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Was James Being Legalistic in Acts 15? or “Can I Eat a Rare Steak?”

Last week I went to lunch with a student here in Edmond, OK. While I rarely get the chance, whenever I can, I go to a stake joint just down the road. I love steaks. After I ordered, the waitress asked the normal question: “How would you like that cooked?” “Medium rare” I responded. As always I am informed that “medium rare” means that it will be very red inside. Translation: it will be bloody. “I know what it means . . . give it to me.” But am I sinning by eating blood? According to James in Acts 15, I may be.

In Acts 15, we find the first council of church history (at least, that we know of). It is sometimes called the “Jerusalem Council”. Let me explain the occasion of the council. In Antioch there were large numbers of Gentiles who had come to the faith. However, there were certain Jewish Christians who were teaching these Gentiles that they had to be circumcised in order to be truly saved (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas did not like this much (as you can imagine). Therefore, they began to dispute with these Jews. The Christians in Antioch decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to settle the matter once and for all with the head honchos (Acts 15:2).

It starts out tremendously. If I was in the crowd at the council, I would have been so excited I probably would have started the wave. Peter nails it with an epic argument for the Gospel of grace: “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (Acts 15:10-11; emphasis mine). Kaboom! Issue settled. Let’s go home. Right? Not so fast. James has yet to speak.

After Paul and Barnabas were able to add their 2 cents, James began speaking. And those of us on the side of grace don’t really know what to do. We thought James was on our side, but it is hard to tell. Let me give the play-by-play.

First James affirms that the Gentiles have been called by God just as the Jews had by giving a hat-tip to Peter’s ministry (Acts 15:14). Then he roots the conversion of the Gentiles in Old Testament prophecy (Acts 15:16-18). Good stuff so far. He then seems to fumble the ball with these words: “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood (Act 15:19-20). My paraphrase: “Listen boys. Peter was right. We cannot expect the Gentiles to follow the Law that we could not follow. [I wish he would have stopped there] Therefore, let’s just make them do four things: 1) Eat no meat sacrificed to idols, 2) stay away from sexual immorality, 3) no eating animal which are strangled, and 4) no drinking blood.” What is that all about? They cannot abide by the Law, so no circumcision necessary. But here is the three main things that they must do? You chose those four things James? Those four things are the most important? Really? I can understand the sexual immorality stuff, but not the rest. Why not: 1) abstain from selfish living, 2) help the widows, 3) do not neglect the fellowship of believers, and 4) love your children? Or any number of random commands that could have been given. Or just tell them to “remember the poor” as they told Paul to do as they sent him on his way (Gal. 2:10).

I am not the only one who has had some trouble with this. It would seem that some early western scribe did not like James’ choices either, so he changed the text. The three stipulations in the Western Greek text are that Gentile Christians should abstain from idolatry, immorality, and blood (that is, murder). I like that. It let’s me eat my steak without breaking fellowship with my conscience. It also seem to be much more in tune with the Gospel of grace.

So, the queston of the hour: Why did James include these four?

There are a few options here:

1. James was wrong and was being legalistic.

The apostles are not perfect so recording this in the book of Acts is not an endorsement of the stipulations. After all, didn’t Peter have similar scruples that Paul had to confront (Gal. 2:11-14)?

Problems:

  • It is hard to see why Luke would have included this if it were not a legitimate pronouncement.
  • Acts 15:22 says that this “seemed good to all the Apostles and elders”. This would include Paul.
  • Is seems to still be in practice many years later (Acts 21:25).

2. James was right, but this was only one of those confusing “transitional” or timely issue in the book of Acts.

In other words, like so many confusing transitional occurences like the instant death of Ananias and Sapphria (Acts 5:1-10), the post belief baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2-6), and Peter’s replacement of Judas (Acts 1:15-26), this was not meant to be normative.

Problems:

  • The idea of “transitional” issues in the book of Acts, while necessarily present, is hard to be definite about, especially with this issue.
  • It is hard to see how abstaining from sexual immorality is a transitional or timely issue.

3. James was right and these stipulations still apply to believers today.

This would mean that the four requirements were not merely descriptive of what was going then, but prescriptive to all believers of all times. We are not to eat meat sacrificed to idols, eat or drink blood, eat anything that has been strangled, and abstain from sexual immorality.

Problems:

  • It seems to be placing the yoke of a modified law upon all people.
  • Paul has no problem with eating meat sacrificed to idols, even calling those who do as “weak” (Rom. 14; see also 1 Cor. 8:4-8).
  • I would not be able to enjoy my steak.

4. James was not being legalistic nor transitional, but practical for the sake of fellowship.

These stipulations are included because the issue, at this point, was not a definition of the Gospel, but a way to make fellowship between the believing Gentiles and the believing Jews in Antioch more attainable during the current crisis. While James did not encourage the Gentiles to be circumcised, he did encourage them to keep from being ceremonially defiled. The reason why these four things are singled out is due to the fact that they were particularly heinous to the Jews, making fellowship almost impossible. Therefore James lays down these four things not because of his own scruples, but because of the scruples of the Jews.

Problems:

  • This would make sense of the meat sacrificed to idols, blood, things strangled, but would not make sense with the issue of sexual immorality. How is this a ceremonial thing? It is a moral thing.
  • Considering the teachings of Paul on the subject of meat sacrificed to idols, it is hard to see how he would have stood in approval of such a cyclical admonishment which has the potential of obscuring the Gospel of grace.

What do you think? The first is what I was taught long ago. The last is the position taken by most commentators.

66 Responses to “Was James Being Legalistic in Acts 15? or “Can I Eat a Rare Steak?””

  1. Kevin Fournier 2011-10-03 at 5:38 pm

    In my studies, the answer is #4. The three food related abstentions are things the Jews would find so reprehensible as to inhibit fellowship. The sexual immorality James mentions likely refers too the sexual behaviors detailed in Leviticus 18 since it is reasonable to guess that the Gentiles had already been taught to abstain from promiscuous sexual behavior outside of the marriage. (Would Paul not have taught to abstain from fornication?) That is to say, just as eating blood would have made a Jew leave the room, marrying one’s sister would do the same.

