December 20, 2014

 

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe

 

 

Topic #IV. The Church Advancing to the End of the Earth (Acts 13-28)   

                    

Subtopic B: The Jerusalem Council (15:1-35)                                    

                          

                                                                            

         Lesson: IV.B.2: The Problem: Those from Syrian Antioch, Part 3 (15:22-29)

 

 

The Jerusalem Council (15:1-35)

Part 1 The Criticism from the circumcision Party (15:1-5)

Part 2 The Debate in Jerusalem (15:6-21)

Part 3 The Decision in Jerusalem (15:22-29)

Part 4 The Decision Reported to Antioch (15:30-35)

 

 

 

Scripture (Acts 15:22-29; KJV) Part 3

 

22 Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren:

23 And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia:

24 Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment:

25 It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,

26 Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

27 We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth.

28 For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;

29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.



Introduction

James advised the church to write to the Gentile believers and share the decisions of the conference.  This letter asked for obedience to two commands and a willingness to agree to two personal concessions.  The two commands were that the believers avoid idolatry and immorality, sins that were especially prevalent among the Gentiles (see 1 Corinthians 8-10).  The two concessions were that they willingly abstain from eating blood and meat from animals that had died by strangulation.  The two commands do not create any special problems, for idolatry and immorality have always been wrong in God’s sight, both for Jews and Gentiles.  But what about the two concessions concerning food?

 

Keep in mind that the early church did a great deal of eating together and practicing hospitality.  Most churches met in homes, and some assemblies held a “love fest” in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17–34).  It was probably not much different from our own potluck dinners.  If the Gentile believers ate food that the Jewish believers considered “unclean,” this would cause division in the church.  Paul dealt clearly with this whole problem in Romans 14-15.

 

The prohibition against eating blood was actually given by God before the time of the Law (Genesis 9:4), and it was repeated by Moses (Leviticus 17:11-14; Deuteronomy 12:23).  If an animal is killed by strangulation, some of the blood will remain in the body and make the meat unfit for Jews to eat.  Hence, the admonition against strangulation.  “Kosher” meat his meat that comes from clean animals that have been properly killed, so that the blood has been totally drained from the body

 

It is beautiful to see that this letter expressed the loving unity of people who had once been debating with each other and defending opposing views.  The legalistic Jews willingly gave up insisting that the Gentiles had to be circumcised to be saved, and the Gentiles willingly accepted a change in their eating habits.  It was a loving compromise that did not in any way affect the truth of the Gospel.  As every married person and parent knows, there are times in a home when compromise is wrong, but there are also times when compromise is right.

 

 

Commentary

22 Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren:

23a And they wrote letters by them after this manner;

 

James had provided a suitable solution that jeopardized neither the Gentile mission nor the fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians.  As it often happens, the decision was a compromise.  It represented the point of view of those who were in the middle of the road.  No one was better suited to express that point of view than James.  He was a conservative by nature, but he had a fair and open mind.  All parties seem to have been satisfied and to have agreed to James’s suggestion.  It was thus definitely decided that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised in order to be saved.  However, there remained a significant number of Jewish Christians who wished to take a much harder line with the Gentiles.  They continued to disturb the Pauline churches for some years to come.  Nevertheless, the council did represent a broad consensus of the church and was an expression of the real unity that was still felt by all Christians (Acts 4:32). They decided to draft a letter presenting the solution and to send two delegates from the Jerusalem church to Antioch along with Paul and Barnabas. 

 

These two leaders, may have represented two groups in the Jerusalem church–Judas, for the Hebrew section; and Silas, a roman citizen (16:37), for the Hellenists.  The two delegates would be able to give their personal interpretation of the letter’s contents and of the conference in Jerusalem.  They would “confirm by word of mouth” what was written (V.  27). No one could claim there were poor communications about this delicate issue.  The letter was not an agreement binding on the whole church forever, but a communication from the persons named to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia.  It constituted a strong recommendation, but must not be considered an obstacle to future normal revelations through the apostles, and it included special reference to the authority of Paul as apostle to the Gentiles.

