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By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
A Major Crisis - Consultation at Jerusalem
When we came to the end of chapter 14 it described the end of an abundantly successful mission and we had the impression that all was well. The word was advancing. All hindrances had been swept aside. But there was one thing missing. And that is that in Acts Luke always follows up successful activity with a description of Satan’s riposte. Pentecost was followed by persecution from the Temple authorities, the renewal of blessing in 4.23-31 was followed by the failure of Ananias and Sapphira, the success of Stephen was followed by his martyrdom and the persecution of the church, Paul’s conversion and ministry was followed by persecution, Philip’s success among the Samaritans was followed by the behaviour of Simon the sorcerer, the ministry of Peter was followed by his being called to account, followed by the martyrdom of James and his own imprisonment, and the ministries of Barnabas and Saul were followed by various tribulations. For Luke was aware that whenever God moves forward, Satan always seeks to hinder the work. And this was to be no exception as we will now discover.
Consider the situation. The Good News has been taken out to Cyprus and throughout large parts of Asia Minor. Not only have Jews and God-fearers responded but also out-and-out Gentiles, and the latter even in areas where there appears to have been no synagogue. There has been regular persecution, but each time the word has prevailed.
But now return visits have been made and local gatherings have been set up, and they have returned to Antioch and continued their ministry there, and all is going smoothly. It appears as though Satan has given up, and as though opposition has died down, so that the teaching and growth of the churches can go on apace. Luke therefore now immediately reminds us that this is not true. The teaching is being established, but it is to be countered by false teaching. Where the truth is being established, there will always appear those who come to sow lies. For suddenly on the horizon appear so-called Christians who come with a controversial message, which will dog Paul for years to come. The question being raised now was as to how these Gentile converts were to be related to the Old Testament religion from which Jesus sprang and from which the Apostles also came, and it was to be raised by a counterattack of Satan.
Looked at from the point of view of that time the issue involved was no easy question. In fact it was so serious that humanly speaking the success of the spread of the Good News and of the word depended on it.
In those early days when most converts to Christianity were Jews, their continuation in Jewish practises was not even questioned. It was just assumed. All had been circumcised on the eighth day. All followed Jewish religious practises. The difference between Christian Jews and their fellow-Jews was not in the customs that they observed, but in the recognition that they gave to the fact that Jesus, crucified and risen, was to them both Lord and Messiah, and that they saw salvation as having come through Him, bringing them under the Kingly Rule of God and having provided them with full forgiveness for all their sins. Now because they were His they sought to live according to the Law, especially as interpreted by His teaching, sharing all things in common with their fellow-believers, but faithful to their Jewish customs. By that means they hoped to win their fellow-countrymen.
Yet even among the Christian Jews there would be differences (as among the Jews themselves). There were Judaean Jewish Christians, who interpreted their customs more strictly, and were under the close eye of the Rabbis, there were Galilean Jewish Christians whose interpretations of Jewish customs were somewhat less rigid, there were Hellenistic Jewish Christians who interpreted the Scriptures more allegorically, and whose more direct contact with the Gentile world resulted in relaxations of certain customs. Many of the converted Pharisees, for example, would regularly continue to follow through their Pharisaic ideas as Christians, and would be more strict in their religious practises than those who had been converted from among the ‘common folk’, the ‘sinners’, although now, because they were Christians, each would have more regard to the other. But all would still participate in Temple ritual and follow Jewish customs in one way or another, and see themselves still as ‘Jews’.
Then there would be those who had been converted as ‘God-fearers’ and were uncircumcised. They were welcomed wholeheartedly into the fellowship of believers, while of course only on the outskirts of synagogue worship, unless the synagogue was wholly Christian. But these God-fearers would be expected to take account of Jewish practises, especially when they ate with Jews, and would be expected to become acquainted with Jewish Law. And just as the Jews bore with God-fearers but felt that they should become full proselytes, so would many Christian Jews feel the same about Christian God-fearers. Many of the Christian Jews would look on their fellow-Christians who were not circumcised as not yet completely ‘Christianised’.
Of course when Cornelius and his fellow believers were converted in the unusual way in which they were, this had caused a problem. Many Jewish Christians had come to recognise with Peter that God was not calling on all converts themselves to become a full part of Judaism. They were even recognising that for converted Gentiles there were to be different demands. Unlike Judaism they were being called on to accept Christian God-fearers on equal terms. And this had been agreed by the Enquiry Group of chapter 11.
But there were still many Jewish Christians who did not think like that. None had felt able to argue openly in that case that God had made a mistake, but there was almost certainly an uneasy feeling among a number of Jewish Christians that all was not quite right in the matter of Cornelius, and a hope that it would not happen too often. It could be coped with because it was not in Jerusalem and they could after all be treated as God-fearers. And none would doubt that they now worshipped with fellow-believers in Caesarea (where Philip was ministering) and were thus in contact with Jewish Christian customs and worship. The hope of these Jewish Christians was that they would therefore gradually submit to Jewish ways themselves, and gradually become absorbed into Judaism. Yet they did have to swallow the fact that Cornelius and his fellow-Christian-Gentiles had not been required by the Jerusalem church to be circumcised, on the grounds that God had cleansed them and made them holy without circumcision. They could not argue with the decision. They could only feel that it was not right, and put their confidence in the fact that God would sort it out.
