Acts 15:13-21 – James Emerges as a Leader

Saint JamesOne of the most interesting things about the Jerusalem meeting is that it is James who appears as a key leader and is described as rendering a decision on the matter of Gentiles and the Law (Acts 15:13-21). The structure of the Jerusalem community seems to center around elders, and James appears to be the leader of this group of elders. To take up a thread from earlier in the book, the Jerusalem community is living like a new Israel. In the early history of Israel, Moses led as a prophet, but through a council of 70 elders.

Within this community there are some who are “more conservative” with respect to the Law, primarily Pharisees (v.5). These Pharisees accept Jesus as the Messiah, but consider the Gentiles who are coming to Christ as a result of Paul’s mission as “joining Israel.” If the community thought of itself as new Israel, then Gentiles in Paul’s churches were like Gentiles who joined Israel in the Hebrew Bible. They ought to “convert” and accept Jewish Law and practice.

Luke intends his description of the meeting in Acts 15 to show to Theophilus that the church is an orderly independent entity that functions in a way that is similar to the Greco-Roman world. A question that effects the whole is presented to an assembly, which debates that issue and makes a decision that the whole accepts (Witherington, Acts, 451). Luke describes a report from Peter and Barnabas, explaining that the Holy Spirit has come upon Gentiles as it is the Jews at Pentecost, and that miracles are being done by the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles.

James states that it is not right to “trouble” the Gentiles with the Law. The verb παρενοχλέω is rare in the New Testament, only used in this passage. It does appears in 2 Macc 11:31 in a text describing the Jews being permitted to “enjoy their own food and laws” without being troubled by the Greek authorities. In that case, the Jews were not to be “troubled” over their keeping of boundary markers like circumcision or food laws, here in Acts the Gentiles are not to have the Law imposed upon them.

Perhaps James is the best to make the statement since he stands between the two parties, the Gentile Party represented by Paul, and the Circumcision party represented by the Pharisees. It is hard to know just how much “power” James has at this point, but the resolution seems to keep both sides happy.

I wonder if this solution really satisfied everyone, since Paul never (specifically) mentions it in his letters and he continues to have trouble with Judaizers.


10 thoughts on “Acts 15:13-21 – James Emerges as a Leader

  1. I do not think anyone was necessarily satisfied. Much as the theological debates of today, I think that many times people continue to stay within their ideas about how things should be. It is difficult to find middle ground. It appears that James is trying to find some sort of middle ground. He does this by stating that certain things ought to be kept by the gentiles but other things are unnecessary. He deals specifically with things that I think would have been quite offensive to Jewish Christians and so identifies that there was a sensitivity to the Jewish Christian’s consciences. I think that there were still people who were uncomfortable about the decision but it appears to be accepted as the letters were sent to the various churches in the area (15:30). The people appeared to not only accept the conditions but they appreciate them as verse 31 describes them as having rejoiced because the letter was encouraging to them.

  2. In class we have previously discussed the fact that it was not a problem for the Pharisee Christians to keep the law, that they could still be Christians and keep the law. The problem is when they require others, such as the Gentiles, to keep the law where Christianity does not require one to keep the law, such as circumcision. James lists some of the ‘items’ the Gentiles are to abstain from which correlate with the law, such as sexual immorality and idols (Acts 15:20). It appears that the whole assembly, Pharisees and Gentiles combined, agreed that they should “select men from among them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas”, along with with letters, to the churches to tell them what to abstain from and to encourage them (Acts 15:22). In the letter they even state: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements that you abstain from idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality”-circumcision nor anything else is listed in Acts 15: 28-29. Acts also states specifically in chapter 15: 22 that it seemed good to not only the apostles and the elders, but the whole church as well, that the letters be sent out. To me it is apparent that as a whole church they decided what would be best, and that at the time the solution satisfied everyone.

  3. It must have been very difficult for more conservative Jews of the day to accept the way Gentiles were coming to faith in Jesus. Pharisees who had dedicated their life to the law had incredibly strong feelings about Gentiles coming to believe in who they thought was only their God but not following the practices they grew up with. However, their lack of acceptance shows the fact that they truly didn’t understand the message brought by Paul and spoken by Jesus when He was on earth, or that they were simply unwilling to accept it yet. In The Book of the Acts, F.F Bruce explains the fact that some sort of parameters needed to be put in place, in order for Jews and Gentiles to be able to begin living and interacting with each other. “There remained, however, a practical problem. In most cities Gentile believers had to live alongside Jewish believers, who had been brought up to observe the levitical food restrictions and to avoid Gentiles as far as possible. If there was to be free association between these two groups, certain guidelines must be laid down… (F.F. Bruce, 295). Even though Paul will continue to face difficulties with Jews pushing the law on Gentiles, this situation really called for a compromise where the Jews allowed the Gentiles to live according to the way they were accustomed and the Gentiles having some sensitivity to the importance Jews placed on the law.

  4. Being a Jew and a Christian did not seem to be a problem, even if one was very emphatically a follower of Jewish traditions and the Law. So only when it became more important to focus on forcing Gentiles to follow the Jewish law (that was so closely tied to Christianity in their culture) did there come a problem. I think this issue did not just go away either, a debate that very well may have continued throughout the entire New Testament timeline, even with the understanding from Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that NOT of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast…”

    With a realization that this was an ongoing topic, it amazes me to realize that their eating laws wife held on the same level of importance (well, maybe not quite – just from what we know and can see in the Bible) as circumcision. James seems to be one of the leading members, if not the head of the church, perhaps simply a peaceful elder who spoke often, and was respected for his opinion in the synagogues. Whatever the case, I think from what we know of Paul’s writings, though not mentioned specifically, the resolution may have settled the leaders, but not the debate as a whole.

  5. I’m not sure whether or not this verdict by James pleased everyone, but it seems like the people decided to go along with it nonetheless. If you look at 15:28-29, the leaders essentially copy and paste James’ words into the message to the people in Antioch. What I find interesting is that, although James is the one whose view is accepted, the message to Antioch says that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you” (28). So either these men just accepted James’ words as Truth, or they spent some time in prayerful deliberation before they sent this message to Antioch. Either way, this message reaches the church in Antioch in an encouraging, up-building way that blesses them, and fits well with Paul’s later teachings.

  6. To echo Mary’s point, not one decision is going to satisfy or rectify any debate. It’s much like the denominational differences of churches today. What James also says correlates to the prophet Amos. Between destruction and restoration, Amos claims that “all nations would bear my name” (Amos 9:12). But in this case, James looks to understand and not make the same mistake as what happened in the Exile period. Again, everyone may not be satisfied with James’s decision, but the fact is that some sort of decision had to be made, and someone had to stand up for that judgement to be made.

  7. I think that to truly know whether or not everyone was satisfied with the compromise given on both sides would be hard to know. For me personally I think that there will always be someone who doesn’t agree with the outcome and thinks it should be one way or another. Though if I had to side with a group I would choose with the Gentiles because of two reasons.
    One reason would be that the Gentiles would never grew up in a strict culture like the Jews did and if they were to join in the culture just to fill the satisfaction of “the Law” then they would just eventually give up. The reason I think they would eventually give up is because they would be doing a meaningless tasks and then it would become just a list of requirements instead of a relationship with the Son of God.
    Plus, another reason is they would be filling the requirements of man and not of God. The requirements of God are believing that Christ can take our place for forgiving our sins and giving us new life through his death and resurrection as the Son of God. If the Gentiles were to take on “the Law” they would be trying to get saved through works and not through the grace and mercy of Christ.

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