Awhile back (HERE), I wrote about these men from James who came to Antioch claiming the gentiles there couldn’t be saved, unless they were circumcised (Acts 15:1). In the next few blog posts I wish to offer a slightly different but a more dangerous perspective on the efforts of these men. First of all, their argument made logical sense, and this only made the danger of their scheme more difficult to detect. Nevertheless, logic is only as good as the knowledge upon which it is based. Think about it, the Jewish religion was the only religion on the face of the earth that was begun by God. Why shouldn’t the Jews believe gentiles needed to become Jews to be saved? Isn’t that similar to what is believed by Christians today? Don’t we believe one must become a Christian to be saved? If we believe this way, why would it be so unreasonable for Jews to believe that way too?
If we can see that the argument has some logical ground, we are better able to understand why Peter and Barnabas could have turned aside, separating themselves from believing gentiles (Galatians 2:11-12). However, to be perfectly honest, I don’t believe Peter or Barnabas was fooled by wrong theology. Wrong theology was a danger for the young, largely gentile church. Paul accused Peter not of wrong theology but of fearing the Jews who came from James (Galatians 2:12). The Greek word can mean either reverencing or being afraid of. So, no matter how one understands the meaning of Paul’s accusation, these men weren’t simply messenger boys. They may have had a message to bring from James (i.e. the famine was present and Judea’s poor needed what the gentiles had set aside for them), but so are the angels of God messengers, and their presence is often so striking that people like Daniel had no strength to stand before them (cp. Daniel 8:16-17).
Before fleeing the persecution under Herod Agrippa, Peter was considered one of the pillars of the believing community at Jerusalem. I cannot imagine going to my pastor with a message from another man of God and see my pastor trembling at my presence—either with reverence or with fear. Can my reader imagine anything like this of his or her own pastor? Who were these Jews, who were come to Antioch from James in Jerusalem? Paul says that even Barnabas and all the other Jews at Antioch were drawn away by these men (Galatians 2:13). While some no doubt followed Peter’s example, Barnabas and a few other Jews at Antioch may have known who these men were, and they too feared these men and went aside. Who were they?
Obviously, a personal identification cannot be made. Neither Luke nor Paul gives us that option. However, I think we can know what kind of Jews they were. For instance, they had to have been well known and regarded highly by the Jerusalem body of believers, whether as believers in Jesus or as important Jewish leaders at Jerusalem. Paul at least implies they were false brethren, because he claims in Galatians 2:4 that he debated with such at Jerusalem (cp. Galatians 2:12), so they were probably connected in some way to the Jerusalem church.
Luke claims that these men who came down from Jerusalem began to debate the point with Paul (Acts 15:1-2), and Barnabas joined with Paul to dispute with them. So, apparently, neither Peter nor Barnabas argued with Paul; it wasn’t wrong theology that caused them to turn aside but fear of these men. Yet, those from Jerusalem apparently withstood Paul, and it was decided that Paul and Barnabas should go up to the Jerusalem to have this question resolved in conference there. So, whether or not the men from James actually claimed their dispute with Paul was supported by the elders in Jerusalem, James denied sending them for that reason (Acts 15:24).
We need to keep in mind that the Body of Christ had been infiltrated by false brethren sometime before the Ananias and Sapphira incident (Acts 5:1-10). When the rest saw what happened to those two, they feared to join themselves to the Apostles (Acts 5:13), waiting for a more opportune moment to bring the believers into subjection to the Jewish hierarchy at Jerusalem. Paul mentions that false brethren were among those with whom he debated at Jerusalem (Galatians 2:4; cp. Acts 15:5). They were Pharisees, but this doesn’t mean all believing Pharisees were false brethren, because the word ‘false’ implies that they really didn’t believe. They crept in without the believing community suspecting (Galatians 2:4).
Many of these men were wealthy and powerful among the Jews at Jerusalem. Ananias and Sapphira did sell property, but lied about the extent to which they sacrificed. The point is, they were wealthy enough to use some of their riches to try to gain important status within the believing community. No doubt the men from James were powerful and wealthy Jews at Jerusalem as well, perhaps members of the Sanhedrin. Paul claims in his letter to the Galatians that they came from James and practiced segregated table fellowship (Galatians 2:12), but Luke goes further by saying these men taught the brethren that circumcision was necessary for salvation, and that is certainly false doctrine. Considering the extent of the trouble caused by these men and others like them—whose missionary efforts seemed to take place simultaneously, I am inclined to believe the men from James were indeed among the false brethren Paul points to in Galatians 2:4.