    James was brilliant. He properly understood salvation as a matter of Christian truth, but was also aware that fellowship was a matter of Christian love.

    So, don’t eat your bloody steak when you’re having dinner with a Vegetarian, but have at it when you’re in similar company. That’s my take on it.

  2. I think it was an irenic compromise being offered in light of two opposing views. It doesn’t have to be doctrinal teaching by James or even his personal preference.

  3. I’d lean toward 4, but perhaps a modified position 4. Is it possible that James’ primary concern was to avoid offense among non-Christian Jews? James et al. would have agreed that it was wrong to place Gentile believers under the ceremonial law, and, therefore, it seems to me they would have encouraged Jewish believers not to make this an issue of fellowship (not to say there weren’t substantial hiccups in practice, e.g., Gal. 2, but at least in theory they would have desired this).

    However, there was also the prospect of a watching Jewish community, only too eager to paint Christians as anti-Law and anti-Moses (e.g., Acts 6-7, Acts 21). The incident when Paul and his associates were falsely accused of defiling the temple by bringing uncircumcised Gentiles into it seems to reflect a common challenge for the early Christian community. So perhaps James’ concern is that the Gentile believers not give any ammo to already-suspicious Jews, who might on that account slander all Christians (Jew & Gentile) as antinomians.

  4. Would some combination of the above be unreasonable? That the requests included permanent injunctions for issues needing immediate attention, as well as temporary injunctions related to transitional issues (including integrating Jewish and Gentile Christians into fellowship with each other). The difference between the two to be determined by the fuller body of Gospel teaching.

  5. I am pleased to be able to inform you that no matter which of the answers is correct, you are safe in eating your steak rare. The red color comes from myoglobin, not blood. And come to think of it, if it was blood, cooking it until it changes color wouldn’t let you off the hook.

    Here’s a linky: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temperature_(meat)#Color

  6. I don’t have time to get into all the specifics here, but I would note the following three points: (1) Rom 14 and 1 Cor 8 are not referring to the same thing (food sacrificed to idols and clean/unclean distinctions are not the same issue), (2) I would not agree with your point about Paul having no problem with eating meat sacrificed to idols (I would point you to David Garland’s BECNT 1 Cor commentary here). If Garland is correct then this would alleviate your second problem for view 3, (3) Your other objection to view 3 related to sexual immorality can be answered if you understand it and the other 3 prohibitions to be related to idolatry (see Witherington).

    By the way I did my Th.M. thesis on the prohibitions. You can read my thesis “The Origin, Purpose and Significance of the Prohibitions In the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15” or a shorter version of my argument in a BibSac article entitled “A Reexamination of the Prohibitions In Acts 15,” vol. 116 (2004): 449-68.

  7. You’ve labelled two views #3.

    I like the first #3. Paul agrees with James. He is against eating idol-food.

  8. It has always been my understanding that James is alluding to the Noahide laws, which – if abided by – allowed Gentiles to be considered as “God-fearers” and acceptable to live among the Jews. Thus, I would say both 3’s above are correct. The Noahide had always been considered as binding on Gentiles, and James was emphasizing this as a way to make fellowship “more attainable”. In any case, as Mark pointed out, you still get to enjoy your steak.

  9. Revelation 2:14-16 and Revelation 2:20 also condemn the practice of eating idol-meat.

  10. There is a much better view. The studies of Gordon Fee and Ben Witherington (“Not So Idle Thoughts About Eidolothuton.” Tyndale Bulletin 44 (1993): 237–54) demonstrate that the Greek word eidōlóthuton used by Paul in 1 Cor 8 and 10 and in Acts 15:29 does not refer to a sacrifice which has come from the temple and is eaten elsewhere, for which the Christian sources rather use the term hieróthuton, but, instead, eidōlóthuton refers to an animal sacrificed in the presence of an idol and eaten in the temple precincts. In Acts 15:20 Luke speaks of “abstain[ing] from food polluted by idols, using an even stronger phrase (ajlisghmavtwn tw’n eijdwvlwn), which clearly refers to pollutions resulting from contact with idol worship. The place where one would find all four of the things listed by James being partaken of in one place (“food polluted by idols,” “sexual immorality,” “meat of strangled animals,” and “blood”) is in an act of pagan worship. There is evidence that the choking of the sacrifice, strangling it, and drinking or tasting of its blood also took place in pagan temples. This eidōlóthuton, “going to feasts in pagan temples,” is what Paul prohibits in 1 Cor 8–10. Thus, according to this interpretation, Paul and James are in full agreement over what Gentiles need to do to maintain table fellowship with Jewish Christians—avoid pagan feasts and immorality. It is idolatry that Moses and the law most object to about pagans, as the first two of the Ten Commandments make clear. James does not want to give the Jews in the Diaspora synagogues the opportunity to complain that Gentile Christians are still committing idolatry in pagan temples in violation of the laws of Moses. See also Witherington, Acts, pp. 460–66. The prohibition in Gen 9:4 was probably because of the sacrificial system, that is, to prevent too much familiarity with and a lack of respect for blood.

  11. You know, I’ve been wondering about this passage forever, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen/heard anyone address it. I wonder why?

    I would be ok with 1, 3, or 4, with some qualifications. Neither my faith nor theology would be compromised if James was simply wrong; however, I can’t find any reason to call him legalistic. Even if we’re not under the law, there are certain things we should or shouldn’t do, period. Obviously he/they chose four things that they believed Christians really shouldn’t do in that culture (or ever, maybe). I don’t believe option 3 would cause any problems for me or anyone I know. 4 does seem reasonable; I think of missionaries in Muslim communities who abstain from pork.

    All told, I’d tentatively lean to a mix of 3/4.

  12. 4 is the reason. Read the whole chapter.

    Problems arise because Gentiles are being told to be circumcised to be saved. This contradicts and is an affront to the gospel.

    Peter reminds them that the Jews failed to keep the Law of Moses, and that the gospel came to the Gentiles sans Law.

    Barnabas and Paul encourage them that God is working with the law-less Gentiles.

