SIMON PETER was the first of the apostles to go to a man of the nations, but it took a special vision to break down his prejudice against them, and another vision to direct Cornelius to send for him, as recorded in the tenth chapter of Acts. There first was proclaimed the pardon of sins through "His Name" (Acts 10:43). When the apostles and elders were assembled in Jerusalem later on, as related in Acts fifteen, Peter refers to this, saying, "God chooses among you, that through my mouth the nations are to hear the word of the evangel and believe" (Acts 15:7). This will be fulfilled in the future kingdom. Cornelius and his house were not a nation, but only a kind of firstfruit of the future.
Later, James, the Lord's brother according to the flesh, referring to this statement, said, "Simeon unfolds how God first visits the nations, to obtain out of them people for His Name. And with this the words of the prophets are agreeing, according as it is written; after these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen. And its overturned [structure] will I rebuild, And I will re-erect it. So that those left of mankind should be seeking the Lord, and all the nations over whom My name has been invoked."
James says that the prophets (plural) said this. As only one, Amos 9:11,12, comes very near to this statement, yet does not read exactly the same, it must be a digest of the prophets as a whole as he understood them, adapted to the surrounding circumstances, rather than an exact quotation. First Amos indicates the time, "After these things." It is compared with the days of David, the first phase of the kingdom, which James assumed to be present, although the Son of David had not yet returned. Meanwhile he, as His brother claimed the rights to His place and power.
David was not only the darling Duid of the chosen nation, but he had good friends among the kings of the other nations, such as Hiram (Chirm devoted) the King of Tyre (1 Chron.14), who was a great help in providing timber for the building of the temple. So there will be friendly nations in the future.
Therefore Amos speaks of "nations over whom My Name has been invoked." But, when James spoke, no nations, as such, had accepted the Messiah. Only people, such as the house of Cornelius, through Peter, and Sergius Paul, and Pisidian proselytes (Acts 13:43), people of the nations (Acts 13:44-48, etc.), through Paul. Therefore James said: "to obtain out of them people for His Name." This agrees with, but is not the same as is written in the prophets.
James did not say, like Peter at Pentecost, "this is that which has been declared through the prophet Joel" (Acts 1:16). He merely indicated an agreement, but mentioned no prophet's name. Now that we have a concordant version of Amos, we can see that he did not quote it, but only referred to a part of the passage. Amos says: "In that day," but James says "After these things." He recognized the fact that no nations had sought the Lord yet, nor had His Name been called over them. Therefore he changed nations to people (14) and spoke of those from the nations (19). (It would be helpful if we had a special term for these people. "Gentiles" has been proposed, word, agree (together-sound), is very seldom used in a comparison, so deserves special notice here. It is a musical term, which we might express by the word harmonize. It is not the same note or sound, but one with a different pitch, with a different number of vibrations, yet which will make music when sounded together with it. The prophet foretold that His Name would be called over the nations. This had not yet occurred, but Cornelius, a man of the Roman nation, had obtained the pardon of sins through His Name. This agreed with the prophecy, inasmuch as the thing which had happened to a few people, will occur again to whole nations in the kingdom. To him "the powers of the future eon" had arrived (Heb.6:5).
At that time James evidently referred to all people among the nations who had turned back to God (Acts 15:19), and applied to them the passages which will concern the nations, as such, when the kingdom comes. If the kingdom had come at that time, as he anticipated, it might have been confirmed. He practically ignored Paul's ministry and mission, much of which was not based on the prophets at all, but was a secret unknown to them, in which Israel has no priority whatever. In the future, the time Name, Ieue, the Alueim of Israel, will be used in heralding the King, for He, as the Son of Adam, will rule over all nations for a thousand years. The present period is timeless. No one knows how long it will last. Now we are told to be subject to the superior authorities of the nation to which we belong (Rom.13:1).
James wished to give scriptural authority for the decrees he was about to propose. There was none. If his Brother, Christ, had returned in glory, He could have made decrees for the nations, and enforce them, as, indeed, He will, when He comes. Here we have His flesh-brother usurping His place and power without any scriptural authority for either his office or his action. He was copying the kingdom before it had come, and while the King was being rejected. The phrase "people for His Name" was invented by him and applied indiscriminately to all believers from the nations in order to get power over them. As the kingdom did not come, the people called through Paul did not go into it, and did not belong to the nations over whom His Name will be invoked in the future.