Once news had reached Jerusalem of the activities among Gentiles in Syrian Antioch (in 11.19-26) official action had been immediately taken in despatching Barnabas to oversee the situation, and there too they would be satisfied that there was a good nucleus of Jewish Christians in Antioch, so that once again the converts could be seen as God-fearers attached to a Christian synagogue with the hope that they would eventually become full proselytes. Furthermore Jewish Christian prophets had also gone to minister to them.
And indeed it was partly the hope of ensuring this Judaising of the Gentile Christians that would be responsible for some of their own number from the circumcision party going to Antioch declaring the need for these believers to be circumcised (15.1; compare Galatians 2.4, 12). So the most fervent Judaisers among the Christians in Jerusalem and Judaea still saw Christianity as a reformed Judaism, and looked eventually for all Christians eventually to be circumcised and to conform to the ritual Law.
The mission of Paul and Barnabas to Cyprus and Asia Minor would not initially have caused a problem. Had they continued using synagogues as their base of operations and sought to bring their Gentile converts within the synagogue, initially as God-fearers, (with the hope of their eventually becoming full proselytes) this would simply have extended the pattern. But once the news came through from some of those synagogues of Paul’s blatant large-scale activity among Gentiles who were not attaching themselves to the synagogue, (the synagogues would not point out that it was partly due to their own obstructionism), that stirred up Christian Judaists in Judaea to feel that it was time that they did something about it. They must put a stop to these aberrations and ensure that all were on the path to Judaism. They themselves must go and teach them what was required of them.
As Luke depicts it, working in the other direction was God. And in this regard we have already had three incidents which have illuminated God’s mind on the matter.
It was on the basis of this that Peter had entered Cornelius’ house and had proclaimed to him the Good News. And it was then that he had seen the Holy Spirit come on all those Gentiles gathered there in the same way as on Christian Jews earlier, along with clear outward signs that made it unquestionable that He had done so And he had recognised that if God’s ‘HOLY’ Spirit had entered a man and had indwelt him then that man must be holy, and therefore, following the lesson of his vision, could not be treated as ‘common’. That being so he felt that he could not refuse baptism to what God had made holy. It was not a question as to whether such a person was circumcised or not. It was a question as to whether God had made that person holy. And in that case He clearly had. (Note that baptism is not therefore the same as circumcision. Baptism is an acceptance of the fact that a person has been made holy. Circumcision was, prior to this, seen as a necessity in order that a man might become holy.
Furthermore the basic assumption of the whole process of proselysation was that the unholy needed to be made holy. That was what the proselyte bath indicated. They were being washed from all past ritual uncleanness. They were having the taint of the Gentile world removed. So to give a proselyte bath to someone whom God had already indwelt by His Holy Spirit and who was therefore already holy would, in the light of Peter’s vision, have been to declare as common or unclean what God had made holy. It would be contradictory. It would be almost blasphemous. Thus the only conclusion could be that for such people the procedures for becoming a full proselyte were not required. God had received them without that and made them holy. Furthermore the purpose of the rite of circumcision was in order to set apart a person as one of God’s holy people, it was to render him holy. But these new converts had already been made holy. How then could circumcision be required from someone who had already been indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit and was therefore already holy? They were already accepted by God and holy with no condition of circumcision having been attached. To do any more would be to cast doubt on what God had done. (This again emphasises that baptism was not seen as cleansing or making holy, otherwise on the same terms it could not have applied to those who had been already made holy).
Combined with what God had previously demonstrated to Peter in regard to Cornelius, which Paul would know about, this necessarily followed, for it had been made openly apparent that these men also were all ‘filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit’ (13.52). Their acceptance by God without circumcision was therefore not in doubt. And Paul had from then on accepted and baptised Gentile converts without circumcision, even in places where there was no synagogue for them to attach themselves to, once he was satisfied that they had received the Holy Spirit. Indeed he had set them up in their own ‘synagogue’ groups with their own elders led by the Spirit of God.
But now inevitably came Satan’s expected counterattack. It would, however, as with all Satan’s counterattacks (how exasperated he must have been), turn out to be for the good of the advance of the word, for it would mean the church deciding as a whole exactly how it should in future look at the ministry among the Gentiles, and it would finally take away any doubt among Gentile converts of their acceptability in Christ without their having to become Jews.
The Demand that All Believers in Christ Be Circumcised And Its Consequence (15.1-3).
