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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Acts 15

 

 

Introduction

A Major Crisis - Consultation at Jerusalem

When we came to the end of chapter 14 it described the end of an abundantly successful mission and we had the impression that all was well. The word was advancing. All hindrances had been swept aside. But there was one thing missing. And that is that in Acts Luke always follows up successful activity with a description of Satan’s riposte. Pentecost was followed by persecution from the Temple authorities, the renewal of blessing in Acts 4:23-31 was followed by the failure of Ananias and Sapphira, the success of Stephen was followed by his martyrdom and the persecution of the church, Paul’s conversion and ministry was followed by persecution, Philip’s success among the Samaritans was followed by the behaviour of Simon the sorcerer, the ministry of Peter was followed by his being called to account, followed by the martyrdom of James and his own imprisonment, and the ministries of Barnabas and Saul were followed by various tribulations. For Luke was aware that whenever God moves forward, Satan always seeks to hinder the work. And this was to be no exception as we will now discover.

Consider the situation. The Good News has been taken out to Cyprus and throughout large parts of Asia Minor. Not only have Jews and God-fearers responded but also out-and-out Gentiles, and the latter even in areas where there appears to have been no synagogue. There has been regular persecution, but each time the word has prevailed.

But now return visits have been made and local gatherings have been set up, and they have returned to Antioch and continued their ministry there, and all is going smoothly. It appears as though Satan has given up, and as though opposition has died down, so that the teaching and growth of the churches can go on apace. Luke therefore now immediately reminds us that this is not true. The teaching is being established, but it is to be countered by false teaching. Where the truth is being established, there will always appear those who come to sow lies. For suddenly on the horizon appear so-called Christians who come with a controversial message, which will dog Paul for years to come. The question being raised now was as to how these Gentile converts were to be related to the Old Testament religion from which Jesus sprang and from which the Apostles also came, and it was to be raised by a counterattack of Satan.

Looked at from the point of view of that time the issue involved was no easy question. In fact it was so serious that humanly speaking the success of the spread of the Good News and of the word depended on it.

In those early days when most converts to Christianity were Jews, their continuation in Jewish practises was not even questioned. It was just assumed. All had been circumcised on the eighth day. All followed Jewish religious practises. The difference between Christian Jews and their fellow-Jews was not in the customs that they observed, but in the recognition that they gave to the fact that Jesus, crucified and risen, was to them both Lord and Messiah, and that they saw salvation as having come through Him, bringing them under the Kingly Rule of God and having provided them with full forgiveness for all their sins. Now because they were His they sought to live according to the Law, especially as interpreted by His teaching, sharing all things in common with their fellow-believers, but faithful to their Jewish customs. By that means they hoped to win their fellow-countrymen.

Yet even among the Christian Jews there would be differences (as among the Jews themselves). There were Judaean Jewish Christians, who interpreted their customs more strictly, and were under the close eye of the Rabbis, there were Galilean Jewish Christians whose interpretations of Jewish customs were somewhat less rigid, there were Hellenistic Jewish Christians who interpreted the Scriptures more allegorically, and whose more direct contact with the Gentile world resulted in relaxations of certain customs. Many of the converted Pharisees, for example, would regularly continue to follow through their Pharisaic ideas as Christians, and would be more strict in their religious practises than those who had been converted from among the ‘common folk’, the ‘sinners’, although now, because they were Christians, each would have more regard to the other. But all would still participate in Temple ritual and follow Jewish customs in one way or another, and see themselves still as ‘Jews’.

Then there would be those who had been converted as ‘God-fearers’ and were uncircumcised. They were welcomed wholeheartedly into the fellowship of believers, while of course only on the outskirts of synagogue worship, unless the synagogue was wholly Christian. But these God-fearers would be expected to take account of Jewish practises, especially when they ate with Jews, and would be expected to become acquainted with Jewish Law. And just as the Jews bore with God-fearers but felt that they should become full proselytes, so would many Christian Jews feel the same about Christian God-fearers. Many of the Christian Jews would look on their fellow-Christians who were not circumcised as not yet completely ‘Christianised’.

Of course when Cornelius and his fellow believers were converted in the unusual way in which they were, this had caused a problem. Many Jewish Christians had come to recognise with Peter that God was not calling on all converts themselves to become a full part of Judaism. They were even recognising that for converted Gentiles there were to be different demands. Unlike Judaism they were being called on to accept Christian God-fearers on equal terms. And this had been agreed by the Enquiry Group of chapter 11.

But there were still many Jewish Christians who did not think like that. None had felt able to argue openly in that case that God had made a mistake, but there was almost certainly an uneasy feeling among a number of Jewish Christians that all was not quite right in the matter of Cornelius, and a hope that it would not happen too often. It could be coped with because it was not in Jerusalem and they could after all be treated as God-fearers. And none would doubt that they now worshipped with fellow-believers in Caesarea (where Philip was ministering) and were thus in contact with Jewish Christian customs and worship. The hope of these Jewish Christians was that they would therefore gradually submit to Jewish ways themselves, and gradually become absorbed into Judaism. Yet they did have to swallow the fact that Cornelius and his fellow-Christian-Gentiles had not been required by the Jerusalem church to be circumcised, on the grounds that God had cleansed them and made them holy without circumcision. They could not argue with the decision. They could only feel that it was not right, and put their confidence in the fact that God would sort it out.

Once news had reached Jerusalem of the activities among Gentiles in Syrian Antioch (in Acts 11:19-26) official action had been immediately taken in despatching Barnabas to oversee the situation, and there too they would be satisfied that there was a good nucleus of Jewish Christians in Antioch, so that once again the converts could be seen as God-fearers attached to a Christian synagogue with the hope that they would eventually become full proselytes. Furthermore Jewish Christian prophets had also gone to minister to them.

And indeed it was partly the hope of ensuring this Judaising of the Gentile Christians that would be responsible for some of their own number from the circumcision party going to Antioch declaring the need for these believers to be circumcised (Acts 15:1; compare Galatians 2:4; Galatians 2:12). So the most fervent Judaisers among the Christians in Jerusalem and Judaea still saw Christianity as a reformed Judaism, and looked eventually for all Christians eventually to be circumcised and to conform to the ritual Law.

The mission of Paul and Barnabas to Cyprus and Asia Minor would not initially have caused a problem. Had they continued using synagogues as their base of operations and sought to bring their Gentile converts within the synagogue, initially as God-fearers, (with the hope of their eventually becoming full proselytes) this would simply have extended the pattern. But once the news came through from some of those synagogues of Paul’s blatant large-scale activity among Gentiles who were not attaching themselves to the synagogue, (the synagogues would not point out that it was partly due to their own obstructionism), that stirred up Christian Judaists in Judaea to feel that it was time that they did something about it. They must put a stop to these aberrations and ensure that all were on the path to Judaism. They themselves must go and teach them what was required of them.

As Luke depicts it, working in the other direction was God. And in this regard we have already had three incidents which have illuminated God’s mind on the matter.

1) The Ethiopian High Official (Acts 8:26-39). Strictly speaking we are not certain that this man had not been circumcised, although the impression that most gain from the narrative is that he had not and that he was a God-fearer. But certainly it was God Who sent Philip to him, and it was in accordance with what God showed Philip that he was baptised without the question apparently ever being asked as to whether he was circumcised. However, that conversion might well not have been widely known about, and besides he had disappeared into Ethiopia.

