Background: I had intended on going into the background of this Sunday’s reading by going over chapters 10-14 which prepare for the events in 15, but, as I’ve noted in previous posts, I’m having problems with my computer crashing, and so I’ve only done background relating to chapters 10 and 11. I’ll merely note here that what St Peter says about the Gentiles and faith at the council (15:7-11) has been witnessed to in the experience of St’s Barnabas and Paul among the Gentiles (13:44-48; 14:27).
Concerning chapters 10 & 11: In Acts 10 St Peter has his famous vision in which he is told to take, slaughter and eat foods deemed unclean by the Mosaic Law. This vision was part of a watershed moment in the history of the Church for it indicated that the prescriptions of circumcision and the Mosaic Law were not binding on Gentiles. The purpose of this vision is to teach him “that which God hath cleansed, do not thou call common” (see 10:9-16). He is then told that men from a Roman soldier’s house has been sent to him, and that he is to accompany them to the soldier’s house without debate [Greek: diakrinomenos] (10:20). There is thus introduced into the narrative a key word or, rather, family of words which will be used several times in chapter 11 and which will occur again in chapter 15., thereby linking the events of these chapter together. (I call this word family the krino family, for that is the base word)
Peter went with the men and entered the soldier’s house, saying: “you know how abominable it is for a man that is a Jew to keep company or to come unto one of another nation: but God hath shewed to me, to call no man common or unclean” (10:28). He then began to preach the Gospel and as he was doing so the Holy Spirit came upon all the Gentiles who were listening and, as a result, St Peter ordered them baptized (10:34-48).
Upon his return to Jerusalem Peter is confronted by some fellow Jewish Christians who were incensed over what he had done, and so they began to contend (diakrinomai) with him, “saying: Why didst thou go in to men uncircumcised and didst eat with them?” (11:1-3), and so Peter gave the details of what had taken place (11:4-17). While rehearsing these things he stated: “And the Spirit said to me that I should go with them, nothing doubting (11:12).” The word translated here a “doubting” is from the krino family, though the manuscripts use two different forms of the word: diakrinomenos=”without doubting”, or diakrinonta=”without making a distinction”.
As already noted, the use of this family of words is important, for the word krino is used by St James at the council in 15:19 where it is usually translated as “decision” but, given the context, should probably be translated as “conclusion.” I see the basic message of this word usage as meaning this: If one denies the entrance of the uncircumcised into the Church, or insists that they be bound by the Law, thus mitigating the value of faith, one is debating (diakrinomenos), doubting (diakrinomenos), or concluding (krino), against the Holy Spirit whose workings are at the base of the councils action (15:28).
Act 15:1 And some, coming down from Judea, taught the brethren: That, except you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved.
Act 15:2 And when Paul and Barnabas had no small contest with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of the other side should go up to the apostles and priests to Jerusalem, about this question.
Chapter 15 deals with the so-called Jerusalem Council which Luke has been preparing for since chapters 10. In that chapter Peter has his famous vision of the unclean food (deesignated as such according to the Deuteronomic legislation) coming down from heaven with the command to kill and eat them. Peter objects, insisting that he has never eaten anythng common or unclean. Table and food regulations were a particular concern among the Pharisees, as can be seen in the texts of the Mishnah. “No fewer than 229 of the 341 rabbinic texts in the Mishnah, a compilation of Jesish traditions that dates from A.D. 200 and is attributed to the Pharisees, concerns the regulation of table fellowship” (Stephen Pimentel, The Witness Of The Messiah, pg. 97). It was probably converts from the Pharisees (see 15:5) who who had come from Judea to Antioch and “taught the brethren that, except you be cirumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1). Note: the Western Text of Acts identifies them as Pharisees.
This insistence stands in marked contradiction to the events of chapters 10-14 as noted above in the background section of this post. This raises and controversy which our text calls “a contest,” translating the Greek word stasis, “standing, taking a position.” Theological ideologies are in conflict. As a result it is “determined” (Gr. tasso-“orderly arranement”) that Paul and Barnabas, along with some of their opponents, go to the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem concerning the question.
Note: Why are verses 3-21 skipped over in this reading?: It may seem odd to some that verses 3-21, which provide valuable context for 22-29 are omitted. But this Sunday reading (May 9) has already been prepared for in the weekday liturgy. The first reading for Wenesday, May 5th, was Acts 15:1-6, and for Thursday May 6th, the first reading was Acts 15:7-21.
Act 15:22 Then it pleased the apostles and ancients, with the whole church, to choose men of their own company and to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas, who was surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren.
Act 15:23 Writing by their hands: The apostles and ancients, brethren, to the brethren of the Gentiles that are at Antioch and in Syria and Cilicia, greeting.
Act 15:24 Forasmuch as we have heard that some going out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, to whom we gave no commandment:
Act 15:25 It hath seemed good to us, being assembled together, to choose out men and to send them unto you, with our well beloved Barnabas and Paul:
Act 15:26 Men that have given their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Act 15:27 We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who themselves also will, by word of mouth, tell you the same things.
