(A) Introduction (Read the references.)

One of the hardest decisions in life can be whether or not to make a concession. My fellow elder, Edward, frequently prays for wisdom; it is certainly required if faced by the dilemma confronting Paul.

We often need to make concessions to the weakness of others. When I take two very old ladies shopping I must accept that we shall make slow progress around the supermarket and that there will be delays at the check out as stiff fingers fumble with purses. As I came home from church last Sunday I saw my old friend Kenny Boreham walking with his three-year-old grandson. KB held the little boy's hand and shepherded him along with great tenderness.

It is nearly always right to make concessions of this sort - for the benefit of others. Jesus did so when he taught in parables. However, it is rarely correct to concede the truth to the weakness of others.

Paul was asked by James and the elders to make a concession. Most commentators, like John Stott, deal with this incident wearing rose-tinted spectacles. They give James and Paul credit for reaching a compromise. This is a complete misreading of the situation. Paul is asked to make a concession for the sake of the Jewish Christian legalists. As I examine the rights and wrongs of the affair I will not be wearing rose-tinted spectacles.

(B) The concern.

(1) Paul posed a problem for James and the elders.
He had a bad reputation with those zealous for the law. James said, "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed and all of them 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. v20to22.

Owing to rumours circulating in Jerusalem Paul was suspected of actively teaching Jewish Christians not to circumcise their baby sons and to abandon Jewish customs.

It is easy to get a bad reputation if people misreport what you have said or done. I was recently at the wedding of one of my old pupils and engaged one of the attractive bridesmaids in conversation. This was a rare pleasure! She was another one that I had taught. Beccy said in the course of conversation, "Mr Reed you used to lock me in your cupboard." Now I never locked anyone in my store cupboard. Occasionally I would put a very inattentive pupil to work in the cupboard - leaving the door ajar. I never put Beccy in the cupboard or even near it! However, such was the strength of the rumour that she had actually convinced herself that she was one of victims of my outlandish behaviour. Beccy was one of my fans - so what my enemies say about me I hate to think!

I am afraid that misinformation is a way of blackening the reputation of a rival or enemy that has been used consistently throughout human history. It results in serious injustice. That is why one of the Ten Commandments states: "You shall not give false testimony against you neighbour." Ex20v16. It does quite as much harm as adultery. It has done me harm in Christian circles.

(2) Was Paul's reputation deserved?
No, it was not deserved. Paul kept Jewish customs. He liked to observe the Passover and Pentecost. We know that on a previous visit to Jerusalem he completed a vow that he had made in Corinth by offering a sacrifice in the temple. Paul insisted that Timothy undergo circumcision for the sake of the Jews in Galatia. It is even possible that the strange instructions to the church at Corinth about women wearing a head-dress and men wearing their hair short owes more to Paul's Jewish roots than Christian revelation.

Paul's position regarding Jewish Christians who wished to retain Jewish customs is summed up in Romans14v1to22 and 1Cor10v23to1Cor11v1. He writes: Do not cause anyone to stumble whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God - even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. 1Cor10v32and33. If he was alive today Paul would probably prefer not to watch a televised football match on a Sunday afternoon but if he was being entertained by someone who did - then Paul would sit and watch it with him.

Paul would not tell Jewish Christians who loved the law to abandon it. He would not demand that they forsake the old ways. He had every sympathy with them.

So why did James and the elders say to Paul, "What shall we do?" v22. How pathetic! They knew Paul's position and they should have known what to do. The thing to have done was issue a firm statement to the legalists expressing every confidence in Paul. They could have arranged a meeting between Paul and his critics for the apostle to explain his position. Why didn't they do this?

(3) A real problem existed.
The reason James and the elders acted the way they did was because a real problem existed. There was an issue that divided Paul and the legalists and, possibly, Paul and at least some of the elders. It was an issue of truth.

The Judaisers, those converted Pharisees who were zealous for the law, conceded defeat over the Gentiles. That matter had been settled at the Jerusalem conference. It is, perhaps, significant that James reminded Paul of the concessions the church at Jerusalem made to the Gentiles.

The Judaisers were not going to make any more concessions. They believed it was wrong for Jewish Christians not to circumcise their sons and not to keep the law. It was not possible to be a Jewish Christian without observing the law.

