1. Paul’s Gospel.
2. The Book of Acts; Division in the Church.
3 . Epistles to A Church Divided.
4. Galatians: Justification by Faith.
5. The Epistle of James.
6. Summary and Overview.
7. Peter and John: Food for Thought.
8. Return to Index (Intro)
9. Return to Top
The common perception is that the First Century Church was a model group unified by sound doctrine and the power of the Holy Spirit, and that their enemies worked from the outside. Certainly, this was true for a while. Acts chapter two begins with the twelve apostles being of one accord and ends with all that believed having all things common. The enemies of the Church in the first few years were the Saduccees and Pharisees of the Sanhedrin who were chagrined because the apostles taught the resurrection of Christ. But this situation did not last. The exact time of the beginning of division in the church can be debated, but what is abundantly clear is that, as Acts progresses, two separate and distinctly different factions emerge.
These verses from Acts Chapter five characterize the power of the early Church. It was a Church whose leaders were united in their doctrine and who were unstoppable in their conviction to preach the resurrection of Christ. The Church was invincible, a spiritual juggernaut in Judaea, whose members stood together and repelled all attempts to hinder their collective ministry.
Acts 5:15-16. So that they [even] kept carrying out the sick into the streets and placing them on couches and sleeping pads, [in the hope] that as Peter passed by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. And the people gathered also from the towns and hamlets around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those troubled with foul spirits, and they were all cured.
Acts 5:27-28. So they brought them [and] set them before the council (Sanhedrin). And the high priest examined them by questioning, saying, We definitely commanded and strictly charged you not to teach in or about this Name; yet here you have flooded Jerusalem with your doctrine and you intend to bring this Man’s blood upon us.
Consider the contrast between these verses from Acts 5 and these from Acts 20, written of circumstances in the same city a few years later.
Acts 20:22-23. And now, you see, I am going to Jerusalem, bound by the (Holy) Spirit (Mind of Christ), and obligated and compelled by the [convictions of my own] spirit (mind), not knowing what will befall me there; except that the Holy Spirit clearly and emphatically affirms to me in city after city that imprisonment and suffering await me.
In the first passages, Jerusalem is so filled with the apostles’ doctrine and the power of God’s word that the mere shadow of Peter’s passing healed people, and multitudes were brought into Jerusalem to be delivered. The Sanhedrin was certainly appalled that the apostles had filled all Jerusalem with their doctrine, but were powerless to do anything about it. Jerusalem was a center of outreach and deliverance. But in the latter passage, God warns Paul repeatedly that Jerusalem isn’t even safe to visit! What a dramatic change! What had happened? Quite simply, what the adversary was unable to accomplish by intimidation, he did by infiltration. The church was divided.
The exact dates and circumstances of the beginning of the rift are debatable. But what is clear is that, by the beginning of chapter eleven, things were quite different than they had been in chapter five. I wonder if God had a girl in a skimpy outfit walk through the temple with a big sign to tell everybody what chapter they were in. That’s ridiculous I know. She would have to have worn a long dress and a veil.
But seriously, remember that in chapter 5, the church in Jerusalem was unified and Peter was so revered that people were healed by his shadow alone. Only the unsaved in the council dared question him. The only ones in the church who are recorded to have had a confrontation of any kind with Peter during that period were Ananias and Sapphira. They dropped dead at his feet. If there had been skate boarders in Jerusalem in those days, they surely would have greeted Peter with, “You RULE!” How does that compare with the beginning of chapter eleven?
Acts 11:1-3. Now the apostles (special messengers) and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard [with astonishment] that the Gentiles (heathen) also had received and accepted and welcomed the Word of God [Christ] – that is, the doctrine concerning the attainment through Christ of salvation (from the Evil One and his fellow spirits) in/into the kingdom of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party [the Jewish Christians (supposed Believers)] found fault with him – separating themselves from him in a hostile spirit, opposing and disputing and contending with him – saying, Why do you go to uncircumcised men and [even] eat with them?