 

The two delegates are described as “chief men” (leaders) in the church of Jerusalem, a term that is not further defined.  In verse 32 they are called “prophets.”  “Of Judas Barsabbas” (Sabbath-born) we know nothing more, but he probably represented the Judaistic section of the conference.  He may have been related to the Joseph Barsabbas of 1:23, who failed to be elected to the office of Judas Iscariot, but even that is uncertain.  “Silas,” who was a major New Testament character, is another story.  He accompanied Paul on his second missionary journey and is mentioned often in that connection. Silas is a shortened form of the Greek name Silvanus, and his Greek name has led some to suggest that he may have been a Hellenist.  That would certainly be likely if he is the same Silvanus who served as Peter’s amanuensis[1] (1 Peter 5:12).  He definitely seems to be the Silvanus whom Paul mentioned as a coworker in several of his epistles (2 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1). 

 

The churches of Corinth and Thessalonica were established on Paul’s second missionary journey when Silas accompanied him.  It was thus natural for him to include Silas/Silvanus when writing to them.  Like Paul, Sylvanus may have been a Roman citizen.  Acts 16:37 seems to indicate so.  It is interesting to note that Paul’s mission companions came from those who represented the Jerusalem church (Barnabas, 11:22).  This is another way in which the close bond between Paul’s missionary activity and the Jerusalem church is revealed.  Not only did the Jerusalem Christians approve Paul’s law-free Gentile mission in principle at the conference, but they ultimately furnished his personnel as well.      

 

 

23b The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia:

24 Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment:

 

The letter was written in the name of the Jerusalem leaders, “the apostles and elders”; the substance of the letter is given in verses 23-29.  The recipients were referred to as “the Gentiles (believers) in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia” (The churches in Cilicia were probably founded by Paul when he went there after fleeing Jerusalem; 9:30).  Actually, this could be considered almost as a single address.  Syria-Cilicia was administratively a single Roman province, and Antioch was a city within it.  It was at Antioch that the debate had begun (15:1), and so it was to Antioch that the Jerusalem leaders sent their response.  So the letter was sent, not as from the council, but from the church in Jerusalem (“the apostles and the elders,” v.  23), which still regarded itself as having the authoritative voice in the affairs of all the people of God.  Nothing is mentioned about the churches of Galatia where Paul and Barnabas had recently performed a ministry to the Gentiles.  If someone should asked why the letter is addressed only to Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, and did not include Galatia, where the controversy had been raging, the reply is that the debate had arisen on a report from Antioch “about this question” (v. 2).  Luke does say that Paul delivered the letter to the churches of Galatia on his second missionary tour—“And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4).

 

There is some uncertainty as to how the word “brethren” relates to the rest of the phrase in “verse 23”, but the NIV is probably right to take it as standing in opposition to “the apostles and elders,” so that whatever their authority was, they wrote to the church in Antioch as brother to brothers, even though the church was predominantly Gentile.

 

“Verse 24” provides some additional clarification concerning the Judaizers of 15:1.  They may have come from Jerusalem, but they were in no sense official representatives of the church.  In fact, the language of the letter expresses some dismay with this group.  They are described as “troubling” (literally “plundering” or “tearing down”) the minds of the people in Antioch.  The Jerusalem leadership was obviously not happy with the wholly unauthorized Judaizers and with them upsetting the Gentiles of Antioch.  Likewise, we can say that anyone who tries to put a believer under the Law today is not doing it on the authority of the Word of God.

 

The church leaders had several objectives in writing this letter: First, they acknowledged that although those who had disturbed (“shaken”) and troubled the church in Antioch had come “from us,” they had not represented the church in Jerusalem, but had acted on their own authority.  Second, they vindicated Paul and Barnabas, who had withstood the troublemakers, and honored them for risking “their lives” (literally, “handing over their lives”) “for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 26, but they had also been “handed over” to the care of God’s grace, 14:26; 2 Timothy 1:12).  The sufferings of the two missionaries in the course of their recent journey were evidently well known.  Notice the warmth of the expression “our beloved Barnabas and Paul” (v. 25).  Third, they authorized Judas and Silas, as representatives of the church in Jerusalem, to speak in support of what the letter contained.  And fourth, they listed those things that the council had agreed they should ask of the Gentiles. But no conditions were to be imposed on the Gentile Christians for salvation or admission to full Christian fellowship, except that condition which God Himself had accepted as sufficient, faith in Christ.

 

 

25 It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,

26 Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Verses 25-26 basically recapitulate the content of verse 22 with the additional commendation of Barnabas and Paul as those who had “risked their lives” for the name of Jesus.  On the first missionary journey, they faced persecution (13:50) and Paul was nearly killed (14:19, 20). It is in their whole-hearted devotion to Christ that the two missionaries had incurred so many dangers.  The Jerusalem leaders showed their admiration for the two missionaries by referring to them as “beloved Barnabas and Paul,” and acknowledging that they had “hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”    One is reminded of Paul’s account of the conference (Galatians 2:9), where he spoke of the Jerusalem leaders’ giving them the “right hand of fellowship.”

