Acts 15: 22 – 35 The council’s letter to Gentile believers
Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. With them they sent the following letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
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.
So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.
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This was a very thoughtful letter.
It started by dealing with the hurt of the Gentile believers, acknowledging that they had been troubled unnecessarily by some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem. James goes so far as to say that ‘some went out from us without our authorisation’, which is a strong rebuke for the Pharisees who had been trying to impose circumcision on Gentile Christians.
Not merely did the Jerusalem church send a letter, they sent Judas and Silas as witnesses to the decision. This dealt with the possibility that the Pharisaic party might have cast doubt on the authenticity of the letter. Sending two of their own leaders was also a way of standing alongside the Gentiles, and showing that they had full acceptance. As Luke writes, ‘Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers.’
The letter then stated the advice ‘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.’ I don’t know if this is a valid interpretation, but the addition ‘You will do well to avoid these things,’ makes this read to me like strong advice rather than a strict ban. I don’t gloss over that the letter also said that these were requirements, though, so even if it is advice, it’s pretty close to a ban.
However, we no longer worry about food being kosher, so the teaching of the apostles in this letter was for a specific local time and place rather than for all time.
The care shown in the letter achieved its goal. As Luke says, ‘The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message.’
James wrote “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” This is a direct statement that, in the opinion of the church in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit endorsed the decision of the council. The church must have prayed long and earnestly before they could make such a significant claim. More, they must have listened very attentively to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
In some ways, listening during prayer is even more important than speaking. God knows what we need before we ask, but we don’t know his plan for us. Don’t get me wrong; it’s good to articulate our prayer with care, because we can learn how God might wish to answer it. But however carefully we speak, it’s in our silence that the answer comes, and we need to pay attention.
Thank you for Luke’s account of the council in Jerusalem. Please help me to listen carefully to your Holy Spirit every day.
In Jesus name, Amen