Acts 15 Part 2
13. And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, “Men and brethren, listen to me:
Now we see James speak up and call attention to himself to make the final verdict. We know this was not the James of the twelve, for in Acts 12:2 we saw that James the brother of John was put to death with the sword by the wicked King Herod. This James rather appears to be the one Paul speaks of in Galatians 1:19, “But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.” We already saw in Act 12:17 that this James appeared to have an important place in the ekklesia in Jerusalem. He is doubtless the one who wrote the epistle of James. In Galatians 1:19, Paul calls him an apostle, even though he was not one of the twelve. If we truly pay attention to what we are reading in the Acts period, we will realize that there were many apostles in that period, and that the simplistic idea that the only apostles were Paul and the twelve is one that is arrived at without consulting the Scriptures. This book is the “Acts of the Apostles” indeed, and there are many more apostles presented in it than just these thirteen men. The apostles were those commissioned by God to do what they did, and that was not an office, but a job. Many of the characters we meet in the Acts period were apostles, though they did not come up to the level of Paul or the twelve.
Now as for this James’ position, we find him always at Jerusalem. Apparently when Paul came to Jerusalem in Acts 9:26-30, most of the twelve were out working elsewhere, and only Peter and James were left behind. Therefore we would guess that James’ task was to oversee matters in Jerusalem when the twelve were away. If this is true, then he was the leader of the ekklesia at Jerusalem, unlike the twelve, whose authority extended throughout the land of Israel. This would explain his prominent position there. At any rate, no matter his position, he has obviously risen far up in the ranks and commands a good deal of respect, as he is the one to give the final verdict here.
It could well be that James was known to be the leader of the party who were very zealous for keeping the law. For example, in Galatians 2:12, it was certain men who “came from James” whose presence led Peter to withdraw and separate himself from the nations, with whom he had formerly been fellowshipping and sharing meals. It seems Peter knew how zealous they were for the law, and did not want to look bad in front of them by eating with those who did not keep that law. So if James was the leader of this party, that would explain why the Spirit would have used James to make this conclusion. As the acknowledged leader of the zealous law-keepers, for him not only to support Barnabas and Paul, but actually to be the one to give the verdict in their favor, would in itself go a long ways toward settling this matter in the minds of those who heard about it. If James thought what Barnabas and Paul were doing was all right, then many who looked up to him as a paragon of law-keeping would conclude that it must be all right as well. Thus the wisdom of God is displayed in His choice for the one to inspire to give His final word on the matter.
14. Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name.
James refers back to Peter’s testimony. He uses the very formal, complete form of Peter’s name “Simeon,” or actually in its Greek form “Symeon.” It seems that “Simon” was a shortened form of his name, much like we shorten certain names into nicknames in our culture. The only other time Peter is called by his full, formal name is in II Peter 1:1, where he introduces himself as “Symeon Peter.” The use of this full name probably indicates the seriousness and formality of James’ declaration here.
James now reminds them how, before Barnabas and Paul gave their testimony, Simeon had reminded them how God for the first time in the Acts period had visited the nations to take out of them a people for His name. Of course, he is referring to the household of Cornelius, as we read about it in Acts 10. In this case, the word “Gentiles” is appropriate, for we know that Cornelius and his household were not Israelites. Nevertheless, I would still argue that “nations” is the better translation here. We know from the context here that the nations referred to are non-Israelites, but why force the word to say that when the context says it already? Using “Gentiles” to translate ethnon just forces an idea into many passages other than this one, where the fact that these were all other nations excluding Israel is not so clear at all, and may not be right.
God’s intention in the household of Cornelius was to take out of the nations a people for His name. This was a most unexpected thing for the Jewish believers of the time, as we saw both in Acts 10 and in Acts 11 following. Now, He was using Barnabas and Paul to bring more people out of the nations. There could be no doubt but that His intention in this case was the same.
15. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written:
Though what happened in Cornelius’ household was a surprise to the Israelite believers at the time and was not according to what they thought the plan during the Acts period was to be, James declares that this was nevertheless in line with the words of the prophets. He will prove this by quoting a passage from the minor prophets. He says “the prophets,” which may mean that more than one prophet said words that agree with this, though James only quotes one. However, this could also be because the quotation he is about to give is from Amos, which in the Hebrew Bible is part of one book containing the writings of the twelve minor prophets. This would be called the “book of the prophets,” and that could be why James uses the plural “prophets” here.