 

 

27 We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth.

28 For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;

 

Verse 27 continues to delineate the circumstances of the letter, noting the role of Judas and Silas.  You can see that if they had sent only Barnabas and Paul the people might have said, “Well, of course, these two men would bring back that kind of a report.” So they sent along Judas and Silas in order to confirm the fact that this was the decision of the council. 

 

Only at verse 28 does the “meat” of the letter begin. The assembly had decided not to burden the Gentiles—no circumcision, no Law, only these “necessary things.”  The idea was really that there was to be no burden placed upon the Gentiles.  Instead of a burden, the Gentiles were to be asked to follow the four prescribed areas of the “apostolic decrees”—not as a law, but as a basis for fellowship.  The addition of the “Holy Ghost” in verse 28 is significant, because it revealed the moment by moment reliance of the disciples on the Holy Spirit.  Just as the Spirit had been instrumental in the inclusion of the Gentiles (15:8, 12), so now in the conference the Spirit had led the Jerusalem leaders in considering the conditions for their inclusion. The clause “to the Holy Ghost, and to us” means that the decisions have been inspired by the Spirit—“And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him” (Acts 5:32).

 

 

29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.

 

Verse 29 lists the four provisions of the apostolic decree just as originally proposed by James (v. 20).  There is one slight variation.  Whereas James had spoken in terms of “food polluted by idols,” the letter defined this with the more precise term “meats offered to idols.”  Evidently these regulations continued to be taken seriously in large segments of the church. 

 

It has often been argued that Paul either didn’t know of the decree’s or flatly rejected them, since he never referred to them in his letters.  Some have observed further that in his own account of the Jerusalem conference, Paul stated that “nothing” was added to his message (Galatians 2:6).  This does not necessarily conflict with the existence of the decrees.  The conference did approve Paul’s basic message of a law-free gospel for the gentiles—no circumcision, no Torah, no “burden.”  “The decrees were a strategy for Jewish-Gentile fellowship, and that was something different.  The assumption that Paul showed no knowledge of the decrees in his letters is also questionable.  In 1 Corinthians 5-10 Paul seems to have dealt with two of its provisions: sexual immorality in chapters 5-7 and food sacrificed to idols in chapters 8-10.  The latter, where Paul advised the “strong” not to eat meat in the presence of the “weak” is particularly instructive, for it reflects the decree’s basic principle of “accommodation”—to enable fellowship between Christians.  True, Paul did not accept the decree’s as “law”; but he did seem to embrace their spirit. 

 

The “decrees” are the same as in verse 20, except for a slight change in order.  The letter emphasized that the council had kept its demands to a minimum (v. 28) and that what was asked of them was necessary only in the interests of harmony, not of salvation.  The final comment, “from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well” (V.  29), that is, the things prohibited, cannot be interpreted to mean “you will be saved.” It does, however, reflect the conviction that the council’s decision had been reached under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (10:19; 13:2).  This belief is made explicit in verse 28, where the form of expression does not mean that they put themselves on a par with the Spirit, but only that they were willing to submit to His guidance.  Copies of the letter were probably kept in Antioch and Jerusalem, to which Luke would have had access. 

 

What did this decision accomplish in a practical way?  At least three things:

  1. It strengthened the unity of the church and kept it from splitting into two extreme “Law” and “grace” groups.
  2. This decision made it possible for the church to present a united witness to the lost Jews (Acts 15:21).  For the most part, the church was still identified with the Jewish synagogue; and it is likely that in some cities, entire synagogue congregations believed on Jesus Christ—Jews, Gentile proselytes, and Gentile “God-fearers” together.  If the Gentile believers abused their freedom in Christ and ate meat containing blood, this would offend both the saved Jews and their unsaved friends whom they were trying to win to Christ.  It was simply a matter of not being a stumbling block to the weak or to the lost (Romans 14:13-21).
  3. This decision brought blessing as the letter was shared with the various Gentile congregations.

 

That is the report.  That is all they have to say to them.  Gentile believers are not required to meet any of the demands of the Mosaic system, but they are to exercise courtesy to those who do—especially in the area of meats offered to idols, and of course they are not to commit fornication. 

 


[1] one who writes from dictation or copies manuscripts

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