2) Cornelius and His Friends and Family (Acts 10:1 to Acts 11:18). Here we can say that Cornelius was unquestionably no more than at the most a God-fearer, otherwise the question of ‘cleanness’, which was so important in this case, would not have arisen. Had he been a full proselyte Peter’s vision would have been redundant, for a full proselyte was religiously the equivalent of a trueborn Jew. But the whole point of Peter’s vision was that God was telling Peter thathowever unclean something might appear to be ritually, once God had cleansed it, it had become holy. Even though before God cleansed it, it had been unclean, His act of cleansing made it holy. No man therefore had any right to turn round and make common or unclean what God had cleansed, what God had ‘made holy’. And this included people.

It was on the basis of this that Peter had entered Cornelius’ house and had proclaimed to him the Good News. And it was then that he had seen the Holy Spirit come on all those Gentiles gathered there in the same way as on Christian Jews earlier, along with clear outward signs that made it unquestionable that He had done so And he had recognised that if God’s ‘HOLY’ Spirit had entered a man and had indwelt him then that man must be holy, and therefore, following the lesson of his vision, could not be treated as ‘common’. That being so he felt that he could not refuse baptism to what God had made holy. It was not a question as to whether such a person was circumcised or not. It was a question as to whether God had made that person holy. And in that case He clearly had. (Note that baptism is not therefore the same as circumcision. Baptism is an acceptance of the fact that a person has been made holy. Circumcision was, prior to this, seen as a necessity in order that a man might become holy.

Furthermore the basic assumption of the whole process of proselysation was that the unholy needed to be made holy. That was what the proselyte bath indicated. They were being washed from all past ritual uncleanness. They were having the taint of the Gentile world removed. So to give a proselyte bath to someone whom God had already indwelt by His Holy Spirit and who was therefore already holy would, in the light of Peter’s vision, have been to declare as common or unclean what God had made holy. It would be contradictory. It would be almost blasphemous. Thus the only conclusion could be that for such people the procedures for becoming a full proselyte were not required. God had received them without that and made them holy. Furthermore the purpose of the rite of circumcision was in order to set apart a person as one of God’s holy people, it was to render him holy. But these new converts had already been made holy. How then could circumcision be required from someone who had already been indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit and was therefore already holy? They were already accepted by God and holy with no condition of circumcision having been attached. To do any more would be to cast doubt on what God had done. (This again emphasises that baptism was not seen as cleansing or making holy, otherwise on the same terms it could not have applied to those who had been already made holy).

3) The Gentiles Whom God Had Brought To Hear The Word of God But Whom the Synagogue Would Have None Of (Acts 13:44-49). Paul had recognised a similar situation when huge crowds of Gentiles had come together to hear the word of God and the synagogue had wanted to turn them away. He had been faced with the choice of going into the synagogue and turning his back on them, or of speaking to them of Christ at a time when the synagogue, and therefore Judaism, was refusing them, and would not accept them into the synagogue. Indeed matters had been made worse. The truth was that while these Gentiles had come desirous to respond to Christ, it was the Jews in the synagogue who were blaspheming against Him (Acts 13:45). It was the Jews who were attacking Christ. It had thus become clear that if Christ was to be accepted by anyone it would be by these Gentiles who were being excluded from the synagogue, not by these blaspheming Jews. The synagogue may not want these Gentiles but God’s activity among them appeared to indicate that He did, especially as He had approved it with signs and wonders following. Thus it was clear that these Gentiles must be baptised outside the synagogue and its requirements.

Combined with what God had previously demonstrated to Peter in regard to Cornelius, which Paul would know about, this necessarily followed, for it had been made openly apparent that these men also were all ‘filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 13:52). Their acceptance by God without circumcision was therefore not in doubt. And Paul had from then on accepted and baptised Gentile converts without circumcision, even in places where there was no synagogue for them to attach themselves to, once he was satisfied that they had received the Holy Spirit. Indeed he had set them up in their own ‘synagogue’ groups with their own elders led by the Spirit of God.

But now inevitably came Satan’s expected counterattack. It would, however, as with all Satan’s counterattacks (how exasperated he must have been), turn out to be for the good of the advance of the word, for it would mean the church deciding as a whole exactly how it should in future look at the ministry among the Gentiles, and it would finally take away any doubt among Gentile converts of their acceptability in Christ without their having to become Jews.


Verse 1

‘And certain men came down from Judaea and taught the brethren, saying, “Except you be circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

As with the prophets who had arrived earlier and had been of great assistance (Acts 11:27), some men ‘from Judaea’ now arrived in Syrian Antioch, but this time their message to the Christians there was, “Except you be circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” They no doubt saw themselves as going with a salutary and godly message in which they believed profoundly. They may have acclaimed themselves to be prophets, but if so Luke refuses to recognise them as such. We note further that he does not say that they came ‘from Jerusalem’. He saw that that would have conferred on them an authority that they did not have, so he says that they were vaguely ‘from Judaea’. Their attitude was not that of ‘the church of Jerusalem’ but of Judaeans. His stress was on the fact that they did not have the authority of the church of Jerusalem behind them (as what followed would prove).

The message of these men would come like a bombshell to many Gentile Christians. To them these messengers were brethren, and appeared to have come from the very home of Christendom. Did this really mean that they had to become full Jewish proselytes, being circumcised and bound to keep the whole ritual and ceremonial Law of the Jews if they wanted to follow Christ? This was not what they had been taught up to this point. But many of them were ready for it if it was necessary. (This was something that Paul resisted so vehemently - Galatians 3:1-5; Galatians 4:9-11; Galatians 5:2-4).

It was no doubt ‘of God’ that this had not occurred until the arrival back of Paul and Barnabas. Had it done so it might have caused even greater confusion. But God was in control of affairs and had timed it accordingly.

The question can only be seen as almost irrelevant today. For we would rightly ask, ‘If Christ through His death has fulfilled all offerings and sacrifices, as the New Testament makes clear that He has in a number of places (e.g. John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7), and if, as the letter to the Hebrews emphasises in detail, all such offerings are now redundant and all necessary rituals are now fulfilled in heaven by our heavenly High Priest, what further need is there for earthly ritual? Indeed, as Paul makes clear concerning circumcision, it is precisely on this basis that in Christ all who are His have been circumcised with a circumcision made without hands in the circumcision of the One Who was circumcised for us (Colossians 2:11). We are already circumcised in Christ. We have therefore been made alive, and have been forgiven, without the need for further circumcision (Colossians 2:13).

But it was certainly a question that still needed settling then, for it went to the root of what salvation is all about.


Verses 1-3

The Demand that All Believers in Christ Be Circumcised And Its Consequence (15:1-3).

News had reached Judaea of the many Gentiles who had become Christians and had not been circumcised. This had horrified many Jewish believers, especially many Pharisees who were believers, for they considered that it was not possible to be within God’s salvation without being circumcised and keeping the whole Law of Moses. They considered that Jesus’ purpose had been to make all men good Jews.

But they were not at first too perturbed. They recognised the principle that it was right for God-fearers to attach themselves to a gathering of believers, with the aim in view that they eventually become full proselytes and be circumcised. So just as the prophets from Jerusalem had previously gone to give assistance to the work in Antioch by giving them spiritual enlightenment, some decided that they too must go to Antioch and guide these new Gentile converts into ‘the full truth’ as they saw it. (They may well at first have been taken by surprise by the vehement opposition of Paul and Barnabas).