    James agrees the Gentiles are included, and justifies it from Scripture.

    So Peter, Paul, Barnabas and James are all in agreement here.

    James adds the caveat and tells us why he does

    but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues. (Acts 15:20-21 ESV)

    This was to prevent unnecessary offence to the Jews. There are people in all these cites who proclaim Moses.

    Helping the poor and widows was not included because this wasn’t instruction in how to do good works, it was instruction in how to avoid offence. James mentions those things that break the Mosaic Law and are public. He doesn’t mention things that break the Mosaic Law yet wouldn’t be noticed.

  13. I am inclined to side with JB Chappell on this one; it seems James is taking everyone back to essentials. The four conditions all hearken back to the sanctification of God. Sexual purity, contra strangulation and blood all point to a respect for God’s provision for and purpose for Man. God gave us life, breath, and the power to procreate, so abuse of those would be contemptible in His sight. Idolatry of course would be the other deal breaker; especially in light of how it facilitates the first three.

  14. Um… y’know cooking it more won’t take the blood out. Just sayin’. ;-]

  15. Michael,
    Good post! I am almost afraid to start typing!

    Some other factors must be applied to the narrative in Acts 15. First, why were Paul, Barnabas & the others in Jerusalem? According to Galatians 2:11-14, the problem caused in Antioch over circumcision traces back to James, to those who “came from James” (v. 12). James was in Jerusalem, so it was necessary to go to Jerusalem to resolve the problem at hand.

    This problem of how to deal with the law was still in Jerusalem in Acts 21. In v. 20 James said to Paul, “You observe, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews who have believed; and all are zealous for the law.” The outcome of James’ influence on Paul was that Paul entered the temple (v. 20) for purification (purification from what?) with others. Paul, at James’ suggestion (v. 24), paid for the expenses of these men as well as his own, that is, “until the offering was offered for each one of them.” Can you believe that Paul, who wrote Gal. 2:18-21, would go back to such a practice? Such was the influence of James in Jerusalem in support of the law.

    However, the remainder of Acts 21 shows us God, in His sovereignty, allowed the crowd to rise up and seize Paul. This prevented the fulfillment of the vow and the offering for Paul’s “purification.”

    Then, consider James’ epistle. He has a lot of moral teachings, which, no doubt, are good. But his view of crucial matters is secondary to these. James only mentions the Holy Spirit in relation to envy against friendship with the world (James 4:4-5). His reference to the church is related to the elders and healing the sick (5:14-15). His epistle bears the characteristic and flavor of his actions in Acts 15 & 21 & Galatians 2. James’ writing does not offer the revelation of the rich and sufficient Christ; the life-giving & empowering Holy Spirit; or the church as the family of God, the Kingdom of God, a holy priesthood, the Body of Christ, or the one new man. Nor does it offer us a view of the church as the seven golden lampstands, the bride of Christ, or the foretaste of the New Jerusalem. For these we need the writings of Paul, John, and Peter.

    This is not to say that the Epistle of James is not inspired and authoritative. It is and it is rightly a part of the canon. But, we must ask what the record shows us through James. It shows us a man respected by many for his pious living, who remained zealous for the law & customs of his people, yet a man who neglected the central points of God’s New Testament arrangement for carrying out His purpose. This caused a major problem for the believers.

    The situation in Acts 15 was resolved by the OT prophecies quoted by James. The Word of God was the authority. The items in the agreement were probably suggested by James to limit offenses to the Jews and were not conditions of salvation (as circumcision was as advanced by James’ followers in Antioch).

  16. Keep in mind that although the prohibitions are repeated in Acts 21, the circumstances are different. In Acts 15 the issue relates to Gentiles and the Law. In Acts 21, the issue relates to Jews and the Law (see 15:1, 5; 21:21). James seems to use the prohibitions as a way of indicating that he considered the issue of the Gentiles and the Law settled (21:25).

  17. In Acts 21, James referred to what Paul reportedly did “everywhere,” especially among the Gentiles. 21 does seem to apply more to the Jews in Jerusalem but the problem–the exaltation of the law, tradition, and custom over the “truth of the gospel”–still remained.

    If the problem of the law had been truly settled, would James have persuaded Paul to do as he did in Acts 21? I am not overly concerned with the prohibitions themselves but more with the scene and flavor in Jerusalem shown in the record and as it relates to James.

    I know Michael isn’t enthralled with the transitional argument but there is no denying that the transition from the law to the gospel was difficult for James and those following him, especially in Jerusalem. This is indicated by the troubles in Antioch concerning circumcision as a requirement of salvation. It is also indicated by the presence of and influence of ‘false brothers’ at an earlier visit to Jerusalem.

    There is too much to say concerning this matter in a short blog response. To answer Michael’s initial question, yes, James was too legalistic in his understanding of the gospel and of God’s economy in Christ.

  18. By the way Michael,
    You can eat the steak!

  19. Being a very practical person,myself, i would look it at from where they were in terms of progress in keeping meat fresh. There was no refrigeration and there was also an admonishment to eat food within three days. But how many of us do with the advent of modern refrigeration?

    All of us love who love medium rare steaks can recognize the possible dangers, even today. E-coli and other bad organisms tend to be a worse risk in meat that isn’t thoroughly cooked. I’ve been eating medium rare steak all my life, and never had a problem. Not to say I couldn’t though.

    So maybe James was just giving a health warning.

  20. John,

    I think you are convincing me. It is probably hard for people to even consider what you are saying without some concept (not to mention acceptance) of an “intra-canonical” theological development theory in the New Testament. I think that this goes beyond just progressive revelation as it implies a progressive development of thought in the minds of the New Testament authors and the apostles.

    It is hard to argue against this possibility considering Paul’s need to correct Peter in Gal 2 even after Peter’s Acts 10 experience. So I am hanging with you…

  21. John’s theory reminds of a hyper-dispensational approach to Scripture.

    Why do you give precedence to Paul over James? Why not give precedence to James over Paul? Or better yet why not assume that Paul and James are united on this issue?

    The narrative of Acts argues against any sort of conflict between James and Paul. If James was indeed wrong, why didn’t Luke make more of it in the story?

