Acts 21 – James and the Law

I am still thinking about James, especially as he appears in Acts 21.  While this might seem a bit afield from Acts and Pauline theology, I think that James is a bit of a window into why Paul’s gospel was so radical in the first century, especially his declaration that Gentiles are saved apart from the Law.

James the JustJames seems to represent a Jewish Christianity which continues to keep the Law in a way that fulfills Matthew 5:20.  If one was to be a part of the kingdom of God, then one kept the whole Law.  The idea that the people of God need to be absolutely Holy when the messiah comes is found at Qumran.  The people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls seemed to have lived in a state of Temple Purity all of the time, a state which the priest who was serving in the Temple had to maintain.  Even the Pharisees maintained a higher level of purity than was required by the Law, although this may not have been in anticipation of the kingdom.

It is possible that the emphasis on circumcision and food laws which were so troublesome in the Galatian churches is a result of the Second Temple period emphasis on Works of the Law, boundary markers which defined who was a Jew and who was not.

Using the book of Acts and the letter James wrote, we can see that James was associated with the most Jewish form of Christianity which remained based in Jerusalem.  In Acts 15 James leads a church which includes Pharisees and priests (probably the same people, many priests were also Pharisees).  Like Paul, these men came to understand that Jesus was the Messiah and that he would return soon to judge the world and Israel and establish the Kingdom of God in Jerusalem.

There was a broad range of views on the status of the Gentiles in the coming kingdom in the Second Temple period.  For the most part, the gentiles would either be converted and included in that kingdom, or judged and excluded from that kingdom.  Some Jews thought there would be more or less mass conversions, but on the other end of the extreme, few if any gentiles would be converted (and probably most Jews would be excluded!)

When Paul arrives in Jerusalem in Acts 21, the issue James raises has to do with Paul’s keeping of the Law.  Some in Jerusalem think that Paul has left Judaism and no longer keeps the Law.  So even at this late date, James represents a group in Jerusalem who are Christians, but are keeping the Law.

Was Law a requirement for salvation for the Jewish believers in Jesus?  Probably not, although it is inconceivable to this group that there would be Jews who did not want to keep the Law.  Keeping the Law is the only possible response to the grace which God has given – how could you not demonstrate your justification by doing the things which God requires?  By way of analogy, there are many Baptist churches which would agree that baptism is not a requirement for salvation, but it is inconceivable that anyone who was truly a Christian would not get baptized. It is simply the natural thing to do, if you have become a Christian.  So too the Law, if you were a Jewish believer, you simply did the Law because it was the proper response to God’s grace.

Back to Paul.  I think that Paul would agree with James on Jewish use of the Law.  Where he differed (radically) was that Gentiles did not convert to Judaism in order to be “right with God,” and therefore were not required to do the Law.  James, on the other hand, likely though that Gentiles were in fact converting to Judaism, or at the very least ought to be under the sojourner laws while living in The Land (the point of Acts 15).

21 thoughts on “Acts 21 – James and the Law

  1. I like the connection that you made between the relationship between baptism and the baptist churches and between Jewish believers and the law. There were probably still a number of Jews who thought of the law as part of salvation, just as there are some strict baptist churches who believe that baptism is part of salvation. However, the majority of churches do it because it is more of a symbolic representation of one’s faith. It makes sense that they would keep the law as a part of their lives because that was habit and the law wasn’t a bad thing for the Jews. Paul kept the law in his life. It still confuses me as to why Paul was so negative of the law when talking to the Gentiles. Just like there were Jews who most likely still thought of the law as part of salvation, there were also thousands of Jews who were zealous of the law after they were converted (Acts 21:20-21). How does Paul react to this being said by the “brothers and sisters” (Acts 21:17-25)?

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    • Nice observation Jake. Paul definitely has tact in his approach to the Gentiles. It seems like he doesn’t want to make waves (at least when the waves would be counterproductive to proclaiming the gentile’s freedoms). He is definitely practicing what he wrote in 1 Cor. 9.