16. ‘After this I will return
And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down;
I will rebuild its ruins,
And I will set it up;
James quotes Amos 9:11. Here, the LORD foretells His return to the people of Israel, in which He will rebuild the tabernacle of David. The word for “tabernacle” here is skene in Greek. While it does mean a tent, the tent was viewed as both a home and a headquarters to men in the field, such as when the army was at war. In the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they lived in tents, and so these were indeed the stage upon which one lived out his life. Thus we might say that what God was promising to restore here was the Davidic scene. He promised to put back on the stage of Israel the players who had been so important to Israel at the time of David, and the props which had made that time for Israel such a golden age. Of course, this could never happen short of resurrection and the great power of God.
The Davidic scene truly had fallen down by the time at which Acts was written. Though it continued through many generations of kings after David, it had fallen into ruin at the time of the captivity, and nothing had been done after the return to the land to restore it. Now, the religious leaders had taken to themselves the authority of the Davidic kings, and they were happy to allow a usurper like Herod to remain on the throne, as long as it meant there was no threat to their own power. The Davidic scene was indeed in ruins, and it would take the action of the LORD to set it up once again.
17. So that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD,
Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name,
Says the LORD who does all these things.’
James continues with his quotation from the book of Amos. This verse tells us God’s intention in setting up the Davidic scene once again. He wishes to see the rest of mankind seek the LORD. This points out a textual error in the current Hebrew Bible here. Amos 9:12 in the New King James reads, “that they may possess the remnant of Edom.” But “Edom” and “Adam” are very similar in Hebrew, according to the Companion Bible “the consonants are the same, and the only difference is in the pointing. That adam, not Edom, is right can hardly be questioned, or James would not have used it.” With this we agree. The quotation James gives is the correct one, and Edom is an error.
So the rest of mankind may seek the LORD. The word here kataloipos means those left remaining, and this speaks of those who will be allowed to live and remain on the earth during the kingdom of God. These will see the glorious system of the kingdom that God has set up in the land of Israel, and they will seek unto Him to set their own nations up the same way. Then, all nations will one by one come under His rule and reign. When they submit to this, they will be identified with Him, and will be called by His name. This is the word of the LORD on the matter, and He is the very One Who will bring these things about. Praise Him for His kingdom to come! May God speed the day.
18. “Known to God from eternity are all His works.
James is sure that God knows all His works from eternity. Yet the phrase here in Greek does not mean “from eternity,” but is the Greek phrase ap aionos. This means “from the eon.” The “eon” has to do with the flow of God, for our God is One Who flows out and flows down to His people. From the time that God first started to flow out in revelation to Adam and Eve his wife, He has spoken of this great work to come, when God will cause all men on earth to seek after Him, and will call all nations by His name. God has known about this and God has revealed the truth of it from the very beginning of His flow to mankind. The first word we can read about it is in Genesis 3:15, where He speaks of the overwhelming of Satan’s head by the Seed of the Woman, Whom we know is the Lord Jesus Christ. From there, it is woven through as the theme of all Scripture.
So God has always known what His kingdom work will be. His plan is formed, and it all will come to pass in its time. James expresses his faith in this, glorifying God for what He has done even in James’ lifetime. He is working everything that is going on in the Acts period all according to His perfect, kingdom plan.
19. Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God,
James now gives his determination. He is declaring what is right, so that he and the gathered apostles can set things right. This judgment is not just James’ decision, but is the decision that they were moved to by the Holy Spirit. Remember, this was not just a “church counsel” struggling to figure out what was right and make their decision based on human wisdom. These were God’s inspired apostles, and not just their words, but also their actions were all ordered by God. The judgment James gives as the decision of the counsel is not just his own, but rather is the one he was moved to by God.
James’ judgment is that they should not trouble those from among the nations who are turning to God. This could apply either to Gentiles who were becoming believers, or ancestral Israelites who were coming to God even though they had formerly given up on the law and their Jewish heritage and all that went along with it.
