The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 21:17-18

Paul Visits James

17 When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. 18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.


Last week’s post discussed Paul and Luke’s stay in Jerusalem with an old or longtime (or both) disciple, Mnason of Cyprus.

Luke, the author of Acts, recorded that they were ‘gladly’ received by the church members there (verse 17). Matthew Henry’s commentary says that one Bible scholar described it as receiving Paul’s words gladly:

Streso observes that the word here used concerning the welcome they gave to the apostles, asmenos apodechein, is used concerning the welcome of the apostles’ doctrine, Acts 2:41. They gladly received his word. We think if we had Paul among us we should gladly receive him; but it is a question whether we should or no it, having his doctrine, we do not gladly receive that.

John MacArthur says that true fellowship took place. Let us also remember that Paul had with him donations from the Gentile churches destined for Jerusalem. However, we can safely surmise that they were happier to see Paul than finding out about the donations. MacArthur points out that this was a small meeting with a few church members (emphases mine below):

First of all, we find communion occurs as he arrives. And by the word “communion,” I don’t mean they all sat down at the Lord’s Table. The word means fellowship or sharing. The first thing that happened was there was a beautiful time of sharing with the believers when Paul arrived. I mean after all, the man was a tremendous missionary, he had accomplished tremendous things. He arrives with these dear Gentile saints, and he arrives with this money, and it’s a great time of sharing and rejoicing. In verses 17-28 we have that noted for us.

Notice 17 to begin: “And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us” – in what way? – “gladly.” It was a happy reception. You say, “Why?” Well, because they brought money. Why else? Well, I think that’s a good thought. That probably was true. They probably were thrilled about the money, because not for themselves necessarily, but there were many needy saints.

But I would not simply say that it was the money. I wouldn’t just, you know, say they were motivated crassly. I think there was great joy in their hearts, because they brought along a whole group of Gentile converts, and they saw the people that had been won to Jesus Christ. And they were glad too, because of the fact that the Gentile church was showing this tremendous act of love toward them. And they knew what animosities and bitterness there was between Jew and Gentile, and here were these Gentiles making a magnanimous offer of love to these Jerusalem Jews. And then there was Paul, and Paul was a beloved man, and there was just a warm and glad fellowship of sharing.

Notice verse 17: “Brethren,” – this was Christians who received him. It was private, but it was unofficial, they just had a little fellowship.

The next day, Paul and Luke met James and the elders of the church in Jerusalem (verse 18). This one verse indicates that the structure of the church there had changed over the years, since the first Pentecost.

Henry’s commentary says:

It should seem that James was now the only apostle that was resident at Jerusalem; the rest had dispersed themselves to preach the gospel in other places. But still they forecasted to have an apostle at Jerusalem, perhaps sometimes one and sometimes another, because there was a great resort thither from all parts. James was now upon the spot, and all the elders or presbyters that were the ordinary pastors of the church, both to preach and govern, were present. Paul saluted them all, paid his respects to them, enquired concerning their welfare, and gave them the right hand of fellowship. He saluted them, that is, he wished them all health and happiness, and prayed to God to bless them. The proper signification of salutation is, wishing salvation to you: salve, or salus tibi sit; like peace be unto you. And such mutual salutations, or good wishes, very well become Christians, in token of their love to each other and joint regard to God.

MacArthur has much more on how the church in Jerusalem had evolved. He says it had been at least two decades since Jesus’s time on Earth. What started out as Apostles increasing the growth of the church there, soon aided by deacons (e.g. Stephen the first martyr and Philip the Evangelist), became structured enough so that most of the Twelve were able to move on from there to evangelise elsewhere:

When the church at Jerusalem first began, it was ruled by – whom? – the apostles. If you recall, you go clear back into the early times of the church, and the apostles ruled. For example, even in Acts 4, you have them all bringing their money and putting it at whose feet? The apostles’ feet. The apostles actually carried on the administration of the church. It wasn’t until the 6th chapter of Acts that the apostles begin to realize that things were getting out of hand, and invited the people to choose out from among them some men full of faith, full of wisdom, full of the Holy Spirit to take care of the business.

