16 Sep 2020
A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 15:22-29. The Council’s letter.
The Council agreed with James’s summary. The combination of prophetic Scripture and apostolic experience seemed conclusive to them, as it had done to him. And James’s proposal of Gentile Christian abstinence in four cultural areas seemed a wise policy to promote mutual tolerance and fellowship. So *then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men* (i.e. members of the Jerusalem church) *and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas)*, evidently a Hebrew-speaking believer, of whom nothing else is known, unless by chance he was a brother of Joseph Barsabbas (1:23), *and Silas*, whose Latin name was Silvanus, a Hellenist who was also a Roman citizen (16:37) and who later became closely associated with both Paul (Acts. 15:40; 2 Cor.1:19; 1 Thes. 1:1; 2 Thes.1:1) and Peter (1 Peter 5:12). These *two men* Luke describes as *leaders among the brothers* (22). The church did not decide only to choose emissaries to send to the church of Antioch, however, from whom the request had come to adjudicate in this controversy, but also to write a letter to the churches with a Gentile membership, in order to convey the decisions. A letter can seem impersonal; it was wise to send people with it who could explain its origin, interpret its meaning and secure its acceptance.
The letter has justly been described as ‘a masterpiece of tact and delicacy’. It began in a markedly brotherly manner: *With them* (sc. Judas Barsabbas and Silas) *they sent the following letter*:
*The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
The NIV text conceals, however, that the Greek text reads ‘The apostles and elders, your brothers, to the Gentile brothers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia.’ Whenever brothers communicate with brothers, one has good reason to expect to find a conciliatory spirit. This was the case here. The text of the letter was as follows:
*We have heard that some went out from us without our authorisation and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul – men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements. You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
The Jerusalem church and its leaders made three important points in their letter. First, they dissociated themselves from the circumcision party and therefore, by clear implication, from the requirement of circumcision. These men *went out from us* but *without our authorisation* (RSV, ‘although we gave them no instructions’). The unauthorized message, moreover, had *disturbed* their hearers (24, the verb is *tarasso*, to trouble, upset or throw into confusion, interestingly the very word Paul uses of them in Galatians 1:7 and 5:10). Secondly, they made it abundantly clear that the men they had now *agreed to choose…and send…* (25), namely *Judas and Silas*, did have their full approval and support. They would not only deliver the letter, but also *confirm by word of mouth* what it contained (27). Thirdly, they enunciated their unanimous decision (made by *the Holy Spirit and …us) not to burden* Gentile converts *with anything* (certainly not with circumcision) *beyond the following requirements* (28), namely the four specified abstentions, which we have already considered. The letter’s conclusion, which expresses more a recommendation that a command, was: *You will do well to avoid these things* (29).
Tomorrow: 4). The sequel to the Council. (Acts 15:30 – 16:5).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.