  22. Oh no, the word “hyper” was used. Based on this fact alone I disavow my associations to John view and move back to . . . ummm . . . ummm, a different non-hyper one!

    🙂

    That is an interesting connection.

  23. Sorry. That wasn’t supposed to be a guilt-by-association argument. It was more of a “unity-of-Scripture” argument.

  24. I know…I was just kidding. It is interesting though.

    (As you all can see…I can flip flop on this issue as I am not too convinced of anything right now…but I don’t mean to dogmatize my skepticism!)

  25. Daniel,
    I confess that I have been guilty of responding to posts without thoroughly reading and understanding what I responded to. Your questions indicate that you may have reacted in a similar manner concerning my post.

    I am not giving persons precedence; I am saying that Peter, Paul & John’s writings have a higher view of the gospel, the Holy Spirit, and the church than the view of these things contained in James and that is something we should consider, not react to.

    Neither was I limited to Acts 15 but included a much wider range of references.

    I assure you I am not hyper-d. Dismissing something by using a disparaging name (at least on this blog) is simply not adequate. Instead, convince us of your assertions.

  26. John,

    How are you not disparaging James? It sounds like you are suggesting that James has a low view of the gospel when you compare his writings and Acts 15 to Paul and company.

    It’s a canon within the canon.

  27. Just another question here, since my first comment was totally ignored.

    Regarding foods sacrificed to idols, wasn’t lamb also sacrificed by the pagans? And in light of Paul’s saying that to those of us in the new covenant all food are accceptable, if we thank for the Lord for it in advance?

    It seems to me we are going back to OT laws, if we believe otherwise.

  28. BTW, CMP, the edit function is still not working for me, so
    hope folks will forgive the typos.

  29. I went looking for Charles work on-line…in the process I came across this article by David Instone-Brewer on the topic. It may be of interest to some.

    http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/52/52-2/JETS%2052-2%20301-321%20Instone-Brewer.pdf

  30. Not having had time to read any other comments, I would say #4 is the right way to take it, and the sexual immorality does have ceremonial application in that it is a cause of diseases and sicknesses being spread. That’s the shortest answer I can give right now, no time to discuss further though I’d like to.

  31. Phil McCheddar 2011-10-05 at 4:12 am

    I agree with Tim and bethyada that the purpose of the 4 rules was to avoid causing unnecessary offence to non-Christian Jes living alonside the Gentile believers and thus putting a stumbling block in the way of the gospel. I think this explanation is borne out by James’s remark in Acts 15:21.

    I think it is interesting that Luke’s quotation of the letter sent from the Jerusalem Council to the Gentiles states the 4 rules but does not explain the reason for them. Almost certainly Luke is only giving us the gist of the letter and not the entire text verbatim, so the letter may have actually included the explanation, but I am surprised Luke’s summary doesn’t include a statement from the Apostles that these 4 rules are not in order to earn salvation by works but merely to avoid offending their non-Christian Jewish neighbours.

  32. Phil McCheddar 2011-10-05 at 4:15 am

    Sorry for the typos. That should have said:

    the purpose of the 4 rules was to avoid causing unnecessary offence to non-Christian Jews living alongside the Gentile believers

  33. I enjoy the posts above by John Metz and Bill Combs: John thinks that the Apostle James was slow in undertanding how the Gospel of Grace had replaced the Old Covenent laws and rules. Bill however shows that there is not any serious issue to be reconciled since, in his view, Acts 15 is prohibiting eatg animal sacrifices during active participation in pagan worship servcies/ceremonies and not merely eating meat which had been offered to idols.

    The real issue however is how do we apply Acts 15 to modern day issues? I am here thinking about the claims often made by evengelicals that some large companies, such as Procter and Gamble etc ( I am not supporting such claims) make donations to satanic worship/religions ect. The claim is also some popular music celebrities and actors etc are involved in various form of pagan worship and use various symbols in their music videos ect.

  34. Daniel,
    I am somewhat exasperated by your posts. You make comments without support, without verses, without evidence. I would prefer a meaningful conversation.

    I reject out-of-hand your canon-in-a-canon argument. Please, read my first post. James’ epistle is inspired and authoritative–definitely part of the canon (not singular). But, what does it indicate, what does it show us that applies to today?

    Satan speaks in Genesis 3 and his lies are part of the inspired & authoritative but, we should not thoughtlessly take his slander against God as truth–the record is true but the slander is false. Please, Daniel, consider the facts of the scripture in Gal. 2, Acts 15, Acts 21 & the Epistle of James. Do these facts, not opinion, disprove what I posted?

    It is not a matter of disparaging James. As stated earlier, James had a pious living respected by most in Jerusalem. In fact, according to history, many of the opposing Jews reportedly held him in high regard. What you miss is that the level of his revelation concerning Christ, the Spirit, and the church, as well as God’s economy, does not come up to the standard of Peter, Paul, & John. You also neglect the fact that the problem in Antioch (Gal. 2) traces back to James and that the meeting in Jerusalem was to solve this problem. I am not making a case for acrimony during the Acts 15 Jerusalem meeting pitting James against Paul in an argument. It does seem unusual that you would defend your statements with a “harmony of scripture’ argument but not address the scriptural concerns raised in the post or the comments.

    David Gibbs:
    Thanks for your post. As you state, the appendices to the agreement in Acts 15 are not my major concern–although I am happy that Michael can eat his steak in peace and I am not in support of the things prohibited by Acts 15. The modern day application of the entire record concerning James is that we believers can live an exemplary, pious life while not having much appreciation for things beyond moral teachings. Rather than live that kind of life, we should pursue the riches of our wonderful Savior, the life given by the life-giving and empowering Holy Spirit, the church in all the marvelous aspects revealed in the New Testament–all of which constitute the center of the Trinity’s economic move among his believers.

  35. John,

    Acts 21:21 clearly states that the whole problem in this episode related to the issue involving a rumor that Paul was teaching Jews not to keep the Law.

    Acts 21:21: “They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.”

