A Brief Biography of Jesus’ Brother (Part Two)

James the Elder

God did not deem it necessary for us to know when James was made an elder in the church at Jerusalem,*[1] but by the time fourteen years had passed from James’ meeting with Saul of Tarsus, he was one.*[2]  He was extremely influential in the church at Jerusalem, being called a “pillar” of equal standing with Peter and John (Galatians 2:9).  In fact, after Peter’s angelic rescue from prison, he instructed the disciples to go “tell James” about what happened.*[3]  Some trouble had erupted with some Jewish Christians teaching that Gentiles could not be saved without first being circumcised.  Saul (now called “Paul”), along with Barnabas, came to Jerusalem and had a meeting with the “apostles and elders” to discuss the matter.*[4]  James was one of the “apostles and elders” who was present,*[5] and in fact appears to be the one who was supervising the whole proceeding, issuing his “sentence” or “judgment” after hearing Peter, Paul, and Barnabas give their testimony.*[6]

James’ judgment was that the Gentiles were not to be troubled with keeping any part of the Law of Moses.  In accordance with this judgment, James wrote a letter to be sent to the Gentile Christians in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia.*[7]  It is also at this time that James (along with Peter and John) gave Paul and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, acknowledging that Jesus had commissioned them to go to the Gentiles, while James’ (and Peter and John’s) commission was to the Jews.*[8]

Some time afterwards, some men came “from James” to Antioch; and though the circumstances causing this journey is not given,*[9] it does point to James’ status as a leader in the Jerusalem church.*[10]  The apostle Paul even appealed to James as a person of authority when writing to the Christians in Corinth: first, as an approved example of a married man being supported by the church;*[11] second, as a reputable person who was a witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.*[12]

Several years later, James received a visit from Paul, Timothy, Luke, and several others*[13] in order to receive financial aid sent by predominantly Gentile churches for the poor Jewish saints in Jerusalem.  James, along with the other elders in Jerusalem, met with them and rejoiced at the great work God was doing through Paul’s missionary efforts.  However, there was something that James and the other elders needed to talk to Paul about.*[14]  They had heard rumors—as had the other Christians in Jerusalem—that Paul was teaching Jews to forsake the customs of the Law of Moses, specifically circumcision.  James and the elders knew that this wasn’t truly the case, but they also knew that something needed to be done to prove to the Jewish Christians that the rumors were false.  So, James and the rest of the elders (potentially hundreds of men) asked Paul to purify himself and pay the temple offering for himself and four other Jewish Christians who had taken a vow.  This, they were confident, would be sufficient proof to the Christians that Paul still respected the Law of Moses. Unfortunately, some of the Jews who had caused Paul such problems in Asia had come to Jerusalem as well and stirred up the multitude, almost causing Paul’s death, and rendering James’ suggestion moot.

Many people want to condemn James’ actions here, but the evidence doesn’t warrant condemnation.  The idea that one inspired man (James) and potentially hundreds of other leaders in the church (most of whom probably had miraculous gifts) would ask another inspired man (Paul) to sin—and then that inspired man agreed to sin—is despicable and unworthy of serious consideration.*[15]  The fact that, just a few days after these events, Paul testified that he had lived “in all good conscience” up to that point shows that the inspired apostle didn’t see anything wrong with the request made by James and the elders in Jerusalem—or else he was lying (Acts 23:1).  James and the elders were not asking Paul to reject the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and return to the Old Law; they were asking him to show that he still had respect for the customs of the Jews contained in the Law of Moses (see Acts 21:21).*[16]  In short, James was asking Paul to do something expedient to assist in keeping peace and unity within the Jerusalem church.*[17]

[1] *Epiphanius (Haeres., 78), Chroysostom (Homilies xi in 1 Corinthians 7), as well as others, state that James was made an elder by the Lord Jesus Himself.  Eusebius agrees in one place, but elsewhere states that he was ordained an elder by the apostles (Ecclesiastical History, 2:23).  Clement of Alexandria places James at a higher level in the Jerusalem church than even the apostles, suggesting that Peter, James [son of Zebedee], and John “might well have been ambitious” for it (McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia of biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. 4, page755).

[2] *The Scriptures do not describe how or when elders were first installed in the church.  The first mention of elders in the church is in Acts 11:30, and they are portrayed as men who were already seen as the leaders of the church [most likely in Jerusalem].  Since Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in every congregation (Acts 14:23), it would be logical to assume that all the other established congregations (such as Antioch and those congregations outside of Jerusalem) also already had elders at that time as well.

[3] *Acts 12:17.  James, the son of Zebedee, had been murdered before Peter’s arrest, eliminating him from possible consideration in this passage.

[4] *Acts 15:1-6.

[5] *If one were to argue that James was not an elder, this phrase requires that they place James among the apostles—which very few would be willing to do.  He is either one or the other (or both, see 1 Peter 5:1-3).