Verse 2

‘And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and questioning with them, the brethren appointed that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question.’

Paul and Barnabas saw to the heart of the question and stood firm against these new teachers, disagreeing with the men and challenging the basis of their teaching and questioning their arguments. Indeed there was a strong and longlasting discussion (‘no small dissension’). But it was finally agreed by the whole church that what was necessary was to go to the Apostles and the mother church in Jerusalem and discover their minds on the subject. They would seek guidance from the source. That would resolve the issue. So the church at Syrian Antioch appointed ‘Paul and Barnabas’ and ‘certain other of them’ to go up to Jerusalem to the Apostles and the elders of the church in Jerusalem in order to confirm what their view was on the matter. They wanted to be in agreement with their fellow-believers in Jerusalem.


Verse 3

‘They therefore, being brought on their way by the church, passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles, and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.’

This group therefore set out for Jerusalem under the official auspices of the whole ‘church’ (the whole group of believers) at Antioch, and as they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, (which were both ‘unorthodox’ mixed areas) they gathered with the groups of believers there (the ‘churches’) and declared to them how many Gentiles had been converted on their missionary journey. And as a result of hearing the news all these brethren were filled with great joy. It was clear that they saw no problem with what Paul was doing. But then even the Jews there were not as strongly ‘Jewish’ as those in Judaea and Jerusalem.

It is, however, noticeable that Luke says nothing about the churches of Judaea. They might well have viewed things differently. Probably the party felt it wise not to raise what might have been controversial ideas in the very place from which their opponents had come. They had not come to cause dissension. They had come in order to prevent it.


Verse 4

The Response of the Apostles and the Church in Jerusalem (15:4-21).

‘And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church and the apostles and the elders, and they rehearsed all things that God had done with them.’

Arriving in Jerusalem they were well received by ‘the Apostles and elders’, and by the whole church at Jerusalem, and they had fellowship together, and Paul and Barnabas gave them full details of all that had happened on their missionary journeys. That all the Apostles were there is very doubtful. A number were presumably out obediently proclaiming the Good News in distant parts, and while one or two who were not too far off may have been called in to welcome the deputation from Antioch, it would probably not have been practicable for all to return. Nor must we see this as an official council. It was simply a consultation between two sister churches. Thus ‘the Apostles’ here must mean those of them who were present, seen as representing the whole. Indeed there may only have been Peter and James the Lord’s brother, for only they are mentioned. And perhaps we may add John (Galatians 2:9) who may well have been regularly ‘paired off’ with Peter (Acts 3:1).


Verse 5

‘But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees who believed, saying, “It is needful to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.”

All were aware of why this deputation from the believers at Syrian Antioch had come. It was so that they might come to a decision, taking into account the authority of the Apostles and the position of the Jerusalem church, on the question as to what further was to be required of Gentiles who became Christians and were baptised.

So the circumcision party began by putting their case. They included among them Pharisees who had come to believe in Jesus Christ, but considered that the tenets of the Pharisees had to be maintained. They argued that all who responded to Christ and became Christians had necessarily to be circumcised so as to enter into the covenant, and must then observe the whole Law of Moses (and many would then have added - ‘according to the tenets of the Pharisees’). This would involve among other things Temple worship and the offering of sacrifices when in Jerusalem, the payment of the Temple tax, separation from Gentiles who did not observe the laws of cleanliness wherever they were, regular washings in order to maintain cleanliness, avoiding all that could render unclean according to Jewish principles, abstaining from the eating of blood and of various meats, strict observance of the Sabbath by not working, and a following of the multitude of Laws that governed the daily living of every Jew.


Verse 6

‘And the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider of this matter.’

It was right that these matters be brought up because that was why the Apostles and elders had gathered together to consider the matter. A pronouncement on the issue was required. Indeed it was a question on which minds needed to be clarified. We should not therefore see this as unnecessary dissension.


Verses 7-9

‘And when there had been much questioning, Peter rose up, and said to them, “Brethren, you know that a good while ago God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the good news, and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore them witness, giving them the Holy Spirit, even as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.”

As a result there was a great deal of discussion, and then finally, when much had been said on all sides, Peter stood up and declared his position.

He reminded all present of his own experience with Cornelius and his fellow-Gentiles many years before, and of how God had chosen him to take to these Gentiles the Good News with the result that they had believed. But more than that. What had been especially significant was that God, Who knows the heart of all men, had borne witness to the fact that, even while they were uncircumcised, he had cleansed their hearts by faith, for He had given to them His own Holy Spirit in precisely the same way and with the same signs as He had previously done to the Jews who believed. God had openly and deliberately made no distinction. He had treated both circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles in the same way. He had cleansed both in the same way. He had sanctified both by His Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:2) in the same way. And He had evidenced the significance of this to Peter in a vision. He had made it clear that because He had cleansed them from heaven they were to be seen as cleansed and holy, and in no way to be treated as ‘common’ or unclean (they were not to be bathed or circumcised).


Verse 10

“Now therefore why do you test out God, that you should put a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?”

Now if God had done this freely for these Gentiles without demanding circumcision, who were they to demand otherwise? What right had they to test out God by putting the yoke of the Law on the necks of new disciples, a yoke which had proved too much even for the Jews? In view of the fact that proselytes were seen in Judaism as having ‘the yoke of the Law’ put on them this was significant.

By speaking of ‘the yoke of the law’ the Jews were not, of course, intending to indicate something too heavy to bear. To them it was a yoke of guidance as they marched in step with the law, and therefore a blessing from God, although many did within their hearts in fact find it too heavy. It is typical of Peter’s forthrightness, which we may be certain was not appreciated by all, that he brought out openly what others felt in their hearts.

‘Why do you test out God?’ The idea here may be:

1) To ask them who they thought that they were to put God on trial?

2) To ask them who they were to put God to the test by requiring the Gentiles to walk under the whole yoke of the Law with its many added requirements according to the traditions of the elders, when they were not all necessary. He was saying that to make such demands on them, when Israel themselves had failed to maintain these demands satisfactorily and indeed found them in many cases too heavy a burden, even though they had been brought up to them, was surely testing God beyond reasonable limits. It was forcing God to follow their dictates. It was making God’s salvation depend on their ability to keep the Law as interpreted by man, thus challenging God to give them the extra that would enable them to achieve what were unnecessary requirements, and making Him responsible if they failed.

3) It includes the danger of distrusting His guidance and going against His revealed will, with a view to seeing what He would do about it (compare Exodus 17:7; Psalms 95:9-11; 1 Corinthians 10:9; Hebrews 3:9).

‘Taking on the yoke’ was in fact precisely what Jewish proselytes were described as doing when they ritually bathed themselves and were circumcised.


Verse 11

“But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.”

Whereas the truth as they now saw it in Jesus was that neither they nor the Gentiles would be saved by keeping the burden of the whole Law. Indeed as believing Christian Jews they believed that their salvation had come to them, and would one day in its full finality come to them, not through their Law-keeping but through the totally unmerited favour of the Lord, of Jesus. And they believed that the same would be true of believing Gentiles.

Indeed was that not what coming to Christ had meant for them all? They had come to Him because of their own shortcomings. They had come because they had ‘repented’, because they had had a change of mind and heart about their sins and had wanted to be rid of them. They had come precisely because of their failure to ‘keep the Law’. And it was in Him, and through His grace, His unmerited lovingkindness and mercy, that they had received forgiveness for all their sins. That was how they had been made right with God. It was not through anything that they had done, but wholly through Him. How then could anything extra be asked of the Gentiles?