    The “they” in 21:21 clearly refers to the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. The problem is Paul’s supposed teaching concerning “Jews who live among Gentiles.” Furthermore, it is hard to see how Paul’s fulfilling a vow in Jerusalem would have helped to alleviate the tension evident in this scene if the issue related to Law-observance for the Gentiles.

    My point is that James seems to assume in 21:25 that the Christian Gentile Law issue was settled. The problem at hand is whether Jewish Christians should be taught to keep the Law. These issues are related but not the same thing. In fact a number of interpreters have concluded that James and others in the early Christian movement believed Gentile Christians were not obligated to keep the Law but that Jewish Christians were still obligated to keep the Law. I am not saying I agree with this, but it is a recognition that the issue i9s complicated and that there is not one issue here but rather two.

  36. Charles,
    Thanks for your fine post. You are right that rumors played a part in the events. Indeed, James may have had the consideration about Jewish believers and the law that you mention. In Gal. 2, Paul told Peter that neither of them (both Jews) lived like Jews and defended that, in fact, advanced that view. James obviously had a different view, a view that held sway in Jerusalem.

    As you stated, I don’t think the vow in Acts 21 would have solved anything. The point is, James did. He made such a proposal in such an atmosphere and Paul, amazingly, went along with it even to the point of agreeing to have an offering made for his “purification.” (Now I am picking on Paul! Please be assured that I am not saying any of us are free from such mistakes!). As an aside, what did Paul need to be purified from? Rumors? Surely James thought there was something in the way Paul lived or carried out his ministry that needed an out-of-date purification ritual.

    The record seems to indicate that there was such a long-lasting problem concerning the law in Jerusalem and that it flows back to James. You are correct in stating that the problem was complicated.

    Would it have not been better for the believing Jews in Jerusalem to be zealous for the Father, for Christ, for the Spirit, for the church, and for God’s eternal intention rather than “zealous for the law”?

  37. In an earlier post I wrote, “James’ epistle is inspired and authoritative–definitely part of the canon (not singular).”

    The (not singular) should have read (note singular). Pretty significant mistake. Sorry.

  38. Richard, that ETS article was facinating. But all it really did for me was show me how confusing the issue really is!

  39. John,

    I’m not trying to misrepresent you. Let me ask you some questions. Clarify what my misunderstandings.

    Do you think that James has a low/insufficient view of the gospel?

    Do you think that James’ theology should take a back seat to Paul’s theology?

    Is the book of James applicable for today?

  40. If it is agreed that James and Paul – at the very least – placed heavy emphasis on different aspects, faith vs. works, of “The Way” (but most likely disagreed), then it does not follow that James was being too legalistic. How do we know Paul wasn’t being too liberal? Seems to me that James was the brother of Jesus and the leader of the Church in Jerusalem – a rather authoritative voice. Of course as Christians, we would return to what Jesus had to say. I can only speak for myself, but what I see written in James more closely resembles what Jesus says in the Gospels when compared to what Paul writes.

  41. I think we would be safe saying that though they may have had different approaches and emphasis (and even disagreed), this does not need to have implications about the accuracy of what they said. They can still be reconciled. It is a glorious thing this 100% God 100% man Scripture thing.

  42. John,

    Let me make two further points of clarification.

    (1) The issue of Galatians 2 complicates the matter a bit since some, including myself, equate Galatians 2 with Acts 11 and not Acts 15. So we have all the issues associated with defining the chronology sequence. Furthermore, if one takes Acts as roughly sequential then the events of Acts 21 would obviously be after Acts 15. I would have around 8 years separating Acts 15 from Acts 21.

    (2) I did not really state that “I don’t think the vow in Acts 21 would have solved anything.” Rather, I was merely pointing out that Paul’s taking on a vow would not have done anything for the believing Gentile-Law issue, but it could possibly have had an impact on the believing Jew-Law issue. Whether it would have ultimately worked, we don’t know since Paul ended up having even bigger problems with his arrest.

  43. “What did Paul need to be purified from?”

    I’m not intimately familiar with Jewish ceremonial law, but maybe there was some rule about a purification ceremony required of those who had been in Gentile-dominated areas for extended periods, before they could enter the court of the Jews?

  44. Daniel,
    I am not inclined to answer your questions until you first address my many challenges to your posts. Your questions should have already been answered by my earlier posts.

    However, I have not said that James and Paul argued nor have I said the epistle of James has no application for today. Please, Daniel, don’t try so hard to misunderstand.

    JB,
    I think the best indicator is to compare the revelation of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the church in James to the revelation of these items in Peter, John, and Paul. Yes, James was very influential in Jerusalem and the spread of his influence to Antioch caused a problem there inducing Peter to hypocrisy and Paul to say that “the truth of the gospel” was at stake.

    Charles,
    I appreciate your post. Please tell me why you do not think Acts 15 was related to the problem in Gal. 2. Don’t forget, the problem in Antioch was due to some “who came from James.” This lays the problem at James feet and Acts 15 was the effort to correct the problem. Paul testified, Peter testified, and the authority of the OT prophecies (quoted by James) solved the problem (apparently, not entirely).

    Sorry I misunderstood your statement about the vow. My point is that the whole vow with the offering does not fit the New Testament.

    Brian,
    Like you, I am not that familiar with all the rituals and requirements of the temple (the popular phrase is “second temple Judaism,” I think). The point remains that according to the truth of the New Testament and to the conversation between Paul and James, I cannot legitimately see what Paul needed to be purified from. And, if there was something legitimate, the temple ritual would not have provided that (only the blood of Jesus!). Further, for Paul to have an offering (probably an animal sacrifice) for his purification seems to fly in the face of his own teachings in the New Testament. God, in His sovereignty (Amen, Calvinists), allowed a tumult to ensue stopping this procedure before such a thing could be completed.

  45. John,

    If you think that James and Paul were in agreement on the gospel, then we’re on the same page. I apologize that I misunderstood you.

    I believe that the harmonization of James and Paul is essential to a high view of Scripture.

    If James’ theology is at odds with Paul’s theology, then we have a major “authority of Scripture” problem. If James was a Judaizer and/or a legalist, it’s hard to see why his writings were included in the canon.

