Saint James the Just stood up in the first Synodical Convention. This was not a regularly scheduled synodical convention (if there even was such a thing). This Synod or coming together of the Church was called because of a new conflict in the Church. Many people were saying that to be a Christian, Gentiles had to obey the law of Moses and submit to such things as circumcision to be saved.
James stood up to oppose that idea. He did not stand up as a pope. Even the Roman church does not say that James was a pope, but according to them it was Saint Peter. James was not speaking from any alleged authority to give a command.
Instead, he was speaking in order to summarize what God had done through Saints Peter, Paul, and Barnabas among the Gentiles. By miraculous signs, God showed that the Gentiles were coming to faith before and apart from any obedience to the law of Moses. The Spirit was coming upon uncircumcised men. Therefore, since God was doing this, who would stand in His way?
So James is not saying, “This is my judgment,” as if James is someone great who must decide matters in the faith. Instead, he is saying, “What God is doing is very clear. Let us not oppose God.”
James might have thought that he was someone very important, and he might have strong-armed his way into dominating the assembly. He was a brother of Christ. Now whether this means that James was a son of Mary and Joseph, or perhaps a cousin, as Doctor Luther thought, is not very important here. How closely related he was to Christ would not give him any power to command the Church. Rather, Christ and Christ alone commands the Church through His Word. Christ alone shed His Blood to purchase for Himself a holy Bride. Any other man, whatever their lineage, is a sinner who needs Christ.
But James as a leader of the early Church in Jerusalem, let his leadership be seen in this: that he got out of the way of the mighty acts of God, and let the Word be God’s voice to decide matters.
May all leaders do the same.
James quotes God’s Word in which He clearly shows His intention to rebuild the tent of David. The kingship of David’s line had become nothing. Heathen Romans ruled over the Jews. Worse, the piety of many had grown cold, and only a remnant were still faithfully waiting for Messiah to come. But the Lord rebuilt that sagging, wrecked tent. He restored it to even greater glory than it had known under David and Solomon. For He founded it upon Jesus Christ, the anointed King who did not rule a political realm, but a spiritual and eternal kingdom.
Therefore, Gentiles also were part of this kingdom if they had faith in Christ the King. The Prophet Amos, whom James quotes, said that the remnant of mankind would seek the Lord, even the Gentiles who would be called by His Name. In other words, the Gentiles, as Gentiles and not as converts to old Testament Judaism, would be saved. They did not have to submit to laws and regulations in order to be eligible for salvation. No, Christ is the one who restores the tent of His father David, and He did it by dying for all men, not just some. The sins of the Gentiles also were atoned for upon the Cross. Therefore they can have faith in Christ and be saved, apart from works and rituals and circumcision and anything else.
So the Gentiles also were brought into the tent of David. God no longer made a distinction between Jew and Gentile. Even before Christ came, anyone could be saved by grace through faith. The true Israel was never determined by bloodlines and genetics, but by faith in the promise. Abraham is the father of all who believe, not simply his biological children. On the other hand, the biological children of Abraham who failed to believe were not his true children. But we are his children if we follow his faith in Christ.
James also gave wise instructions to the Synod Convention that the Church should not overburden the Gentiles who were coming to faith. Definitely they should live moral lives, yet not as a requirement for salvation. They should also abstain from things polluted by idols and things strangled and food containing blood. These concessions were for the sake of not causing offense to Jews who did not fully understand the freedom of the Gospel yet.
In the same way we should be gentle with those who do not fully understand the Gospel. They may still be caught in a legalistic mindset that says, “Don’t look! Don’t touch! Don’t taste!” Instead of violently pushing and bombarding those people with our own exercises of freedom, we should gently instruct them so that they understand.
These concessions that James advocated are not binding to the Church in every century. Individual cases may compel us to lay aside our freedom for a time for a weak believer.
May we wisely discern when freedom is needed, and when restraint is needed, so that we may not cause offense to a brother.
In the Name of Christ. Amen.
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