Act 15:28 For it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us to lay no further burden upon you than these necessary things:
Act 15:29 That you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication: from which things keeping yourselves, you shall do well. Fare ye well.
The debate concerning the controversy raised at Antioch has concluded and a decision has been reached. Because the troublemakers had come from the Judea without the warrant of the Jerusalem leaders (24) it was decided that they send representatives (Justus and Silas) to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas to preclude any such like happening in the future. An official letter is to be delivered and made known in the city of Antioch and the provinces of Syria and Cilicia. At the time of the Apostolic Council (circa A.D. 50) these two provinces were combined inasmuch as they both had Antioch as their capital.
15:22 Judas, surnamed Barsabbas and Silas, chief men among the brethren. The reason for sending them was noted in the previous paragraph. In verse 32 Judas will be identified as a prophet, but nothing more is known concerning him, though he may have been related to Joseph, son of Barsabbas who was chosen as a possible candidate to fill Judas’ apostolic office (1:23). Silas will become more prominent in Acts, as he will be chosen by Paul for the so-called ‘second missionary journey’ once their mission from the council is complete (see 15:36-41).
15:23. Forasmuch as we have heard that some going out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, to whom we gave no command.
The opening words of the body of the letter (“foreasmuch as we have heard”) were often used in the ancient world at the beginning of solemn declarations or documents.
The Jerusalem leaders disavow any connetion with the instigators of the controversy which led to the council. Their actions are described in forcefully negative terms: The have troubled (riled up, agitated) by their words. This reference to their words should be seen in contrast to the testimony given by Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and James in veses 7-21. Of special note is the contrast between Peter’s speech, which brough silence to the debate in the council (vs 12), and the bad effect of the instigators words witnessed to here.
Subverting your souls. Concerning the word subverting the Protestant reference work Vine’s Word Study has this: “Subverting (ἀνασκευάσας). Only here in New Testament, and not found either in the Septuagint or in the Apocrypha. Originally, it means to pack up baggage, and so to carry away; hence, to dismantle or disfurnish. So Thucydides (iv., 116) relates that Brasidas captured Lecythus, and then pulled it down and dismantled it. From this comes the more general meaning to lay waste, or ravage. The idea here is that of turning the minds of the Gentile converts upside down; throwing them into confusion like a dismantled house.”
We gave no commandment. It is possible that the agitators had been sent from the Jerusalem authorities, perhaps to ascertain how things were going in Antioch, but what is clear is that what they were teaching was not warranted by those leaders.
15:25 It hath seemed good to us, being assembled together, to choose out men and to send them unto you, with our well beloved Barnabas and Paul.
Like the opening of the body of the letter noted above, the reference to their assembling and the phrase “it hath seemed good to us” convey a note of solemness and importance; the council and its decision are not small matter. Likewise, the fact that four men are sent lends an air of authority to these things in accordance with ancient practice (Chariton of Aphrodisias: “send two from the people and two from the assembly.”).
Our well beloved Barnabas and Paul. The term “well beloved” provides a nice contrast with the agitators who were merely described as “some going out from us” in verse 24. There is to be no mistaking who the Jerusalem leaders have sided with.
15:26 Men that have given their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This recalls their hard labor in service to Christ and the Gospel (see 9:23; 13:50; 14:18, 28). The Greek uses the word paradidomi, which is often used in the Gospels in reference to the betrayal and arrest of Christ (e.g. Mk 10:33) and of his followers (Matt 10:17).
15:27 We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who themselves also will, by word of mouth, tell you the same things.
They are to announce orally the content of the letter and, probably, to make known the events which took place in Jerusalem. This was a common function of those chosen to deliver letters on behalf of others, particularly if those letters had an official function (see 1 Macc 12:23; Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-8).
15:28 For it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us to lay no further burden upon you than these necessary things:
For it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us. Builds upon verse 22 (“Then it pleased the Apostles”) and 25 (“It hath seemed good to us”), but of course brings in a new element, the Holy Ghost. The verse bears striking resemblance to statements found in official communications from the first century A.D., such as from Caesar to the Jews of the province of Asia: “It has been decided by me and my council…” (Josephus , Antiquities of the Jews, 16:163).
The reference to the Holy Ghost calls to mind the events Peter experienced in chapters 10-11 (see 10:19, 38, 44, 47; 11:12, 15, 16), and which he spoke of at the council (15:8). It also calls to mind the beginning of Barnabas and Paul’s mission (13:1-4), wherein Gentile disciples were filled with joy (13:52).
15:29 That you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication: from which things keeping yourselves, you shall do well. Fare ye well.
Details the “necessary things” mentioned in the previous verse. Peter had insisted that the Gentiles now belonged to the people of God by hearing the Gospel and believing (verses 7-9, 11) and that they should not be burdened with the Law which even Jews such as himself could not keep (verse 10). James agrees with this, but wants certain Levitical observances place upon them (verses 20-21). It is these “necessary things” which are referred to here.
The words of Peter and James which are recorded in Acts 15 contain a rich covenantal theology which cannot be entered into here; I suggest that you read Stephen Pimentel’s outstanding introductory commentary on Acts 1-15 entitled WITNESS OF THE MESSIAH, pages 127-140.