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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – James's Assessment (15:13-21)
James's Assessment (15:13-21)

James, the half-brother of Jesus, who as the chief elder may well be chairing the meeting, spoke up—literally, "answered." He will now give his assessment of the evidence presented and offer a solution to the controversy. He interprets Peter's experience with Cornelius as a major event in God's salvation history. At first—that is, long ago (compare v. 7)—God showed his concern (v. 4; literally, "visited"). James's wording places the salvation of the Gentiles on a par with God's saving acts toward Israel, past and future (Ex 3:16; 4:31; Jer 39:41 LXX; Lk 1:68, 78; 7:16; Testament of Levi 16:5; 1 Enoch 25:3). His purpose is to take a people for his name from among the Gentiles. By using phrasing that closely echoes God's choosing of Israel, James heightens the radical nature of the new thing God has done (Ex 19:5; Deut 7:6). Now a people [laos] for himself (literally, "for his name"; compare Acts 15:17) will be taken from among the Gentiles.

Though the Jews expected God's salvation to reach to the Gentiles, they thought that Gentile participation would occur through incorporation into the already existing people of God, Israel. They never thought that the people of God would comprise both Jew and Gentile but not be Jewish. Note that Luke uses laos consistently in Acts to refer to the Jews as the people of God (4:10; 10:42; 13:17; 26:17, 23; 28:17; contrast 18:10).

Though this may be a radically new thought to the first-century Jew, it is not new to God. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this (15:15, referring to either the book of the twelve minor prophets—Acts 7:42; 13:40; compare Zech 2:11—or the fact that many prophets so agree). Here we have a reversal of roles for the promise and fulfillment. Usually it is the alleged fulfillment that must agree with the promise. Here the fulfillment becomes the hermeneutical key for understanding how the prophet Amos could prophesy that in the last days the "people of God" would include Gentiles who had not first become Jews.

The wording of the Amos 9:11-12 quotation (Acts 15:16-17) is a comprehensive statement of what God has done through Peter. The rebuilding of David's fallen tent may point ultimately to the whole saving program of God in his Messiah (Kaiser 1977:108; compare the Qumran use of the passage—CD 7:16; 4QFlor 1:12) and hence to Jesus' saving death and resurrection (Bruce 1988:293-94), but it does not do so in a spiritualizing way that violates the original context. To say that James equates the "house of David" with the church and the prophecy as a whole with "the church gathering to itself all the nations" does violate Amos's original intent (contra Williams 1985:254). Rightly interpreted, the rebuilt Davidic tent refers to a restored Israel, which in the person of Jewish Christians God chooses to inaugurate the Gentile mission (15:7, 14; compare Longenecker 1981:446). That was, after all, the purpose of Israel's restoration: that the remnant of men may seek the Lord.

James has grasped the very heart of Amos's eschatological message concerning the nature of the salvation that Messiah brings to the Gentiles. In so doing, James has replaced a proselyte model of Gentile salvation with an eschatological/christocentric one. The Lord has chosen to place his name on Gentiles as Gentiles, without requiring that they surrender their ethnic identity. That name, "the Lord Jesus Christ," is the basis on which they have repented and believed (Lk 24:47; Acts 4:12; 10:43), the identity they have adopted in baptism (2:38; 10:48; compare 11:26) and the reason they will suffer (compare 5:41; 14:22).

This Old Testament text teaches that Christians' new identity in Christ both supersedes and allows room for their cultural identity. Christians are saved from the error of prejudicial ethnocentrism. What a liberation, to respect and appreciate differences, not using them as weapons of prejudice but at the same time not being imprisoned by them!

James concludes the quote by affirming that this plan for Gentile salvation is not of human origin and is not new. It has been known by God for ages (compare Is 45:21). To oppose it with human cultural traditions, even those that appeal to Scripture, is to oppose God's eternal revelation.

What solution to the controversy does this freshly articulated understanding yield? James makes an "official" proposal of one negative and one positive action with respect to Gentile converts. We should not make it difficult for them: that is, Jewish Christians should not pressure Gentile converts (compare Judg 14:17; 16:16 LXX) into adopting circumcision and the yoke of the law as a necessary condition and sign of their salvation (contrast Acts 15:1, 5). Positively, the council asks Gentile converts to abstain from food polluted by idols (compare 15:29, "food sacrificed to idols"; Ex 34:15-16; compare Lev 17:7-8), sexual immorality (possibly meaning marriage within levitical degrees—Lev 18:6-18), meat of strangled animals (meat that has not been ritually slaughtered so as to drain the blood properly—Lev 17:13) and blood (eating blood—Lev 17:10).

Interestingly, each of these prohibitions was originally addressed not only to Jew but also to Gentile aliens living alongside them in the land. The rules' specifics and their rationale (Acts 15:21) show they are given to promote table fellowship between uncircumcised Gentile converts and Jewish Christians who observe the dietary laws. There is no surrender here of the gospel freedom alluded to in verse 19. Rather, that freedom is to be used in love to serve Jewish Christian brothers and sisters, but not beyond the bounds of Scripture (Gal 5:13). Sexual immorality, as an ethical matter, not having to do with ritual purity, may seem out of place. But given that one of the Jews' ongoing concerns was "low ethical and moral standards among Gentiles" (Scott 1992:14), it is appropriate in this list to represent the category of moral standards.

James's proposal, then, teaches us three things about life together in a culturally diverse church. We must say no to any form of cultural imperialism that demands others' conformity to our cultural standards before we will accept them and their spiritual experience. We must say yes to mutual respect for our differences. And we must live out that respect even to the extent of using our freedom to forgo what is permissible in other circumstances.

In a day when transportation and urbanization make it easier to stay apart than face the challenge of living together as a multicultural body of believers, the church has yet to model consistently what James calls for. But even our separate culturally homogeneous fellowships may face challenges of gender, music and generation gaps. We need to take Acts 15 to heart.

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