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  2. The Law was very difficult to uphold. There was an incredible amount of time and effort put into following every single thing that it talked about, and this difficulty made the religion tangible. When you are doing something for God it feels right, almost like you are showing appreciation for what he has done, or giving up something for him. So the Jews loved the law, because it was the outworking of their faith. Their gift to God in gratitude was following the law. So when Paul comes in and preaches that the Gentiles do not need to keep the law, it threw the Jews for a loop. They must have wondered how Christians could live as God’s children, and yet not have the distinctive lifestyle of following the law. It seemed to the legalistic Jews that it was not possible to be a Christian without showing it through the law, or through their actions. But Paul says that it is by grace alone that they are saved, and so they were not obligated to follow any rules or regulations. Through this we will find that many Gentiles wanted to follow those laws, but it was not out of obligation. Paul is trying to get his gospel to the world, and in doing do making his gospel appealing. If he said to a bunch of pagan’s “follow Jesus Christ, by the way you have to follow this set of 600 rules!” there would be absolutely no converts. He wanted to make sure that the people saw that there was no conditions or strings attached to his gospel, in order to make the biggest impact on the world.

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  3. Reading this post has really opened my mind, so that I could see through the eyes of the Jews. I loved the analogy between following the Law and the Baptist churches following baptism even though it is not required. The Jews had been given the Law to follow as a way to reestablish a broken relationship with God. They had the Law for such a long time and especially at this time in history most were following the law to the dot. “Even the Pharisees maintained a higher level of purity than was required by the Law, although this may not have been in anticipation of the kingdom.” (P. Long) They had even gone to such an extreme of following the Law, that they were missing the point of worshiping God which Jesus pointed out in his ministry. They were doing it out of a ritual instead of trying to have a relationship with God. Part of their job was to attract the rest of the world to their mighty nation so that they would come to know God. So when Paul came saying that the gentiles did not have to follow the law these Jews were puzzled. All that they had been taught and lived for was being changed as the gentiles did not need the law for salvation. I understand why so many wanted the gentiles to follow the law, and it is even like Paul says in 1 Cor. 6:12 “I have the right to do anything,” you say–but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”–but I will not be mastered by anything.” Everyone had the right to do anything but obviously they were not going to start to do the opposite and abuse of God’s grace. It is the same for Christians today, we could do what we want but because of our thankfulness and belief in God we want to follow what he says. I think the same way with following what I have been taught and what I learn from the Bible. The Jews obviously where thinking the same way when this radical change came!

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  4. James and Paul met again in Jerusalem to talk about whether the Gentiles need to keep the Law. Many Jews were wondering if Paul was keeping the Law. The Gentiles were never under the Law. In Acts 15, Paul and James established the fact that because the Gentiles had never kept the Law, there was not a need for them to begin abiding by it. They have salvation by believing Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection alone. Keeping the Law was not necessary anymore for the Jews to show their relationship with Christ either. The Law showed the Jews their sin and that they needed Christ. In Acts 21, the Jews were keeping the Law because that is what they had always done. Dr. Long points out, “…It is inconceivable to this group that there would be Jews who did not want to keep the Law” (“James and the Law” post). The Jews kept the Law because they wanted to. As Christians today, we trust Christ for our salvation. It is by His grace that we can have a relationship with Him. Christians are not under the Law. They are under grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

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  5. I think too that Paul would have agreed with James that it was a good thing for the converted Jews to continue maintaining the law but it is also quite clear that he does not hold the same standards for the Gentile Christians. I find this interesting because I see no reason why the Gentile Christians keeping the law would not be beneficial to them and their faiths. I would conclude then that really what Paul is after is keeping any Jewish practice, circumcision mainly, from getting in the way of a Gentile believing in Christ. Circumcision was obviously a very painful thing for a grown male to go through and we see examples in the New Testament, such as Cornelius, that were God fearers but didn’t take the final step of circumcision and food laws. Paul wants to be sure that these Jewish practices aren’t forced upon Gentiles, hindering their belief.

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  6. There are many times today we do things because we feel that it is the proper response to God’s grace, just like the example P.Long gave with baptism. Many people today still undergo spiritual disciplines that are not required for salvation such as solitude, fasting, chastity, and stewardship. And these spiritual disciplines can be beneficial because they help us to understand God’s will, learn to be obedient, and learn to control freedom. But there is a balance between discipline and dependence that is needed; their relations ship should be circular. If an individual relies too much on disciples, their mind-set could be based upon human-effort, or if the individual is too dependent on God their attitude can become too passive. But in the right heart it becomes circular, the more disciplined we are, the more I realized it is not me it is God, the more I realize I need to respond to him through disciplines. But it is important to remember, like 1 Corinthians 9:19 tells us, we need to train for the race.

