bible-wornThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 15:22-29

The Council’s Letter to Gentile Believers

22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers[a] who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you[b] with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

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Last week’s post discussed James’s remarks to the Jerusalem Council. James spoke after Peter did, referring to him as Simeon. James’s opinion was that the church in Jerusalem should write to the Gentile churches stating the few restrictions by which they should abide:

19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.

Recall that the Judaisers — the circumcision party — wanted Gentile converts to abide by Mosaic law, especially circumcision. Paul, Barnabas, Peter and James were among those who said that was not what God intended for the Church.

The reference to blood had to do with the Gentile custom of drinking blood in pagan ceremonies.

The ‘what has been strangled’ part eventually went by the wayside, but while Gentile converts were living side by side with Jewish converts and Jewish people, it was deemed prudent that Gentiles not give offence to those who had grown up in a different tradition.

Matthew Henry’s commentary gives this explanation. ‘Shambles’ below was an ancient name for the street where butchers traded. York still has The Shambles, where butchers were located for centuries. Emphases mine below:

(1.) The matter of the injunction, which is according to the advice given by James, that, to avoid giving offence to the Jews, [1.] They should never eat any thing that they knew had been offered in sacrifice to an idol, but look upon it as, though clean in itself, yet thereby polluted to them. This prohibition was afterwards in part taken off, for they were allowed to eat whatever was sold in the shambles, or set before them at their friend’s table, though it had been offered to idols, except when there was danger of giving offence by it, that is, of giving occasion either to a weak Christian to think the worse of our Christianity, or to a wicked heathen to think the better of his idolatry; and in these cases it is good to forbear, 1 Corinthians 10:25, &c. This to us is an antiquated case. [2.] That they should not eat blood, nor drink it; but avoid every thing that looked cruel and barbarous in that ceremony which had been of so long standing. [3.] That they should not eat any thing that was strangled, or died of itself, or had not the blood let out … the apostles required no more of them than what was required of the proselytes of the gate, which was to observe the seven precepts of the sons of Noah

The Apostles, the elders — and, amazingly, the whole church — agreed to send carefully chosen men from the congregation to Antioch (Syria) to accompany Paul and Barnabas with the gist of James’s message (verse 22).

John MacArthur picks up on the unanimity among the Christians in Jerusalem:

They were not only pleased with the decision, they were pleased to send along two of their leaders. I’ll tell you something friends, and I’ll just digress for a minute. You know why it pleased all of those people? … if everybody is Spirit filled and Spirit controlled then everybody’s goin’ come out agreeing You say, that’s a different kind of church than I’m used to. Well you know what was the genius…what’d I tell ya was the genius of the early church? They were subject to the Spirit’s control

Verse 22 also tells us that Judas — not the betrayer, but another — and Silas were chosen as being leading men in the Jerusalem congregation. This is the only time we read about Judas Barsabbas, but St Luke, the author of Acts, thought it was important to mention him. Henry posits Judas might have been related to Joseph Barsabbas, a candidate for apostlehood (Acts 1:23).

MacArthur has more about Silas:

… of Silas we know very much. Silas, called Silas in the book of Acts is called Silvanus by Paul and Peter, and he wasthe guy who accompanied Paul on his second missionary journey, he was a citizen of Rome, he was the one who carried the first Epistle of Peter.

Some might ask why Paul and Barnabas didn’t just go back themselves. Why would they need Judas Barsabbas and Silas?

They sent these messengers, (1.) To show their respect to the church at Antioch, as a sister-church, though a younger sister, and that they looked upon it as upon the same level with them; as also that they were desirous further to know their state. (2.) To encourage Paul and Barnabas, and to make their journey home the more pleasant (for it is likely they travelled on foot) by sending such excellent men to bear them company; amicus pro vehiculo–a friend instead of a carriage. (3.) To put a reputation upon the letters they carried, that it might appear a solemn embassy, and so much the more regard might be paid to the message, which was likely to meet with opposition from some. (4.) To keep up the communion of the saints, and cultivate an acquaintance between churches and ministers that were at a distance from each other, and to show that, though they were many, yet they were one.

MacArthur says that by having Judas and Silas accompany them, Paul and Barnabas wanted to convey a message that came straight from the church in Jerusalem, not just the two of them:

Jerusalem sent two of its best, to give a solid report on what the decision was salvation’s by grace through faith, plus nothing! You tell ‘em that, not just Paul and Barnabas but you tell ‘em from us in Jerusalem. That’s our commitment.

