Editor’s Note: This series of posts on Acts 15 is written by guest teacher David Hundert. Thanks, David! The series of five posts begins here.
Are you experiencing a disagreement with someone? Brokenness in a relationship? What will it take to reconcile or pursue unity? As we have been seeing in this series of posts about Acts 15, the earliest Christians faced a major disagreement in their church: should non-Jewish Christians adhere to Jewish customs and practices? The Christians formed a church council to discuss this question. In the previous post, we learned how the Apostle Peter spoke up to tell the story of his interaction with Cornelius.
So now, the next thing that we see in verse 12, that Paul and Barnabas spoke up as witnesses of what God was doing in Gentile lands. They weren’t specifically members of the council; they were there to plead their case to the council, which they did. Verse 12 reads,“The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.”
Then, in verses 13 through 21 the eyes of all turned to James, the brother of Jesus, a man who enjoyed widespread respect and confidence. If the elders of the Jerusalem church were organized as a kind of Nazarene Sanhedrin, James would be considered their president. The church’s readiness to recognize his leadership was due more to his personal character and record than to his blood relationship to the Lord. One thing I find interesting, is that James uses the word laos, “people,” to describe the Gentiles, a term used to describe Israel in the ancient Greek translation of Old Testament, the Septuagint. What James is saying there is that the term used to describe the returning exiles of Judah, or “the people who I formed for myself, that they might declare my praise” as it’s written in Isaiah 43:21, also applies to the Gentile converts to Christianity. He agrees, that there should be no differentiation.
So now, the council makes its decision, which we read in verses 22 through 35, including writing the following letter to be read to Christians in non-Jewish lands:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings.
We have heard that some went out from us, without our authorization, 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.
James had provided a suitable solution that didn’t jeopardize the mission to the Gentiles or the fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. All parties seem to have been satisfied and to have agreed to James’s suggestion. They not only wrote the letter above, but also sent two delegates from the Jerusalem church to Antioch, along with Paul and Barnabas. The two delegates, Judas and Silas, would be able to give their personal interpretation of the letter’s contents and of the conference in Jerusalem. This way, if any questions arose, they would be there to answer them. They were there to lend credence to the truthfulness of letter’s contents.
I find it interesting, that Judas and Silas were referred to as church leaders in verse 22, however in verse 32, they’re referred to as prophets. What is a prophet? In 1 Corinthians 14 verse 3, Paul write, “But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.” Verse 32 of Acts 15 makes it clear that this is exactly what Judas and Silas did. The letter and visit brought relief to the Gentile Christians, by relieving them of the burden of having to be circumcised, but at the same time, in order to maintain the ability of fellowship between Jewish and Gentile converts, the letter asks them to follow four proscribed rules, not as “Apostolic law or decree”, but as a basis for fellowship.
Do you need to write a letter like this? Notice the heart for unity in the letter. Notice the desire of the church leaders in Jerusalem to keep the focus on Jesus, rather than on following Jewish law. Sometimes in disagreements we can have tunnel-vision, missing the larger important truth of love for one another and unity.