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  7. Then website continues to frusterate me! For the third time this year it erased my comment when i clicked the post button!!!!

    Anywho, the comment that I had posted sounded something like this. I think that Paul let the Jewish Christians continue to follow the law because it was just easier to do that way. The Jewish Christians were not opposing the Gospel by following the law so why would Paul feel a need to tell them that what they were doing was wrong. In fact, if he had done that, then he probably would have caused quite the outrage! Equally, if Paul had said that Gentiles had to follow the law then there would have been an outrage amoung them! Not to mention that he would be spreading false lies. So, it seems like Paul took the middle route and let everyone do what they thought was best, instead of trying to get everyone to do things the “perfect” way!

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  8. There is a reason why this group of people are called Jewish Christians. Obviously they were Christians, but with a Jewish heritage. For people who belonged to nation and family that knew only of following the Law, it’s going to be no different for the next generation. Upholding the Law was a way of life. Not only was it a way of life for the Jews but it was biblical. The Torah is very clear about the importance of the Law. And the Jews didn’t believe the Law to be some kind of a burden – “Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you (Deuteronomy 6:3). For the most part, the Jews understood why God has given them the Law. Not to give them a long list of rules but for their benefit. For Gentiles who have never lived with the Law, living like a Jew seems bizarre. Why would anyone take the time and effort to fulfill all of those commands? For a Gentile who had never experienced anything like that before, the Law would be a burden just as Peter says, “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? (Acts 15:10). For most Jews, there is no other option than to follow the Law whether they have already received the grace of God or not. For most Gentiles, following the Law is a burden, and there is especially no reason to ever follow the Law if they are made righteous in the eyes of God through the receiving of Jesus Christ as Lord.

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  9. As I was reading the post about, I immediately thought of baptism, even before it was mentioned. The fact that James continues to be an avid follower of the law shows his devotion toward his faith. Devotion is not all that matters. People with wrong theology can be devoted and be completely out of line with the truth. When James is following the law, I believe it is his way of showing his devotion to God. I don’t see a problem, however with them keeping the law. Many people say that they believed in salvation by works, but they understood that animal sacrifices were a temporary propitiation for their sin. They understood that God was the one who saved, not the act of killing an animal. However this law would not mean what it meant to the Jews to a Gentile. They would not understand the ramification and personal impact of what practicing the law was about.

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  10. The keeping of the Law was a natural response to Jews. They did it their entire lives, so why stop now? Just because the believed the Gospel did not mean that they should stop keeping the Law. Jesus did not come to eradicate the Law, so why should the Jews do away with the Law? The only difference is now they are not relying on the Law for their salvation. They continue in the Law because they are responding to the grace God has granted them, as P. Long said. I wonder, however, what the Gentiles do. If they are not required to follow the Law, then how do they respond to God’s grace? The Law would give a template for the Gentiles to follow, a starting point, if you will. Granted, the Law would be a burden to the Gentiles, as it was not given to them. The Gentiles would then have to find some way to respond to God. They probably started taking care of the poor and orphans and widows like Jesus said.

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    • Yes, I’m late
      One of the most insightful things about the Law of Moses is it’s like when a child gets caught smoking and his father locks him in the closet and makes him smoke a whole pack till he’s thoroughly sick and never wants to smoke again.

      Man’s idea of having favor with God is through ritual, sacrifice, and strict law keeping. Virtually every religion man has devised includes these ideas and the Law of Moses, as opposed to the Abrahamic Covenant, seems to be Six hundred and thirteen cigarettes all to be smoked by every Jew until mankind finally gets the message that Faith and mercy alone through Messiah is all God requires.

      Some actually miss the entire point and saw Faith was added to the Law(works) and this was the revolutionary insight. Every religion has faith for crying out loud. Deity is unseen. Faith is precisely what all religions are. The mystery of the Gospel was the works –The law– we’re nailed to the cross along with the very debt that causes man to build systems of religion to begin with.

      Yes, the Jewish Christians were following a sort of hybrid Christianity in diapers and James had a tough job, was a true Martyr, but I can’t help but think, at least early in the game, that he couldn’t fully grasp what we all have trouble grasping…. works count zero towards salvation and I read his letter, addressed to Jews in which many if not all still following the Law as more Historical than doctrinal. His example of “believe” is not even in Christ but the Jewish schema God is One.