Thus Peter makes clear that, while he is content that Christian Jews still carry out the customs of their forefathers, he does not want them to see them as contributing towards their salvation. For all, whether Jewish Christian or Gentile Christian, their dependence is to be totally on ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus’ which has provided the means of salvation through His cross, a salvation which is enjoyed by faith. To take any other attitude is to ‘fall away from grace’ (Galatians 5:4).


Verse 12

‘And all the gathered crowd kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they rehearsed what signs and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles through them.’

Peter’s words had moved them all to silence. Living in Jerusalem they had not really been faced with the heart of matters like this before. They must mostly have recognised the truth of what Peter had said, and that, of course, he was right, but they had not previously had to face up to its implications. They had gone on living as Jews because that is what they were. They had been brought up to it. And they would go on living like it. But they had not stopped to consider whether salvation was possible without it.

Then they continued to listen as Barnabas and Paul (in Jerusalem it was Barnabas who had the greater status, and probably spoke first) went through in detail what God had wrought through them, and the great signs and wonders that He had done. These signs and wonders would be seen as demonstrating His full approval. And they told them all that had happened among the Gentiles, and explained how many of them had responded to Christ and were now worshippers of the living God through Him, even in places where there was no synagogue. Then they explained how they now met in their own groups under elders and worshipped God continually, with the Holy Spirit active among them. They had formed ‘churches’. The full story of God’s glorious activity was being explained so that all might know the facts for themselves.


Verse 13

‘Men, brethren, hearken to me.’

He called on them now, as his ‘brothers’, as those who were beloved in the Lord and precious to both His Lord and himself, to listen to what he had to say. There could be no doubt that his words would carry great weight. No one would be able to accuse James of having been carried away by new ideas and of not giving due respect to the Law. He was firmly rooted in the old as fulfilled in the new, and none was more faithful to both than he.

The picture we have of James here ties in with the James of the epistle. Very fervent for the Law and yet very clear on central Christian principles.


Verse 14

‘Symeon has rehearsed how first God visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.’

This use of Peter’s Hebrew name ‘Symeon’ was both tactful and fully understandable. Tactful because it linked Peter firmly with his Jewish background. It would make clear that in the end Peter was essentially Jewish. And understandable because James probably always thought of Peter as ‘Symeon’. He had in one way or another had contact with him from the very earliest days under that name. When Peter had come to their house at Nazareth he would have been ‘Symeon’. To him at least, Peter would always be ‘Symeon’. It is a touch of authenticity. Furthermore it may suggest that James was speaking in Aramaic.

James then refers to Peter’s description of his evangelisation of Cornelius and his fellow-Gentiles. All knew about this, and how through it God had undoubtedly taken from among the Gentiles ‘a people for His name’. Given the acceptance by the general enquiry carried out by the Jerusalem church of what Peter had done earlier, and that in the light of all the facts (Acts 11:1-18), this was really not open to dispute. And if the uncircumcised Gentiles were already ‘a people for His name’, then no necessity for circumcision arose.

(We should note that even though a number among them may never have really been satisfied about that situation and simply have put up with it rather than welcoming it, it would still be seen as the settled position of the Jerusalem church. All of us are familiar with minority groups of Christians who hold unusual positions not held by all, but whose views are not seen as disturbing the accepted view. Their views are allowed to stand in tension as long as the main truths are held).


Verse 15

‘And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written,’

Then he supports Peter’s case from the prophets, citing them as infallible Scripture (‘it is written’). The quotation, taken from Amos 9:11-12, is interesting in that it neither follows MT nor LXX, although being closer to LXX. But in fact discoveries at Qumran, where the Hebrew lying behind this quotation is paralleled (4 Q Flor Acts 1:11), suggest that James was using a differing Hebrew text than MT, or possibly a book of quotations in Hebrew (we tend to forget that they had to use what they had available, and to learn it by heart. There were no ‘authorised’ pocket Bibles).


Verses 16-18

“After these things I will return, And I will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen, and I will build again its ruins, and I will set it up, that the residue of men may seek after the Lord, And all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.”

The verse as quoted here is a declaration of God’s restoration of things at the last day after the judgments of God have been poured out. The prophet sees God as here promising the restoration of the ‘tabernacle (or ‘dwellingplace’) of David’. Amos is speaking to the northern kingdom of Israel. This may therefore be seen as the promise that one day, after God’s threatened judgments have passed, the house of David itself will be restored as rulers over all Israel, and that once this is set up those who remain of Israel will seek after the Lord, (or alternately those who remain of mankind), accompanied by all the Gentiles on whom the Lord’s name is called. In Amos’ mind were the promises concerning the house of David in, for example, 2 Samuel 7:4-17. It is thus expressing the Messianic hope and the idea of the coming of the everlasting King. Only when He has come will all things be put right.

That it is more the restoring of the Davidic rulers that was in Amos’ mind, than the place of worship, comes out in the fact that at the time of the prophecy the Temple was still standing and would hardly therefore be described in this way. It was the ruling house of David which, as far as Israel and Amos were concerned, was fallen down and in ruins. Note also how in Isaiah 16:5 ‘the tabernacle of David’ again refers to the ruling house of David.

This being so, if James took it this way, it would mean that he saw in Jesus’ birth, resurrection and exaltation the rebuilding and restoring of the house of David (this in full accord with Scripture, see Luke 1:32-33; Luke 1:69; Luke 2:11; Luke 18:38; Acts 2:34; Romans 1:3; 2 Timothy 2:8; Revelation 5:5; Revelation 22:16 compare Isaiah 11:10). He may possibly also have seen the resulting work of the Spirit in Acts 1-6 as the ‘residue of men (of the house of Israel) seeking after the Lord’. That being so, he says, the conversion of Gentiles must necessarily follow represented by ‘all the Gentiles on whom His name is called’ (compare for this phrase ‘as many as were disposed towards eternal life believed’ - Acts 13:48). This fits easily in with his ‘God did visit the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name’ (Acts 15:14).

We may see James here therefore as arguing that the days of proselytising are past, because the last days are come and the full purposes of God are now in process of fulfilment, the purposes in which through His King His light will go to the Gentiles, bringing them to the Lord in large numbers as so regularly promised in the Old Testament in one way or another (e.g. Isaiah 2:2-4; Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 42:1; Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6; Isaiah 49:22; Isaiah 60:3; Isaiah 60:5; Isaiah 60:11; Malachi 1:11).

‘Who makes these things known from of old.” This is probably an additional comment by James emphasising that what God intends to do He prepares His people for beforehand. It was a warning not to dismiss something that God has previously revealed from of old.

Further Note on James’ Quotation.

Alternately James might simply have been seeing the reference in the light of the collapse of the house of David overall. But even so the result would be the same. The house of David was now seen as having been restored as a result of Jesus succeeding to the Kingship, having been born to be king (Luke 1:31-33 compare Micah 5:2), having been appointed by the voice at His baptism (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22) and transfiguration (Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35) and having been finally openly installed in His resurrection and exaltation (Acts 2:30-36; Matthew 28:18). As we know, at His trial Jesus was accused of ‘saying that He was Christ a King’ (Luke 23:2), a charge which He answered by declaring, “My kingdom is not of this world -- You say that I am a king, to this end was I born and to this end came I into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth’ (John 18:36-37). Thus He admitted to being a King but declared that His Kingly Rule was to be established by witness to the truth, and His kingly presence had been there for that purpose. It was a heavenly Kingship, a Kingship with heavenly purposes, not an earthly one.

