Confraternity Bible: New Testament and Supplemental Commentary

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ACTS - Chapter 15

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Acts 15

Supplemental Commentary:

THE MISSIONARY JOURNEYS OF ST. PAUL  13, 1 -- 28, 31 (continued)

1.  First Missionary Journey  13, 1 -- 15, 35 (continued)

15, 1-5:  Dissension at Antioch.  Some of the Jews where shocked by the fact that Gentile converts were admitted to the Church without circumcision.  Pride of race prevented them from seeing that the Mosaic Law was no longer binding.  They were perhaps converted Pharisees from Jerusalem (cf. 5).  The question was too fundamental to be settled at Antioch, so they determined to appeal to the Apostles and presbyters at Jerusalem.

15, 6-35:  Peter's Decision: Advice from James: The Decision.  God's will in the matter had been clearly shown in the conversion of Cornelius; those who tried to force the unbearable yoke of the Old Law on the Gentile converts would be acting against God. The only source of justice and salvation was faith in Jesus Christ.  In this way St. Peter implicitly excluded the need of Judaism for any one, whither he were Jew or Gentile.  St. Paul and Barnabas recounted the miracles by which God had sanctioned their preaching.

Then St. James the Less, seconding St. Peter, added the testimony of Scripture and the proposal that, to make it easier for Jews to associate freely with the Gentile converts, certain restrictions should be placed on the Gentiles.  They were to abstain from bloody meats, from anything strangled, from food previously offered to idols, and from immorality.  His reason for offering these restrictions was that the Jews readily took offense at these practices since the weekly reading of the Law of Moses in the synagogues continually reminded them that such things were unlawful.  A decree embodying these restrictions, and the express declaration that the Mosaic Law was not necessary for the Gentiles, was then drawn up and entrusted to a delegation, including St. Paul and Barnabas, to be presented to the churches of Syria and Cilicia.

This discussion is described by St. Paul also in Gal. 2, but he confines himself to the private consultation with the Apostles, while St. Luke records the public deliberations.  The differences in the two accounts are easily reconciled by keeping in mind that as a general historian St. Luke lays less stress on what is personal to St. Paul.  When he says that St. Paul went to Jerusalem as a delegate of the church at Antioch, he does not contradict St. Paul's statement that he went up because of a revelation, since such a revelation might have induced St. Paul to suggest the appeal to Jerusalem or to accept a place on the delegation.  The omission of Titus in the Acts is explained by supposing that Titus was not a delegate or that he is included in the number of those who went along with Paul and Barnabas as delegates; the Greek text in 15, 2 reads "some others of them" and does not necessarily mean that all the other delegates belonged to the party opposed to St. Paul.

Some try to identify this meeting at Jerusalem, mentioned in Galatians, not with Acts 15, but with the "alms-visit" of Acts 11, 30; 12, 25.  Their main argument is that in Gal. 1 and 2, St. Paul is proving that he did not learn his gospel from men, but from God, and to prove this he had to enumerate all his visits to Jerusalem and so he could not have omitted this "alms-visit."  But this argument is founded on a misunderstanding of the relation between Gal. 1 and Gal. 2.  The first chapter disposes of the charge that St. Paul was a mere disciple of the other Apostles, and it closes with a picture of St. Paul as already launched on his apostolic career and as preaching the gospel in Syria and Cilicia with such effect that his reputation was  known even in distant Judea.  In Gal. 2 the theme is quite different.  St. Paul had also been accused of teaching doctrines contrary to that of the other Apostles, and here he refutes the accusation by showing that his doctrine had been approved by the other Apostles at Jerusalem.  Besides, it is most unlikely that so important a question as the admission of the Gentiles without circumcision would have had to be decided twice by meetings of the Apostles.  Again Acts 11, 30 implies that at the "alms-visit" the Apostles had already been scattered by the persecution of Herod Agrippa, since the alms were to be delivered to the elders of the church at Jerusalem.

Gal. 2 makes no mention of the letter drawn up at the council, but there was no need for St. Paul to refer to it, since its mean point, the freedom of the Gentiles, was perfectly clear from the welcome given him and his doctrine by the other Apostles.  The negative part of the letter, the restrictions placed on the Gentiles, was only disciplinary and was intended to be enforced only at times and places where the difficulties were similar to those in Syria and Cilicia.  The small number of Jews in Galatia would hardly have created such difficulties.