By the time you get to Acts 15:2, I think this is very interesting. It says that, “Paul, when he went to Jerusalem,” – in Acts 15 – “met with the apostles and the elders.” So you have a beginning of a transition. First the apostles did everything, and eventually God began to raise up elders, spiritual leaders.

Now by the time you get to Acts 21, they go in and it isn’t any apostles there, there’s only James and the elders. You say, “What happened to the apostles? Did they die?” They’re not dead, they’re gone. You say, “Where did they go?” They went out preaching all over the place. They’re on mission work

… the reason they were gone I think was two-fold. One, they had ministries; and two, they realized the Jerusalem church could be turned over to the leadership which they had raised there.

Now watch, by the time you get to the Epistles, there is no mention of apostles, there is no mention of prophets. There is, I should say in terms of the leadership in the pastoral epistles, there is only a mention of elders or bishops. That’s the same term: presbyters, pastors, same thing.

So what happens then in church organizations? You start with apostles ruling in Jerusalem. Then they begin to raise up elders, and you have a combination of apostles and elders. Pretty soon, the apostles go, and you have the church ruled by elders; and that becomes the pattern of the New Testament eventually. And by the time Paul pens the last of his epistles, the pastoral epistles, and lays down the organization of the church, the church is to be ruled by elders.

And Paul says to Titus, “Ordain elders in every city.” That becomes the pattern. So here, I think it’s important to see that we’re watching the transition of the church. It’s at least 25 years since Jesus has died, and it’s taken this time for the transition to occur.

It is important to know how the Church evolved and how the leadership changed within the first 25 years.

Another point to bring up is the identity of James. It was not James the Great (son of Zebedee, Apostle and brother of the Apostle John), the patron saint of Spain. He had already been martyred by Agrippa (Acts 12:2).

St Jerome wrote that it was James the Less and James the Just, whom he believed were the same person (and author of the eponymous Epistle). Wikipedia says:

James the Less could also be identified as being James the brother of Jesus (James the Just). Jerome also concluded that James “the brother of the Lord” is the same as James the Less. To explain this, Jerome first tells that James the Less must be identified with James, the son of Alphaeus.[9] After that, James the Less being the same as James, the son of Alphaeus, Jerome describes in his work called De Viris Illustribus that James “the brother of the Lord” is the same as James, son of Alphaeus:

James, who is called the brother of the Lord, surnamed the Just, the son of Joseph by another wife, as some think, but, as appears to me, the son of Mary sister of the mother our Lord <Mary of Cleophas> of whom John makes mention in his book.(John 19:25)[10]

Thus, Jerome concludes that James the Less, James, son of Alphaeus and James the brother of Jesus are one and the same person.

Centuries later, John Gill must have studied Jerome, because he wrote the same in his Bible commentary:

not the son of Zebedee and brother of John, for he was killed by Herod some years ago; but James the son of Alphaeus, and brother of our Lord, who presided over this church; it seems there were no other apostles now at Jerusalem, but they were all dispersed abroad that were living, preaching the Gospel in the several parts of the world: Paul took the first opportunity Of paying a visit to James, very likely at his own house, to give him an account of his success among the Gentiles, and to know the state of the church at Jerusalem, and confer with him about what might be most proper and serviceable to promote the interest of Christ; and he took with him those who had been companions with him in his travels, partly to show respect to James, and partly to be witnesses of what he should relate unto him …

However, not every theologian is certain that the James the Less and James the Just were the same person, as Wikipedia explains:

Modern Biblical scholars are divided on whether this identification is correct. John Paul Meier finds it unlikely.[5] Amongst evangelicals, the New Bible Dictionary supports the traditional identification,[6] while Don Carson[7] and Darrell Bock[8] both regard the identification as possible, but not certain.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

Next time — Acts 21:19-26