James did not distinguish those called through Paul from those called through Peter. He did not recognize the fact that Israel not only had crucified Christ, but had stoned Stephen, as they later stoned Paul, that the apostle James had been assassinated and Peter imprisoned. When the kingdom comes, the apostles will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt.19:28). Is there any warrant for the brothers of our Lord according to the flesh to rule over the nations? It cannot be so while Israel itself is apostate, as it was when James spoke. Let us remember that the book of Acts records and leads up to the failure of the kingdom. And this is part of it.
Twice, in connection with the decrees, we meet the word seem, otherwise rendered suppose. Paul once supposed himself bound to commit much contrary to the name of Jesus (Acts.26:9). The leaders of this conference were supposed to be pillars (Gal.2:9). Why speak in this way, if they undoubtedly were? Why did it only seem good to the apostles and elders (Acts 15:22,25, and to the holy spirit (28))? The word seem is just as inspired as the rest of it.
Hitherto most expositors have utterly ignored it. Moreover, James and his followers did not act accordingly. Even Peter played the hypocrite (Gal.2:15; Acts 21:20 etc.). Later Israel was set aside. Paul performed his part only until the primitive passed by, and all became new (2 Cor.5:17). Not till after the present secret administration was revealed did he denounce the decrees.
For us the all-important question is, what does Paul say about this matter? Did he ever mention any "people for His Name?" We know that he was, emphatically, the apostle of the nations (Rom.11:13). We know, moreover, while the Circumcision opposed preaching to men of the nations, and reached very few, Paul suffered much from James' followers for going to them, and founded many ecclesias among them, and wrote his epistles to them. In these he deals fully with the question before us. In Galatians he makes it clear that even Peter disagreed with James' followers (2:12), and that their teaching was a falling out of grace (5:4). In Ephesians the decrees are nullified (2:15), and those from the nations are no longer guests of the promise covenants, but are fellow citizens, and both have access, by one spirit, to the Father (2:18,19).
By altering the word "decree," to "ordinance," only when it occurs in Paul's epistles, the A.V. has destroyed its divine connection with the decrees which he, himself, had taken to the nations (Acts 16:4). The latest revision is still worse, though it also uses decree in Luke 2:1 and Acts 17:7 (issued by Caesar), it has "decisions" in Acts 16:4, "ordinances" in Eph.2:15, "demands" in Col.2:14, and "regulations" in Col.2:20. It is evident that scholarship deemed it best to divorce what God has joined together. But, if Paul had gone about with "decrees," and later wrote to these ecclesias about "decrees," how could they know that he meant something quite different?
The decrees consisted in abstaining and keeping themselves from (Acts 15:29). In Col.2:20 they consist in not...touching, nor yet tasting, nor yet coming into contact. Does not this identify them? In Ephesians they are associated with the barrier, the enmity in His flesh (2:15). This is the division which the decrees were supposed to heal. A Jew would not eat with a gentile. Even the "believers" of the Circumcision denounced Peter, the rock on which their ecclesia was built, for eating with believing Cornelius! (Acts 11:3). God had told him, "what God cleanses do not you count contaminating!" Thrice was it repeated, (Acts 11:9). Yet even Peter himself, after he had eaten together with those of the nations, severed himself, fearing those who came from James. The decrees were against us, hostile to us. Therefore they were erased and nailed to the cross (Col.2:14,15).
It may seem strange at first, and almost unbelievable, that Paul should distribute the decrees at one point in his career, and at another definitely denounce them. But a careful consideration of the vast advances in this and other matters between this meeting in Jerusalem and that in Rome, where the perfection epistles were written, will fully account for the most drastic changes. Not long afterward Paul rejected Mark and parted with Barnabas, and took up Silas and Timothy (Acts 15:37-16:3). He then had a vision, calling him to Macedonia (Acts 16:9). At Athens he spoke to the idolaters (Acts 17:22). Then he went to Corinth. There he shook out his garments and said to them: "Your blood be on your heads! Clear am I! From now on I shall go to the nations." Is not this a tremendous advance?
