Acts 15:22–41 . . .
“The Council’s Letter to Gentile Believers”
Reading through Acts 15, we see the development of a crisis in the life of the early church; a crisis of doctrine. The church needed clarity on the Gentile believers' relationship to the Old Testament's Mosaic Law. In Acts 10, Gentiles were converted for the first time. The Jerusalem leaders had been able to reassure themselves that God was in it because they'd received the Spirit exactly as the Jews had. Then, more Gentiles were converted in Antioch. However, after the first missionary journey had been completed, that trickle of Gentile converts was becoming a torrent. The Jerusalem leaders had no problem with Gentiles being saved because many Old Testament passages predicted this. Their theological issue was whether these Gentiles needed to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses, in order to truly be saved.
As we look back at the first half of chapter 15 (see Week 27's summary), we saw "The Dispute" (vv. 1–5), then "The Debate" (vv. 6–21). Today we'll look closely at "The Decision" (vv. 22–35).
The Decision: Choosing the Right People and Purpose (15:22–35)
We'll ask and answer a few key questions about this most-meaningful "church decision."
Who agreed on the decision? Everyone! Verse 22 tells us that the apostles, elders, and whole church collectively made an important decision. [What a blessing it is when a church comes to a consensus on an important decision!]
What was the decision? The same verse makes it clear that the church was to send their own men — Judas and Silas — with Barnabas and Paul, along with a letter from all the apostles that was to be read in the Gentile churches. If only Paul and Barnabas carried the letter, the Judaizers would have said that the letter was rigged or forged. Judas and Silas would confirm and explain the letter's contents.
What was the content of the letter? When you look again at vv. 23–29, you should realize that what was written was basically what James had initially suggested. The apostles and elders disavowed the assumption that Judaizers had been sent out with their approval or authority. Instead they condemned their teachings and supported the teaching of Paul and Barnabas. Notice how they put both men in good light within that letter: "dear friends . . . who have risked their lives for Jesus."
What resulted after the letter was read? We learn in v. 31 that the congregants of the Antioch Church rejoiced because of the letter's sincere encouragement. A follow-up question might have you wondering: Why would a letter telling them that they would have to abstain from four Jewish laws be encouraging? News that might not sound particularly good can sound encouraging when we look at it from a new or different perspective. For the believers in Antioch, "a few minor food restrictions" were nothing compared to "the burden of keeping the Law" in order to be saved!
Missionary Communities (vv. 36–41)
What we notice in the closing portion of our text today, and going forward through chapter 16 (see Week 29's summary), is the formation of a small "missionary community" made up of three members: Paul, Silas, and Timothy. Others such as Luke and Titus will join later. This missionary community was made up of itinerants or traveling disciples. For us, our hearty goal should be exactly the same as theirs: to make disciples who'll make additional disciples. If we want to see how a missionary community can function most effectively, we need to examine carefully this missionary community because they were extremely effective!
This missionary community had at least four things going for it: the right (1) passion, (2) people, (3) presentation, and (4) place. If we want to be effective in making disciples of others, we, too, must have the right passion, people, presentation, and place.
1. The Right Passion (v. 36) Paul took the initiative. This mission was on his heart. He was concerned about the disciples that he'd made on his first journey. He knew that the Judaizers had been trying to bring these believers into bondage. Paul loved these people and wanted to make sure they weren't swept into legalism. Now, it wasn’t as if Paul and Barnabas had nothing else to do. They were busy preaching and teaching in Antioch. But they heard and responded to the call of God to become an apostle for him. It was awfully hard to keep Paul in one spot; he was a driven, passionate man. He probably never saw a ship without thinking about the possibility of getting on it and taking the gospel to people who'd never heard it. And he had a passion for the salvation of men, especially those who'd never heard the gospel.
Paul’s passion wasn't only for evangelism; it was also for discipleship. Notice that he wanted to see how the disciples were feeling and what they were doing. He wanted to strengthen them as individuals (see vv. 32, 41; 16:5). The strengthening of the church was also a high priority in Paul’s ministry (Colossians 1:28–29). With that in mind, where did Paul go on his first missionary journey? Galatia. Where did he go on his second missionary journey? Galatia. And where do you think he went on his third missionary journey? Galatia! (Acts 18:23). Every time he went back, his goal was to strengthen the disciples there.
