Acts 21 – Paul vs. James

Paul and JamesWhen Paul arrives in Jerusalem, he meets with “James and the Elders.”  As it turns out, there are many Jews in Jerusalem who believe Jesus is the Messiah yet are still following the Law (21:20).  This is not unexpected since Jesus said he did not come to destroy the Law nor did Jesus ever teach his disciples to reject the Law or Temple worship. Jesus did reject the traditions of the Pharisees, but he lived as any Jew might have in the first century. It is better to see Jesus calling his disciples to a deeper engagement with the Law. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus wants his followers to obey not only the letter, but also the spirit of the Law.

James, the Lord’s Brother, has emerged as a leader in the Jerusalem church. When Paul arrives he gives a report (ἐξηγέομαι) of how God is working among the Gentiles. While the elders of the community rejoice and praise God for this, James moves quickly from what God is going among the Gentiles to a potential problem with Paul’s missionary activity. James describes the Jerusalem church as very large, the NIV has “thousands,” translating the Greek “myriads” (μυριάς). While this might seem like hyperbole, several thousand people accepted the apostolic teaching in Acts 2 and 3. It is likely additional converts in the many years that have passed and there are still a large number of Jesus-followers in and around Jerusalem at this time.

There are some among this Jewish Christian community who think that Paul has made a grace error by teaching Jews who have accepted Jesus as Messiah to turn away from the Law (v. 21).  Certainly Paul taught Gentiles they were not under the law. The letter to the Galatians is a strong condemnation of Gentiles trying to keep the Law.

With respect to Jews who are in Christ, there is no specific text which clearly indicates Paul told Jews to continue keeping the law and traditions of Israel. It may or may not be the case that Paul considered ceremonial law and traditions matters of indifference.

Ben Witherington thinks it is at least possible Paul considered traditional Jewish practices as no longer required in the present age. Galatians could be read as a repudiation of the Law, although it seems that Paul only has in mind Gentile converts. But this may be the heart of the problem: the church Paul has created is something new and different.  People are converting to a belief in Jesus as savior apart from Law rather than converting to Judaism or converting to a particular messianic conviction within Judaism (Acts, 648).

If members of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem had read Galatians, they may have wondered if Paul had rejected the Law himself. If rumors of his “all things to all men” ministry model reached Jerusalem, then it is likely there were Jewish Christians who thought Paul has gone too far in his desire to reach the Gentiles.

Luke certainly describes James and the Elders as polite and welcoming, but there are lingering questions about Paul’s ministry method. Luke does not create an artificial unity here, he reports a real tension in the early church over a critically important issue, the status of Gentiles in the church as well as the role of the Law.

To what extent do these two issues continue to be a problem in Acts and Paul’s letters? Is this tension still a problem in the modern church, even after the Reformation?

17 thoughts on “Acts 21 – Paul vs. James

  1. It can be very difficult to have the reputation as a Christian in a secular setting because everyone automatically holds you up on a high standard. People can pick people out of a crowd that are Christians because of how they act or what they are wearing. It is important to realize that works or obeying the law does not have any saving power. Martin Luther realized this while he was reading the bible. He struggled with the bad things that he could do. Paul even struggled with the things that he did which he tells us in Romans. The good that he wants to do, he doesn’t do. The evil that he does not want to do, he does. The bible clearly states that we can only be saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-10). There are so many people that rely on themselves to be saved, but in reality, God is the only one that saves. Christians do works in order to show their thankfulness to God and to share the good news with others about the hope that they have within Jesus Christ. It is hard to love the sinner and to hate the sin. There are plenty of times that I have witnessed people disowning or rejecting a certain person because of something that they did. When Christ was on earth, he took anyone in and loved them no matter who they were. He was the perfect example for us. Even though some people seem like they do not deserve love, we all do not deserve love, but Christ loves us anyways.

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  2. Paul wants to emphasis this idea that the law cannot save you. Ephesians 2:8 tells us that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works. Paul wanted to emphasis this idea and in the process may have caused some discomfort from among the Jews. In Galatians 2:11-14 Paul opposes peter because he at one time was eating with the gentiles but after the arrival of men from James he separated himself from the Gentiles. The other Jews followed Peter’s example. Paul describes their behavior as “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (2:14). There appears to be immense pressure from these men of James to continue following the Law and to do so strictly. There is not yet an understanding that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). James appears to have more emphasis on the law while Paul is emphasizing that the law does not save you. These are obviously going to contradict each other and create tension. Paul seems to answer this tension in Romans 14 when he is dealing with idea of eating food sacrificed to idols and regarding celebrating certain days he says “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5). The importance is that if it is not clarified for you in scripture, you ought to take into account what you are convicted of by the Holy Spirit.