Paul's position was different. It is clear from his letters to the Romans and Corinthians that he believed a Jewish Christian could enjoy the same liberty as a Gentile Christian - if they so desired. Paul knew that salvation did not depend upon keeping the law. Salvation was a gift received by grace and through faith. Paul wrote: For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile - the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for EVERYONE who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Romans10v12.

I believe that everyone who believes on Jesus and is baptised is entitled to be a member of our church regardless of whether they are committed to the Articles of Faith of our Association. We do not become Christians by believing in Jesus and something else - whether it is the law of Moses or the Articles of Faith. That is why I am against any church being asked to make a commitment to a set of man-made doctrines. The Articles of Faith of our Association should be there for the guidance of member churches not as a sort of rival to Jesus Christ.

(C) The Concession.

(1) James asked Paul to make a concession.
He did not reach a compromise with Paul. They had reached a compromise on the Gentile question after a lot of discussion. On that occasion both sides made concessions - the Jews quite a lot and the Gentiles relatively few.

This time there was no discussion. Paul was asked to do something to show that he himself lived by the law. This was James' reasoning: "Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law."

(2) The solution to the problem Paul posed had been thought out; it was not spontaneous.

(a) James knew that Paul had been a Pharisee and understood the attachment of the Pharisees to the law. Paul himself was very Jewish and gained benefit from Jewish customs.

(b) Paul had taken a vow that involved letting his hair grow. James was aware that a few years earlier he had come to Jerusalem to complete it. He was only being asked to join in the self-same ceremony with four other men. Perhaps, James suggested that Paul could use part of the money gift from the Gentiles to pay the expenses incurred by the four men.

(c) Finally the Jerusalem elders knew that Paul was prepared to make concessions. He was not a man to stand on his dignity. James was not fool - he realised that Paul did try to please every body in every way.

(3) Was this the best way to proceed?
Was the policy of James appropriate for the situation? The answer to that is a resounding - NO.

What Paul was being asked to do did not address the issue. It did not deal with the problem. Nor, in fact, would a statement by James and the elders expressing confidence in Paul have achieved much by itself. The matter on which Paul and the legalists disagreed needed full discussion. It is a pity Paul did not send his epistle to the Romans to Jerusalem for consideration.

There could be no compromise on the essential truth that salvation is by grace and through faith in Jesus. Paul made this clear in his letter to the Romans. The legalistic Jewish Christians needed to consider these words: But now a righteousness from God apart from law, has been made known to which the Law and Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Rom3v22to24.

If Paul and those Jewish Christians zealous for the law could not agree on that then they had come to the parting of the ways. It is not possible for a genuine Christian to concede anything to the truth of what Paul states in this passage.

(4) Was Paul right to co-operate with James and the elders to appease the legalists.

    (a) Paul's compliance to the request of the elders is understandable. He had made so many concessions during the course of his ministry. He wrote to the church at Corinth: 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 ....... . I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 1Cor9v19and22. Paul had anticipated this meeting with James and the elders for many months. He did not want things to go awry from the outset.

    (b) Paul's willingness to co-operate for the sake of his reputation probably revealed his desire to be accepted. This Jewish church had never really accepted him. I think Paul longed to be welcomed and appreciated by what he considered the mother church. I know how he feels. It is a weakness that I share with him. I am afraid it is a weakness.

    (c) I expect the apostle hoped for an opportunity to teach in Jerusalem. There was so much he had to say. He knew that if only the Jewish Christians would listen to him they would be enlightened and edified. Paul also realised that they needed to take on board his teaching. His letter to the Romans reveals how Paul wrestled with the problem of God's rejection of his Chosen People.

    (d) But I still think Paul was wrong to make the concession requested by James. It meant that the real issue was being ignored. The essential difference between the apostle and the legalists was not recognised or addressed. James and the elders did not wish to tackle the question of the Jewish Christian's proper relationship to the law.

    Paul should have insisted on dealing with the error in the Jerusalem church. The legalists were wrong to insist that the salvation of a Jew depended upon belief in Jesus and the law. It was a most serious matter. The Jewish Christians were facing in the wrong direction. They were facing back to Judaism and away from Jesus. This is evident in the Epistle to the Hebrews - a letter that does address the Jewish problem. There is no Jewish church now. There are ancient survivals in other cultures - like the Coptic church in Egypt - but the Christian church did not survive amongst the Jews.