My what a change. People in the church contended with Peter. It must have been over some heinous crime for them to treat him with such an affront. Indeed it was. He had violated the Law! This was no light thing. Even a casual reading of chapter ten shows how deeply ingrained the law of Moses was in Peter himself. When God showed him the vision of the animals let down by the sheet, Peter’s response was “Not so Lord.” Think about that for a second. That’s an oxymoronic statement if ever there was one. Not so…Lord. ‘Yeah I know you’re God almighty and you created the heavens and the earth and all that, but I ain’t eatin’ those things! They’re unclean!’ We really should stop a moment and look at this issue. It’s pertinent to the overall picture of the eventual split of the church and it’s unfair to Peter’s memory to treat it lightly.
Peter had been trained by Jesus Christ himself. He was perhaps the boldest and brightest of the Jesus’ apostles. He had identified Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (Matthew 16:16). He had walked on the water with Jesus Christ (Matthew 14:28 & 29). He had leapt to Jesus’ defense against overwhelming odds (John 18:10). And of course, he had delivered the sermon on the day of Pentecost that ushered in the age of grace and had lead the church into a time of unparalleled deliverance and glory. But he was a Jew. That is, he was raised in the Law. Even the teachings Jesus himself had delivered on the day of His ascension were not fully carried out because of the invisible shackles of the law in the apostles’ minds.
Acts 1:5. For John baptized with water, but not many days from now you shall be baptized with – placed in, introduced into – the Holy Spirit.
Acts 1:8. But you shall receive power – ability, efficiency and might – when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and to the ends – the very bounds – of the earth.
Well, here we are in chapter ten, about ten years removed from the utterance of those commandments of the Lord, and no apostle has yet witnessed to a Gentile, and they’ve spent ten years water baptizing people (Acts 8:36-39, 10:47 22:16). Why? Despite the fact that they’d spent at least a year with Jesus Christ and had been ordained by God, and filled with the power of holy spirit, and called as apostles, the Law was their natural environment and they had great difficulty seeing beyond it.
Now back to chapter ten. How many times did Peter say “Not so Lord”, before God got through to him? We don’t know. We know only that the vision was given three times, which is remarkable in itself. What other revelation recorded in the Bible was given three times? Because of the vision and of course, all of Peter’s training and godliness, he eventually obeyed God and went to the household of Cornelius. Even after all that God had done to show him this was okay, it was still a concern at the forefront of his mind when he set foot in the door.
Acts 10:28-29. And he said to them, You yourselves are aware how it is not lawful or permissible for a Jew to keep company with or to visit or [even] to come near or to speak first to any one of another nationality, but God has shown and taught me by words that I should not call any human being common or unhallowed or
(ceremonially) unclean. Therefore when I was sent for, I came without hesitation or objection or misgivings. So now I ask for what reason you sent for me.
Notice also that he still had no idea why he was there! And this despite the commandment of Jesus Christ that they be his witnesses unto the uttermost part of the earth. Peter himself, on the day of Pentecost had proclaimed, “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” Yet it had never dawned on him and even then, standing in the house of Cornelius. It was unthinkable that anyone should go preach to a Gentile.
So it was that he and they of the circumcision with him were astonished when the first Gentiles spoke in tongues. If this was astonishing to Peter, it was just as astonishing, if not downright scandalous to the rest of the brethren. So it was that the man who had been so revered that his shadow had healed multitudes was now being openly criticized in the church. Despite the Church’s seeming acceptance of God’s grace to the heathen, the contention over the Law and the Gentiles continued to grow.
Fast forward a few years into the ministry of Paul and Barnabus, both of whom were ordained in Antioch. In Acts 13 we have Paul’s first recorded sermon. Spoken to the Jews at Pisidian Antioch, it ended thus.
Acts 13:37-39. But He Whom God raised up [to life] saw no corruption – did not experience putrefaction and dissolution [of the grave]. So let it be clearly known and understood by you, brethren, that through this Man forgiveness and removal of sins is now proclaimed to you; and that through Him every one who believes [trusts in, cleaves to, leans his entire personality on Jesus as his savior from the Evil One] is absolved (cleared and freed) from every charge from which you could not be justified and freed by the Law of Moses, and given right standing with God.