The use of the quotation as described here would be very little different from our main suggestion above except that it does not take the prophecy strictly in context. But whichever way it is seen, it all points in the same direction.

We cannot agree with those who attempt to make ‘the tent (or dwellingplace) of David’ signify Israel. There are really no grounds for this at all. The parallel ‘house of David’ always represents the rulers of the house of David and never Israel, while the only other use of ‘the tent (or ‘dwellingplace’) of David’, found in Isaiah 16:5, also refers to the ruling house of David. There reference is made to a throne being set up in the tent of David on which sits a king of the house of David, judging and seeking justice, and swift to do righteousness

For a reference to Israel we would look for reference to ‘the tent or house of Moses’ or ‘the tent or house of Israel/Jacob’ or something similar (compare how in Lamentations 2:4 Jerusalem was ‘the tent of the daughter of Zion’ not of David, and Psalms 78:67 where reference is made to ‘the tent of Joseph’, in parallel with the ‘tribe of Ephraim’, signifying Israel). It will be noted that in the context in Amos separate reference is made to ‘the house of Jacob’ and ‘the house of Israel’ (Amos 9:8-9). It would be strange for them therefore so soon afterwards to be called the Tabernacle of David. Note also the fact that Israel were often urged to return to their ‘tents’ even when they lived in houses so that tent and house was equivalent (e.g. 1 Kings 12:16), which means that if Amos had spoken of their restoration it would have been as the tent of Israel. Israel is never anywhere else described as the tent or house of David. The tent or house of David refers always to the kingship. Thus it is the re-establishing of God’s king which is in mind here which will then result in the establishing of his rule and the remnant of men, including the Gentiles, seeking the Lord.

With regard to the differences between James’ quotation and the MT it should be noticed that as regards the underlying Hebrew text they are not as great as they might at first appear. We may compare the two quotations:

James says “After these things I will return, AndI will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen, andI will build again its ruins, and I will set it up, thatthe residue ofmen (Hebrew ’dm) may seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called , says the Lord, Who makes these things known from of old. ” (The comment ‘Who makes these things known from of old’ may be made by James, although it may be an interpretation of ‘Who does this’)).

MT says, “In that dayI will raise up the tabernacle of David which is fallen, and will close up its breaches, andI will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old, that they may possessthe remnant ofEdom (or ‘men’ - Hebrew ’dm)and all the nations which are called by my name, says the Lord Who does this’.

Having italicised the words which could have the same Hebrew origin (giving reasonable licence in translation) it is clear that the general gist is the same, and that they are basically saying the same thing. MT could equally have pointed ’dm in such a way as to translates as ‘men’ rather than as ‘Edom’ (the Hebrew consonants, that is, the original Hebrew text, are the same).

Certainly James’ source has amplified it a little. ‘After these things I will return’ is an interpretation of ‘in that day’, for ‘that Day’ is the day when God returns to deal with His people after the things that have preceded. ‘Returning’ is read in but expresses the intention of MT that God will return in that Day to act. ‘The residue of men seeking after the Lord’ will be the result of Israel ‘possessing the remnant of men’ (Edom), for when Israel took possession of a people those of whom they took possession would seek after the Lord, (as indeed happened to Edom under John Hyrcanus, although unfortunately by force). ‘All the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called’ is the equivalent of, ‘all the nations which are called by my name’ (for ‘nations’ = ‘Gentiles’).

The only open question (which does not affect the argument in this case) is as to whether the ‘residue’ originally refers to Israel as ‘men’, or to ‘Edom’, or to ‘all men’. This partly depends on which pointing we apply to the Hebrew text, but it does not affect the conclusion here.

The whole question of the use of ‘Scripture’ in various versions in this way is a very complicated one, and a shortage of materials and evidence makes it difficult to deal with satisfactorily, but this all indicates how many ‘versions’ there were about then, as we know from Qumran, just as we have many versions around today, and as with our versions, some were more free in their translation or rendering than others.

We should not be surprised that they felt happy to quote as ‘Scripture’ the versions that they possessed, just as we quote our favourite versions as ‘Scripture’. As long as the sense was basically the same we cannot quibble. But we can rest content in that the most reliable Hebrew texts were kept preserved in the Temple and carefully renewed, and from them came the MT. In the end therefore, with all our versions, when in doubt we have to go back to the MT (Massoretic Text of the Old Testament).

One word we might add here is concerning the original meaning of Amos. It seems very possible that he wrote with Isaiah 16:5, the only other place where ‘the tabernacle of David’ is mentioned, in mind. There a throne is set up in the tent of David on which sits a king of the house of David, judging and seeking justice, and swift to do righteousness. To this kingfrom Edomappeal the remnants of Moab after their desolation by the Assyrians as they seek to escape the vengeance of Assyria. Were these the ‘remnant of Edom’ that Amos had in mind, as representing all devastated and humbled people? Or alternately is this how those who pointed the MT saw it? It is otherwise an interesting coincidence. But however that might be Amos’ point is that it is the restored ‘David’ who will bring all this about and enable his people to take over what are, in the promises of God, their rightful possessions, including all those on whom God has set His name. Israel’s problems had arisen because they had deserted the house of David, and had probably pulled down his palace(s) in the northern kingdom. Their problems could therefore now never be solved until the Kingship of David was restored in terms of the king of the last days. Only then could His people inherit the promises, which includes the Gentiles on whom God has set His name.

End of note.

As is often pointed out James makes no reference to the contribution of Barnabas and Paul (nor to the opinions of the Pharisees who had earlier spoken). But that is not really surprising when we consider the basis on which the decision was being made. While all were allowed to air their views it was not a question to James of coming to a consensus, however important that might be, but a question of finding the mind of the Lord. Thus he was seeking a divine contribution. One had certainly come in what had happened to Peter with Cornelius. What that signified had been agreed at their previous similar enquiry and was now repeated. It was therefore the divine will. Now therefore it was a question of what the Holy Spirit said, and as far as he was concerned the Holy Spirit had spoken to him, (and through him to the others), from the Scriptures. And that really decided the matter. It was not a question of coming to agreement but of knowing the divine will. And God had spoken. All else was irrelevant. Men like James do not descend directly to comparing arguments. They may listen but they then look directly to God and pronounce their view.


Verse 19

“Wherefore my judgment is, that we trouble not those who from among the Gentiles turn to God.”

Having satisfactorily settled from Scripture that God had promised in the last days to call many Gentiles to Himself, and that therefore the calling of the Gentiles as Gentiles was Scriptural, James now gives his own judgment, and that is that in general they do not trouble Gentiles who turn to God with the details and intricacies of Jewish Law. God has called them as Gentiles, not as Jews. They are not therefore under the Law, but under grace (compare Galatians 5:4).

‘My judgment is.’ There is an emphasis on ‘my’. (Literally he says ‘I (emphasised) judge that --- ‘). James knew how important his view would be to those who were most likely not to approve of abandoning the need for circumcision. But his view showed how closely he sought the mind of God, and having come to that mind, he wanted all to know that as far as he was concerned it was decisive. It was his judgment as one who had sought the mind of God. And it was seen as that because all knew James, and what he was. It was not that he had not listened to all the arguments. It was that in the end compared with the mind of God they were superfluous.