      Paul has the gospel to the Gentiles of which we are and I’d rather read James along with his other actions in the NT in context of history instead of sounding like the parrots of inerrancy who fall all over themselves doing scriptural gymnastics trying to fit James’ 6 sentences over Paul’s mountain of Grace through Faith. It’s painful to watch commentators write a letter longer than Romans to harmonize a few sentences by James.
      It seems the Jews needed to see the Temple come down as Christ predicted to thoroughly appreciate that the New Covenant completely abolished the Old.

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  11. Like said in the article, James seemed to believe in a more Jewish Christianity along with others in Jerusalem. Although they now believed they were saved through grace, they still tried to hold onto the idea of Matthew 5:20. I can see the reasoning behind it since that is what they have always known. Even though now they know they are saved by grace they continue to carry the law out of respect for the grace God has given them. In a way, I actually agree with this. If one becomes a Christian he should try to live a holy, Christian filled life and not sin. I think some take advantage of grace, almost as if they have a grace credit card they can swipe every time they mess up. This is wrong; one should be trying their best to live out a Christian lifestyle. However, I do think they need to hold it to the standards that James and the other Jewish Christians did regarding following the law completely. It does not make sense to continue following the law in the way that they did because the whole reason Jesus came was to break the curse of the law and allow us to be saved by grace. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:14).” This idea also ties in with the idea of the Gentiles. I do not believe they had to follow the law such as James did, but they should be following a new, converted Christian lifestyle.

    I do not know how true this is but something I got after reading this article is the correlation between a lot of individuals telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem and then him meeting up with James. Even if the people of Jerusalem did not realize it at the time, this would be a scary place for Paul to venture to because that law mindset had not been broken yet like it needed to be. I think Paul knew this and that is why he was willing to go even if he knew it meant his own death. “Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 21:13).”

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  12. James and all believers are saved by grace and it is important to understand that it is where they put their value. Many of the Jews knew their calling and purpose in life but they also carried out the law in order to keep honor always going towards God. We should always strive to be more active with God and always strive to bring Him glory and honor. We will face times when we do not understand and we lay at God’s feet in tears and pain because we have no way or no answer. But we have to understand that God is the way. We all overlook what great splendor God has given us and what he is constantly doing for us. We always have God we can run to. He is the one who provides a way and an answer. We week HIm when we need to understand the ways of life. We should not allow people’s opinions to overcome our life. We should not let the speech of other humans to lead us astray from God and our purpose.

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  13. 4/10
    This post led me to think about all the things that we tend to do even though they are not necessary to do anymore. We do things based on tradition or don’t even realize that we do them because we are so accustomed to them. I love how accurate the analogy given by Dr. Long, of the Baptists who still do water baptism even though it has nothing to do with salvation. Why? It is part of their display of an inward change. I think that this can be confusing to people who are unfamiliar with the Christian practice. (They could think that it is what allows you to be saved) despite the confusion it could create, they continue to do it. It is the same for the Jews who after learning that we are no longer subject to the law, they still choose to follow the law because that is what they were taught and it was all they knew. Before Christ died and rose again, the people kept the law because it was their way to know wrong from right and live righteously. Now, this is no longer needed because Jesus conquered this by dying in our place. Ephesians 2: 8-9 states it incredibly well that we are saved through grace and not works! We are not under the Law anymore and yet still we should be challenged to live lives that are above reproach. We are called to a higher standard of living because we have Christ and the Holy Spirit in our lives. How important it is to always be aware of this and not take for granted what Christ did in our place the day He died for us.

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  14. James appeared to believe in a Christianity that was more Jewish and this was common with some others that were in Jerusalem. Many of the people that were with James, knew that they were saved through grace from Jesus dying on the cross. However, many of them tried to keep holding onto the idea of following the Law. They tried to keep following the Law because they wanted to respect God and the grace that he had given them. They also kept following the Law because it was something that they had been doing their entire lives. I feel like this would be okay if they made sure to keep in their minds that the Law is not what saved them. Jesus is what saved them. They would have to constantly be conscious of their reasonings for follow the Law. If they were following the Law for any reasons besides out of respect for God and His grace, then they would need to reevaluate their reasons for following the Law.