2.  Second Missionary  Journey  15, 36 -- 18, 22

[15, 36-41.  Paul and Barnabas Separate.  Cf. section on "St. Mark" in the Introduction to the Gospel of St. Mark.]

Confraternity Bible:

Dissension at Antioch  1 But some came down from Judea and began to teach the brethren, saying, "Unless you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved"  2 And when no little objection was made against them by Paul and Barnabas, they decided that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to the apostles and presbyters at Jerusalem about this question.  3 So they, sent on their way by the church, passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, relating the conversion of the Gentiles, and they caused great rejoicing among all the brethren.  4 On arriving at Jerusalem they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the presbyters, and they proclaimed all that God had done with them.  5 But some of the Pharisees' sect, who had accepted the faith, got up and said, "They must be circumcised and also told to observe the Law of Moses."

Peter's Decision  6 So the apostles and the presbyters had a meeting to look into this matter.  7 And after a long debate, Peter got up and said to them, "Brethren, you know that in early days God made choice among us, that through my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.  8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith.  10* Why then do you now try to test God by putting on the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  11 But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they are."

12 Then the whole meeting quieted down and listened while Barnabas and Paul told of the great signs and wonders that God had done among the Gentiles through them.

Advice from James  13 After these had finished speaking, James made this answer, saying, "Brethren, listen to me.  14 Simon has told how God first visited the Gentiles to take from among them a people to bear his name.  15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written,
16* 'After these things I will return

And will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen down, and the ruins thereof I will rebuild, and I will set it up;

17* That the rest of mankind may seek after the Lord, and all the nations upon whom my name is invoked, says the Lord, who does these things.' 

18* 'To the Lord was his own work known from the beginning of the world.' 
19 Therefore my judgment is not to disquiet those who from among the Gentiles are turning to the Lord; 20* but to send them written instructions to abstain from anything that has been contaminated by idols and from immorality and from anything strangled and from blood.  21* For Moses for generations past has had his preachers in every city in the synagogues, where he is read aloud every Sabbath."

The Decision  22 Then the apostles and the presbyters with the whole church decided to select representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.  These were Judas, surnamed Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren.  23 They were bearers of the following letter: "The brethren who are apostles and presbyters send greeting to the brethren of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia.  24 As we have heard that some of our number have disturbed you with their teaching, unsettling your minds, persons to whom we had given no instruction, 25 we have decided, being assembled together, to select representatives and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul: 26 men who have pledged their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves also by word of mouth will give you the same message.  28 For the Holy Spirit and we have decided to lay no further burden upon you but this indispensable one, 29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from immorality; keep yourselves from these things, and you will get on well.  Farewell."

30 So the delegates went down to Antioch and, gathering the community together, they delivered the letter.  31 And they, having read it, were delighted with the encouragement it gave them.  32 As Judas and Silas were themselves prophets, they exhorted the brethren with many words and strengthened them.  33 After spending some time there, they were let go by the brethren with a greeting to those who had sent them.  [34 Silas however decided to stay there, and so Judas departed alone for Jerusalem.] 35 But Paul and Barnabas stayed on in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others.

Paul and Barnabas Separate  36 Now some time after Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us return and visit the brethren in all the cities where we have preached the word of the Lord, to see how they are doing."  37 But Barnabas wanted to take with them John also, who was surnamed Mark.  38 But Paul asked that he, inasmuch as he had deserted them in Pamphylia instead of going on with them to their work, should not again be taken along.  39 And a sharp contention sprang up so that they separated from each other, and Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus.  40 But Paul chose Silas and set out, the brethren commending him to the grace of the Lord; 41 and he travelled through Syria and Cilicia, and strengthened the churches [and commanded them to keep the precepts of the apostles and presbyters].



10: Which neither . . . to bear?: St. Peter refers to the Law as interpreted by the rabbis who had added countless restrictions.

16-18: Amos 9, 11-12.

20: Idolatry and immorality were so widespread among the pagans that a special warning was felt necessary for the new converts.

21: The Jews of the Dispersion, well instructed in the Mosaic Law, would find it hard to associate with those who did not observe it strictly on these points at least.