News had reached Judaea of the many Gentiles who had become Christians and had not been circumcised. This had horrified many Jewish believers, especially many Pharisees who were believers, for they considered that it was not possible to be within God’s salvation without being circumcised and keeping the whole Law of Moses. They considered that Jesus’ purpose had been to make all men good Jews.
But they were not at first too perturbed. They recognised the principle that it was right for God-fearers to attach themselves to a gathering of believers, with the aim in view that they eventually become full proselytes and be circumcised. So just as the prophets from Jerusalem had previously gone to give assistance to the work in Antioch by giving them spiritual enlightenment, some decided that they too must go to Antioch and guide these new Gentile converts into ‘the full truth’ as they saw it. (They may well at first have been taken by surprise by the vehement opposition of Paul and Barnabas).
15.1 ‘And certain men came down from Judaea and taught the brethren, saying, “Except you be circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
As with the prophets who had arrived earlier and had been of great assistance (12.27), some men ‘from Judaea’ now arrived in Syrian Antioch, but this time their message to the Christians there was, “Except you be circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” They no doubt saw themselves as going with a salutary and godly message in which they believed profoundly. They may have acclaimed themselves to be prophets, but if so Luke refuses to recognise them as such. We note further that he does not say that they came ‘from Jerusalem’. He saw that that would have conferred on them an authority that they did not have, so he says that they were vaguely ‘from Judaea’. Their attitude was not that of ‘the church of Jerusalem’ but of Judaeans. His stress was on the fact that they did not have the authority of the church of Jerusalem behind them (as what followed would prove).
The message of these men would come like a bombshell to many Gentile Christians. To them these messengers were brethren, and appeared to have come from the very home of Christendom. Did this really mean that they had to become full Jewish proselytes, being circumcised and bound to keep the whole ritual and ceremonial Law of the Jews if they wanted to follow Christ? This was not what they had been taught up to this point. But many of them were ready for it if it was necessary. (This was something that Paul resisted so vehemently - Galatians 3.1-5; 4.9-11; 5.2-4).
It was no doubt ‘of God’ that this had not occurred until the arrival back of Paul and Barnabas. Had it done so it might have caused even greater confusion. But God was in control of affairs and had timed it accordingly.
The question can only be seen as almost irrelevant today. For we would rightly ask, ‘If Christ through His death has fulfilled all offerings and sacrifices, as the New Testament makes clear that He has in a number of places (e.g. John 1.29; 1 Corinthians 5.7), and if, as the letter to the Hebrews emphasises in detail, all such offerings are now redundant and all necessary rituals are now fulfilled in heaven by our heavenly High Priest, what further need is there for earthly ritual? Indeed, as Paul makes clear concerning circumcision, it is precisely on this basis that in Christ all who are His have been circumcised with a circumcision made without hands in the circumcision of the One Who was circumcised for us (Colossians 2.11). We are already circumcised in Christ. We have therefore been made alive, and have been forgiven, without the need for further circumcision (Colossians 2.13).
But it was certainly a question that still needed settling then, for it went to the root of what salvation is all about.
15.2 ‘And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and questioning with them, the brethren appointed that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question.’
Paul and Barnabas saw to the heart of the question and stood firm against these new teachers, disagreeing with the men and challenging the basis of their teaching and questioning their arguments. Indeed there was a strong and longlasting discussion (‘no small dissension’). But it was finally agreed by the whole church that what was necessary was to go to the Apostles and the mother church in Jerusalem and discover their minds on the subject. They would seek guidance from the source. That would resolve the issue. So the church at Syrian Antioch appointed ‘Paul and Barnabas’ and ‘certain other of them’ to go up to Jerusalem to the Apostles and the elders of the church in Jerusalem in order to confirm what their view was on the matter. They wanted to be in agreement with their fellow-believers in Jerusalem.
15.3 ‘They therefore, being brought on their way by the church, passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles, and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.’
This group therefore set out for Jerusalem under the official auspices of the whole ‘church’ (the whole group of believers) at Antioch, and as they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, (which were both ‘unorthodox’ mixed areas) they gathered with the groups of believers there (the ‘churches’) and declared to them how many Gentiles had been converted on their missionary journey. And as a result of hearing the news all these brethren were filled with great joy. It was clear that they saw no problem with what Paul was doing. But then even the Jews there were not as strongly ‘Jewish’ as those in Judaea and Jerusalem.
It is, however, noticeable that Luke says nothing about the churches of Judaea. They might well have viewed things differently. Probably the party felt it wise not to raise what might have been controversial ideas in the very place from which their opponents had come. They had not come to cause dissension. They had come in order to prevent it.
The Response of the Apostles and the Church in Jerusalem (15.4-21).
15.4 ‘And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church and the apostles and the elders, and they rehearsed all things that God had done with them.’