  46. Daniel,
    I do believe that there were differences between Paul and James. At least you must admit that according to the Bible, the problem in Antioch originated from James–those who came from James. I do not think that Acts 15 shows a dispute between James and Paul, but more of a vindication of Paul’s teachings.

    A high view of the scripture does not depend on external theology or principles of harmonization. It depends on understanding what is being said by whom and why. Can you harmonize Satan’s slander with God’s words in Genesis 2 & 3? No way. But that does not take away from the authority or truthfulness of the scripture. It is also very helpful to us in living our Christian life.

    Peter obviously practiced hypocrisy in Antioch and differed at that point with Paul, but that does not affect the authority of his epistles or of his actions in Acts.

    You cannot deny that James was more for the law than was Paul or that Paul, Peter and John’s views of Christ, the Spirit, God’s New Testament economy, and the church are much higher than the view of the same things in James.

    James’ epistle and the teachings in it are not false, they are not lies or heresies. But they are mostly on the level of moral teachings (not an evil thing). I do not dispute either the canonicity nor the authority of James’ epistle. What I dispute is a failure to consider the facts of the scripture because of external theologies. If you have read my posts you have seen that I put forward many positive reasons for the inclusion of James.

    The crux of the matter comes down to this: What kind of Christian life do we aspire to?

  47. Michael,
    Sorry to take up so much of the responses to your post. I will stop here (I think).

  48. John,

    You have misunderstood my point concerning Galatians 2 and Acts 15. I did not say that these were not related. I raised the issue of chronology. There is a huge debate as to whether Galatians 2 and Acts 15 are two accounts of the same meeting. I for one, do not hold that they are. But many others disagree. Most major commentaries on Acts or Galatians should provide some discussion of this debate. The commentaries do so because whatever view you take affects how you think the discussion or argument progressed. Let me illustrate. Let’s suppose that we took the comments you and I have exchanged on this post and scrambled the order. Before someone could make sense of the progression of our discussion, they would need to put the various comments in order. Likewise, chronology is significant in understanding the progression of the debate in Acts concerning the believer and the Law. I am merely raising an issue that I am not sure you are taking into consideration.

  49. John, you mentioned the incident with Peter and his “hypocrisy”, which I’ve always found to be… interesting. Paul accuses Peter of being hypocritical (Gal. 2) because he eats with the Gentiles when Jews were not present, but when they were he ate with the Jews. I don’t see any hypocrisy there. Paul accused Peter of forcing the Gentiles to adhere to Jewish custom, but that isn’t clear from the text at all. This isn’t to say that Paul was lying, but certainly he could’ve been mistaken. It is unfortunate (and perhaps convenient) that no response from Peter is recorded. Surely, he must have said something. After all, Paul accuses Peter of being a non-observant Jew, but it seems that Peter didn’t see himself that way at all (Acts 10).
    It has always struck me as odd that someone who wrote “To the Jews I became like a Jew” (1 Cor. 9) would take offense at what Peter did. This, despite the fact that James, Barnabas, and (seemingly) Peter disagreed with him. Further, that he would later (Acts 21) do pretty much the same thing Peter did.
    CMP points out that James and Paul can be reconciled, which is true. After all, both do emphasize faith and righteousness. One can’t help but wonder, however, if either/both James and Paul would be surprised at this.
    I think this downplays, however, the importance this debate would have had to Jews at the time – and perhaps today. After all, the vast majority of Christians today are Gentiles, and – let’s face it – we don’t have a lot at stake. Even to James, we Gentiles were never bound to the Mosaic Law. But for Jewish Christians, there was (is?) considerable significance to this argument.
    Daniel, it’s not really to hard to see why James would have been included in the canon, even if he was a Judaizer. After all, he was a brother of Jesus and influential leader. And, as mentioned before, his words CAN be reconciled with Paul’s, however strained that may appear.

  50. Last time I checked Satan never wrote a book in the Bible. James did. That’s apples and oranges.

    Paul accuses the Judaizers of perverting the gospel (Gal. 1:8-9). He puts an anathema on them. If James was a Judaizer, then Paul would have condemned him to hell. Paul never calls Peter a Judaizer. He does say that Peter’s practice didn’t fit with Peter’s theology.

    I disagree with the premise that James was responsible for the crisis at Antioch. Just because these men claimed to be from James (Gal. 2:12), it does not mean that they accurately represented James’ theology (DA Carson makes a great case for this). Galatians 2:9 indicates that James gave Paul the right hand of fellowship. They were in agreement on the gospel (Gal. 2:7).

    Part of the problem is that we misread Paul’s approach to the Law. Here’s where the New Perspective is helpful. Paul is against Judaizing. He is not against the Law. Paul himself teaches that the doers of the Law will be justified, not the hearers of the Law (Romans 2:13). That sounds a lot like something James might have said.

    (I realize that this interpretation of Romans 2 is contested. I don’t think that it’s a hypothetical statement. NT Wright and others have made a pretty good case that Romans 2:13 concerns final justification).

    I don’t think that Paul’s view of the Law was much different than James’ view of the Law. The problem is that we misunderstand Paul and the Law.

  51. Thanks for all the responses.

    Charles, you are correct. I think I did misunderstand your post. You, I think if I have it right, were referring to the account of a visit to Jerusalem in Gal 2, which I agree was at an earlier time than Acts 15. Because of that fact, I did not address it in my posts (although I considered it but did not want to bring in more points). Sandwiched between the two visits (Gal 2 & Acts 15) was the incident in Antioch, which was my focus in referencing Gal 2.

    JB: Peter’s hypocrisy was not that he ate with the Jews but that when some came from James, Peter refused to eat with the Gentiles–which was against the vision and commandment he received from the Lord in Acts 10 and faithfully recounted in Acts 15. His actions in Antioch were hypocritical. I do not see support beyond Acts 10 and Gal 2 (negatively) that Peter considered himself a practicing Jew.