Notice that Paul preaches the resurrection of Christ and justification by believing, not works. This is the beginning of the gospel spoken of in Philippians. The only element missing is the invitation to the Gentiles to partake of the good tidings. That came the following week.
Acts 13:42-44. As they [Paul and Barnabas] went out [of the synagogue], the people earnestly begged that these things might be told to them [further] the next Sabbath. And when the congregation of the synagogue dispersed, many of the Jews and the devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked to them and urged them to continue [to entrust themselves to and stand fast] in the grace – that is, the unmerited favor and blessing – of God. The next Sabbath almost the entire city gathered together to hear the Word of God – concerning the attainment through Christ of salvation (from the kingdom of Hell and its rulers and) in (into) the Kingdom of God.
Hallelujah! Now we see all the elements of the gospel at work. Paul has preached righteousness by faith as opposed to the works of the law, and now is prepared to lay out the same plan of salvation to the Gentiles. Surely the Jews who had received the Word would rejoice.
Acts 13:45-46. But when the Jews saw the crowds , filled with envy and jealousy they contradicted what was said by Paul, and talked abusively – reviling and slandering him. And Paul and Barnabas spoke out plainly and boldly, saying, It was necessary that God’s message (concerning salvation through Christ) should be spoken to you first. But since you thrust it from you, you pass this judgment on yourselves that you are self-worthy of eternal life, and out of your own mouth you shall be judged. [Now] behold, we turn to the Gentiles – the heathen.
Maybe not. These were the same Jews who the week prior had gladly received Paul’s gospel. Now they were nothing but contentious. Why? These men had been raised in the law. A big part of the law was the ingrained idea of the inferiority of the Gentiles to “God’s chosen people”. Remember that this was such a big deal that the believers in Jerusalem had contended with Peter about it despite the magnitude of his ministry and reputation. Paul wasn’t afforded the respect Peter got. They rejected his words and turned on him, contradicting the gospel and doing their best to undermine Paul’s ministry.
It’s interesting to note that they didn’t immediately reject the idea that Christ had fulfilled the law of Moses. Like those of the circumcision in Jerusalem, they were ready to embrace the grace of God. They simply weren’t ready to embrace the Gentiles along with it. They were incensed. They were willing to tear down the walls the law had erected between them and God, but they were not willing to tear down the wall that separated them from the nations. And so it was that the church, which had begun in unity defending itself from enemies from without was now divided and generating strife from within. The same situation occurred in Iconium, as documented in Acts 14:1-4.
Acts 14: 1-2. Now at Iconium [also Paul and Barnabas] went into the Jewish synagogue together and spoke with such power that a great number both of Jews and of Greeks believed – trusted in the Word of God [Christ]. But the unbelieving (non-trusting) Jews (who rejected their message) aroused the Gentiles and embittered their minds (spirits) against the brethren.
Here we have an ironic twist. The Jews were vehemently opposed to sharing grace with the Gentiles, but more than willing to join them in opposing the gospel which preached unity among Jews and Gentiles in Christ! Throughout this first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabus, we see that the Jews received the gospel until they found out that it meant sharing grace with the Gentiles. Then they vehemently opposed it and even allied themselves with unbelieving Gentiles in their opposition to God’s Word. One might think that these Jews were simply legalists of the kindred of the High Priest and had nothing in common with they of the circumcision back in Jerusalem. That would be a pleasant thought and would offer some solace that the born again Jews were much better adjusted to the idea of striding into the age of grace side by side with their new Gentile brethren. Such an idea would fill us with good cheer and optimism. Unfortunately, this idea is dispelled when we read chapter 15.