Arriving in Jerusalem they were well received by ‘the Apostles and elders’, and by the whole church at Jerusalem, and they had fellowship together, and Paul and Barnabas gave them full details of all that had happened on their missionary journeys. That all the Apostles were there is very doubtful. A number were presumably out obediently proclaiming the Good News in distant parts, and while one or two who were not too far off may have been called in to welcome the deputation from Antioch, it would probably not have been practicable for all to return. Nor must we see this as an official council. It was simply a consultation between two sister churches. Thus ‘the Apostles’ here must mean those of them who were present, seen as representing the whole. Indeed there may only have been Peter and James the Lord’s brother, for only they are mentioned. And perhaps we may add John (Galatians 2.9) who may well have been regularly ‘paired off’ with Peter (3.1).
15.5 ‘But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees who believed, saying, “It is needful to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.”
All were aware of why this deputation from the believers at Syrian Antioch had come. It was so that they might come to a decision, taking into account the authority of the Apostles and the position of the Jerusalem church, on the question as to what further was to be required of Gentiles who became Christians and were baptised.
So the circumcision party began by putting their case. They included among them Pharisees who had come to believe in Jesus Christ, but considered that the tenets of the Pharisees had to be maintained. They argued that all who responded to Christ and became Christians had necessarily to be circumcised so as to enter into the covenant, and must then observe the whole Law of Moses (and many would then have added - ‘according to the tenets of the Pharisees’). This would involve among other things Temple worship and the offering of sacrifices when in Jerusalem, the payment of the Temple tax, separation from Gentiles who did not observe the laws of cleanliness wherever they were, regular washings in order to maintain cleanliness, avoiding all that could render unclean according to Jewish principles, abstaining from the eating of blood and of various meats, strict observance of the Sabbath by not working, and a following of the multitude of Laws that governed the daily living of every Jew.
15.6 ‘And the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider of this matter.’
It was right that these matters be brought up because that was why the Apostles and elders had gathered together to consider the matter. A pronouncement on the issue was required. Indeed it was a question on which minds needed to be clarified. We should not therefore see this as unnecessary dissension.
15.7-9 ‘And when there had been much questioning, Peter rose up, and said to them, “Brethren, you know that a good while ago God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the good news, and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore them witness, giving them the Holy Spirit, even as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.”
As a result there was a great deal of discussion, and then finally, when much had been said on all sides, Peter stood up and declared his position.
He reminded all present of his own experience with Cornelius and his fellow-Gentiles many years before, and of how God had chosen him to take to these Gentiles the Good News with the result that they had believed. But more than that. What had been especially significant was that God, Who knows the heart of all men, had borne witness to the fact that, even while they were uncircumcised, he had cleansed their hearts by faith, for He had given to them His own Holy Spirit in precisely the same way and with the same signs as He had previously done to the Jews who believed. God had openly and deliberately made no distinction. He had treated both circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles in the same way. He had cleansed both in the same way. He had sanctified both by His Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1.2) in the same way. And He had evidenced the significance of this to Peter in a vision. He had made it clear that because He had cleansed them from heaven they were to be seen as cleansed and holy, and in no way to be treated as ‘common’ or unclean (they were not to be bathed or circumcised).
15.10 “Now therefore why do you test out God, that you should put a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?”
Now if God had done this freely for these Gentiles without demanding circumcision, who were they to demand otherwise? What right had they to test out God by putting the yoke of the Law on the necks of new disciples, a yoke which had proved too much even for the Jews? In view of the fact that proselytes were seen in Judaism as having ‘the yoke of the Law’ put on them this was significant.
By speaking of ‘the yoke of the law’ the Jews were not, of course, intending to indicate something too heavy to bear. To them it was a yoke of guidance as they marched in step with the law, and therefore a blessing from God, although many did within their hearts in fact find it too heavy. It is typical of Peter’s forthrightness, which we may be certain was not appreciated by all, that he brought out openly what others felt in their hearts.
‘Why do you test out God?’ The idea here may be:
‘Taking on the yoke’ was in fact precisely what Jewish proselytes were described as doing when they ritually bathed themselves and were circumcised.
15.11 “But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.”
Whereas the truth as they now saw it in Jesus was that neither they nor the Gentiles would be saved by keeping the burden of the whole Law. Indeed as believing Christian Jews they believed that their salvation had come to them, and would one day in its full finality come to them, not through their Law-keeping but through the totally unmerited favour of the Lord, of Jesus. And they believed that the same would be true of believing Gentiles.
Indeed was that not what coming to Christ had meant for them all? They had come to Him because of their own shortcomings. They had come because they had ‘repented’, because they had had a change of mind and heart about their sins and had wanted to be rid of them. They had come precisely because of their failure to ‘keep the Law’. And it was in Him, and through His grace, His unmerited lovingkindness and mercy, that they had received forgiveness for all their sins. That was how they had been made right with God. It was not through anything that they had done, but wholly through Him. How then could anything extra be asked of the Gentiles?