Verse 20-21

“But that we write to them, that they abstain from the pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from what is strangled, and from blood. For Moses from generations of old has in every city those who preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath.”

Four major principles were, however, to be required of Gentile Christians. The first two were basic. They involved the avoidance of open contact with and participation in idolatry, including the avoidance of meat offered to idols and thus constituting part of the sacrifices made to them, and the avoidance of all sexual misbehaviour, the latter often being directly connected with pagan worship. The former would have been a denial of the oneness of God, and have involved them in contact with evil spirits. The latter was basic to the maintaining of human society on a godly basis, and especially necessary as a requirement in a Gentile world where casual sex was treated carelessly and even sometimes approved of and made into something which brought religious benefit. We can see how easily the latter could arise and be misused in a religious context in Revelation 2:20 where committing fornication and eating food sacrificed to idols is seen as very much the result of Jewish-Gentile syncretism.

But in wanting to get over this latter point the Christians could hardly limit the restriction to religious fornication. That might have given the appearance of allowing non-religious fornication. The ban thus had to be absolute.

The second two were necessary if Jewish and Gentile Christians were to be able to eat together, and as Christians were to have ‘all things in common’ this was essential. The two complement each other. The eating of blood had always been forbidden because it represented the life, and the life belonged to God alone (Genesis 9:4-6). And to eat meat that had only been strangled, and not slaughtered in a way that would let the blood drain out, would have been to eat the blood. No Jew could eat with a non-Jew unless he could be sure that the meat had been properly drained of blood. Thus the importance of the regulations. It was not a question of whether these things were necessary for salvation. It was whether they were necessary for fellowship in common.

A later generation would seek to make these precepts more relevant. While retaining the first two it turned the food precepts into a reference to blood violence, and it added the golden rule.

‘For Moses from generations of old has in every city those who preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath.” This might be intended to indicate that these requirements would be necessary because there would always be in every city those who proclaimed Moses, and there would therefore always be Jewish Christians who, having been brought up to these principles, would assiduously attend on such teaching. The result would then be that for them fellowship with fellow-Christians would not be possible unless the requirements were strictly observed. Thus in order to maintain the important fellowship meal the correct slaughtering of meat would be essential. Indeed his words might also be seen as an encouragement by him to Jewish Christians to make use of such facilities as those provided by the synagogues in order to demonstrate their loyalty to Moses.

Or he may be intending to point out in a conciliatory fashion that this did not mean that Moses would therefore be forgotten as there would always be those who preached him in every city every Sabbath. While Christians also used Moses and the prophets as their Scriptures just as much as Jews did, their emphasis would be very different. But Jewish Christians would not be devoid of help with the Law from a Jewish viewpoint because they could also go to the synagogues. There was therefore no danger of Moses not being preached as an aid to Jewish Christians.

He might simply have been indicating that anyone who wanted to know what the Pharisees taught could find out in the synagogues, while it was no part of Gentile Christians to promote Pharisaism The intention may have been to soothe the ruffled feelings of those to whom the proclamation of Moses’ Law was important by emphasising that there was still a vehicle for its propagation.

Note On Whether Baptism Replaced Circumcision.

The question is often raised as to whether baptism was to be seen as replacing circumcision. But this is quite apparently not so.

1) When Christian Jews had children they continued to circumcise them as they had always done. There was no thought in their case that baptism had replaced circumcision.

2) Paul revealed his agreement with this position when he arranged for Timothy to be circumcised. It is difficult to believe that it was simply a cynical ploy.

3) The fact that the idea of their equivalence is never suggested, neither here where it would have been a powerful argument in favour of the case being established, nor by Paul in his letters when dealing with the question of circumcision, where again it would have been a powerful argument against circumcision, must count strongly against it.

4) Indeed it may be argued that in the case of Cornelius and his fellow-Gentiles the argument against the need to circumcise them was in fact that God had already made them clean. But if that was so, and baptism simply replaced circumcision, the argument would also have applied against baptising them. For if baptism is at all seen as making men clean it would, on Peter’s argument, have been wrong to baptise what God had already cleansed. The reason that it was justifiable was because baptism wasnotseen as representing cleansing but as an outward sign of participation in the Holy Spirit Who had been poured out on them.

We must therefore conclude that baptism and circumcision were seen as two totally differing ceremonies with different aims in mind.

End of note.


Verse 22-23

‘Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men out of their company, and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren, and they wrote thus by them,’

Having come to their conclusions the church meeting closed. They had heeded the request of their sister church and would now send them details of their conclusions. It should be noted that this was not an official council, although it was undoubtedly a little more than just a regular church meeting. It was a gathering particularly designed to help a sister church who were having difficulties, and at the same time to decide a crucial question for them. It was a kind of enquiry made primarily to the Apostles, but including the elders of the mother church who had been responsible for the establishing of the church at Antioch. . It would make little difference to the behaviour and attitude of the Jerusalem church, living in the midst of an increasingly nationalistic Judaism, except for those who had to travel into the wider world. It was rather in order to offer fellowship help between the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch, so that the church of Antioch might be at peace, even though it would certainly have wider implications. For no doubt all present recognised that they had become a forum in which they had sorted out their own position with respect to Gentiles, something which would clearly affect any similar decisions in the future. It had set a precedent (just as the enquiry over what Peter had done had in Acts 11:1-18). It had become an important milestone in the advance of the word, and confirmed all that Paul and Barnabas, and others like them, were doing.

In the light of the inward looking and enflamed nationalistic zeal and exclusivism which was growing up among the Jews themselves, for they were gradually building up towards the soon-coming rebellion against Rome that would result in the destruction of Jerusalem, it was a brave letter. It went against the trend. Once known, and the details would no doubt soon spread, it would unquestionably set the Christian Jews at odds with their more zealous Jewish fellow-citizens. They would be in danger of being looked on as traitors. But it was to their credit that they did not consider that. It was God’s will that they had wanted to know. And it was a clear expression of how Jesus Christ had completely transformed their own attitudes that this did not hinder them for a moment from sending the letter.

The conclusions were put in writing out of consideration for the whole church at Antioch. It was a message from church group to church group. Note the stress on who were involved. It was from ‘the Apostles and the elders, with the whole church’. They wanted Antioch to know that all were in agreement and that the whole church of Jerusalem were involved, and were with them on the question. Interestingly the Qumran community similarly made their decisions on the basis of the combined contribution of the leadership and the community members.

Furthermore, in order to give the letter extra solidity two prominent prophets from the church at Jerusalem, who were considered to be ‘chief men’, were sent with them to add their backing to the letter. They recognised that the living voice would give greater emphasis to what was being said, would assure any doubters and would give the opportunity to any who wished to do so to clarify anything in the letter. And it would assure them of their brotherly love. Papias later tells us how much emphasis was placed on ‘the living voice’ in the 1st century AD.

One of these ‘chief men’ was Judas Barsabbas. He was possibly related to Joseph Barsabbas, who had been a disciple of Jesus from the beginning (Acts 1:23), (although Barsabbas was a fairly common name), and is possibly, with his very Jewish name, to be seen as very much a representative of the Hebrew wing of the church, although as one with a warm heart towards his brother Gentiles.