When we left Jerusalem, they of the circumcision were contending with Peter for having gone to the house of a Gentile. Peter persuaded them that, since the heathen had spoken in tongues, they should not be considered in any way inferior any longer, and the matter seemed to be settled. Meanwhile, Paul and Barnabus encountered vigorous opposition among Jews abroad when they preached the gospel to both Jew and Gentile. With the apparent appeasement of the circumcision in Chapter 11, one would think that things in Jerusalem were going swimmingly. Quite the contrary was true. Not only did the believers in Jerusalem still not understand that the law was passed and the church was one; not only were they failing to perceive and believe the grace of God, they were deliberately and zealously spreading their error.
The Council at Jerusalem
Acts 15:1. But some men came down from Judea and were instructing the brethren, Unless you are circumcised in accordance with the Mosaic custom, you cannot be saved.
Where did they get such an idea? Certainly not from Peter. He had told them plainly that God almighty had shown him by a vision not to call any man common or unclean. He had told them of the astonishing outpouring of the gift of holy spirit witnessed by six other brethren. Surely Peter did not fail to tell the brethren in Jerusalem that the Gentiles were saved by grace through believing in Jesus Christ. Yet men sent from Jerusalem were preaching a false gospel: salvation by works.
Acts 15:2. And when Paul and Barnabas had no small disagreement and discussion with them, it was decided that Paul and Barnabas and some of the others of their number should go up to Jerusalem [and confer] with the apostles (special messengers) and the elders about this matter.
In response to the arrival of the false gospel in Antioch, Paul and Barnabus tried to settle the issue there, but were unable to convince the Jerusalem legalists. These must have been some pretty zealous men, perhaps not unlike Saul of Tarsus had been before he got born again of God’s spirit. So the division that started in Jerusalem with people contending with Peter had now been exported to Antioch. So logically, the elders in Antioch decided to track the problem to its source and try to fix it there.
Acts 15:3-4. So, being fitted out and sent on their way by the church, they went through both Phoenicia and Samaria telling of the conversion of the Gentiles, and they caused great rejoicing among all the brethren. When they arrived in Jerusalem they were heartily welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders and they told them all that God had accomplished through them.
The news of the conversion of the Gentiles; the preaching of the gospel and the news of its reception in the world caused great joy unto the brethren in the lands around Judaea. And, verse 4 says, they were received of the church in Jerusalem and told them the same news. Surely the Jerusalem church would also rejoice at the news as their Judean brethren had done.
Acts 15:5. But some who believed [that is, who acknowledged Jesus as their Savior and devoted themselves to Him] belonged to the sect of the Pharisees and they rose up and said, It is necessary to circumcise [the Gentile converts], and to charge them to obey the Law of Moses.
Rather than being received with joy, the news of the conversion of the Gentiles was immediately disputed by the Pharisees. They were too zealous for the law to rejoice in God’s work of grace among the nations.
Also in this verse we see clearly that the Church in Jerusalem was divided. We have now a sect within the church. “The sect of the Pharisees” had infiltrated the church. You might think the word infiltrated is too harsh, because they did believe and were saved. The problem was they brought their heavy-handed, hard-hearted oppressive ways with them and attempted to exert the same kind of control over the lives of the church of the body of Christ as they had wielded over Israel.
Matt 23:13. But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, pretenders – hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces; for you neither enter yourselves, nor do you allow those who are about to go in to do so.
They had received the new birth, but were walking according to the old man. And so the apostles and elders met to try to eliminate the division and agree on just what the truth regarding the Gentiles was.
Acts 15:6-11. The apostles and the elders were assembled together to look into and consider this matter. And after there had been a long debate, Peter got up and said to them, Brethren, you know that quite a while ago God made a selection from among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the message of the Gospel [concerning the attainment through Christ of salvation (from the Evil One) in (into) the kingdom of God] and believe – that is, credit and place their confidence in it. And God, Who is acquainted with and understands the heart (mind), bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit as also He did to us; and He made no difference between us and them, but cleansed their hearts (minds) by faith [that is, by a strong and welcome conviction that Jesus is the Messiah, through Whom we obtain eternal salvation (from Satan and his minions by being brought) in (into) the kingdom of God]. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting a yoke on the necks of the disciples, such as neither our forefathers nor we [ourselves] were able to endure? But we believe that we are saved (from the Enemy) through the grace [the undeserved favor and mercy] of the Lord Jesus, just as they [are].
