If I told you there was a New Testament believer who esteemed the law, made offerings at the temple, and circumcised at least one of his friends, you might think, “there goes someone who needs to hear about the grace of God!” Yet the apostle Paul did all these things. Why? To win Jews to Christ…
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. (1 Co 9:19-20)
No one thinks that Paul was confused about grace. I’ve never heard anyone say that Paul mixed grace with law. So how is it that when Paul acts Jewish we think, “he’s being strategic in his witness,” but when James does it we think “he’s preaching mixture”? When Paul writes a whole chapter urging believers not to eat food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8) we think he’s being wise and considerate, but when James writes a single verse saying the same thing (Acts 15:29) we think he’s preaching law. Go figure!
Most people think James was confused about grace for no other reason than that’s what we’ve always been told. But as I explained in Part 1 of this study, we really don’t know much about James. Even so, the balance of evidence suggests that he and Paul were very much on the same grace page (see Part 2). In Part 3 we looked at the decisive role James played in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. In what was one of the most significant church discussions in history, James clearly identified himself as being firmly in the grace camp. But what are we to make of his words in Acts 21?
The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.” (Acts 21:18-24)
What is going on here? One moment James et al. are praising God for what He had done through Paul’s ministry, but the next they are wringing their hands over a rumor that Paul is telling foreign Jews to abandon the law. James wants to send a message to the Jews that Paul, like any good Jew, is living in obedience to the law. Surely this is evidence that James did not fully understand the gospel of God’s grace?
Once again we are faced with three choices. Either James was preaching law, grace, or mixture. If you think James was preaching law as a means for salvation, how do you account for the fact that he praised God for Paul’s report? The Gentiles were being accepted by God through grace alone. They weren’t getting the law preached to them because James had earlier decided this wasn’t the right thing to do. It is unthinkable that James could trust in the law yet rejoice over grace. They are mutually exclusive options.
So then he must’ve been preaching mixture – a little law plus a little grace. But how then do we account for Paul’s behavior? Paul had dedicated his life to testifying to the gospel of God’s grace (Acts 20:24). Paul was highly sensitive to mixture. When Peter got a little confused about grace, Paul opposed him to his face (Gal 2:11). Paul would let nothing muddle the message of grace. So why didn’t he confront James in this passage? Because James was not preaching mixture.
So what was James doing? What was his motive for suggesting the purification rite and why did Paul go along with it?
Houston, we have a problem
To understand James we need to understand the people he was trying to reach. James identifies them in the passage above:
You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. (Acts 21:20)
We are so performance-minded in the modern church that we think James is bragging about the numbers of people getting saved, but there’s more to it than that. Look at how the Message Bible translates this verse:
Just look at what’s been happening here – thousands upon thousands of God-fearing Jews have become believers in Jesus! But there’s also a problem because they are more zealous than ever in observing the laws of Moses. (Acts 21:20 MSG)
James, or someone from his church, is describing Jewish believers who still lived under law. Perhaps because of their cultural heritage they had not yet received the revelation of God’s all sufficient grace. They had some understanding of the work of Christ, but they were still trusting in their observance of the law. This was a big problem in the Jerusalem church where some of the believers still identified themselves as Pharisees (Acts 15:5). Some of the legalistic believers had even gone out to other nations – against James’s wishes – spreading their message of religious works (Acts 15:24).
All things to all men
How do you tell an orthodox Jew about the good news of God’s grace? I’m not entirely sure, but according to James and Paul, one thing you don’t do is flaunt your freedom by trampling on laws they still value. Do this and you will offend them closing any door you may have had for the gospel.
To reach the lost you have to identify a common ground. You have to speak their language. To catch a fish you have to think like a fish. Both James and Paul wanted to win Jews for Christ and if that meant shaving your head, no problem. It was James’ idea, but Paul had done something similar before (see Acts 18:18). Paul said he was free but fully prepared to make himself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible. This is not hypocrisy. This is the apostolic heart of Jesus identifying with the lost in order to reconcile them to God.
So we begin to see that James was preaching neither law nor mixture. His heart was the same was the same as Paul’s. Both were prepared to identify with the legalistic Jews in order to win them to Christ. In the final part of this series on James – the Misunderstood Apostle, we will pull all the pieces together.