Fighting For Truth and Keeping The Peace: James Show Us We Can Do Both

by Rick Love

One of the things I love about the Bible is its brutal honesty. It doesn’t sugarcoat the heroes of the faith nor the environment in which they lived. Lot got drunk and slept with his daughters. Moses murdered a man. David committed adultery and murder. So it’s not surprising to find detailed accounts about conflict in the Bible.

One of the most prominent and significant conflicts in the Bible took place in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 15. We know it as the Jerusalem Council, and at stake was the very essence of the gospel. 

We know the outcome of this council and rejoice in the wisdom of the early church in freeing the gospel from its Jewish moorings. But we will miss valuable relational lessons if we only see this as a battle for truth. It is also a brilliant example of peacemaking and conflict resolution – facilitated by Jesus’s little brother James.

  1. The Jerusalem Council was a serious, controversial battle for truth. There were no bad guys at this council - just two different groups who both believed their ideas were biblical. The Pharisees believed the gospel was about Jesus and keeping the law (if we had been Jews living at that time, we would be very sympathetic to their view). By contrast, Paul, Barnabas and Peter believed the gospel was about Jesus alone.

    (This was no “lightweight” debate. This was a heated controversy from both sides. Luke describes the conflict with words like “sharp dispute” and “debate” (Acts 15:2,7).)
  2. The Jerusalem Council ultimately came to a strong, unified decision about what to do. Luke said there was agreement between the apostles, the elders, and the whole church. (Acts 15:22). He describes this consensus with the memorable words, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).
  3. James demonstrated the wisdom and skill of a peacemaker by leading a divided Jerusalem Council into unity. The Pharisees argued from the Old Testament about the importance of circumcision and obedience to the law. By contrast, Paul, Barnabas and Peter all argued from experience. God repeatedly confirmed the gospel among the Gentiles through signs and wonders. Just as God poured out His Holy Spirit on Jewish believers in Acts 2, He was now doing the same among the Gentiles.

So how could James bring these Bible-quoting Pharisees together with these experienced, focused apostles?

James did what all mediators do in a heated conflict. He helped the disputants see the problem in a new way. He “reframed” the problem by quoting Scripture no one had mentioned in the conflict - a prophecy from Amos about Gentiles becoming a people for God’s name (Acts 15:14-18).

By doing this, James proposed a win-win decision. In this way the concerns of both sides of the debate are addressed. By quoting Scripture that had not been considered, he showed agreement between the Scripture and the experience of the early church, between the witness of the prophets and the experience of the apostles.

James did not ONLY reframe the conflict, however. He also proposed a solution that addressed both groups. He quoted Scripture confirming apostolic experience among the Gentiles and concluded, “We do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles” (Acts15:19). James the peacemaker focused on truth. He concluded that the gospel is free from Jewish law. It is about Jesus plus nothing. Salvation is by grace alone!

Nevertheless, as a peacemaker James also focused on love. Love demands that we show sensitivity to others (Romans 14:15; 1 Corinthians 13:5), so James suggested that obedience to only four Jewish laws was necessary for the sake of fellowship between Jewish believers and Gentiles believers (Acts 15:20-22), which isn’t too bad when you realize the Jews counted 613 commandments in their Scriptures!

Jesus’s little brother James shows us that we can both fight for truth and keep the peace; we can model truth and love; we can share a gospel that demands faith in Jesus alone but also live out an ethic that demonstrates love to all.