In contrast it would seem from what follows later that Silas was a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37). He might therefore be seen as representing the more cosmopolitan and Hellenistic wing of the Jerusalem church. If this is so, like the earlier appointment of Barnabas, this brings out how carefully they thought about their messengers and how much they sought God’s wisdom in their choices. With the two wings of the Jerusalem church being represented, once they arrived in Antioch all portions of the church would then be catered for and would recognise that they were being taken into account.

‘And they wrote thus by them.’ Judas and Silas would deliver the letter personally. This is the first example we have of one Christian group writing to another. It does not begin with a formal ‘the church of Jerusalem’, it basically begins, ‘the Apostles and elders, (who are) brothers (to you), to the brothers who are of the Gentiles’. It is warm in feeling and designed to make the Gentile recipients aware of the love of all their Jewish ‘brothers’.


Verses 22-35

The View of the Apostles and The Jerusalem Church Is Relayed To Syrian Antioch (15:22-35).


Verse 23

‘The apostles and the elders, brethren, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting.’

The letter is addressed a little more widely than just to Antioch itself. ‘Syria and Cilicia’ was the province in which Antioch was found. The church at Antioch had by now established groups throughout their area, and it was recognised that the surrounding church groups would also have been affected by the visitors and they wanted the letter to be all-inclusive. Cilicia was in fact where Paul came from originally and where he had conducted much of his early ministry before Barnabas had sought him out and brought him to Antioch. But the letter was not an encyclical. We are not told that it was sent to other parts of the Christian world. It was a brotherly letter from one group (Jerusalem and Judaea) to another (Antioch and Syria and Cilicia), a warm response to their request for guidance.


Verses 24-26

‘Forasmuch as we have heard that certain who went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, to whom we gave no commandment, it seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose out men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’

They first of all made clear that those men who had come among them in Antioch and had troubled them had not been sent with any authority from them. They were those ‘to whom we gave no commandment’. They had received no authority or command from the church in Jerusalem and Judaea. They had simply been acting independently on their own authority. Thus anything that they had taught could be disregarded, for it was contrary to the views of the Apostles and the Jerusalem church.

They then expressed their deep regret that those at Antioch had been ‘troubled (stirred up) with words’ and that their ‘souls had been subverted (plundered)’. The expressions are strong. It was a recognition of how deeply affected they knew those at Antioch to have been, and the unnecessary searching of soul that it had unnecessarily caused, and they regretted it.

They then stressed that their message was a united one from the whole body of the church. They assured them that they had ‘come to one accord’. They were all agreed. Sadly it would prove not to be fully true, for there would still be those who through the coming years would fight against the decision, and go round denying it, but it was true of the church as whole. And it was certainly the Apostolic position.

And finally they stressed their total oneness with, and admiration for, ‘Barnabas and Paul’, whom they could call ‘beloved’, and whom they pointed out were men who had ‘hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ They were greatly concerned that all should recognise the standing that the two had in the eyes of all the leaders in Jerusalem.


Verse 27

‘We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who themselves also will tell you the same things by word of mouth.’

In order to ensure that there could be no doubt about the agreed situation they were sending Judas and Silas, so that they would not only have the letter, but would hear by word of mouth all that had been said and agreed from the mouths of elders of the Jerusalem church. There could be no tampering with a verbal witness, especially such distinguished ones, and it would bring home the message more really and personally.


Verse 28-29

‘For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things, that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication, from which if you keep yourselves, it will be well with you. Fare you well.’

The final conclusion was then laid out, and it is pointed out that its real source was the Holy Spirit. It was He who had guided their discussions, especially as the One Who had been given to the Apostles in order for them infallibly to come to the truth (John 16:13). Thus their decision was not just to be seen as that of the church, but of the Holy Spirit Himself to Whose guidance they had continually looked.

And their advice was that there was to be no question of a need for them to be circumcised or live according to Jewish ceremonial customs. There were, however, three or four things that they felt it necessary to enjoin. These were:

1) That they separate themselves totally from idolatry and all connected with it. The requirement was that they be totally faithful to the one God. This Paul fully agreed with and would himself later demand and amplify. No one ever thought that it would be possible to be a Christian and flirt with idolatry at the same time.

2) That they not partake of blood. The partaking of blood had been clearly forbidden as early as Genesis 9:7. While important in the Law of Moses, it did not originate there, but was of a much more ancient provenance. The purpose of the provision was in order to stress the sacredness of all life. It is an open question whether it ought not to be observed by Christians today in order to indicate reverence for life.

3) That they were not to eat what had been killed by strangling, for killing by that means would not have let the blood escape. This was basically in order to ensure the proper carrying out of 2) and so that there would be no hindrance in fellowship between Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian. We need not necessarily read from this that it was seen as necessary for salvation, but that to eat what was strangled would prevent both Jews and Gentiles gathering at a common meal.

4) That they avoid all sexual immorality. Sexual misbehaviour was commonplace in many parts of the Gentile world, but it was to be avoided by all Christians. It was to be an evidence to the world of their moral purity. Paul constantly makes clear that fornication can exclude men from the Kingly Rule of God (1 Corinthians 6:9).

This remarkable conclusion demonstrated how much the Holy Spirit had been involved in their decision. They had been able to throw aside the trappings and get to the core. You can almost hear the words, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself’. 1) indicated that God must be God, and God alone. 2) indicated especially His lordship over all life. 3) inculcated consideration by Gentile Christians for their fellow Christians among the Jews. 4) lay at the very heart of right and considerate behaviour before God and man.


Verse 30

‘So they, when they were sent away, came down to Antioch, and having gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter.’

All deliberations being over the Antioch party, together with Judas and Silas, were sent away back to their waiting church group, where they gathered the whole church together and formally handed over the letter.


Verse 31

‘And when they had read it, they rejoiced for the consolation.’

The contents of the letter came as a great strengthening and encouragement to the church at Antioch, and it resulted in great rejoicing. They were delighted with that fact that what they had believed had been vindicated and their freedom in Christ confirmed.


Verse 32

‘And Judas and Silas, being themselves also prophets, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them.’

Meanwhile they also enjoyed the ministry of Judas and Silas who as prophets exhorted them and confirmed them in their faith. There was a mutual ‘sharing in common’ between the churches. This is a further illustration of the fact that the main task of prophets was not foretelling but forthtelling. The fact that the ministry of these two men could be so continually acceptable emphasised the genuine unity between the two churches.


Verse 33-34

‘And after they had spent some time there, they were dismissed in peace from the brethren to those who had sent them forth.’

Then once they had spent some good time there, they were sent back to their own church with expressions of peace and goodwill from the Christians of Antioch which were to be borne to their brethren in their sister church.

In view of Acts 15:40 it may be that ‘they’ here means a Jerusalem party who had come along with the two, and that Silas remained behind. But there is no hint of that and there is really no reason why Silas should not have returned with Judas, in order to report back to Jerusalem and then later have returned to Antioch, either wholly of his own volition, or even because called on specifically by Paul when he recognised that he would need a new fellow-worker. The time scale certainly allows for it.


Verse 35

‘But Paul and Barnabas tarried in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.’

Everything now having settled down, and the crisis being over, Paul and Barnabas now returned to the situation as it had been in Acts 14:28. It was as though the crisis had never been. All was as it was before the interruption, with the added blessing that the issue had been resolved once and for all as far as they were concerned. They continued with their teaching and preaching of ‘the word of the Lord’ in Antioch, along with many others who did the same. And the result of the wise decision that had been reached was that the word which had come from God, the word about ‘the Lord’, continued to spread and be multiplied.

