The Problem: Those from Syrian Antioch: Part 6

by John Lowe
(Laurens, SC)

1 The rabbis saw the Torah not as an instrument of enslavement but as a yoke that bound them to God’s will. It was a gift of his mercy.

2 James referred to Peter as “Simeon,” an Aramaizing word used for Peter in only one other place in the New Testament. Clearly, James is referring to David’s speech.


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 the 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 amanuensis1 (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 ask 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).

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