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After preaching the word for many years, Paul arrived in Jerusalem and was welcomed by James and the believers there (Acts 21:18). If there was any conflict between the gospels of James and Paul, it certainly was not because of James or Paul. In fact, when Paul gave them an account of how the non-Jews were being converted, “they” rejoiced.
19 And after he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it they began glorifying God. . .
But James told Paul that there were certainly many who still disagreed with Paul's gospel of uncircumcision—that is, the idea that circumcision was not necessary for salvation or to be in a covenant relationship with God. These were unable to distinguish between the law itself and the covenant that established one's relationship with the law.
20 . . . and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law; 21 and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs [traditions]. 22 What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.”
Paul did not “forsake Moses.” That was either a smear tactic or a total misunderstanding. Paul wrote in Rom. 3:31,
31 Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.
Yet Paul recognized that the cross changed many FORMS of the law, whereas many of the Jewish Christians were attempting to add Jesus Christ to Judaism without making the necessary adjustments found in the book of Hebrews. The form of sacrifice changed; the form of priesthood changed; the manner of feast-day observance changed (from external to internal). These form changes were prophesied in the law itself and in the prophets, showing that the Mosaic forms were meant to be temporary from the beginning. Yet the moral laws, revealing the mind of God, did not change. These were “established” by the cross.
Paul recognized that their doctrine of the need for physical circumcision was a recognition of the continuing validity of the Old Covenant—at least for Jews. They seemed to have some knowledge of the New Covenant, though they never mention it, and this division is the basis for today's rise of Dual Covenant Theology, where it is thought that Jews are saved by being good Jews under the Old Covenant, while non-Jews are saved by grace through the New Covenant.
But Paul clearly shows in his writings that NO ONE can be saved by one's ability to keep the law—Jews included—because ALL have sinned (Rom. 3:23). If Dual Covenant theology is correct, it simply dooms all Jews to the judgment of God. Dual Covenant Theology might be politically correct and may make modern Jews happy, but it points them down an illusory road to salvation. It tells them “peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jer. 8:11).
Nonetheless, Paul was now in Jerusalem, and so he accommodated their sensitivities. There was, after all, nothing inherently wrong in submitting to the traditions of men, as long as one did not depend upon it for one's salvation. If we view these traditions as matters of culture as Paul did, then there is no problem.
James gave this advice to Paul in Acts 21:23, 24,
23 Therefore do this that we tell you; we have four men who are under a vow; 24 take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses in order that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law.
Paul complied with this request (vs. 26). It took seven days to complete the purification process (Lev. 14:8), after which time a sacrifice was to be made on the morning of the eighth day (Lev. 14:10; Acts 21:26). This presented an interesting situation for Paul, who had no confidence in animal sacrifices. I do not doubt that God led him to participate in this conciliatory gesture, but James’ plan backfired. Before that sacrifice could be made for the five of them, God intervened on behalf of Paul himself. Verse 27 says,
27 And when the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, upon seeing him in the temple, began to stir up all the multitude and laid hands on him, 28 crying out, “Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people, and the Law, and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” 29 For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed [assumed] that Paul had brought him into the temple.
Fanaticism makes people assume things without first hearing the evidence. This story is included in Scripture as a prophetic lesson for us today. Paul was the only one in trouble here. The other four men are not even mentioned again, because the Jews had no problem with those who subordinated Christ to Judaism and its leadership. But if a Christian dares to speak the truth about the New Covenant, circumcision, the temple, the priesthood, they find that truth is unwelcome in such circles.
The Jerusalem Church, in other words, was able to continue worshipping in the temple ONLY BECAUSE they continued to sacrifice animals, give homage to the temple and its Levitical priesthood, and to be circumcised. They remained in submission to the temple priesthood. In the case of James, the evidence shows that he knew these things had passed away. But to keep peace among fanatics is often difficult, and by his own admission, there were thousands of Jews who opposed Paul's teaching—even though James agreed with Paul.
There are groups today who are again trying to perform the same First Century experiment, trying to merge Christianity with Judaism. It simply will not work in the end. It will work only as long as Christians subordinate themselves as second-class citizens, and as long as they subordinate Christ to Judaism. It will work only as long as they place value in a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, the reinstatement of animal sacrifices, and a Levitical priesthood that is open to Jews only.
Christian Zionism is the modern counterpart to the Ebionites and Nazarenes in Paul’s day. They follow in the footsteps of those believers in Jerusalem that James mentioned in Acts 21:21, who misunderstood Paul. They want to hang on to the old external forms and rituals and rebuild the dividing wall in the temple.
In the end, however, they will find that Jews will continue to demand concessions from Christian Zionists until Jesus Christ is totally expunged from their belief system. This is the real lesson, for within a year after Paul left Jerusalem, James himself was martyred—simply for believing that Jesus was the Messiah. It made no difference to those temple priests that James had bent over backward to observe all the customs of the temple. All he had to do was to admit that Jesus was the Messiah, and suddenly he found himself worthy of death. Yet it is also likely that the Jewish leaders were scandalized by the fact that James did not denounce Paul or his teaching, and so they came to view even James as a threat.
Some day the Christian Zionists will learn the same lesson that the church in Jerusalem had to learn the hard way when the temple was destroyed along with its religious system. Modern Christian Zionism will prove incorrect, even as the Ebionite viewpoint was destroyed in 70 A.D.—this time by the destruction of the Israeli state. God will yet cast out “Hagar” (Jerusalem), as Paul says in Gal. 4:25, 30. The New Jerusalem (“Sarah”) and her children will be established as the true inheritors of the promises. But those who do not learn from history will be doomed to repeat it.