Thus Peter makes clear that, while he is content that Christian Jews still carry out the customs of their forefathers, he does not want them to see them as contributing towards their salvation. For all, whether Jewish Christian or Gentile Christian, their dependence is to be totally on ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus’ which has provided the means of salvation through His cross, a salvation which is enjoyed by faith. To take any other attitude is to ‘fall away from grace’ (Galatians 5.4).
15.12 ‘And all the gathered crowd kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they rehearsed what signs and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles through them.’
Peter’s words had moved them all to silence. Living in Jerusalem they had not really been faced with the heart of matters like this before. They must mostly have recognised the truth of what Peter had said, and that, of course, he was right, but they had not previously had to face up to its implications. They had gone on living as Jews because that is what they were. They had been brought up to it. And they would go on living like it. But they had not stopped to consider whether salvation was possible without it.
Then they continued to listen as Barnabas and Paul (in Jerusalem it was Barnabas who had the greater status, and probably spoke first) went through in detail what God had wrought through them, and the great signs and wonders that He had done. These signs and wonders would be seen as demonstrating His full approval. And they told them all that had happened among the Gentiles, and explained how many of them had responded to Christ and were now worshippers of the living God through Him, even in places where there was no synagogue. Then they explained how they now met in their own groups under elders and worshipped God continually, with the Holy Spirit active among them. They had formed ‘churches’. The full story of God’s glorious activity was being explained so that all might know the facts for themselves.
15.13a ‘And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying,’
Once all had listened to the long account of what God had done through Barnabas and Paul, there was silence. They had been given much to think about. And there must have been a feeling of great relief when James, the Lord’s brother spoke up. They would know that he would give a balanced view, showing full respect to the Law of Moses.
The gathered assembly had listened with great respect to Peter, for they knew that he was one of those who had been chosen by the Lord Himself to be a guarantee and interpreter of truth, and had received a special anointing for that purpose. They were aware that along with the other Apostles he had been given the authority by Jesus to ‘bind things’ on earth (Matthew 18.18), that is, to determine what should bind God’s people and what should not. Thus they had recognised that he had had the right to speak authoritatively.
They had listened to Barnabas and Paul, for Barnabas was their own representative whom they had sent to oversee affairs in Antioch, and they now knew Paul as a brother beloved. But they were not all convinced that the enthusiasm of these two might not have carried them too far.
But with equal respect to that shown to Peter would they listen to James, and some, who were not quite certain about Peter, would listen to him with even more respect. They well knew his holy life, and why he was named ‘James the Just’. They knew that he obeyed the law of Moses to the full, more than they all. They knew how much time he spent praying in the Temple. And they knew that he had been brought up with Jesus in his daily life, and had once known Him as a brother, and now knew Him well as his Lord. His words certainly had to carry special weight. Furthermore he was unquestionably one of the leading elders of the Jerusalem church, very much admired and looked up to, and very influential because of what he was. We can imagine a hush falling on the assembly, as he rose to speak. All knew what the crucial effect of this man’s words would be.
15.13b ‘Men, brethren, hearken to me.’
He called on them now, as his ‘brothers’, as those who were beloved in the Lord and precious to both His Lord and himself, to listen to what he had to say. There could be no doubt that his words would carry great weight. No one would be able to accuse James of having been carried away by new ideas and of not giving due respect to the Law. He was firmly rooted in the old as fulfilled in the new, and none was more faithful to both than he.
The picture we have of James here ties in with the James of the epistle. Very fervent for the Law and yet very clear on central Christian principles.
15.14 ‘Symeon has rehearsed how first God visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.’
This use of Peter’s Hebrew name ‘Symeon’ was both tactful and fully understandable. Tactful because it linked Peter firmly with his Jewish background. It would make clear that in the end Peter was essentially Jewish. And understandable because James probably always thought of Peter as ‘Symeon’. He had in one way or another had contact with him from the very earliest days under that name. When Peter had come to their house at Nazareth he would have been ‘Symeon’. To him at least, Peter would always be ‘Symeon’. It is a touch of authenticity. Furthermore it may suggest that James was speaking in Aramaic.
James then refers to Peter’s description of his evangelisation of Cornelius and his fellow-Gentiles. All knew about this, and how through it God had undoubtedly taken from among the Gentiles ‘a people for His name’. Given the acceptance by the general enquiry carried out by the Jerusalem church of what Peter had done earlier, and that in the light of all the facts (11.1-18), this was really not open to dispute. And if the uncircumcised Gentiles were already ‘a people for His name’, then no necessity for circumcision arose.
(We should note that even though a number among them may never have really been satisfied about that situation and simply have put up with it rather than welcoming it, it would still be seen as the settled position of the Jerusalem church. All of us are familiar with minority groups of Christians who hold unusual positions not held by all, but whose views are not seen as disturbing the accepted view. Their views are allowed to stand in tension as long as the main truths are held).
