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?

24 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.

  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.

    • 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).

  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!

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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).

  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.

  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.

  10. You are misleading your students by giving your post the title “Acts 21– Paul vs James”. The two men were not in conflict.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. It is interesting to see this shift in Paul’s ministry when comparing Christianity an Judaism. Both religions are quite different in their beliefs on salvation and religious rituals and practices. Paul does, in some sense preach a brand-new concept of religion and church that no one knew during this time. It is hard to walk the fine line of obeying the law and living a good lifestyle and what believers are to do in order to receive salvation. This means, that believers should obey the law, not in order to receive salvation, but to obey the Word of God and want to live a lifestyle like Christ in doing good works. There is a fine line in putting too much emphasis on the little details behind Judaism and Christianity and that is where there becomes a divide between the two separate sets of beliefs. I don’t think that Paul intentionally tried to sway from the Jewish traditions and practices, but rather he wanted them to understand that due to Jesus’ recent crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, believers need not need to complete all the sacrifices and rituals and obey all the laws in order to be saved. Paul rather strived to help them understand how simple it is for believers to receive salvation due to Jesus’ sacrifice in taking the weight and punishment for believer’s sins. In Galatians 3: 15-25 Paul writes to the Galatians the importance of continuing to upholding the law that was given by God to His people and the covenant God made with Abraham are not rendered useless or null and void, but rather they are, for the most part, still guidelines for how believers ought to live, while also considering the words of Jesus that were shared through his ministry work.

  15. The ministry of Paul is certainly one of success but leaves a lot of questions for the readers to consider. In terms of Paul telling people to turn away from the Law, I believe that there is a right way to interpret this. Looking within Acts 21:21, there are “rumors” of Paul teaching against the Laws of the Old Testament, specifically circumcision, to which Pohill establishes them to be untrue. Polhill (2016) states, Circumcision is singled out because it was considered the badge of God’s covenant with the Jews. This rumor was false; Paul did not object to Jewish believers voluntarily following OT ceremonial laws” (p.2132). I believe that Paul was not opposed to Old Testament Laws and traditions in and of themselves, but was teaching that those practices are not means of Salvation and that Jesus Christ was the only way. Of course, anything that is said can have the possibility of being misinterpreted or turned into a rumor, which seemed to be the case in Acts 21:21-25. It was important for Paul to teach that Jesus overcomes the Law because it would reveal that Salvation came through the sacrifice of Christ alone, and not through good works and following the Law. In modern-day churches, this may become something that is turned into controversy/ information of conflict because some may either reject the OT commandments completely; or the opposite, believe they have to rely on those alone. The issue of the Law and Salvation being hot topics of conflict will always remain because man will misinterpret and look within themselves for truth; rather than seeing Christ as the ultimate salvation and truth. Paul taught that works and following the Law does not save a person, Jesus Christ does. However, he did not negate those following OT laws and did not object good works. Paul’s intention was misinterpreted by many, much like the entirety of his mission; he was always being accused of something!

  16. One thing that has not changed between modern Christians and first century Christians, is that they do not like change in tradition or the way things have “always been done”. You see this reflected in the opposition to the ministry of Paul to the Gentiles and the demand for them to keep the Jewish Law for themselves as well. The examples in the modern church are not maybe as theologically controversial, like introducing drums in a worship set, wearing jeans to church, or accepting tattoos. Seemingly surface level issues, but to the people who care about them, they are a really big deal, bordering on questioning salvation. For the first century church, following Jewish Law was more than just tradition but it was a way of life. Paul is doing more than just allowing the Gentiles to continue most of their lifestyle by not following the traditions of the law but he is challenging the necessity of the law and therefore challenging the Jewish way of life. Paul does not reject the Law but seems to reject the legality of the Law. I think the best example of this is in his letters to Timothy as well as his encouragement to Timothy to be circumcised before the continuing in ministry with him. In his letter first letter to Timothy, he tells him that the, “Law is good, if one uses it lawfully,” (1 Tim. 1:8). It is not a rejection of the Law but rather a warning to use the Law as it is intended.

