In our last essay we studied Acts 15:1-21, in which Luke told us about an exceedingly important meeting of early Church leaders usually called the Jerusalem Council, or Jerusalem Conference. In this essay we are studying 15:22-16:5. In verse 22 the apostles and elders and the entire Jerusalem church chose two men to accompany Paul and Barnabas to Antioch and carry the letter that contained the council’s decisions to that city.
Now you might wonder why they just didn’t send the letter with Paul and Barnabas. That is a fair question, and the answer is fairly simple. That culture was quite different from ours in respect to how they verified what was true. We say, “get it in writing.” That is, we prefer written documentation. But in their culture, they preferred human testimony. So for many people in those days, a letter by itself wasn’t considered adequate. So they chose two prominent men from the Jerusalem community to carry the letter and verify its contents (v. 27). In their minds the human testimony eliminated the possibility of misinterpretation of the letter.
The two men chosen are described as “leaders,” so they didn’t send insignificant “flunkeys.” One was Judas, about whom we know nothing except that verses 32 tells us that he was a prophet. The other was Silas, about whom we know a great deal. Silas also is described in this context as a prophet (v. 32), but his prominence in the earliest church becomes quite clear as we read on in Acts. Silas’ Roman name was Silvanus. Like Paul, he was a Roman citizen (16:37), and he became Paul’s missionary partner for Paul’s second missionary journey (15:40). Still later, Silas became Peter’s associate in ministry (1 Pet. 5:12).
In verses 24-29 Luke quotes the letter in full. Notice first that the letter was not addressed to the community at Antioch alone. It was addressed to the Gentile believers not only in Antioch, but also to those in the Roman provinces of Syria and Cilicia (v. 23). The other large city in the province of Syria, in addition to Antioch, was Damascus, and the main city in the province of Cilicia was Paul’s hometown of Tarsus.
In verse 24 the Jerusalem leaders made their first point in the letter. They acknowledged that the Judaizers who had troubled the Gentile believers came from their church, or churches; but they insisted that the Judaizers did not have their approval.
In verses 25-27 they made a second point. Paul, Barnabas, Judas, and Silas had their approval. And in verse 28 they made a third point, namely, that the Holy Spirit approved what hey had decided.
These were significant statements. The fact that they did not approve of the Judaizers theology; or what they had done, and the fact that they did approve of what Paul and Barnabas had done meant that Gentile believers did not have to become Jews to be saved. And the fact that the Holy Spirit had revealed his approved of the Jerusalem Council’s decisions was the divine icing on the cake.
The quoted letter ends in verse 29 with a listing of the four things that the leaders were asking the Gentile believers to abstain from, not as conditions for salvation, but as concessions to Jewish sensibilities in order to maintain Jewish and Gentile fellowship. We discussed these four conditions in the last essay.
Verses 30-35 tell that the four men delivered the letter to the church at Antioch, and the Antiochenes were delighted to hear the news. Judas and Silas stayed for some time, using their prophetic gifts, to encourage and strengthen the believers; but then they left. Paul and Barnabas, on the other hand, stayed even longer to teach and preach the word of God.
The time reference, “after some days,” in verse 30 is a bit deceiving, because the context suggests that at least weeks, perhaps months rather than days, had passed by the time Paul made his suggestion to Barnabas that they revisit the Galatian churches to see how they were doing (v. 36). Barnabas agreed, but he wanted to take his cousin Mark with them. Paul refused, because Mark had deserted them on the first journey (vv. 37-38). The disagreement became so sharp between the two that they split up over it. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus. And Paul chose Silas as his new companion, and set out overland through Syria and Cilicia to Galatia (vv. 39-41). You can see this on the maps at the end of your Bibles. Some might feel uncomfortable with Luke’s honest reporting of this contention between Barnabas and Paul, but it happened. The New Testament does not teach us that Christians will never disagree. We just have to do it in love. In the end, the result was positive. Two missionary teams were on the field instead of one.
Luke tells us nothing about the journey of Barnabas and Mark. It doesn’t mean that there was nothing to tell. It simply means that Luke was concentrating on the missionary ministry of Paul, not on that of Barnabas. Therefore at the end of chapter 15, we saw the beginning of Paul’s so-called second missionary journey. He and Silas “went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.” Then in 16:1-5 we see them arrive at Lystra and Derbe in Galatia.
At Lystra we meet Timothy for the first time. Luke does not tell us when Timothy was converted. It could have been when Paul was there on the first journey. Or perhaps his mother was converted then and Timothy since then. His mother was Jewish, but his father was a Greek. In 2 Tim. 1:5 we are told that her name was Eunice. The other Christians in the area spoke well of Timothy; and Paul obviously also liked him, because he wanted Timothy to become part of his missionary team.
In verse three we are told that Paul had Timothy circumcised, which is very interesting considering Paul’s stand against the Judaizers, who had insisted circumcision was necessary for salvation. In addition, Paul had refused to allow Titus to be circumcised. But all of this makes sense if we understand Paul. Titus was Gentile, and Paul refused to allow him to be circumcised, because Gentiles did not have to be circumcised to be saved. But Timothy was a Jew who never had been circumcised. That was a different matter altogether. Timothy would not be accepted in Jewish communities without circumcision; and therefore, he could not minister effectively to Jews. Therefore it made sense for him to be circumcised.
Verse four tells us that the team shared the decisions of the Jerusalem Council with all the churches in the area, and verse five tells us that the result was that the churches were strengthened and their numbers increased daily.