing, He had made it possible for their sins to be forgiven
- Jesus of Nazareth ascended into Heaven, witnessed by his disciples
- Jesus of Nazareth would return with the armies of Heaven to restore David’s kingdom and reign over the earth through Israel for a thousand years
- The Great Tribulation stood between them and the Millennial Kingdom
- They should await these events in Jerusalem
- They should maintain their purity by continuing to practice Moses’ Law
Gentile believers believed…
- Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God
- Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified, buried, and arose from death to life
- In God’s eyes they had been in Christ in His death, burial and resurrection
- In so doing, their sins had been forgiven
- They would be preserved from tribulation
- Their future was in Heaven, eternally in the presence of God
- To desire to practice Moses’ Law was to deny the complete efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary to satisfy the Law
The differences could not be clearer. The first list above precisely fulfills the expectations of the Great Commission. The second list precisely fulfills the commission of the mystery revealed to Paul, which temporarily has supplanted the expectations of the Jerusalem church. Someday the program of the Jerusalem church will be reinstated, but that day is not today (well, at least not at the moment of this writing — it could happen anytime). The day of the Jerusalem church and her Great Commission have passed into waiting, while the Age of Grace is fully in action.