Peter is preaching the gospel. Notice again that the first use in Acts of the noun “gospel” is in verse 7 wherein Peter reminds them that he had been the one God chose to preach God’s Word (Jesus) to Gentiles. He concludes his address to the gathered apostles and elders by summarizing the gospel itself: that salvation was not by works, but by grace and was available to both Jews and Gentiles. Surely this was not the first time Peter had said these things in Jerusalem. Why had they refused to believe him? And if not Peter, whom were they following?
Acts 15:12. Then the whole assembly remained silent, and they listened [attentively] as Barnabas and Paul rehearsed what signs and wonders God had performed through them among the Gentiles.
Well one would think that this would be the nail in the coffin of legalism. But no. No one stood up and said, “Well now I see it!” The Pharisees were not swayed by the passionate and articulate testimony of Peter or Paul. They were not swayed, as they should have been, by the magnitude of what God had done among the nations with mighty signs and wonders. This is really not surprising when you consider the fact that these same men probably saw the miracles Jesus Christ himself did and waved them aside by accusing him of working the power of Beelzebub (Matthew 12:24). If not Peter or Paul, or the work of God himself, to whom then, would they relent?
Acts 15:13. When they had finished talking, James replied, Brethren, listen to me.
James. Not to Peter, nor Paul, nor the works of God Almighty did the Pharisees relent. After all that Peter and Paul & Barnabus had said about the working of the Holy Spirit and the understanding they had of the grace of God, the Pharisees held their peace, but did not consent. They did not agree. They did not repent. Then James spoke with authority.
Acts 15:14-20. Simeon [Peter] has rehearsed how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people [to bear and honor] His name. And with this the predictions of the prophets agree, as it is written, After this I will come back, and will rebuild the house of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its [very] ruins, and I will set it up again, so that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles upon whom My name has been invoked, says the Lord Who has been making these things known from the beginning of the world. [Amos 9:11-12; Jer. 12:15; Isa. 45:21.] Therefore it is my opinion [sentence] that we should not put obstacles in the way and annoy and disturb those of the Gentiles who turn to God. But we should send word to them in writing to abstain from and avoid anything that has been polluted by being offered to idols, and all sexual impurity, and [meat of animals] that have been strangled, and [tasting] of blood.
“Wherefore my sentence is…” He’s not making a suggestion. He’s making a ruling as authoritatively as a judge. The Pharisees did not argue with him. In fact, no one questioned anything he said, or his right to pronounce sentence and define doctrine for the church! Where did this man get such authority? Certainly God put him in this position because of his superior understanding of God’s Word and will. If so, we should be able to see it in his reasoning here before the council.
Acts 15:21. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every town his preachers, for he is read [aloud] every Sabbath in the synagogues.
Then again, maybe not. Remember, God has a reason for everything He says, where He says it, ,how, when, and to whom He says it. We might also be wise to consider what God’s Word does not say, especially here. It does not say that James decided to send that letter to the Gentiles because he knew that His big brother Jesus of Nazareth had fulfilled the law. Peter had said that. James doesn’t reinforce Peter’s declaration that by grace the Jews would be saved even as the Gentiles. Instead, he says, Moses is still taught in the synagogues every Sabbath day. He is in effect saying, the Gentiles may be saved without circumcision, but we will keep the law! This is not the sentence of a superior spiritual leader. This is the reasoning of a man who did not understand what God was trying to accomplish in the church in which he was presiding. How did such a man rise to a position of greater prominence and influence than the apostle whom God chose to take the gospel to the world?