    (e) Paul needed to make a stand and bring the issue that really troubled James out into the open. He had to make it clear where the legalists were going wrong. He did this many years earlier with the help of Peter and Barnabas for the benefit of the Gentile believers and now he should do it again on behalf of his own people.

    I believe Paul did intend, eventually, to deal with the mistaken views of the legalists. If this was the case then it was his tactics that were wrong. It was not the time to make concessions.

    Every Christian, however compliant, has to make a stand when the person, teaching or finished work of Jesus is compromised. We should be very jealous of the supremacy of Christ.

(D) The Consequences.

Paul had venomous enemies from Asia, Galatia and Achaia in Jerusalem. The militant Jews who had opposed him in these Roman provinces were not in a minority in Jerusalem. The last place Paul should have been seen was in the temple.

The Greek speaking Jews from the Roman provinces had listened to the teaching of Paul. They understood some of the implications of his message. It was easy for them to conclude that he spoke against his own people, the temple and the law. Paul laid the blame for Christ's death at the door of the Jews, his own people, who rejected him and handed him over to Pilate for crucifixion. He proclaimed Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice for sin. If that was the case then the temple, the place of sacrifice, was redundant. Above all Paul taught that the law could justify no-one. The law highlighted sin. Salvation could never be obtained by keeping the law but only through repentance and faith in Jesus. Many Jews rejected the gospel message wherever Paul taught.

Such was the Asian Jews suspicion of Paul that when they saw him in the temple they jump to the wrong conclusion. They had seen him earlier with Trophimus, a Gentile from Ephesus, and assumed that he had taken him into the temple area reserved for Jews only. A low wall of partition separated the temple court accessible to Gentiles from the rest of the Holy Place. Gentiles ignored the wall of separation on pain of death. The Romans conceded Jews the right to execute any Gentile who penetrated the temple area restricted to Jews.

I am afraid that people who are suspicious of us jump to the wrong conclusions. At my last school I acquired the reputation of being something of a trouble maker from my aggressive interventions in staff meetings. So, whenever the initiative of another department was opposed in private discussions with the headmaster I think I was the chief suspect. Yet, the only time I ever voiced opposition to colleagues was in public!

Justice was abandoned such was the hatred of the Asian Jews for Paul. Those with murder in their hearts had no intention of giving Paul a fair hearing. They showed no interest in proving the truth of their a wild assumption.

We see where arrogance, contempt and hatred lead. The atrocities committed by American and British troops against Iraqi prisoners is so disgraceful it is hard to face up to. The perpetrators have bought shame upon their nations.

There is no hatred quite like religious hatred. It is the hatred that fuelled the Inquisition and now fuels suicide bombing and ethnic cleansing. It is the hatred that causes division and discord amongst Christians themselves.

(E) The Custodians.

Paul was dragged from the temple and immediately the gate was shut. Paul was shut out and so, too, was the truth. Judaism was barring the gate against the new life in Christ. A few years later God put an end to the temple - to the sacrificial system and the priesthood. There are no Jewish priests now.

Paul did not receive help from James, the elders or all those Jewish Christians zealous for the law. In the subsequent trials of Paul we do not read that James ever spoke in his defence. After all, it was James' idea that Paul should frequent the temple.

No, it was the Romans who came to Paul's rescue. Roman justice offered Paul some protection. This is a sober truth and one not all Christians find easy to accept.

It still happens today. It is rare that two Christians in a legal dispute invite the church leaders to sort it out. Instead they pay their solicitors to handle the matter notwithstanding the advice of Jesus. In the early church the brethren supported their own poor. We in the West no longer do that! The state looks after the poor.

Some churches do not pay their pastors a living wage. A pastor earning below a certain amount can get income support from the state. My own father was never better off than during the last five years of his ministry when the church paid him nothing and the state paid him invalidity benefit.

Yes, the state still comes riding to the rescue and it should be intensely humbling for us. Fortunately in these days when many are old and lonely there are still things that the church can do - and does do. However, there is no doubt that as the power and influence of the state grows so the power and influence of the church wanes. In some respects the church has lost its virility and become like a weak, frustrated and querulous old man.

Yet, there are times when weak old men stand erect, pull back their shoulders, puff out their chests and show off their medals. Every year we see them on Remembrance Sunday proudly marching to the music and exulting in victory over a mighty foe.

So, too, the old and dispirited church in Western Europe rediscovers something of its lost vigour when it remembers that it has a message of salvation and a mighty Captain who conquered sin and death and Satan.