  17. When I think of this question, the first thing that came into my mind is Jesus view on the law and his central message on the Kingdom of God. Paul and Jesus in many way are similar. Jesus was often accused of considering himself as higher than the law and Moses, although he didn’t verbally says it but his teaching does gave some suggestions. Also, Jesus was often questions in regard to the law, for examples “why your disciples do what is unlawful on the Sabbath (Matt.12-1-2). And later in v-8 Jesus describes as the Lord of the Sabbath, which I think indicate He himself is the law giver and full-filler of the law. Note that, Jesus never intend to nullify the law, in fact he said he come to full-filled what their ancestor cannot do. Moreover, one of the prime suggestion of why love for the lord is more important than keeping the law was clearly taught by Jesus Himself when he gave them the two greatest commandments’ to love the Lord your God with all your heart .. .. and love your neighbour as yourself, because “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt.22:37-40). Moses gave them more than 600 laws, but Jesus then reduced and left with the two greatest commandment (Matt. 22:37), love for the Lord full-filled all the laws of Moses. Paul has the same view as Jesus, “love” as the greatest and receiving the Holy Spirit is what necessary the most. How can a person follow and full-filled the law without first receiving the Holy Spirit, since the law is a spiritual thing. Paul central messages is not to nullify the law, but what he was saying is when you received the Holy Spirit and the love for Christ, all the law are no used, for the Spirit is more superior than the law. And following the law is like as Isaiah says, “these people worship with their lips, but their heart are too far.” But, those who received the Holy Spirit, we are in one in Christ.

  18. James was in direct opposition to Paul. He may have been behind his eventual arrest in the Temple. The forged letter to the Thessalonians (II Thessalonians 2:7) has James in the position of stopping any war with Rome, which is what Josephus taught in an edition available to Eusubias, that as soon as James was out of the way, Rome would invade. The Jerusalem Church became the Ebionites.

    Woodrow Nichols

  19. I think throughout the book of Acts you do see a theme of the church or people rejecting or questioning Paul’s teachings. As Paul travels to different cities, he sees this reaction several times. People are openly rejecting the gospel because they do not want to change their ways. However, James and the Elders responding in a polite and welcoming way is different than the theme seen in Acts. This does not mean they openly accept it as truth. They ask questions to determine if it is true or not. The next question is, is this tension still a problem in the modern church? I think the answer is yes. I think there will always be tension on what is right doctrine and what is not. While people do not always riot when they disagree, people do come and go from the church and/or change religion. Therefore, this often creates tension amongst people.

  20. When we begin to read this chapter in the Book of Acts we can see that Paul is arriving in Jerusalem and when he arrives he meets James and the Elders. When we look at the Jews that are in Jerusalem we come to find out that there are many Jews in Jerusalem who believe that Jesus is in fact the Messiah yet they are still following the Law and we can see this when we read Acts chapter 21 verse 20. There is not a whole lot of reason to be surprised by this because Jesus had said he did not come to destroy the Law nor did Jesus ever teach his disciples to reject the Law or Temple worship. This comes from the Bible itself but Long also notes this in his blog post as well. He also states that Jesus did reject the traditions of the Pharisees, but he lives as any Jew might have in the first century. This relates to Paul vs James because this is when Paul completed his third mission, and concerned Church members warned him not to return to Jerusalem. He responded by affirming his willingness to die in Jerusalem in the name of Christ. In Jerusalem, Paul reported to Church leaders concerning his missionary labors. James was known as “the brother of Jesus” and also as “James the Just”. James emerged as a leader in the Jerusalem Church, Paul arrives, and when we get there reports of how God is working with the Gentiles. 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 of Paul’s missionary activity. Which is stated right in Long’s blog post.

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