We’ll return to that question later. Now we continue to trace the cracks in the church and see where they head. The record in Acts seems to indicate that all was settled by James’ sentence at the council and that the church was reunified. The epistle of
Galatians shatters this illusion. Galatians chapter two talks of the council described in Acts 15. A detailed reading of this chapter, which we will get to later, reveals that all was not as it seemed at the Jerusalem council. Galatians summarizes the outcome of James’ sentence in verses 9 and 10.
Gal. 2:9-10. And when they knew (perceived, recognized, understood and acknowledged) the grace (God’s unmerited favor and spiritual blessing) that had been bestowed upon me, James and Cephas (Peter) and John, who were reputed to be pillars of the Jerusalem church, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, with the understanding that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised (Jews). They only [made one stipulation], that we were to *remember the poor, which very thing I was also eager to do.
It appears that all was settled and the church was reunifed. An optimist would assume that Peter and company were going to go to the circumcision with the same gospel that Paul was going to preach to the “heathen”. A pessimist might observe that they were still divided and had simply agreed to teach two different doctrines; one to Jews and the other to Gentiles. At any rate, the following verse indicates that no matter what the mood and terms of the agreement were, neither its intent nor objective was preserved.
Gal. 2:11-13. But when [Cephas] Peter came to Antioch I protested and opposed him to his face [concerning his conduct there], for he was blameable and stood condemned. For up to the time that certain persons came from James, he ate meals with the Gentile [converts]; but when the men [from Jerusalem] arrived, he withdrew and held himself aloof from the Gentiles and [ate] separately for fear (dread) of those of the circumcision [party]. And the rest of the Jews along with him also concealed their true convictions and acted insincerely, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy – that is, by their example of insincerity and pretense.
The church was still divided; more now than ever. Before the Acts 15 council, Paul and Barnabas were at least united in their commitment to preaching the gospel of the grace of God. Afterward, because of James’ influence and Peter’s action, Barnabas was “carried away with their dissimulation”. The Acts 15 Council hadn’t healed the schism in the church. The schism was no smaller. Rather it had grown unto the separation of Paul and Barnabas. Using the principles prescribed in Isaiah, “line upon line, precept upon precept,” we can see from Acts how deep this division described in Galatians was. Acts chapter 15 ends with this record.
Acts 15:36-38. And after some time Paul said to Barnabas, Come, let us go back and again visit and help and minister to the brethren in every town where we made known the message of the Lord, and see how they are getting along. Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark [his near relative]. But Paul did not think it best to have along with them the one who had quit and deserted them in Pamphylia, and had not gone on with them to the work.
On the surface, it appears that this argument has nothing to do with the confrontation between Peter and Paul. But remember that that confrontation took place in Antioch. Galatians told us that Barnabus was carried away with the hypocrisy of the men of the circumcision who came from James. The separation of the Jewish believers from the Gentile believers had a profound impact on Barnabus, who had been raised as a Levite. This record in Acts is in the exact same time and place, perhaps the very next day.
Acts 15:39. And there followed a sharp disagreement between them, so that they separated [departed asunder] from each other, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.
They “departed asunder.” This was no casual parting of the ways. The Greek word translated “departed asunder” here is the word apochorizomai. It is only used twice in the entire New Testament. Its other use, in Revelation 6:14, sheds light on the sense of the word.
Rev. 6:14. And the sky rolled up like a scroll and vanished, and every mountain and island was dislodged from its place.
Rev. 6:14. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
The separation of the apostles Paul and Barnabus, who together had carried out a powerful ministry preaching the grace of God among the Gentiles, was deep and permanent. In the aftermath of the Acts 15 council not only was the church still divided, the two chief ambassadors of the gospel of grace were divided as well.
Paul’s Return to Jerusalem
Scripture clearly declares that it was Paul’s will, not God’s to go back to Jerusalem.
Acts 20:22-23. And now, you see, I am going to Jerusalem, bound by the (Holy) Spirit (the Mind of Christ), and obligated and compelled by the [convictions of my own] spirit (mind), not knowing what will befall me there; except that the Holy Spirit clearly and emphatically affirms to me in city after city that imprisonment and suffering await me.