15.15 ‘And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written,’
Then he supports Peter’s case from the prophets, citing them as infallible Scripture (‘it is written’). The quotation, taken from Amos 9.11-12, is interesting in that it neither follows MT nor LXX, although being closer to LXX. But in fact discoveries at Qumran, where the Hebrew lying behind this quotation is paralleled (4 Q Flor 1.11), suggest that James was using a differing Hebrew text than MT, or possibly a book of quotations in Hebrew (we tend to forget that they had to use what they had available, and to learn it by heart. There were no ‘authorised’ pocket Bibles).
15.16-18 “After these things I will return, And I will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen, and I will build again its ruins, and I will set it up, that the residue of men may seek after the Lord, And all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.”
The verse as quoted here is a declaration of God’s restoration of things at the last day after the judgments of God have been poured out. The prophet sees God as here promising the restoration of the ‘tabernacle (or ‘dwellingplace’) of David’. Amos is speaking to the northern kingdom of Israel. This may therefore be seen as the promise that one day, after God’s threatened judgments have passed, the house of David itself will be restored as rulers over all Israel, and that once this is set up those who remain of Israel will seek after the Lord, (or alternately those who remain of mankind), accompanied by all the Gentiles on whom the Lord’s name is called. In Amos’ mind were the promises concerning the house of David in, for example, 2 Samuel 7.4-17. It is thus expressing the Messianic hope and the idea of the coming of the everlasting King. Only when He has come will all things be put right.
That it is more the restoring of the Davidic rulers that was in Amos’ mind, than the place of worship, comes out in the fact that at the time of the prophecy the Temple was still standing and would hardly therefore be described in this way. It was the ruling house of David which, as far as Israel and Amos were concerned, was fallen down and in ruins. Note also how in Isaiah 16.5 ‘the tabernacle of David’ again refers to the ruling house of David.
This being so, if James took it this way, it would mean that he saw in Jesus’ birth, resurrection and exaltation the rebuilding and restoring of the house of David (this in full accord with Scripture, see Luke 1.32-33, 69; 2.11; 18.38; Acts 2.34; Romans 1.3; 2 Timothy 2.8; Revelation 5.5; 22.16 compare Isaiah 11.10). He may possibly also have seen the resulting work of the Spirit in Acts 1-6 as the ‘residue of men (of the house of Israel) seeking after the Lord’. That being so, he says, the conversion of Gentiles must necessarily follow represented by ‘all the Gentiles on whom His name is called’ (compare for this phrase ‘as many as were disposed towards eternal life believed’ - 13.48). This fits easily in with his ‘God did visit the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name’ (verse 14).
We may see James here therefore as arguing that the days of proselytising are past, because the last days are come and the full purposes of God are now in process of fulfilment, the purposes in which through His King His light will go to the Gentiles, bringing them to the Lord in large numbers as so regularly promised in the Old Testament in one way or another (e.g. Isaiah 2.2-4; 11.10; 42.1, 6; 49.6, 22; 60.3, 5, 11; Malachi 1.11).
‘Who makes these things known from of old.” This is probably an additional comment by James emphasising that what God intends to do He prepares His people for beforehand. It was a warning not to dismiss something that God has previously revealed from of old.
Further Note on James’ Quotation.
Alternately James might simply have been seeing the reference in the light of the collapse of the house of David overall. But even so the result would be the same. The house of David was now seen as having been restored as a result of Jesus succeeding to the Kingship, having been born to be king (Luke 1.31-33 compare Micah 5.2), having been appointed by the voice at His baptism (Mark 1.11; Luke 3.22) and transfiguration (Mark 9.7; Luke 9.35) and having been finally openly installed in His resurrection and exaltation (Acts 2.30-36; Matthew 28.18). As we know, at His trial Jesus was accused of ‘saying that He was Christ a King’ (Luke 23.2), a charge which He answered by declaring, “My kingdom is not of this world -- You say that I am a king, to this end was I born and to this end came I into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth’ (John 18.36-37). Thus He admitted to being a King but declared that His Kingly Rule was to be established by witness to the truth, and His kingly presence had been there for that purpose. It was a heavenly Kingship, a Kingship with heavenly purposes, not an earthly one.
The use of the quotation as described here would be very little different from our main suggestion above except that it does not take the prophecy strictly in context. But whichever way it is seen, it all points in the same direction.