20. but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.
James does suggest that they bind something upon the believers from among the nations, however. They will write to them, and advise them to abstain from four things. The first of these is things polluted by idols. Of course, they were not to worship these false gods anymore, if they had been in the habit of worshipping them, but they are also to abstain from anything that might be thought polluted by them. This would include things like meat that was sold in the common market, but that the butcher had first dedicated to his god by offering a part of it on an idolatrous altar. This sort of thing, the believers were not to stain themselves with.
Then, they are to abstain from sexual immorality. Certainly this was something that was rampant in the Roman Empire at this time, as the morals of that Empire declined. It was becoming more and more common all the time in their society. Yet we need to realize as well that this immorality had a religious component. Unmarried women were closely guarded by their fathers. Most of the fornication took place, not just between some random couple, but rather regarding prostitutes. Their prostitutes of the day were all religious prostitutes, and when you paid for sex with them, you were really supporting and worshipping the god or goddess they represented. Thus, though we would look at this as a purely moral thing today, at the time it also had very much to do with worship.
They were to abstain from things strangled. According to the law, it was wrong to eat flesh with the blood still in it. To ensure that the blood drained out, they slaughtered the animals they used for meat by slitting their throats. To strangle an animal would leave much of the blood in, making it tastier. Yet this was contrary to the law, and would make those who ate this meat unclean, and unable to fellowship with their Jewish and law-keeping brothers and sisters. If the believers were to have fellowship and not be divided, all would have to agree on keeping this law regarding clean meats. Thus, the Spirit binds this on the believers, ensuring that they will be united and not split into “clean” and “unclean” groups of believers. In fact, one could argue that this is much of the point of all these commands. They are not to force all the believers to keep the law, but rather to make sure that those who do not keep the law are at least clean, so that those who did keep the law could fellowship with them.
Finally, they are to abstain from blood. What is meant by this is somewhat unclear. “Blood” is used as a figure for murder many times in the New Testament Greek, and so some would suggest that this meant that they were not to commit murder. This would seem rather obvious, and unnecessary to demand in a list like this. Probably this refers again to the eating of the flesh with the blood, something that was forbidden for the law-keeping Israelites to do, and would have made these believers unclean and unable to fellowship with their brothers. Thus, they are to abstain from this to maintain their fellowship with all believers.
21. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
Now James points out that this does not mean that they are turning their backs on Moses, or not seeing to it that he will still be considered and honored among the Jews. He points out that throughout many generations of Israelites who have been scattered far from their homeland, Moses has never yet been neglected. He still has those who proclaim him in the synagogues every Sabbath. Thus, they should not worry that this concession to those believers who were not law-keepers should be viewed as something that would destroy the law of Moses, or end its significance among the people. It will remain important and continue to be read and known. The argument of those who wanted to bind all the law on the new believers in Christ is not valid. Moses will not be forgotten just because these believers in Christ from all nations are not forced to keep the law.
As we mentioned earlier, it is very significant that James declared this, for he seems to have been a leader among those who were zealous for the law, and an inspiration to those who tried to get the new believers in Christ to keep the law. If even James, with his reputation for zeal regarding the law, thought it was all right for these new believers not to keep the law, then many others would figure that it must be all right. Therefore the Lord uses James to give this decision. He knows how to reach people, and to give His word by the right messenger to meet them in a way that will help them see past their prejudices to the truth.
22. Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren.
This decision pleases the whole company of the apostles and elders. They recognize the Lord’s judgment, and find it good. Therefore, along with the entire out-positioned company (ekklesia) in Jerusalem, they determine to send certain men elected out of their own company with Paul and Barnabas back to the city of Antioch with their decision. That way, the believers will not only have the word of this letter they will send, but will also have some of their own company with the letter to prove to them that this was indeed the apostles’ decision, and to testify with Paul and Barnabas that what they were teaching was indeed the truth.
The word “send” here is the Greek word pempo. This is the word for a simple sending. They were not sending these men with the authority to do anything, but simply with a message to testify to the people, and to vouch for the accuracy and authority of the letter they were bringing.
