A Commentary by John Stott

Acts. 21:18-26. Paul meets James and accepts his proposal.

We have already noted that, when Paul and his friends arrived in Jerusalem, they received a genuinely warm welcome. (17). Now, however, Luke explains the tension underlying this welcome (18ff.). *The next day*, without any delay, *Paul and the rest of us*, who had accompanied him from Corinth, including Luke, *went to see James*. James was still the recognized leader of the church in Jerusalem and indeed of the world-wide Jewish Christian Community, especially now that the apostles Peter and John seem to have left the city. Not that James was alone when he received Paul and his friends, for *all the elders were present* (18). Since the Jewish Christians now numbered ‘many thousands’ (20), a large number of elders must have been needed to pastor them. *Paul greeted them* (19a).

In depicting Paul and James face to face, Luke presents his readers with a dramatic situation, fraught with both risk and possibility. For James and Paul were the representative leaders of two Christianities, Jewish and Gentile. This was not of course their first meeting. It was at least their fourth. For Paul had called on James during his first visit to Jerusalem years previously (Gal. 1:18-19), and again when he went there fourteen years after that (Gal. 2:1,9). Then they had both been prominent figures at the Jewish Council (15:12ff.). During the intervening years, however, the movements they led had grown considerably under God’s good hand. Indeed, as they greeted one another now, each was flanked by sample fruits of their respective missions, Paul by his companions from the Gentile churches, and James by the elders of the Jerusalem church. Some people were doubtless asserting that the doctrinal positions of James and Paul were incompatible, as they had done before the Jerusalem Council (15:1-2), Paul teaching salvation by grace, and James salvation by works. Hence later Luther’s uneasiness, which led him to dub the Letter of James an ‘epistle of straw’. It is not that he wanted to exclude it from the canon, but that he felt he could not include it among the ‘chief’ books which unambiguously teach justification by faith alone. So when Paul and James faced each other in Jerusalem, there could have been a painful confrontation.

But both apostles were in a conciliatory frame of mind. Take James first. When Paul *reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry* (19, i.e. not what Paul had done with God’s help), James and his elders not only *heard this*, listening attentively to Paul’s account, but *they praised God* together (20a). No murmur of disapproval was heard. As in the case of the conversion of Cornelius (11:18), the evangelization of Greeks in Antioch (11:22-23) and the first missionary journey (14:27; 15:12), the evidence of God’s grace towards Gentiles was indisputable, and the only appropriate response was worship. The joyful praise of James and the elders was not even grudging; it was spontaneous and genuine.

But Paul was also anxious to be conciliatory towards the Jewish Christian community, and showed it in two ways. The first, which for some reason Luke mentions only later in 24:17, was the presentation to the Jewish church of the offerings given by the Gentile churches of the west. It seems to me likely that Paul made this at the beginning of his visit to James. Perhaps it partly accounts for the warm reception of verse 17. Certainly the collection was of great importance to Paul. Not only had he been preoccupied with it for several years, but he had even postponed his intended visit to Rome and Spain in order first to deliver it personally in Jerusalem (19:21; cf. Rom. 15:23ff.). The offering was important in itself, and an expression of loving Christian responsibility to the poor (e.g. Acts 11:27-30; 20:35; Gal. 2:10; 2 Cor.8:9ff.). ‘The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’ (1 Tim.6:10); but the use of money can be a tangible token of love. The chief significance of the offering, however, lay in its symbolism. It exemplified the solidarity of Gentile believers with their Jewish sisters and brothers in the body of Christ. That is why representatives of the Gentile churches had travelled all the way from Corinth in order to share in presenting their gifts, and were even now present with Paul. Further, the offering was a humble acknowledgement of reciprocal indebtedness. True, the Gentile churches ‘were pleased’ to give, out of love, but also (Paul wrote) ‘they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessing, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings’ (Rom. 15:27). It is surely because of the symbolic nature of the offering that Paul was so concerned about it. He was anxious that it should not be misunderstood, as an unwelcome paternalism perhaps, or as an attempt to buy favour, and that its acceptance should not be misinterpreted as a kind of capitulation by Jewish Christians to Paul’s pro-Gentile stance. This is why he urged the Roman Christians to pray with him that his ‘service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there’ (Rom. 15:31). He wanted to express their fellowship in Christ by giving the gift; would the Jewish Christians reciprocate by receiving it?

Luke concentrates, however, on the second example of Paul’s conciliatory spirit, namely the positive way in which he responded to the proposal James put to him. This arose because of the existence of both Jewish believers (20) and Gentile believers(25). The question was how could they be helped to live together in amity, especially in view of Jewish Christian scruples about law observance. James and the elders (*said to Paul: ‘You see, brother* (a touching, because unself-conscious, acknowledgement of their unity in God’s family), *how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them zealous for the law* (20), (that is, “staunch upholders” of it (NEB, JBP,JB)). *They have been informed {in fact misinformed) that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles (in the diaspora) to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs’* (21). What exactly was James concern, then? First, it was not about the way of salvation (James and Paul were agreed that this was through Christ, not through the law), but about the way of discipleship. Secondly, it was not about what Paul taught Gentile converts (he did teach them that circumcision was unnecessary (e.g. 1Cor. 7:19; Gal. 6:15), and James and the Jerusalem Council had said the same thing), but about what he was teaching ‘the Jews who live among the Gentiles’ (21) Thirdly, it was not about the moral law (Paul and James were agreed that God’s people must live a holy life according to God’s commandments e.g. Rom. 7:12; 8:4; Jas. 1:25; 2:8), but about Jewish ‘customs’ (21). In a word, should Jewish believers continue to observe Jewish cultural practices? The rumour was that Paul was teaching them not to.

Tomorrow: Acts 21:18-26. Paul meets James and accepts his proposal (continued).

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.