We cannot agree with those who attempt to make ‘the tent (or dwellingplace) of David’ signify Israel. There are really no grounds for this at all. The parallel ‘house of David’ always represents the rulers of the house of David and never Israel, while the only other use of ‘the tent (or ‘dwellingplace’) of David’, found in Isaiah 16.5, also refers to the ruling house of David. There reference is made to a throne being set up in the tent of David on which sits a king of the house of David, judging and seeking justice, and swift to do righteousness
For a reference to Israel we would look for reference to ‘the tent or house of Moses’ or ‘the tent or house of Israel/Jacob’ or something similar (compare how in Lamentations 2.4 Jerusalem was ‘the tent of the daughter of Zion’ not of David, and Psalm 78.67 where reference is made to ‘the tent of Joseph’, in parallel with the ‘tribe of Ephraim’, signifying Israel). It will be noted that in the context in Amos separate reference is made to ‘the house of Jacob’ and ‘the house of Israel’ (Amos 9.8, 9). It would be strange for them therefore so soon afterwards to be called the Tabernacle of David. Note also the fact that Israel were often urged to return to their ‘tents’ even when they lived in houses so that tent and house was equivalent (e.g. 1 Kings 12.16), which means that if Amos had spoken of their restoration it would have been as the tent of Israel. Israel is never anywhere else described as the tent or house of David. The tent or house of David refers always to the kingship. Thus it is the re-establishing of God’s king which is in mind here which will then result in the establishing of his rule and the remnant of men, including the Gentiles, seeking the Lord.
With regard to the differences between James’ quotation and the MT it should be noticed that as regards the underlying Hebrew text they are not as great as they might at first appear. We may compare the two quotations:
James says “After these things I will return, And I will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen, and I will build again its ruins, and I will set it up, that the residue of men (Hebrew ’dm) may seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called , says the Lord, Who makes these things known from of old. ” (The comment ‘Who makes these things known from of old’ may be made by James, although it may be an interpretation of ‘Who does this’)).
MT says, “In that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David which is fallen, and will close up its breaches, and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old, that they may possess the remnant of Edom (or ‘men’ - Hebrew ’dm) and all the nations which are called by my name, says the Lord Who does this’.
Having italicised the words which could have the same Hebrew origin (giving reasonable licence in translation) it is clear that the general gist is the same, and that they are basically saying the same thing. MT could equally have pointed ’dm in such a way as to translates as ‘men’ rather than as ‘Edom’ (the Hebrew consonants, that is, the original Hebrew text, are the same).
Certainly James’ source has amplified it a little. ‘After these things I will return’ is an interpretation of ‘in that day’, for ‘that Day’ is the day when God returns to deal with His people after the things that have preceded. ‘Returning’ is read in but expresses the intention of MT that God will return in that Day to act. ‘The residue of men seeking after the Lord’ will be the result of Israel ‘possessing the remnant of men’ (Edom), for when Israel took possession of a people those of whom they took possession would seek after the Lord, (as indeed happened to Edom under John Hyrcanus, although unfortunately by force). ‘All the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called’ is the equivalent of, ‘all the nations which are called by my name’ (for ‘nations’ = ‘Gentiles’).
The only open question (which does not affect the argument in this case) is as to whether the ‘residue’ originally refers to Israel as ‘men’, or to ‘Edom’, or to ‘all men’. This partly depends on which pointing we apply to the Hebrew text, but it does not affect the conclusion here.
The whole question of the use of ‘Scripture’ in various versions in this way is a very complicated one, and a shortage of materials and evidence makes it difficult to deal with satisfactorily, but this all indicates how many ‘versions’ there were about then, as we know from Qumran, just as we have many versions around today, and as with our versions, some were more free in their translation or rendering than others.
We should not be surprised that they felt happy to quote as ‘Scripture’ the versions that they possessed, just as we quote our favourite versions as ‘Scripture’. As long as the sense was basically the same we cannot quibble. But we can rest content in that the most reliable Hebrew texts were kept preserved in the Temple and carefully renewed, and from them came the MT. In the end therefore, with all our versions, when in doubt we have to go back to the MT (Massoretic Text of the Old Testament).
One word we might add here is concerning the original meaning of Amos. It seems very possible that he wrote with Isaiah 16.5, the only other place where ‘the tabernacle of David’ is mentioned, in mind. There a throne is set up in the tent of David on which sits a king of the house of David, judging and seeking justice, and swift to do righteousness. To this king from Edom appeal the remnants of Moab after their desolation by the Assyrians as they seek to escape the vengeance of Assyria. Were these the ‘remnant of Edom’ that Amos had in mind, as representing all devastated and humbled people? Or alternately is this how those who pointed the MT saw it? It is otherwise an interesting coincidence. But however that might be Amos’ point is that it is the restored ‘David’ who will bring all this about and enable his people to take over what are, in the promises of God, their rightful possessions, including all those on whom God has set His name. Israel’s problems had arisen because they had deserted the house of David, and had probably pulled down his palace(s) in the northern kingdom. Their problems could therefore now never be solved until the Kingship of David was restored in terms of the king of the last days. Only then could His people inherit the promises, which includes the Gentiles on whom God has set His name.
End of note.
As is often pointed out James makes no reference to the contribution of Barnabas and Paul (nor to the opinions of the Pharisees who had earlier spoken). But that is not really surprising when we consider the basis on which the decision was being made. While all were allowed to air their views it was not a question to James of coming to a consensus, however important that might be, but a question of finding the mind of the Lord. Thus he was seeking a divine contribution. One had certainly come in what had happened to Peter with Cornelius. What that signified had been agreed at their previous similar enquiry and was now repeated. It was therefore the divine will. Now therefore it was a question of what the Holy Spirit said, and as far as he was concerned the Holy Spirit had spoken to him, (and through him to the others), from the Scriptures. And that really decided the matter. It was not a question of coming to agreement but of knowing the divine will. And God had spoken. All else was irrelevant. Men like James do not descend directly to comparing arguments. They may listen but they then look directly to God and pronounce their view.