As Paul progressed on his journey in the wrong direction, the warnings increased in frequency and intensity. What we need to consider in light of this study is why, with all of the experience Paul had in walking by revelation, he would deliberately and stubbornly disobey the will of God. Why did Paul risk his ministry and his life to return to Jerusalem? The only reasonable explanation is that he knew that his brethren in Jerusalem were still captive to the law and he was committed to try to help them to better understand the grace of God that was available to them. Perhaps the incident at Antioch and its effect on Barnabus and the other Judaeans there lingered in his heart and compelled him to make another attempt to correct their thinking. Romans 10:1-3 summarizes Paul’s feelings about his misguided brethren in Judaea.
Rom 10:1-3. Brethren, [with all] my heart’s (mind’s) desire and goodwill for (Israel) I long and pray to God that they may be saved. I bear them witness that they have a [certain] zeal and enthusiasm for God, but it is not enlightened and according to [correct and vital] knowledge. For being ignorant of the righteousness that God ascribes (which makes one acceptable to Him in word, thought and deed), and seeking to establish a righteousness (a means of salvation) of their own, they did not obey or submit themselves to God’s righteousness.
So the apostle Paul returned to Jerusalem despite the clear knowledge that such a trip was not God’s will and despite dire warnings of physical peril. What did he find in Jerusalem?
Acts 21:17. When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received and welcomed us gladly.
So far, so good. This is in contrast to the contentious greeting Paul had received earlier. The issue of the circumcision of the Gentiles seems to have been settled. Paul’s former opposition was gone.
Acts 21:17. When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received and welcomed us gladly.
Paul went in unto James. No other names are given. God has a reason for this. No other men were important. James was in charge of the church in Jerusalem. As it was James who had pronounced sentence at the end of the earlier council, it was James who now sat in charge of the ongoing affairs of the church in Jerusalem. The significant difference between this meeting and the council is that the apostles are not mentioned. Throughout the record of the earlier council, God’s Word specifically states that “the apostles and elders” met to discuss the issue. In this later meeting there are only James and the elders. Where were the apostles? Since the meeting took place a day after Paul’s arrival, and James and “all the elders” were present, surely the apostles would have known about the meeting. Were the apostles barred from the meeting, or were they no longer even in Jerusalem? We don’t know. But what we do know from the record of God’s Word here is significant. James was in charge of both the meeting and the church, and had even more power than he had wielded during the time of the council.
Acts 21:19. After saluting them, Paul gave a detailed (declared particularly) account of the things God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
The phrase “declared particularly” means he enumerated them one by one. It was not a casual catching up on old times. Paul’s speech had an intended purpose; to relate again the validity of the Gospel he was preaching among the Gentiles; salvation by Grace; the righteousness of God by the faith of Jesus Christ imparted unto all and upon all them that believe (trust in, cleave to, adhere to, lean their entire human personality) on Jesus Christ for their salvation from the Evil One and his kingdom.
Acts 21:20. And upon hearing it, they adored and exalted and praised and thanked God. And they said to [Paul], You see brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and all of them are enthusiastic upholders of the [Mosaic] Law.
When they heard of God’s grace among the Gentiles, they didn’t contest it. Neither were they particularly interested in it. They responded by showing Paul how many thousands of Jews were born again and zealous for the law. Actually, they didn’t say that. The word translated “thousands” here is the Greek word muriad It means ‘tens of thousands’. Its first occurrence is in Luke 12:1 where it’s translated “innumerable multitude”. It is translated “ten thousands” in Jude 1:14 and Revelation 5:11, and “two hundred thousand” in Revelation 9:16. James and the elders responded to Paul’s deliberate declaration of his ministry among the Gentiles by showing Paul that there were tens of thousand of Jews who believed and they were Aaaall zealous for the law.
Please understand the tone of that statement. These men were not complaining. They were not bewailing their collective failure to steer God’s people in the right direction. They weren’t asking for Paul’s advice about how to convince these tens of thousands of born again Judaeans that the law had been fulfilled. They were excited about it, perhaps even proud. How do we know this? It is written.
