Problems in the Jerusalem Church

Was the Early Church at Jerusalem Deficient in Understanding?

R ecently I received the following very interesting e mail:

"First I studied Acts 15, then looked at Acts 21. Interesting! Then, I read some of Paul's thinly veiled criticisms of the Jerusalem leadership in Galatians 2. Do you - like myself - get the feeling that everything was not well in the Jerusalem congregation? Did the Jerusalem Elders really have the authority to start ordering an Apostle (Paul) around in Acts 21:23a?? I see signs that the Jerusalem church had regressed in understanding by the time of Paul's Acts 21 visit. Surely I can't be the only one to have noticed this?"

There were surely times when Paul must have despaired of his fellow believers.

I take the point here, and, indeed, my correspondent has not been the only person to have noticed this. So the question is: Did the early Jerusalem-based Jewish Christians regress in understanding? I think the evidence is strong that either they regressed in understanding or, probably far more likely, they were somewhat immature in understanding in the first place. Quite a strong case can be made for the belief that our merciful God gave the Jewish Christians about a generation to get up to speed with the fact that the Old Covenant - yes, the whole lot of it - was dead and buried, rendered meaningless in Christ. Then - to finally and conclusively underline that fact - He allowed the complete destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD70.

So this e-mailer was not the first to posit this question, moreover, there are associated questions. Even the Epistle of James (James being Senior Elder at Jerusalem) raises several questions:

To my mind some of these things are best explained by the understanding that our merciful God allowed, perhaps, a more physical, fleshly understanding of the Gospel proclamation among the Jews until they were able to mature in understanding. As and when they matured in understanding, it would start to become plain to them that there was no place nor necessity for the various Old Covenant requirements under the New Covenant and that new wine should never be put into old containers (Luke 5:36-38. Please carefully note the context of those verses). Even so, during this period, Paul seemed to have quite a few problems with certain Jewish Christians. Eventually the Jews would, hopefully, come to comprehend that the superior gospel revelation could be found within the Gospel message which Paul was preaching.

The Nazarite Vow and Paul

The Nazarite Vow (Numbers 6:1-21) was a freewill (not commanded) vow of separating oneself to the Lord for a particular period of time. No wine, strong drink or even grape juice was to be taken and one's hair should be left uncut during this period. Any contact with dead bodies also had to be avoided. During this period a closer and more intimate contact with the Lord was sought. Acts 18:18 suggests that Paul took such a vow at least once and possibly more than once. He will have been aware that the vow was not a matter of commandment and he was probably also aware that a time would soon arrive (with the destruction of the temple) when the vow could not be properly carried out. According to the NIV Study Bible, such vows "were frequently taken to express thanks for deliverance from grave dangers." (Source, NIV Study Bible, 1985 hardback version, page 1649).

Paul wanted to show the Jerusalem church that he was not 'ploughing his own furrow' and was willing to respect their vital place in the first century church, even though he may well have recognised that the deeper spiritual knowledge was in the Gospel to the Gentiles which had been entrusted to him.

The fact that James, in his epistle, seems unable to acknowledge Peter (James being senior elder at Jerusalem and Peter being senior Apostle to the Jews) remains a mystery, bearing in mind that Peter was certainly still alive. Undoubtedly Peter travelled among the Jewish communities whereas James remained in Jerusalem, a fact which contributed to James' martyrdom around AD62 (Acts 12:2). Even so, James undoubtedly saw his epistle as being applicable to all Jewish communities, underlined by:

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings. (James 1:1).

So - at the end of the day - it does seem to be an unanswered question as to why James addresses his epistle to the peoples of Israel without even once referring to the chief Apostle to those peoples.