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    • Mary, I really liked reading your discussion post this week. Especially, at the end when you mentioned if certain situations/actions are not clearly identified in the scripture one should take into account his conviction from the Holy Spirit. Being that the Holy Spirit is our helper and here to teach us all things (John 14:26), I think turning to the Holy Spirit during times of uncertainty is the best opposition. For example, some argue that scripture says one cannot drink at all while others will argue a glass or two is okay one should just not get drunk. Jesus did turn water into wine right? No matter what said of the argument one falls on I do not think it will determine his salvation; therefore, he should go on the side he feels the Spirit is leading him to. Whether that be extreme conviction after a taste or after a few glasses.
      I noticed that you also stated how Paul goes with the idea that the law can no longer save anyone rather it is through grace while James believes one is saved through grace but should still strictly practice the law. I think this is an important part of history to be looked at because at this point Christianity is at a crossroad. We can either accept the new Christian faith of being under no law or partially take grace but keep the law. Can you even imagine what life would be like today if we went James way? Still not being able to eat certain foods, making sacrifices, feeling major regret and shame when not following a law. It would have been awful. Thank God, we are no longer condemned by the law. Now we can live out our Christian life in a positive, Godly way but not under such condemnation. We can look back on this crossroad and realize everything does work out for God. The plan that everyone (Jew or Gentile) will hear the word of God and we are saved through grace not the law (or our works).

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  3. From what Paul says himself in Philippians, it strikes me as very unlikely that Paul would have encouraged anyone to not follow the traditions of Scripture. “…Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more…” Phil 3:4 (KJV) Even talking about his trip to the Temple before his arrest, there does not seem to be any avoidance of traditions. Rather, it seems like he is not forcing traditions on those outside the Jewish system. Becoming all things to all men certainly would seem like Paul may have gone too far – but he instead encouraged them to live like Christ, which likely looked much like Jewish traditions anyways!

    To this day, I’d say this tension of tradition continues for sure. Even between denominations of churches, even to the point of disagreeing on who or who not is saved. I am quite sure the beliefs of today are not even close to the arrest and persecution as Paul was – at least between those agreeing on Christ and the Bible. This does bring to mind the persecution of ISIS, however, as an example of this zeal for tradition. Going too far seems like what Paul did to believers in the beginning, killing as ISIS is doing now. Did God use this in Paul’s life? Yes. Will we sometimes have to adjust our own thinking? PRobbly – and it won’t always be easy!

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  4. The struggle with Jews vs Gentiles is consistent through out Paul’s ministry. I would argue that the same type of segregation within churches is still prevalent today. But now instead of opening our arms as the Body of Christ we snub those whose sins are “worse” than ours. I hear so many stories of people who turn away from the church because of things that people have said to them within the church.

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  5. The struggle of today is in concept the same as it was then, you have two cultures clashing together to make one body of Christ. The new struggle of the modern American church is that of having church raised people and unchurched people sharing a building. culturally you have people who do things that are offensive to the other, in the times of Paul eating pork at a gathering of believers in Jerusalem would have set a riot. The modern church too has things that upset it, example, when i first came to Christ in my first year we had a senior apparition service with gifts for the seniors, and the seniors did a thank you video for the people in response however my part of the video had been edited because i used a word that to me wasnt offensive but to my home body would have upset people. I was raised in a home where words were used that people in church dont use, and not all of them are profane.

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  6. I do think there is an underlying conflict in some churches if not all of them. I think I would say that the conflict would be between the generations and how they grew up and how they want to “do church”. In my home church, it is very old fashioned. We only sing congregationally out of hymnals and occasionally we have someone sing a “special” for the church to reflect on. Growing up with other friends at other churches with big worship bands made me restless in my church and I found myself fighting with the ideas of having a band play at my church and I found that since the majority of the church was older, they did not want to change from what they had always known. I can see this getting to be a stagnant sort of tradition rather than it being an effective form of worship. For us younger people, we do not like to sing the hymns right out of the book, we like more upbeat music with a full band and I do not think that it is right to be so unmoving in your ways that you neglect a way of worship that may be more effective than what you did before.
    Paul is trying to get this across to the Jews in Jerusalem. Jesus died so that the Gentiles may be saved too and if the Jews would open up and understand that there will be more people being saved and less going to Hell, then maybe they would be happier and follow Jesus with a willing and joyful heart.

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  7. I liked that you said “Luke does not create an artificial unity here.” There were real issues in the church that needed to be addressed and saying it wasn’t a big deal would be lying. Like you mentioned earlier in this post this whole Christianity thing was very new. And I think Paul’s solutions to these kinds of things as we see in his letters show us practical ways to deal with dissections in church, which certainly still happen between every generation! For example, in 1 Corinthians 8 Paul explains that it is more important to consider how our actions will affect others. Will they be encouraging or discouraging? In his letter to the Ephesians too he says in chapter four verse 29 to let everything we say be for the benefit of others. These are things we know work by experience. So the solution is obey the law as much as you need to for your conscience and the conscience of others because everything done without faith is sin (Romans 14:23).