    Daniel: I guess we will disagree on this. Actually, the men in Gal 2 did not “claim” to be from James, Paul made the statement flat out. If indeed you hold a high view of scripture, you should not try to bend scripture to your view.
    Daniel, are there any doers of the law who are justified? I think most on this blog agree that justification is by grace though faith and not by works of the law. Your interpretation of Romans indeed sounds like something I think James would say. I never claimed Satan wrote a book of the Bible. I merely used that example to illustrate a point: we should interpret the Bible according to what is being said by whom and why. Do you disagree with this?

    What we need is a clear analysis of the situation involving Acts 15 that takes all the scriptural evidence into consideration. As Daniel said, Paul was strong to call the Judaizers “false brothers” and he never called Peter or James such. The false brothers were indeed false and preached another gospel. Peter and James were not false and neither Paul nor I said they were; there was, however, a dispute that threatened the “truth of the gospel.” Pretty serious I would say. This dispute led to Acts 15 in Jerusalem because Jerusalem, under the influence of James, was the cause of the problem in Antioch.

    Daniel, I have a question for you. If James was the pillar of light and truth you claim, why did he not deal with the false brothers himself but instead countenanced them throughout the early visit to Jerusalem recounted in Gal 2 & during the problem in Antioch?

    Michael, once again I apologize.

  52. The “men from James” may indeed be from James. However, it is possible that they still misrepresented James’ theology. From time to time, students can distort the teachings of their mentors.

    During the early visit in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10), James takes Paul’s side and gives him the right hand of fellowship. There is no indication in the text that James approves of the “false brothers” in Gal 2:4.

    In regard to the crisis at Antioch (Gal 2:11-13), James was not in Antioch. I assume that Galatians was written prior to the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Therefore, when James does get a chance to deal with this situation (i.e. at the Jerusalem Council), he takes Paul’s side and disagrees with the “certain men from James.”

    I think that it is possible to do the Law. However, this brings up the issue of justification as an “already but not yet” event. In the present time, we are justified by faith in Christ (Romans 5:1-2). However, justification is also a future event. When Christ returns, he will judge the works of men (2 Cor 5:10).

    This future justification will be in accordance with our works (Romans 2:6-11; James 2:24; Matthew 12:37; John 5:28-29). These works are the evidence of saving faith.

  53. John, it seems to me that Paul spells out what he consider’s Peter’s hypocrisy to be in Gal. 2:14, when he says to Peter: “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”
    I find this puzzling because:
    1. Paul presents no evidence that Peter “lives like a Gentile”, aside from the fact that he ate exclusively with Jews when the folks “from James” were around, but felt free to eat with Gentiles otherwise (which he probably felt comfortable doing because of his personal revelation/dream in Acts 10). But from Acts 10 it would also seem that Peter considers himself an observant Jew.
    2. There is no evidence that he forced Gentiles to follow Jewish customs.
    You claim that Peter was being hypocritical because he “refused” to eat with the Gentiles, but i only see evidence that he chose to do otherwise under certain social conditions. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs here, but to me this doesn’t demonstrate hypocrisy. It could also demonstrate that Peter was utilizing the “weaker brother” principle, or that he was fickle, buckling under the pressure… and as for the latter, well, we kind of already knew that about him!

  54. Either way, I can’t see that it has anything to do with rare steak. Cooked blood is still blood, but I don’t think a bit of blood in meat is what Jews prohibited.

  55. I’m happy to inform you that according to the Jewish laws of Kashrut (the laws determining what is and isn’t kosher) that medium rare is the rarest you can go and still be kosher! So, enjoy!

    http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/682641/jewish/Is-a-medium-rare-steak-kosher.htm

  56. The part that convicts me the most is in verse 28 where the authority of the Holy Spirit is mentioned! Do we dare say that the Holy Spirit was wrong? Oh no no no. There must be something to this, and just because the world around us does or does not do something doesn’t mean that we as Christians should follow.

  57. I understand your trepidation, but I would point out that saying that something *seemed good* to the Holy Spirit is not quite the same thing as saying “Thus saith the Lord!” Regardless, you are absolutely correct in pointing out that Christians are held to a different standard. If the Holy Spirit were to say “Don’t eat rare steak,” then we shouldn’t. The question, of course, is that what was said? Probably not.

  58. I believe Paul addressed the eating of meat in the book of Romans. He stated that he who eats meat must eat of faith because he that eats not of faith is damned if he eat. Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.

  59. Like most I like view number 4 with one caveat. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that all four of the things James instructs the gentile converts to observe must all one singular theological motive. I don’t know any Greek or Hebrew and am not schooled in theology from any formal educational process so I may be missing something but I see a modified view of number 4 or perhaps a 5th option however you might classify it.

    It seems unanimously clear that;
    -The council is speaking to the gentile converts.
    -The council is addressing some disagreements between gentile and Jewish converts to Christianity.
    – The central theme and motive for most or perhaps all of these instruction is based in preserving fellowship and doing due diligence to avoid offending other believers of mixed backgrounds.

    The question I have is why must we assume all four of the itemized instructions are strictly for preserving unity? Most gentiles of this society would not necessarily be aware of or have a sensitivity to Jewish laws, customs and morality.

    Regarding the “refraining from sexual immorality” I have to wonder if this issue may not have immediately been assumed to be wrong by very new converts. It would be unexpected to me for a gathering of the apostles to limit themselves to one and only one underlying issue that could undermine the church. Perhaps there were other issues of concern that were identified to the Apostles beforehand. It would seem prudent to address this issue as well and at the same time if it was on James radar. Is it possible that some sexual immorality was not immediately abandoned by recent gentile converts which along with the other three concerns were understandably a point of contention for Jewish Christians?

    Just a thought but feel free to correct me if there is strong reliable evidence that would indicate all four instructions to the gentiles had to all be supported by one and only one purpose.

  60. Both the Acts 15 and Acts 21 passages dealing with the 4 “commands” to the gentiles are tied in with gentiles not being an offence to the Jew.

    Both times the commands were given , they were iterated by James.
    And both times the commands for the Gentiles was specifically tied in with not offending the Jews.

    It is SIGNIFICANT that James tells you the reason for the 4 commands to the Gentiles:

    “FOR” (because of, the reason thereof)
    Acts 15:21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.