Okay. So, to return to the subject of those two Acts chapters, there are about 6 or 7 years between Acts 15 and Acts 21 and what happened to Paul in Acts 21 must have been extremely disappointing for him. But let us look a little more closely at all of this:

In Acts 15 we read of the Jerusalem Conference of about AD49 or 50. It is obvious that Paul and Barnabas were already having a hard time from a legalistic group which had formed among Jewish Christians (Acts 15:1-5). This faction wanted it to become official church teaching and policy that circumcision, and obedience to the whole law of Moses, was necessary for salvation. The text seems to make it clear that some of these people considered themselves both 'Christians' and Pharisees at the same time! The Apostle Peter is present and seems to give a very good speech (verses 7-11). This, by the way, is the final mention of Peter in Acts. The conference then remains silent while Paul and Barnabas speak, "...declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles." (verse 12). James then speaks in favour of the position adopted by Peter, and in support of Paul and Barnabas (13-21). The resulting official declaration is then issued (23-29). Interestingly, this official letter itself admits that many of the legalistic troublemakers who apparently considered themselves joint Christians/Pharisees, "went out from us," that is, they were - or had been - part of the Jerusalem congregation. So the conference finds strongly in favour of Paul and Barnabas continuing their work among the Gentiles and refutes the belief that Gentile Christians need to keep the law of Moses (19-20, 28-29). As a point of interest, it appears to be James, rather than the Apostle Peter, who has 'chair' of this conference and issues the final statement!

Now it is true that the Jerusalem Conference only concerned Gentiles. Without doubt, questions and controversies of how Jewish Christians should understand the law rumbled on, off and on, for several years. Mostly Jewish believers still observed the Sabbath, but later on they often kept the Sabbath and met with others on the Lord's Day (Sunday) as well. Others among them also clung to much of the law of Moses as well. It probably took another 20-30 years for some Jewish Christian believers to fully break from the Old Covenant.

And so we come to Acts 21 which, as already mentioned, relates incidents which occurred something like seven years after the convening of the AD49 or 50 Jerusalem Council. Paul again travels to Jerusalem. From verse 17 we may read of Paul's reception in Jerusalem. A full meeting of the Elders is called in which senior elder James is present (Acts 21:18). Peter, presumably, is not present. The date would now be circa AD56 (about six years before James was martyred). The Jerusalem church's assembled elders listened with admiration to the reports of Paul of his work among the Gentiles (verses 19-20a). But then, apparently quite suddenly, certain of the elders launched into an attack on Paul (20b-22). The problem was that Paul was believed to have been teaching that the Jewish Christian converts themselves (rather than Gentile converts) had no further need of observance to the law. This plainly upset certain of the assembled elders. In verse 22 there are indications that certain of these Jerusalem elders were actually in some fear of the Pharisee/Christian element within Jerusalem! In verse 23 Paul is plainly being commanded to do something which would lead to him being considered as a man who believed that Jews should continue to observe the regulations of the law of Moses! As an Apostle, Paul could surely have refused but he undoubtedly considered it as a wise move in the present circumstances. Perhaps considering that, quite often, 'discretion is the greater part of valour.'

What was Paul told - not politely requested - to do? Four men had just come through a Nazarite vow and Paul was urged to show solidarity with them by - the next day - entering the temple with them to announce the expiration of their vow and by involving himself in some sacrifices which were due to be performed. Perhaps this particular rite had been chosen carefully by the elders because it was known that Paul had retained some interest in this vow (Acts 18:18). Maybe the elders reasoned that Paul would not refuse an involvement in a vow which he himself had apparently recently practiced. However, Paul had only shown interest in the vow as and when he had voluntarily applied it to himself, - not as a vow which necessarily remained in any sense authoritative under the New Covenant. Paul must have had serious misgivings about this whole charade and, sure enough, the whole thing backfired and went horribly wrong! Paul was seized and dragged out of the temple and much persecution immediately followed for Paul (verse 27b onwards).

With hindsight, Paul must have wondered why he ever went along with the Jerusalem elder's idea in what had been something of a charade. Perhaps it took an incident such as this for Paul to understand that - in the full glory and splendour of the New Covenant, such vows no longer had any place. But this was all fulfilling the prophecy of Agabus who had warned about serious problems awaiting Paul at Jerusalem (Acts 21:10-11). What Paul probably had not realised is that these problems would be largely initiated by his fellow believers!

This difficult experience for Paul led directly to the really mature Paul of Galatians and Romans - two very theologically mature epistles - which would quickly follow (a few still mistakenly teach that Galatians is early, written around AD47-48, which is certainly not correct). Those two epistles are very strikingly similar and, within them, Paul feels that he can really 'go to war' on any concept that legalism still retains a place in the Christian life.
Robin A. Brace, March 20th 2010.