The two men who are chosen are Judas who was also named Barsabas and Silas. Judas is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Judah, which means “Praise.” Barsabas means “son of Sabas,” “Sabas” meaning “His Will.” This probably means a son given by the Lord’s will. The Companion Bible suggests that this may have been a brother of Joseph Barsabas in Acts 1:23, the other disciple with Matthias who was suggested to replace Judas, but who was not chosen. “Silas” means “Woody.” This man Silas we will read much more of in the book of Acts, for he later became Paul’s companion, replacing Barnabas.
Because these two men were chosen by the apostles for this mission, we can be sure that they were men of good reputation, known as faithful law-keepers themselves, and men whom the Judaisers in Antioch would be likely to listen to. Silas, interestingly, was also a Roman citizen, as Paul was, and so had a connection to the Jews outside the land as well as to the apostles in Jerusalem. This was doubtless also part of why he was chosen by the apostles to carry this message. It will also factor into why he is chosen by Paul to become part of his further missions for the Lord.
Notice that Paul and Barnabas are listed in order with Paul first. This is because the Spirit is writing here, and Paul is still considered by the Lord to be the leader between these two men.
23. They wrote this, letter by them:
The apostles, the elders, and the brethren,
To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia:
So by these chosen men they write their letter. They address it from the apostles, who were those commissioned with authority from God. They also address it from the elders, who were the representative men ruling the company of believers in Jerusalem. Finally, they address it from the brethren, those who are simply their brother believers in Jerusalem. This group made up what was really God’s new leadership ekklesia in Israel. The former ekklesia, made up of men like the chief priest, Pharisees, and scribes, He had rejected altogether. Now, He has raised up His new group of leaders to take their place, and that group is the very men who are writing this letter.
Letters at that time were written on scrolls. Since one did not want to have to unroll the scroll to the bottom to read who had written you a letter, their tradition was to put your name at the beginning when writing a letter. This is what the rulers in Jerusalem do here.
They address this letter to the brethren who are of the nations in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. These were those in and around Antioch in Syria, as well as those to the west of them in Cilicia, yet east of the region of Lycaonia, where Paul had last proclaimed the gospel with Barnabas. These were the places where the believers were being troubled by those who claimed that they must all keep the law, whether or not they had been keeping it before becoming believers in Christ.
They call the ones they are addressing “brethren.” This was typically how a Jew spoke of his fellow Israelites. Again, those who were really in question here were ancestral Israelites who had given up on keeping the law, and yet had returned to serving the Lord when they had displayed faith in Christ. That is who these “brethren who are of the nations” were.
Finally, they begin their letter with “greetings.” In Greek, you greeted someone with the word “Rejoice!” That was the typical way, both to say hello or to say goodbye. Thus they greet those to whom they are writing this letter with this typical greeting. Yet in Christ, how appropriate this greeting is! Truly, we have reason to greet our fellow believers with the word, “Rejoice!”
24. Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law”—to whom we gave no such commandment—
The leaders in Jerusalem acknowledge that those who have been troubling the believers in these places went out from them. In other words, they had been part of the great unity of believers in Jerusalem. Now, they have come to these places in Syria and Cilicia, and have unsettled the souls of the believers there with their words. In other words, they had stirred up their emotions, causing them to doubt whether or not their faith in Christ really was sufficient to please God. These Judeans had insisted that they must both be circumcised and keep the law. This made these believers who did not keep the law feel that perhaps their assurance that they were now pleasing to God was in vain, and in fact they were still being held to the standard of law-keeping that they had failed to do before, and even now some of them were incapable of doing.
Now the leaders in Jerusalem seek to make one thing clear to their readers. That is that those who had been saying this had not been commanded to do this by the rulers in Jerusalem. Some have speculated that James had actually sent these men, but notice that it is clear from this comment that that is not so. None of the leaders in Jerusalem, including James, had given these men the authority to do this. They were telling the believers in Antioch and the surrounding territory these things without having received any commandment to that effect from their leaders. They had taken it upon themselves to make the believers in these places do what they considered to be righteousness. However, what they told them was wrong, and their message was a grave error. This is the way it usually is even today when one believer seeks to bind his own list of rules upon another. The Lord has given no such commandment.