    These that preach Moses and listen in the Synagogues are JEWS!!

    So the point is there is a 5th option (similar to #4) these commands are not for fellowship, but for NOT giving offence to the JEWS!!! So that their Blood eating, things strangled, food offered to idols and fornication do not provide a barrier to evangelizing the Jews.

    1 Corinthians 10:32 Give none OFFENCE, neither to the JEWS, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God:
    1 Corinthians 10:33 Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, THAT THEY MAY BE SAVED!

    1 Corinthians 9:20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might GAIN THE JEWS; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;
    1 Corinthians 9:22 To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might BY ALL MEANS SAVE SOME

  61. Jeff, you’re comment brought a question to my mind… I wonder if James were to make such a list *today* – of things that should be avoided in order to not bring offence to the Jew – what would they be?

  62. Swastikas, pork eating, supporting Muslims and Jewish jokes (about their noses, wealth, running the world etc) 🙂

    BTW it is impossible to avoid offending the Jews to reach them…

    Galatians 5:11 And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased.

    Lets just make sure our offensiveness is based on the person of Christ and not on Jewish customs

    1 Corinthians 1:23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

    The cross is offensive and foolish, and the exclusivity of Christ is a stumbling block to the Jews (Acts 4:12 and John 14:6)

    1 Corinthians 1:18 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.

  63. I’m late coming to this article, but I was searching for more explanation on this part of Scripture. From what I’ve learned in the last year by studying the Old Testament with Hebrew speakers, we have a Creator Who doesn’t just make random laws and regulations for the fun of it, or to randomly test us. Life provides all the tests we need, and to pass these tests is not just to show the Father how obedient we are and how much we care for HIm, but “it is for your good”! In Deuteronomy 10:12-13, Moses said, “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, too serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today FOR YOUR GOOD.” (Capitals mine for emphasis). We seem to have forgotten that we are indeed “like sheep”, one of the dumbest animals on the planet. We think with our “modern” technology and “discoveries” that man today (especially Western culture, of course) never had it so good. But the truth is, we are surrounded still by things science and medicine can’t figure out, by sickness, by violence and war and hunger. There are ancient civilizations who knew things we still don’t know (how to embalm mummies, how Titian created the pigments in his lustrous paintings, how to cure certain ills without life threatening side effects, etc. However, the One Who made us all knows exactly what is for our good, whether we understand it or not. So in giving the laws in Acts, it is certain on levels we do understand (easy to see how sexual immorality can cause grief and destruction) and on those we don’t (what’s so bad about a little blood in my rare steak?) that these laws are “for our good”. Somehow, we and or others will literally be harmed by going against theses laws. On the most basic level, its not a stretch to say that eating meat with blood in it 1)means it wasn’t cooked long enough to kill all harmful organisms in it, and 2) blood is what carries disease throughout a mammal’s system. I’m giving the simplest possibilities, here, but they are based on scientific knowledge. Do our children understand every rule we give them? We tell them when they’re tiny not to eat something from the ground. Can they understand why? No, but that doesn’t mean we let them do it. If we don’t see the sense in any command from the Father, are we then supposed to whittle it away because we are blind, or TRUST and OBEY, because He said it is “for our good”? It seems Christians have lost that sense of awe and reverence for the Father’s commands because we think we’re so smart. We will never be smart enough, or advanced enough, to understand all His ways, and to think so is foolishness. Yes, its very hard to give up our favorite beliefs and habits that go against His commands, but we are not smarter than He is! If we consider ourselves believers, our position would be more like appreciation for a Father that tells us how to live in His universe in the way that is most physically, spiritually and mentally beneficial for us. Don’t we thank someone when they point out some danger in something we were doing, that we were totally unaware of? We do if we’re not too proud or stubborn. There is a reason for everything He does, and it is for our good!

  64. The best quote I’ve heard on the epistle of James is it’s Christianity in jewish diapers.

    My take is James had a real tough time fully understanding the Gospel in his early years.
    First he was Christ’ brother..how messed up is that? It is quite possible that he heard more of His preaching than anyone…BUT BEFORE HIs mission started. So James heard Jesus Before he started to transition away from the law to its full meaning.

    These mistakes in interpretation are even made by many Scholars today. They cant seem to grasp Jesus was a real jew under the law walking the fine line of teaching a new way while keeping the law. This must be why Paul was chosen. He was not influenced by what Jesus the man said. Being saved on the spot in the very act of persecuting Christ eliminated all ideas of clinging to the law.

    The apostles didnt completely shake their old ways. The book of James is not even to us, it to jews, it even uses the jewish mantra “God is one ” for faith, the very code they used to reject the son of God. .Thats why it makes me livid when people use James to explain or even correct Paul. It just a book of interest. It says nothing of saving faith in God .
    These were great men but its a mistake to think they’re infallible, that they weren’t growing in knowledge. James is certainly, it seems to me, such a case. We dont get it cause we’re gentiles but it couldn’t have been easy just jettisoning their whole religion stat. People making excuses for james because of inerrancy do violence to the clear meaning of the text.

  65. Thank you! I have had the same 4 or 5 verses in acts underlined with “huh?” Written next to them for years and finally decided to google them today. This cleared up a few of them because I also didn’t know about the transitional thing and was confused by the Holy Spirit not entering people immediately.

  66. Acts 15:21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.

    I think that this verse preaches Jesus, not Moses, concerning that it was the blood of Jesus that was shedded for us and also that the old laws of Moses point to Christ. The Lord God said that the life is in the blood so we should not eat it. The life is in the blood of Jesus which he gave up for us so we may not eat the blood, which is what I was thinking.

    Also the letter wasn’t just about food only because clearly on first 2 things that are not about food: “But that we write unto them, that they abstain from *pollutions of idols, and from *fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.”

    Also regarding the pollutions of idols, it wasn’t about food but that we should not have any idols in our home etc.
    And then, Fornication has nothing to do with worshipping idols, isn’t it? All kind of fornication were pointed out in the old testament and that we should avoid them.

    On flesh and blood of Christ Jesus:
    Luke 22:19-20 And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.

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