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Who is the James of the council of 49AD?

Query for the Month


May 2006

Next up-date: June 1st 2006 (God willing).

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Acts 15:13-20

And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, "Men and brethren, hearken to me: Simeon has declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for His name. [Luke 2:25-32.] And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: that the residue of men might seek after the LORD, and all the Gentiles, upon whom My name is called, says the LORD, who does all these things.’ [See Isaiah 11:10; 54:1-5; Hosea 3:5; Amos 9:11.]

"Known to God are all His works from the beginning of the world. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: but that we write to them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood." 

Who is this James?  And why is he pronouncing the decision of the council and not Peter?


James the brother of John, who was one of the twelve, was the first of the apostles to be killed, probably about 44AD. "Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread [the passover].)" Acts 12:1-3.

It was some time after the execution of James that Peter was imprisoned (verse 3). In the meantime he had had the vision of the sheet and the unclean animals at Joppa and now knew that Christ wanted the Gentiles to hear the truth also. (Acts 10:11-16.) When set free from prison by the angel, he rejoined his companions. (Acts 12:7-16.) However, when he left them to go abroad, he said, "Go show these things to James, and to the brethren. And he departed, and went into another place." Verse 17.

Clearly there was another man named James leading out in Jerusalem. He was not the brother of John, but was possibly the stepbrother of Jesus. Paul tells us that after his meeting with Christ [around 37AD], "Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the LORD's brother." Galatians 1:18-19. This would be about 40AD and it is interesting that the LORD’s brother was also known as an apostle. He is sometimes referred to as "James the less". Mark 15:40.

Passing note:

This other James was still presiding over the elders when Paul returned to Jerusalem again around 58AD. Luke writes; "And after those days we took up our carriages, and went up to Jerusalem… And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. And the day following Paul went in with us to James; and all the elders were present. And when he had saluted them, he declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified the LORD, and said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe [are Christians]; and they are all zealous of the law [of ceremonies]: and they are informed of you, that you teach all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs … Do therefore this that we say to you: We have four men which have a vow on them; them take, and purify yourself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning you, are nothing; but that you yourself also walk orderly, and keep the law." Acts 21:15-24. James was therefore one those instrumental in persuading Paul to enter the temple where he was taken prisoner. Verses 26-33 etc.

Such was the influence of Pharisaism that nearly 30 years after the crucifixion many Christians still followed the Jewish rituals. Note that this latter time Paul was in trouble not because he was teaching Gentiles to ignore the ceremonies, but because his influence was spreading among the Jewish Christians too!  (Then in the 2nd and 3rd centuries Satan was able to tip the scale right over and the Gentile Christians in Rome turned completely from the truth, adopted the sun’s day as their day of rest and set up their own symbols and rituals.)

What was the real problem that was presented at the council?

The Jews had always prided themselves upon their divinely appointed services, and many of those who had been converted to the faith of Christ still felt that since God had once clearly outlined the Hebrew manner of worship, it was improbable that He would ever authorize a change in any of its specifications. They insisted that the Jewish laws and ceremonies should be incorporated into the rites of the Christian religion. They were slow to discern that all the sacrificial offerings had but prefigured the death of the Son of man, in which type met antitype, and after which the rites and ceremonies of the Mosaic dispensation were no longer binding. (The changeover from one dispensation to another has always been a stumbling block – and the present is no exception.)

In the church at Antioch the consideration of the question of circumcision as part of those ceremonies resulted in much discussion and contention. (There was "no small dissension and disputation" among them, which means there was a lot! Acts 15:2.) Finally, the members of the church, fearing that a division among them would be the outcome of continued debate, decided to send Paul and Barnabas, with some responsible men from the church, to Jerusalem to lay the matter before the apostles and elders. (This occurred about the year 49AD about five years after James the original apostle died.) There they were to meet delegates from the different churches and those who had come to Jerusalem to attend the approaching festivals. Meanwhile all controversy was to cease until a final decision should be given in general council. This decision was then to be universally accepted by the different churches throughout the country.

At Jerusalem the delegates from Antioch met the brethren of the various churches who had gathered for the general meeting, and to them they unofficially related the success that had attended their ministry among the Gentiles. They then gave a clear outline of the confusion that had resulted because certain converted Pharisees had gone to Antioch declaring that, in order to be saved, the Gentile converts must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses.