25. it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,
The leaders now tell what they have decided and commanded. They acknowledge that this was the decision of all of them, being assembled with one accord. In other words, this decision was not made in the midst of contention, with some protesting against the decision that was made. The Lord gave His Own guidance to this group of leaders, and all had adhered to His decision. There was no dissenting voice among the group.
Then they set forth their decision. They decided to send elected men to them along with their beloved Barnabas and Paul. These are men elected out of their own number for this special task. Again, they are sent by the leaders, not apostello with authority, but rather pempo, a simple sending.
Here, when writing their letter, the leaders in Jerusalem list Barnabas first. This is because Barnabas was the one well known among them, and who had long been a part of their company. Paul, though acknowledged by the Lord as the leader, did not have the same position in Jerusalem as Barnabas did, and so was considered by the leaders there to have the inferior position. Paul’s realm of authority was outside the land, and when inside the land Barnabas was of greater influence.
26. men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is clear that some of those who were teaching circumcision and keeping the law in Antioch had been disrespecting Barnabas and Paul, since they were on the other side of the argument. Therefore, the leaders here prop the two of them up. They acknowledge the fact that they both have risked their lives for the name (that is, the reputation based upon the character) of the Lord Jesus Christ. They had been spreading the word about Him, and thus been working on behalf of His name. They had risked their lives to do this. Therefore, these leaders in Jerusalem give them respect, and call upon all reading their letter to do so as well.
The Greek for “risked their lives” might better be expressed as “delivered up their souls.” The soul has to do with the emotions and desires, and by extension the comforts that fulfill those desires. Paul and Barnabas had given up their comfortable lives for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. This was something they had been happy to do, yet it was surely something for which they should rightfully be commended.
27. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth.
They now list the names of the men they have elected, so that the believers in Syria and Cilicia will have no doubt that these two are indeed the messengers the leaders in Jerusalem have chosen. Judas and Silas are their chosen agents, and they will report to these believers by word of mouth the same thing that they are reading in this letter. Therefore, the truth of these words will be established “by two or three witnesses,” even as demanded in the law of Moses. (Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15)
The word for “sent” here is this time a form of the word apostello, which means “commissioned” or “sent with authority.” The leaders here tell their readers that Judas and Silas speak with their authority when they bring their report to the brethren. The things they tell them, they have been commissioned by the apostles, elders, and brethren in Jerusalem to say. Therefore, the believers there can have no doubt as to the source of their words.
28. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things:
Finally, the leaders bring one more forward in testimony: the Holy Spirit of God Himself. He has made this decision with these leaders, and this decision is what seemed good to Him. To this, those who were insisting on circumcision and law-keeping could have no answer. There can be no argument against the decision of God Himself!
The phrase “the Holy Spirit” here is just that, to hagio pneumati or “the Holy Spirit” in Greek. The word “the” is there, and means that this is emphasizing the Person of the Spirit. Of course, this did not just seem good to the Spirit’s power, but to the Spirit Himself. In this case, the word “Holy” is put first, which is rather unusual. Thus, it is emphasized. This was the HOLY Spirit Himself Who had approved this decision. It was not because He did not care about God or about righteousness that He had decided not to lay the burden of law-keeping on the brethren in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Let no one think it!
So what they had decided with the Holy Spirit’s guidance was to only lay certain necessary things upon the brethren, and not circumcision nor the keeping of the whole law. What those things are, we read in the next verse.
29. that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.
Now they list the four things James mentioned in his decision, given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They are again abstaining from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. The meaning of these four things we discussed in looking at verse 20. The leaders assure the uncircumcised brethren that if they do these things, they will be doing well in the sight of God. What a relief it must have been to these believers to know this! To have God’s word on how to please Him, and to have it be something plain and straightforward like this, rather than the burden of trying to keep the law outside the land, would have been a cause for great joy to these new believers in Christ.
Now, the leaders bid them farewell. This is a translation of the Greek word hronnumi, which is a command to be strong or to prosper. It is a word commonly used to say goodbye in a Greek letter. Yet it also is appropriate for this situation, for it was strength in the Lord that these believers needed. They need no longer fear that they have somehow neglected some important detail of the law that will hold them back from salvation. Rather, they may trust in Christ to procure for them everything they need. Now truly they can be strong in Him.