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  8. I definitely say that there is this type of tension in the modern church. Following the Law isn’t something that can save you, but it was a huge tradition during Paul’s time. Today we see tension like this over other issues, like baptism or communion. Neither of these traditions can save you, but issues over them have been known to cause major issues, even going to the point of splitting a church. Sometimes our traditions become the most important thing about our faith, which is wrong, and manage to cause huge problems similar to what Paul is facing here.

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  9. In the blog it was said that “real tension in the early church over a critically important issue, the status of Gentiles in the church as well as the role of the Law”. I think that the high tension shows the extent because as shown throughout the book of Acts it shows that the Jews don’t accept “The Way”/Christianity or the followers of Christ. I think the reason is because it takes away from the ritual of giving sacrifice to God, doing something to work for salvation. In the same way it is in Paul’s letters, but extends to Gentile governments and those who worshiped false gods. As for the present I don’t think it‘s a huge problem because back then when Christianity was starting out it was a just starting out and there weren’t enough Gentiles to not be a big deal. Now there are millions of Gentiles who are Christians and proud of it.
    What I can take away from this course is that Gospel was never hindered by the “human factor” and in a way the Gospel is like a rainstorm. A rainstorm can’t be stopped by humans and has it comes through it refreshes the earth and makes things grow and always shows that beauty after it comes through. This is what the Gospel does it comes through and gave life back to people who were lost and unsaved. The power behind the rainstorm or the Gospel is the Trinity directing it where it should go.

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  10. Many of the Jewish believers in Jerusalem were afraid that Paul was turning away from the law, or even rejecting it (Acts 21:21). However, Paul did not reject the law. In fact, he displayed that the Jewish law was very important by taking a vow publicly per James’s request (Jipp 115). Paul followed the law closely, while still not forcing new believers into it. He had previously warned Jewish converts to not place the heavy yoke of the law onto the Gentiles (Acts 15:10). In that context it seemed that he was afraid that the law would push the new believers away from God, rather than the it drawing them nearer to Him as it was intended. Paul was not forcing the law on the new believers because it was not intended for them, and because it was something that would have offered a burden to their new relationship with God through Jesus. In addition to that, there is no record of Paul telling the Jewish believers to continue following the law, or for that matter, to stop. Paul did not seem to make the law an important part of following Jesus. He knew that it was all about the heart and the belief of the person. The same is true today. Following Jesus and accepting Him as a personal Savior is not done through following many specific tasks or rules. It is done through belief. Those rules and laws can later help build a more solid relationship with God and can help one stay on track with what God wants for them, but it is not the foundation to their relationship with God. I believe that is the point that Paul had been making to the new believers.

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  11. Throughout his ministry, it is very evident that Paul believes in keeping the Law. For example, when gets thrown in jail, he asks to have the same rights as any other Roman citizen because he is a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-38). Also, he has Timothy circumcised in Acts 16 to appease the Jews. I do not think that Paul was trying to reject the Jewish Law but show that it was not necessary for the Gentiles to follow the Law because the church was evolving. Like the post said, it is possible that Paul considered Jewish are no longer required in the present age. Paul wanted the new believers to work on their relationship with God instead of worrying about trying to follow the Law perfectly especially since this Law was not intended for them. Today, we are more focused on our relationship with God when we first accept Jesus as our Savior. The rules that we get from the Bible will help build that relationship up and give us a guideline, but at the very beginning of our faith, we also need to worry more about our relationship with Jesus.

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  12. Paul here is trying to explain that because Jesus has come down to earth and offered Himself as the final sacrifice to God, that there is no longer a need to follow the Law. This he greatly emphasizes to the Gentiles that he is witnessing to. However, when it comes to the Jews following the Law or not, Paul and James seem to disagree on what exactly should be done. Should Jews still continue to follow the Law, or should they be able to no longer be under the Law, same as the Gentiles? Some Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, were not wanting to give up the practices that they hold so sacred. These practices were what they did to bring them closer to God, it would not be an easy mindset to just all of a sudden take them away. Paul’s actions and how he goes about practicing the Law is also put into question. Does he follow the Law? He seems to go back and forth; but that is so that he can be in a good standing before the people that he is trying to witness to. Therefore, if he is going to the Gentiles, then there I not need for him to follow the Law because he tells the Gentiles that they do not have to. But, when he goes to the Jews, he makes sure that he is ceremonially clean, and follows the Law, most of the time, when in their presence.

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