I’d like to suggest a new angle on this situation. I believe that these Pharisaic Christians were not asking for this just because they wanted to cling on to the old ways, but also because the Gentiles, and especially the Greeks, were extremely licentious, and there was danger that some, unconverted in heart, would make a profession of faith without renouncing their evil practices. The Jewish Christians found it hard to tolerate the immorality that was not even regarded as criminal by the heathen, or even to dine with the Gentile Christians because of their eating habits. (See Galatians 2:11-12.) Many of them therefore held it as highly proper that circumcision and the observance of the ceremonial law should be urged on the Gentile converts as a test of their sincerity and devotion. This, they believed, would prevent the addition to the church of those who, adopting the faith without true conversion of heart, might afterward bring reproach upon the cause by immorality and excess.

So a basic principle was at stake – could they be allowed to set conditions for entrance into the church above those set by God?

This council is the only recorded instance in which Paul publicly deferred to the judgment of others as superior to his own, although he always had this principle in mind. However, under the influence of the Spirit he had already had a private interview with the apostle Peter and the leader James some years before, in which he had set before them the matter in all its bearings. Peter now understood immediately, of course, because of his vision, but James also saw God’s plan. Rightly, with far-seeing wisdom, Paul concluded that if these men could be led to take a correct position publicly, everything would be gained. If he personally presented the question before the whole council, there would be a division of sentiment. The strong prejudice already aroused because he had not enforced circumcision on the Gentiles, would lead many to take a stand against him. Thus the object of his visit would be defeated, and his usefulness greatly hindered.

So it was these leading apostles, against whom no such prejudice existed, having themselves been won to the true position, who brought the matter before the council, and won from all a concurrence in the decision to leave the Gentiles free from the obligations of the ceremonial law.

The Holy Spirit had, in reality, already settled this whole problem (upon the decision of which seemed to depend the prosperity, if not the very existence, of the Christian church) in the vision He had given to Peter. So, "When there had been much disputing [some hot arguing]," Peter rose and said that surely the Holy Spirit had decided the matter by descending with equal power upon the uncircumcised Gentiles and the circumcised Jews.  Once before, Peter had reasoned with his brethren concerning the conversion of Cornelius and his friends, and his fellowship with them.  Now, with equal fervour and force, he said: "God, which knows the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as He did to us; and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt you God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" Acts 15:10.

This yoke was not the law of Ten Commandments, as some who oppose the binding claims of that law assert. Peter here referred to the law of ceremonies, which was made null and void by the crucifixion of Christ.

Peter's address brought the assembly to a point where they could listen with patience to Paul and Barnabas, who related their experience in working for the Gentiles. "All the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them." Verse 12.

In this instance it was James, as the head of the board of elders at Jerusalem, who announced the decision arrived at by the council. This ended the discussion. Here we have a refutation of the doctrine held by the Roman Catholic Church that Peter was the head of the church. Those who, as popes, have claimed to be his successors, have no scriptural foundation for their pretensions. Nothing in the life of Peter gives sanction to the claim that he was elevated above his brethren as the vicegerent of the Most High. If those who are declared to be the successors of Peter had followed his example, they would always have been content to remain on an equality with their brethren.

James also bore his testimony with decision, declaring that it was God's purpose to bestow upon the Gentiles the same privileges and blessings that had been granted to the Jews. When the delegates recognised that the Holy Spirit saw good not to impose the ceremonial law on the Gentile converts, their minds regarding this matter became as His. James’ final decision was, "Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God." Verse 19. So the Holy Spirit was able to keep the church on the right track of freedom in Christ! (See Galatians 5:1-4.)

It was James who pronounced the decree that the ceremonial laws, and especially the ordinance of circumcision, should not be urged upon the Gentiles, or even recommended to them. Yet he himself obviously adhered closely to them for he had remained near the temple along with many other new Christians (the "many thousands that believed"), despite Christ’s command to go into all the world. However, as a reasonable man he sought to impress the minds of his brethren with the fact that, in turning to God, the Gentiles had made a great change in their lives and that much caution should be used not to trouble them with perplexing and doubtful questions of minor importance, lest they be discouraged in following Christ. It seems obvious, at that date, that Gentiles were still in a minority in the church.

The various other points involved in the settlement of the main question at issue had also seemed to present before the council insurmountable difficulties, but these too, were eventually settled.

The Gentile converts were urged to give up the customs that were inconsistent with the principles of Christianity. The apostles and elders therefore agreed to instruct the Gentiles by letter. This is what they wrote: "For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that you abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if you keep yourselves, you shall do well [you’ll have a healthy life]. Fare you well." Acts 15:28-29. Circumcision, holy days, and rituals were the points at issue in this question. Love to God, shown through spending the Sabbath with Him each week, and love to our fellow humans shown by good works on that day, needed no mention because that was the standard. (Of course, both of these things are really 24/7, but can be seen by others most easily in that one 24-hour period.)