It was to Corinth, also, that Paul revealed the greatest revolution in his teaching before he wrote his perfection epistles. Once more he emphasizes the time, by repeating the phrase from now on. In this case, it is negative: "We, from now on, are acquainted with no one according to flesh. Yet, even if we have known Christ according to flesh, nevertheless now we know Him so no longer. So that, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, the primitive passed by. Lo! There has come new" (2 Cor.5:16,17). This introduces a new epoch in Paul's career. At this time we are especially concerned with the phrase "according to flesh." This fits no one else so well as James, the brother of our Lord, according to flesh. Peter spoke to the meeting in Acts fifteen, but James introduced him as Simeon, his fleshly name, in connection with the decrees (Acts 15:7,14).
It is worthy of note how little is told us of the family of our Lord, especially after He was anointed. After the return from Egypt, Joseph, His legal father, is not mentioned, except as the presumed father of Jesus. His mother and His brothers came to Him near the close of His ministry, when His rejection was already evident, and sent word to Him that they wished to speak to Him. To us it almost seems discourteous or rude that He did not immediately receive them. Instead, He almost seemed to repudiate them, saying: "Who is My mother, and who are My brothers?" And, stretching out His hand over His disciples, He said, "Lo! My mother and My brothers! For anyone who should be doing the will of My Father in the heavens, he is My brother, and sister and mother!" (Matt.12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35). His brothers, we are told, did not believe on Him (John 7:5), so Christ Himself repudiated the kinship on which James based his leadership in later years.
James was recognized as the leader (not apostle) among the disciples in the latter half of the book of Acts because of his fleshly relationship to Jesus. Apart from being our Lord's half-brother, what were his qualifications? To what office was he assigned by Christ? To be an apostle he should have been with his Brother "all the time in which the Lord Jesus came in and out...beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which He was taken up..." (Acts 1:21,22). Had he been at all in sympathy with his Brother, it would have been the natural and easy thing for him to do. Instead of that he and his brothers not only failed to believe on Him, but they taunted Him for His apparent cowardice in not going into Judea where the Jews sought to kill Him (John 7:1-5). How little did they realize that He would offer Himself for them! Their conduct barred them from any future honors in the kingdom.
Israel, being based on physical descent, must make much of the flesh. Jesus was not sent to those outside the nation. Nevertheless, a fleshly pedigree was not enough. There had to be a spiritual tie. Simon bar Jonah (son of a dove), as flesh and blood, would never have recognized Christ as the Son of the living God, apart from a special revelation from the Father (Matt.10:17). But Paul went much further. He insisted that the disposition of the flesh is death and enmity to God and unable to please God (Rom.8:6-8). Once, when the nations were "in flesh," they were aliens. Now, in Christ Jesus, there is a new humanity in which the flesh plays no part (Eph.2:13-18).
Paul clearly intimates that James' followers were enemies of our evangel. His epistle to the Galatians makes this plain. Peter, the rock on which the kingdom ecclesia was built, was sympathetic to Paul's mission, and actually ate with those of the nations before the coming of some from James (Gal.2:12). Then he shrank back and played the hypocrite. James was the cause of the Galatian heresy, a distortion of the evangel of Christ to the nations (Gal.1:7). He really wanted to put works and law keeping in place of grace. He degraded the evangel for today to the same level as the heralding to the nations in the kingdom. Paul and the transcendent grace of his secret evangel he did not recognize, but opposed.
Vast and fundamental changes occurred in Paul's teaching and outlook during his career. Almost everything is changed in his perfection epistles. He was circumcised and he circumcised Timothy, yet he warns against the maimcision. He baptized, yet now there is only baptism in spirit. At the convention false brethren were smuggled in to spy out his freedom in Christ Jesus, but even then he was not subject. They insisted on circumcision and law keeping, but he would not give in to these. At that time it seemed well to abstain from eating idol sacrifices and blood, and what is strangled, and prostitution, or there could be no fellowship between the Jews and others, for the believers among the nations had not yet been joined into one body. Then, it was allowable, but now it is altogether wrong to make any fleshly distinctions of this kind.
At this time Paul had related his story to Cephas. This is not said of James, although he had made his acquaintance (Gal.1:18,19). This accounts for their different attitude at the conference. Peter saved the nations from being Judaized. But neither of them could reveal the great truths which were later revealed through Paul, especially the secrets. They could not realize that the decrees had already been erased and nailed to the cross, and the sovereignty and authority of James and his followers had been stripped off. Had James known the great truth of reconciliation, peace between those far off and those near, the new humanity, the one body (Eph.2:13-18) he could not have made the decrees. Had he known of their spiritual blessings among the celestials, how could he have dared to dominate over them?