[6] *Acts 19:13-21.  It is difficult to see how James could have authority in this meeting without being an apostle of Jesus Christ.  There are arguments given that there were only twelve full-fledged apostles of Jesus Christ, yet Matthias was a thirteenth (though admittedly, he replaced Judas) and Paul was definitely not one of the twelve.  Paul categorizes James with Peter and John (who were both apostles), and even appears to call James an apostle in Galatians 1:18-19.  If the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus Christ to Paul was enough to commission him to be a full-fledged apostle, why could not the same thing be said of James?  The office of apostle was a miraculous one (2 Corinthians 12:12), and regardless of how many people filled that role, it was one which ended with the age of miracles—that is, when the Scriptures were completed and Jerusalem was overthrown.  See the Appendix in the author’s book The Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts for more information regarding the end of miracles.

[7] *Though the text does not explicitly state James as the author, there are multiple phrases in that short letter which only appear in one other place in Scripture: the letter known as “James,” which was written by the brother of the Lord.   For most commentators, this is sufficient proof that the same man wrote both letters.  See the introduction to this author’s book: Justified by Works: A Study of the Letter from James.

[8] *Galatians 2:7-9.

[9] *There is speculation on almost every aspect of Galatians 2:12.  Commentators dispute among themselves over whether these “certain men” were really sent by James, or if they were simply men who were in agreement with him, or they just claimed to be in agreement with him.  They argue over why James sent these men (if indeed he actually sent them): was it to make sure Peter was behaving according to the Jewish customs, or to tell the Jewish Christians that they were still obliged to follow the Law of Moses, or any number of other things?  They argue over why Peter was scared of them: was it because he was scared of James, or scared of these men who would be upset with him for not following Jewish customs regarding eating with Gentiles, or scared that he—as a Jew—was somehow keeping his national brethren from coming to the truth?

[10] *Whether these men were actually sent by James or simply claimed to be sent by James, the fact remains that the name of James carried such weight that Peter was scared of doing something that would upset him or his emissaries.

[11] *1 Corinthians 9:1-6.Paul’s argument is that he could have demanded that they support him financially, but he didn’t.  He didn’t take advantage of what was proper.  He could have commanded them to provide his food and drink; he could have taken a wife and had the church support both of them like the other apostles, the brethren of the Lord [including James], and Peter himself.  Thus, Paul appeals to James as one of the many examples of a person who was supported by the church full-time because of his work with the congregation.  This matches with 1 Timothy 5:17, where elders have the right to be financially supported.

[12] *1 Corinthians 15:4-7.  There was no reason to mention James by name unless his name held some level of importance within the church.  The fact that his name was well-known to Gentile Christians hundreds of miles from Jerusalem speaks to his importance.

[13] *These others are mentioned by name in Acts 20:4.  The visit itself is recorded in Acts 21:17-ff,

[14] *This speech is most often attributed to James alone by commentary writers, but the text attributes it to the entirety of the elders in Jerusalem—potentially hundreds of men.  See Acts 21:20-25.

[15] *Lipscomb states:

They were not under obligations to observe the law; but as they had been accustomed to its observance, they did not at once see that it was incompatible with faith in Christ Jesus. So they continued to observe it. It is probable that they gradually learned that Jesus was the end of the law, and turned from it by degrees, the destruction of Jerusalem likely enforcing the final truth upon them.

[16] *McGarvey, after noting that this is a “most difficult” section of Acts to explain, said the following:

The truth is, that, up to this time, Paul had written nothing which directly conflicted with the service of the altar, and he did not yet understand the subject correctly. His mind, and those of all the brethren, were as yet in much the same condition on this subject that they were before the conversion of Cornelius, in reference to the reception of the uncircumcised into the Church. If we admit that the proposition above quoted from Galatians, affirming that “we are no longer under the law,” was, when fully understood, inconsistent with the continuance of the sacrifice, we make his case only the more likely like Peter’s in regard to the Gentiles; for he announced propositions, on Pentecost, which were inconsistent with his subsequent course, until he was made to better understand the force of his own words. Peter finally discovered that he was wrong in that matter, and Paul at length discovered that he was wrong, in his connection with the offerings of these Nazarites. Some years later, the whole question concerning the Aaronic priesthood and animal sacrifices was thrust more distinctly upon his mind, and the Holy Spirit made to him a more distinct revelation of the truth upon the subject, and caused him to develop it to the Churches, in Ephesians, Colossians, and especially in Hebrews. In the last-named Epistle, written during his imprisonment in Rome, he exhibited the utter inefficiency of animal sacrifices; the sacrifice of Christ, once for all, as the only sufficient sin-offering; and the abrogation of the Aaronic priesthood by that of Christ, who was now the only high priest and mediator between God and man. After these developments, he could not, for any earthly consideration, have repeated the transaction with the Nazarites; for it would have been to insult the great High Priest over the house of God, by presenting, before a human priest, an offering which could not take away sin, and which would proclaim the insufficiency of the blood of the atonement. We conclude, therefore, that the procedure described in the text was inconsistent with the truth as finally developed by the apostles, but not with so much of it as was then understood by Paul. This conclusion presents but another proof that the Holy Spirit, in leading the apostles “into the truth,” did so by a gradual development running through a series of years. (Commentary on Acts, notes on 21:18-26).

[17] *The same ones who wish to condemn Paul and James for this act of expedience have no problem with Paul’s circumcision of Timothy, which was also an act of expedience.

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