Acts 21:21. Now they have been informed about you that you continually teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn back from and forsake Moses, advising them not to circumcise their children or pay any attention to the observance of the [Mosaic] customs.
They were informed correctly. Paul did teach that. It was the gospel which he had received by revelation.
Acts 21:22-24. What then [is it best] should be done? A multitude will come together, for they will surely hear that you have arrived. Therefore do just what we tell you. With us are four men who have taken a vow (oath) upon themselves. Take these men and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses [for the temple offering], so that they may have their heads shaved. Thus everybody will know that there is no truth in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself walk in observance of the Law.
If James and the elders understood that they were no longer under the Law, why ask
Paul to undergo purification? Why was he considered unclean? Then consider what Jesus had to say concerning the taking of vows (oaths) in Matt 5:34 “But I tell you, do not bind yourselves by an oath (vow) at all,……..” So James is telling Paul to do something that Jesus said not to do.
Ladies and Gentlemen, could it be any plainer? Scripture clearly shows that James and the elders believed that they were supposed to keep the law. They assumed that Paul was keeping the law and that what they’d heard about his teaching the Jews about salvation by grace was a lie! Verse 25 reiterates that they were no longer interested in bringing the Gentiles in line, but they clearly were blind to the truth that they themselves had been freed from the bondage of the Law.
Paul, as the passage shows, obeyed their wishes and attempted to purify himself with the designated brethren. This begs the question; why did Paul submit to their demands when it was obvious that they had no understanding of his ministry or of the will of God? Well, how else was he going to reach them? I Corinthians 9:20 states that Paul would behave as if he were under the law if it would help him to reach someone who was. He had even gone so far as to circumcise Timothy for the same reason. Apparently he figured that if he could spend enough time with James and these law-bound elders, he would be able, as his manner was, to reason with them out of the scriptures and convince them of their error. Unfortunately, he never got the chance. Before he could complete the purification, he was discovered by his archenemies; the Jews from Asia. They forcibly took him from the Temple and proceeded to gather a lynch mob. From this point on, throughout the rest of the book of Acts, there is no mention of James or the apostles. Considering how long Paul was held captive under the protection of the Roman guard, this omission is itself noteworthy.
Since James was obviously in charge of the church at this time, why is there no record in Acts of James interceding on Paul’s behalf? In considering that question, an equally pertinent one arises. What would James have done when he found out that those nasty rumors about Paul teaching the Jews to forsake Moses were true? Would he have left him to fend for himself? Perhaps he would have. Perhaps he did. What we do know unequivocally is that the rift in the church which Paul returned to Jerusalem to seal was left wide open. At the close of the book of Acts, there were two Christian churches; the church headed by James which ministered the law to the Jews in the name of Jesus Christ and the church lead by Paul which was founded on the revelation of the mystery of the gospel.
Since Acts closes with this rift in the church intact, it is not unreasonable to expect that we would see evidence of the divided church in the epistles. Rather, since several of Paul’s epistles were written during the period of time covered by Acts, we should expect to see something of this in his epistles and in other NT writing.
People tend to read the Bible in sections; without a sense of the flow of events from one age or book to another. We too often read Acts without considering that it takes place on the heels of the ministry of Jesus Christ. Likewise when we read the New Testament epistles, we tend to forget the environment in which Acts says they were written. This blinds us to underlying issues of the epistles. One of the principles of biblical research is we must understand the Bible, not only in terms of what it means to us today, but what it meant to the first people to read it; the primary group to whom it was addressed. With this in mind, let’s take a brief look at some of the scriptures in the New Testament epistles that address a church divided.
1. Paul’s Gospel.
2. The Book of Acts; Division in the Church.
3 . Epistles to A Church Divided.
4. Galatians: Justification by Faith.
5. The Epistle of James.
6. Summary and Overview.
7. Peter and John: Food for Thought.
8. Return to Index (Intro)
9. Return to Top