In Ephesians, where Paul settles the relationship of the Circumcision to the Uncircumcision, he speaks of these things as past. Once the nations...that era...alienated from the citizenship of Israel, and guests of the promise covenants...yet now...He makes both one...nullifying the law of precepts in the decrees...creating the two, in Himself, into one new humanity." Now there is no division between Jew and Gentile, in the ecclesia. If there were such a division, then all non-Jews would be "people for His Name," and all the others would be circumcised Israelites. And we, the great majority of the readers of this essay, would still be "apart from Christ,...alienated from the citizenship of Israel, having no expectation, and without a God in the world" (Eph.2:12).
For most of us it is difficult to grasp why God actually intends to do evil, so that, in general, He locks up all in stubbornness (Rom.11:32). In particular, in the book of Acts, why should such a character as James become ascendent in the later chapters? Why is one man, related to Christ in the flesh, allowed to cause so much trouble? But we may as well ask why the Jewish nation, as such, rejected their Messiah? The answer to all of this is very simple. It is part of God's plan, the necessary background of human failure to display God's future success and glory. If we do not see that all is of God, even evil, then it will be difficult for us to grasp the lesson here taught.
All this evil is essential to God's purpose of revealing the infirmity of the flesh, which is still one of the most important lessons in connection with Israel and the nations. What better example of the flesh could be found in all humanity than the oldest brother of our Lord? They shared the same mother. James was next to Jesus in the family. He was not only near by birth, but for nearly thirty years they lived the same family life. To be sure, none of Jesus' half-brothers believed on Him or His mission, still they must have heard of it, especially when He first spoke in the synagogue at Nazareth. The fact that even they did not accept Him is vital to an understanding of the flesh, and its enmity to God.
James, along with his brothers, did not believe in Jesus before His resurrection (John 7:5). In the case of Peter we are informed that flesh and blood did not reveal it to him (Matt.16:17). As our Lord's brother according to the flesh, James could not have the power to believe. Even if he did, the place that he fills and the lesson that he illustrates, is the failure of the flesh. His flesh enabled him to dominate over both the Jews and the Gentiles, but it did not empower him to bring in the kingdom. Rather, under his leading, Israel was hewn out of the olive tree and cast away (Rom.11:10,24).
I have much sympathy for the unbelieving Jews who will not eat with a Gentile. In Jerusalem itself, however, where I thought they would be very strict in such matters, we shared our meals with a Jewish professor of the university, who was, perhaps, a little reticent, yet spoke freely of his work when I sought to draw him out. When I went to a Jewish restaurant, however, I made the mistake of not "baptizing" before eating. At first I wondered why they went to a faucet in an alcove and douched the backs of their hands before their meal. As I did not do so, they looked at me questioningly. I don't hold with baptism in water, but thought it best to do this every day there, to avoid giving offense and arousing suspicion. I tried to become a Jew in order to help the Jews.
In the future kingdom there will be nations who call upon His Name, then the Jews will not exhibit the fanatical fury against them which obsessed the followers of James, the Lord's brother according to the flesh. Indeed, not only will a delegation from the nations be welcome to go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, Ieue of hosts, but they will be severely dealt with if they fail to do so (Zech.16:16-21). Since James thought that those called through Peter and Paul were the forerunners of those in the kingdom, why did his followers seek to murder Paul merely because they had seen him in Jerusalem with Trophimus, who was, presumably, one from the people for His Name?
The burden of Acts is not the successful establishment of the "church," but the utter failure of the kingdom. It begins with Peter and the apostles, but first we have pentecost in Jerusalem, yet at last we have Israel calloused and cast away in Rome. The usurpation of authority over the nations by its later, fleshly leaders, on the false supposition that the kingdom had come, is not in force today. James' mistaken claim that those called through Paul were subjects of the kingdom proved fallacious, and cannot be applicable now, when there is no kingdom. There will be nations for His name in the future, but now the transcendent grace of God has made a sevenfold unity based on one baptism, one God and Father of all, Who is over all and through all and in all (Eph.4:4-6). May He give us all the grace to keep it!