Note.

We see here that the spreading of the word continues to be the central theme and all else is built into it. It is that which is central to Acts and what appear to be the ‘major themes’ such as Stephen’s martyrdom, the conversion of Saul, the gathering of the Apostles and elders at Jerusalem in order to examine Peter, the persecution of Herod Agrippa, and the necessity for this further gathering of the Apostles and elders in order to reach this important decision, are all seen as simply a part of that ongoing movement of the word and a means to that end. Again and again it is to the fact of the spreading of the word that we are brought back. The purpose of these ‘decrees’ was in order that the churches might be made strong in the faith and continue to increase in number daily (Acts 16:5, compare Acts 2:47) as the word spread. For they too were to aid in the spreading of the word.


Verse 36

‘And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return now and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they fare.” ’

After some days’ is vague and allows for a considerable amount of time. But eventually Paul suggests to Barnabas a round trip in which they will visit all the cities where they had proclaimed the word of the Lord, in order to ensure that the churches were prospering, and no doubt with a view to ministering to them.


Verses 36-39

Paul and Barnabas Agree To Separate (15:36-39).

The ministry of Paul and Barnabas now continued in Syrian Antioch for some time. But the question would eventually necessarily arise as to the wellbeing of the churches that they had been used by God in establishing. Thus Paul one day suggested to Barnabas that it was time that they returned to those cities where they had established churches in order to minister to them and see how they fared. And this appears to have been mutually agreed. The date would be around 49 AD.

However, in the event, because of disagreement over John Mark they separated their ministries and by mutual agreement each took responsibility for one section of the work that they had accomplished together. There is no reason why we should not see this as having been accomplished fairly amicably. Christians can disagree on such things without fighting. This would in fact result in a wider work being done than would otherwise have been possible. As in the case of persecution previously, God used man’s weaknesses in order to advance His purposes. He was sovereign in all that happened.


Verse 37-38

‘And Barnabas was minded to take with them John also, who was called Mark, but Paul thought not good to take with them him who withdrew from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.’

Barnabas was clearly happy to fall in with the idea, but when the matter was further considered Barnabas firmly insisted that John Mark came with them. Paul on the other hand did not feel that he could agree with this. In his view Mark could not be depended on. He had failed once on their previous mission, he could fail again. He was unreliable. And experience had shown him how important it was that all the party on any of their journeys were reliable.

The fact that Barnabas was so insistent helps to support the idea that part of the reason for Mark’s ‘failure’ had been due to his loyalty to Barnabas. Thus Barnabas would feel that he must respond with a similar loyalty. Furthermore it was of the nature of Barnabas to seek to encourage those who were having difficulties. He had done it with Paul. He was an encourager. He would not desert Mark.

Paul, however, was single-minded, and at this stage in his life unyielding. To his mind Mark had failed God and could therefore only be a hindrance in the work. He might well have seen in him what appeared to him to be a lack of dedication which he feared could act as a barrier that could hinder the work of the Spirit and their spiritual usefulness. He may well have considered that compromise was unacceptable.

We need not therefore see Paul and Barnabas as falling out with each other in any personal way. It was rather a question with each of principle, on which, as strongminded men, they were taking up a different viewpoint, the result being that they simply agreed to differ and go their separate ways. We may see it as a mature Christian decision on both sides, and it unquestionably turned out for the good of the work, for by separating and forming two parties they would be able to accomplish twice as much. In fact Barnabas, who in his gracious way had probably given way to Paul on much, was no doubt now able to expand and develop his ministry in his own way, in a way that he could never have done while he was with Paul.


Verse 39-40

‘And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they parted asunder one from the other, and Barnabas took Mark with him, and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas, and went forth, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.’

The word translated ‘sharp disagreement’ means a ‘stirring up’ It can refer to a stirring up of love, and in this case a stirring up of disagreement and differing views. It does not necessarily mean that they had a flaming row. It was a case of two men with firm views not being able to come to agreement on what each saw as an important issue and looking at each other eye to eye with firm expressions, and interestingly enough a case where both may have been right under the different circumstances. We do not need to idealise them, on the other hand we should not stigmatise them so that we can get a good sermon out of it. What we can say is that as neither could agree they went their separate ways, but there is no reason for us to think that in the end it was other than amicable and by agreement. And we can reasonably assume that Barnabas as a Cypriot went to Cyprus by mutual agreement, taking Mark with him, in order to look after that side of the work. Later history suggests that he was right to do what he did. But that does not man that Paul was wrong. Had Mark gone with Paul and Barnabas together it might have been a disaster.

We must recognise that there are times when Christians will on principle take up differing positions, and may have to do things differently. It is inevitable, and as long as it does not cause division, is healthy. Paul certainly never speaks of Barnabas in any other than a friendly manner, and we can be sure that Barnabas, that supremely gracious man of God, was the same. Paul would in fact later soften his attitude towards Mark, probably because Mark later demonstrated how reliable he was, and Mark would also later become a help to Paul in his ministry and one on whom he learned to depend. During his first imprisonment at Rome, Paul mentioned Mark to Philemon as a fellow-labourer present there with him (Philemon 1:24), and to the Colossians he speaks of him as one who was a fellow-worker in the Kingly Rule of God and as one who had been a comfort and strength to him (Colossians 4:10-11), while during his second imprisonment, he writes to Timothy: "Take Mark and bring him with you; for he is profitable to me for ministry" (2 Timothy 4:11). But all this might not have been had they set off on that second journey together.

We might reasonably assume therefore that they agreed together that it would be best if Barnabas and Mark looked after the Cypriot side of the work, while Paul and whoever he chose looked after the work on the mainland in Asia Minor.

For Barnabas to take on the Cypriot side of the work clearly made sense as he would be going to his fellow-countrymen. In the same way so would Paul, at least to some extent, when he went to Asia Minor. But it was Paul who would, partly through force of circumstances, also be going to pastures new, and that is one reason why Luke in his narrative follows Paul. His aim was to portray continual expansion and spreading of the word. (Another reason was because he himself would eventually meet up with Paul and take part with him in his ministry).

‘Paul chose Silas.’ As we know Silas was a distinguished figure in the Jerusalem church, a prophet, and one who could confirm the agreement reached at Jerusalem. He may well also have been a witness to the resurrection. He was almost certainly a Roman citizen, as was Paul. This would provide them with mutual status. As Silvanus (his Latin name) we see him acting as amanuensis to both Paul and Peter. He was thus both competent and spiritual.

‘And went forth, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.’ We are told this of these two simply because the concentration of Luke is on this venture. There are no grounds for suggesting that the Antioch church was showing favouritism and ignoring Barnabas. The point that is being made is that what happens in the future in the ministry of Paul and Silas results from the grace of the Lord, and has behind it the fellowship of the whole church.


Verse 41

Paul Ministers to the Churches Along with Silas and Selects Timothy To Be With Them, And The Churches Are Continually Strengthened (15:41-16:5).

‘And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.’

Paul, along with Silas and possibly one or two others then journeyed through the region of Syria and Cilicia, visiting older churches which he had set up prior to visiting those that he had set up more recently, and then reaching his newer converts.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Acts 15:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/acts-15.html. 2013.

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Saturday, December 7th, 2019
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