He explains the Greek word used for ‘leading men among the brothers’, or ‘chief among the brethren’ in older translations:

The Greek word hegeomon, is an interesting word. It, it is the word for commander. We don’t usually think of church leadership as commanders.

It is the word used of the procurator of Judaea, it is the word used of the governor of a province. Keep this in mind beloved, God has always sent in the church authority.

Verse 23 gives us the greeting to the letter and the churches to which it was addressed. The greeting is as egalitarian as it can be — from brothers to brothers — considering Jerusalem was the head church and these were former Jews addressing Gentile converts. Jerusalem was not lording it over the newer outpost churches or the Gentiles there. The Holy Spirit was at work.

MacArthur explains the churches mentioned and omitted:

Now you say, it doesn’t talk about Cyprus and Galatia where they founded the churches, well they were extensions of Antioch. They would have been included in the Antioch. And the word Cilicia, you say, well when did the churches get founded in Cilicia? I’ll tell ya when, remember when the Apostle Paul was hustled out of Jerusalem ‘cause he caused so much trouble? I mean that was when he was a Christian, he brought down so much persecution that the Christians decided that he needed to get outa town. So they sent him to Tarsus, you know what he did? He went to Tarsus for a while and then he took off to Cilicia and founded churches.

The remaining verses in today’s reading give us the text of the letter.

The letter began with the problems the Judaisers were causing (verse 24). The Jerusalem church acknowledged the troublemakers were from there but with no instruction to say or do what they did. It’s a way of saying the church in Jerusalem accepted responsibility for these false teachers, which is rather humbling.

Note that the letter acknowledged the deep distress and mental turmoil the Gentiles were going through because of these horrible men and their egregious falsehoods: ‘troubled you[b] with words, unsettling your minds’. This was serious business.

MacArthur explains:

Now I want ya to notice the word, troubled, that is a very interesting word.

It is a different word than verse 19. You remember I told you the word trouble in verse 19 means to annoy or to hassle, it’s like a gnat, you know just, just a, just an annoyance, an irritation. Let’s not…irritate them by imposing some foolish ritual on them. But here the word is a tremendously strong word, it means to deeply upset, to deeply disturb, to perplex, to create fear. A very severe kind of response. In fact it is used in John 14, the very same word. Remember when Jesus said, “Let not your heart be troubled.” Those disciples were not just annoyed, they were really torn up. He had just announced His death, and they were shaking, they were horrified, they were in terror.

Knowing that, the letter stated, the church in Jerusalem met to discuss the matter and, having come to a unanimous agreement, decided to send two of their esteemed men to accompany the ‘beloved’ Paul and Barnabas (verse 25) who risked their lives for Christ (verse 26).

Those verses mean that the church of Jerusalem heartily approved of Paul, Barnabas as men and the way they presented the Good News to Gentiles. Henry has more:

[1.] “They are men that are dear to us; they are our beloved Barnabas and Paul–men whom we have a value for, a kindness for, a concern for.” Sometimes it is good for those that are of eminence to express their esteem, not only for the despised truth of Christ, but for the despised preachers and defenders of that truth, to encourage them, and weaken the hands of their opposers. [2.] “They are men that have signalized themselves in the service of Christ, and therefore have deserved well of all the churches: they are men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 15:26), and therefore are worthy of double honour, and cannot be suspected of having sought any secular advantage to themselves; for they have ventured their all for Christ, have engaged in the most dangerous services, as good soldiers of Christ, and not only in laborious services.” It is not likely that such faithful confessors should be unfaithful preachers.

The letter from the Jerusalem church went on to say that those hearing it could equally rely on Judas and Silas to be faithful to those same teachings (verse 27).

The next sentence of the letter mentioned that their decision to send it seemed good to the Holy Spirit as well as to them (verse 28). The Jerusalem congregation considered the matter and their decision with seriousness in wanting to arrive at a decision of which the Holy Spirit would approve. The unanimity attested they had arrived at the correct decision.

The decision was exactly as James had put it: no further burden other than no idolatry, no blood, no strangled creatures and no sexual immorality (verse 29).

I really like how the letter ends: avoid these things and ‘you will do well. Farewell’.

The story continues next week.

Next time — Acts 15:30-35

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