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  15. At the heart of the Jewish Christian’s frustration with the Gentile believers was the fact that they believed the Gentile faith was a watered-down version of their own; albeit one with far fewer requirements. Because of this, the Jewish Church, led by James, felt removed from the work of Paul and Gentile Christians. Paul dissension from the Law led many Jewish Christians to believe he was preaching a different Gospel from the one they were saved in. The trouble in all this was that the Jewish Christians couldn’t look at the Gospel of Jesus without looking through the lens of Judaism. Being the faith they had grown up in, Judaism served as a guideline to which their faith was directed. Furthermore, the Gospel that they had been given was not expressed as a rejection of Judaism, but as the fulfillment of the Jewish faith! Had Peter and the other disciples presented Jesus’ work as separate from Judaism it would have been met with extreme opposition by the Jews. Ironically, it is the work of a former Pharisee that promotes such opposition. The work of Paul, while not directly opposing the Law, provides an understanding of the Gospel outside the lens of Judaism; something unacceptable from a Jewish perspective. The confusion that arises between the Gentile and Jewish Christians is focused on what exactly they were converting to and from. If you were to ask a Jewish Christian in the early church what he converted from the answer would be nothing. He would not view himself as a convert but rather as a Jew; that is, a Jesus-following Jew. On the other hand, asking a Gentile Christian what he converted from could result in many possible answers. In the same way, asking either a Jew or a Gentile what they were converting to would result in a number of different answers. This was made increasingly confusing by the work of Apollos and earlier John the Baptist; two groups that found established by their teachings. Therefore, the Law, while crucial to the faith of the Jewish believers, was disconnected from the faith of the Gentile Christians.

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  16. James, a great man. He was a leader that worked hard trying to balance the law. This was a struggle for this time as they looked to what made a Jew and what was traditional practice. At this time James was leading a church to many priests and Pharisees, they understood the truth of Jesus as the Messiah. When Paul came to visit them in Acts 21, many rumors were being spread around about Paul not keeping the law, and living a “law-free” gospel. They work with these rumors and Paul takes a vow to show an example of loyalty and truth. James ministry at this point was being obedient to the laws, as Christians. This was not an easy job to fulfill, as everyone probably had their own judgments about what those boundary markers were. Phil Long brings up an excellent example of traditional practices we tend to keep as non-negotiables of being a Christian. Which, realistically, these things do not pay for our salvation, they are practices after we accept the gift of salvation. Paul would agree here with James, his ministry was good in terms of use of the law. There were a few other differing points overall. James had another opinion about the law and who those people belonged too. It is interesting to look at each followers perspective on following the law, each of them does not want to go crazy with it on either side of the pendulum, but rather, they are trying to find the sweet spot in the middle.

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  17. Looking back to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he is allowing himself to assimilate into whatever culture he is ministering to in order to be effective and intentional about those specific people. The issue of Paul’s faithfulness to the law also points back to the importance of distinguishing between Judaism and Christianity. One obvious factor between the two is the relationship of man to the Law. It is important to remember that someone can be Christian and still follow that law, but you can not claim the label as a Jew without complete obedience to the law. A primary belief of Judaism is the necessity of the law in order to be justified back to God as a response to his grace (Long 2019). However,Paul falls into an interesting place because ethnically he is a Jew but was called/converted to Christianity. Jipp summarizes that the Gentile Christians followed Paul’s teaching as related to spiritual behavior such as fellowship, hospitality, prayer and prophecy (103). The fact that Paul is willing to go to Jerusalem even if it means his death (Acts 21:13-14) shows the intensity of his devotion to the subject of the law-Jesus Christ. This speaks to Paul’s understanding that the law itself is not the end goal or reason for obedience, the King of Kings and the Lord of the Lords is the one worthy of respect, honor and obedience not the law.

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  18. As James is unpacking the theology and mindset of Paul’s actions of keeping the law, yet saying that the law is no longer necessary to fulfill because of grace. James and those who were close to his ministry chased after keeping the law and making it a reflection of following after the way of Christ. James believes that the practice of living by the law is something that can be beneficial if done properly and in the right heart posture. The law is as in circumcision, Sabbath and food laws are not what makes a person right with God in good works, rather grace is the salvation of the gospel that is aimed at. Paul’s thought was to keep God above the law, not the law above God.

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