2. The Right People (vv. 37–6:3) Every missionary community needs to have the "right" people. You might have "good" people on your committee, but they aren’t necessarily the "right" people. Folks that covenant together need to be in unity and share the same values. Paul and Barnabas were both wonderful men; but they didn’t share the same values; eventually that led to their split. Let’s take a quick look at the issue for them. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark. They were cousins with family ties and family history. Barnabas was a loving, people-oriented man who had a focus on restoring man. Paul wouldn't take John Mark because John Mark deserted them on the first journey; he was a quitter. Paul was task-oriented, driven to accomplish the mission Jesus had given him. He had no use for someone who'd already proven himself unfaithful. Paul didn't believe that John Mark could have been trusted on the upcoming mission.
So, what was the outcome? Barnabas took John Mark and headed to Cyprus, which was Barnabas’s home town, while Paul chose Silas, heading off with him to Syria and Cilicia; Timothy would later join Paul's team. Who was right? Could both Barnabas and Paul have made correct decisions? Seemingly, both men were choosing rightly: It was good for Barnabas to have a heart for the restoration and usefulness of his cousin; it was also good for Paul to passionately labor for the salvation of all peoples.
3. The Right Presentation (16:4–5) Next week, our study and discussion will focus on a most appropriate and effective presentation. For now, realize that the missionaries were declaring the decree of the Jerusalem Council, which Luke has made available to us in 15:9: “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
The Jerusalem Council declared that salvation was received through God's grace, not the works of the Law. A Gentile didn't need to be circumcised or keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved. Salvation is a gift, to be freely received by faith alone. Our good deeds have nothing to do with receiving God’s salvation. However, the Council went on to say that the Gentiles needed to be willing to limit their liberties out of love for their Jewish brothers. They were to avoid eating certain kinds of foods and participating in any kind of sexual immorality, which was offensive. So their message was this: “Salvation is by grace, and living is through love.”
If we're to be active members of an effective disciple-making team, we must make the right presentation. All of our labors must be rooted in the good news that salvation is a free gift that no one can earn or deserve; it's simply received by faith. But it must also be rooted in the truth that out of love for one another, we must be willing to lay down our rights to non-essential matters. May God help us to make a hearty presentation to others, strong as an iron pillar, of the truth that salvation is wholly of grace; but may we also be most willing to yield — to bend like a reed — in nonessential matters, out of our love for one another.
4. The Right Place (16:6–10) Also next week, our study and discussion will be especially attentive to choosing an appropriate and correct place for a mission to be effective. For now, realize this. After ministering in Galatia, they wanted to go due west into Asia where Ephesus, Colossae, and Laodicea were, but they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to travel there. So, they turned northward to Mysia, trying to go into Bithynia; but the Spirit of Jesus would’t permit them there either.
We don’t know how the Holy Spirit revealed his will to Paul, Silas, and Timothy. It may have been through prophecy, since Silas was a prophet. It may also have been through God’s providence, since government officials wouldn't let them enter. And it may have been because the roads were impassable. We just don’t know. But what we do know is that this team was unstoppable! A less-committed group might have decided to give up and go home. Not them! They could’t go east because they'd just come from that direction; they could’t go south into Asia; they could’t go north into Bithynia; the only option left was to travel due west, so they walked on something of a tightrope, between Bithynia and Asia, continuing their journey until they got to the Aegean Sea where they could’t travel any further.
Paul and his companions reached the churches in Asia Minor by taking an overland route through Syria and Cilicia. His choice had two advantages: He avoided the perils of sailing, and he was able to visit other churches along the way. At every stop, he confirmed the believers. That is, he strengthened them with sound teaching. New Christians needed strong churches in which to grow and mature.
- Q. 1 How do Judas and Silas personally add to this letter?
- Q. 2 What else brings unity to the primary Jewish church in Jerusalem? What about the primary Gentile church in Antioch?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 15.]
† Watch this "Visual Bible" video clip: Acts 15:22–16:34, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
The Council’s Letter to Gentile Believers
22Then 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. 23With them they sent the following letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
24We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul — 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29You 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.
30So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them.  [See footnote on v. 34.] 35But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.
Disagreement Between Paul and Barnabas
36Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.