By this first piece of advice they meant that Christians should abstain from food which had been blessed by the priest of idols, in which there was great trade at premium prices because of the presumed added good thing they had obtained. But God advises through Paul: "All [good] things are lawful for me [certainly not sinful ones], but all [good] things are not expedient [useful]: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify [improve] not. Let no man seek his own, but every man another's [spiritual] wealth. Whatsoever is sold in the shambles [the food market], that eat, asking no question for conscience sake: for the earth is the LORD's, and the fulness thereof. If any of them [idol worshippers] that believe not bid you to a feast [dinner], and you be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake. But if any man say to you, "This is offered in sacrifice to idols," eat not for his sake that showed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the LORD's, and the fulness thereof. Conscience, I say, not your own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man's conscience? For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks? Whether therefore you eat, or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God." 1 Corinthians 10:23-31.

The letter continued with: abstain from fornication (casual sex without commitment); from strangled animals, because they contained a lot of excited blood; and from blood products such as black puddings which were very unhealthy. In this advice they were urged to keep the Ten Commandments and to lead holy lives (become righteous). They were also assured that the men who had declared circumcision to be binding were not authorized to do so by the apostles.

In passing we should note that the council which decided this case was composed of apostles and teachers who had been prominent in raising up the Jewish and Gentile Christian churches, with chosen delegates from various places. Elders from Jerusalem and deputies from Antioch were present, and the most influential churches were represented. The council moved in accordance with the dictates of enlightened judgment, and with the dignity of a church established by the divine will. As a result of their deliberations they all saw that God Himself had answered the question at issue by bestowing upon the Gentiles the Holy Ghost; and they realised that it was their part to follow the guidance of the Spirit.

The entire body of Christians was not called to vote upon the question, for that is not God’s "way." The "apostles and elders," men of influence and judgment, including James the leader, simply framed and issued the decree, which was thereupon generally accepted by the Christian churches because they agreed that the decision came from God.

Not all, however, were pleased with the conclusion; there was a faction of ambitious and self-confident brethren who disagreed with it, seeing it only as the word of men. These were dissenters who presumed to engage in the work on their own responsibility. They indulged in much murmuring and faultfinding, proposing new plans and seeking to pull down the work of the men whom God had ordained to teach the gospel message. They could have continued in honouring the ceremonies on their own without sinning, because "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God [is everything]." 1 Corinthians 7:19. Their error was in continuing to force their views on others after the council’s decision, and they became as "tares" among the "wheat."

From the first the church has had such people to meet, and ever will have till the close of time.

So why not restrict their entry as the Christian Pharisees had suggested, to keep the church pure? Jesus answered that for us when He told us the parable illustrating His attitude to this. "The servants said to Him, ‘Will You then that we go and gather them up?’ But He said, Nay; lest while you gather up the tares, you root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘Gather you together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into My barn’." Matthew 13:28-30.

It must be done this way because we cannot judge the hearts of others, and agreeing to follow rituals is no guarantee anyway. And also because an occasional crisis in doctrine makes us take a stand and that has to be good for God! Speaking to His church in these last days, He says, "I would you were cold or hot." Revelation 3:15. It is a fact that human nature performs better under pressure. And this is what the Spirit ordained, and obtained, in this little exercise – polarisation.


The ceremonialism of the Jewish dispensation is no longer required in this dispensation. It had its purpose in detailing the life and death of the Son of man, and in showing us the many facets of salvation, sanctification and redemption. But now all our emphasis should be on the Son of God and His work in heaven.

Paul’s words have a place here, for today we are between the Jewish "childhood" and the redeemed "adulthood" – we are spiritual "teenagers." "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abides faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity [a special kind of Godly love]."  1 Corinthians 13:11-13.


Who wants to add (or subtract!) from these thoughts? I won't argue as I have stated, but I will publish your Scriptures so that we may review all the words of God on the subject.
Some of the comments on this page are adapted from books in my library.  No recognition is given because they are not intended as authorities, but are used because they express my understanding clearly.
Next query. To be discussed from June 1st, 2006.

Exodus 16:11-15

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel: speak to them, saying, At even you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God.”

And it came to pass, that at even the quails came up, and covered the camp: and in the morning the dew lay round about the host.  And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground.  And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, “It is manna [or, What is this?]” for they knew not what it was.  And Moses said to them, “This is the bread which the LORD has given you to eat.”

 What was manna like and why is it connected with the quails?

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