The Problem: Those from Syrian Antioch: Part 7
by John Lowe
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