15.19 “Wherefore my judgment is, that we trouble not those who from among the Gentiles turn to God.”
Having satisfactorily settled from Scripture that God had promised in the last days to call many Gentiles to Himself, and that therefore the calling of the Gentiles as Gentiles was Scriptural, James now gives his own judgment, and that is that in general they do not trouble Gentiles who turn to God with the details and intricacies of Jewish Law. God has called them as Gentiles, not as Jews. They are not therefore under the Law, but under grace (compare Galatians 5.4).
‘My judgment is.’ There is an emphasis on ‘my’. (Literally he says ‘I (emphasised) judge that --- ‘). James knew how important his view would be to those who were most likely not to approve of abandoning the need for circumcision. But his view showed how closely he sought the mind of God, and having come to that mind, he wanted all to know that as far as he was concerned it was decisive. It was his judgment as one who had sought the mind of God. And it was seen as that because all knew James, and what he was. It was not that he had not listened to all the arguments. It was that in the end compared with the mind of God they were superfluous.
15.20-21 “But that we write to them, that they abstain from the pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from what is strangled, and from blood. For Moses from generations of old has in every city those who preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath.”
Four major principles were, however, to be required of Gentile Christians. The first two were basic. They involved the avoidance of open contact with and participation in idolatry, including the avoidance of meat offered to idols and thus constituting part of the sacrifices made to them, and the avoidance of all sexual misbehaviour, the latter often being directly connected with pagan worship. The former would have been a denial of the oneness of God, and have involved them in contact with evil spirits. The latter was basic to the maintaining of human society on a godly basis, and especially necessary as a requirement in a Gentile world where casual sex was treated carelessly and even sometimes approved of and made into something which brought religious benefit. We can see how easily the latter could arise and be misused in a religious context in Revelation 2.20 where committing fornication and eating food sacrificed to idols is seen as very much the result of Jewish-Gentile syncretism.
But in wanting to get over this latter point the Christians could hardly limit the restriction to religious fornication. That might have given the appearance of allowing non-religious fornication. The ban thus had to be absolute.
The second two were necessary if Jewish and Gentile Christians were to be able to eat together, and as Christians were to have ‘all things in common’ this was essential. The two complement each other. The eating of blood had always been forbidden because it represented the life, and the life belonged to God alone (Genesis 9.4-6). And to eat meat that had only been strangled, and not slaughtered in a way that would let the blood drain out, would have been to eat the blood. No Jew could eat with a non-Jew unless he could be sure that the meat had been properly drained of blood. Thus the importance of the regulations. It was not a question of whether these things were necessary for salvation. It was whether they were necessary for fellowship in common.
A later generation would seek to make these precepts more relevant. While retaining the first two it turned the food precepts into a reference to blood violence, and it added the golden rule.
‘For Moses from generations of old has in every city those who preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath.” This might be intended to indicate that these requirements would be necessary because there would always be in every city those who proclaimed Moses, and there would therefore always be Jewish Christians who, having been brought up to these principles, would assiduously attend on such teaching. The result would then be that for them fellowship with fellow-Christians would not be possible unless the requirements were strictly observed. Thus in order to maintain the important fellowship meal the correct slaughtering of meat would be essential. Indeed his words might also be seen as an encouragement by him to Jewish Christians to make use of such facilities as those provided by the synagogues in order to demonstrate their loyalty to Moses.
Or he may be intending to point out in a conciliatory fashion that this did not mean that Moses would therefore be forgotten as there would always be those who preached him in every city every Sabbath. While Christians also used Moses and the prophets as their Scriptures just as much as Jews did, their emphasis would be very different. But Jewish Christians would not be devoid of help with the Law from a Jewish viewpoint because they could also go to the synagogues. There was therefore no danger of Moses not being preached as an aid to Jewish Christians.
He might simply have been indicating that anyone who wanted to know what the Pharisees taught could find out in the synagogues, while it was no part of Gentile Christians to promote Pharisaism The intention may have been to soothe the ruffled feelings of those to whom the proclamation of Moses’ Law was important by emphasising that there was still a vehicle for its propagation.
Note On Whether Baptism Replaced Circumcision.
The question is often raised as to whether baptism was to be seen as replacing circumcision. But this is quite apparently not so.
We must therefore conclude that baptism and circumcision were seen as two totally differing ceremonies with different aims in mind.
End of note.
The View of the Apostles and The Jerusalem Church Is Relayed To Syrian Antioch (15.22-35).
15.22-23a ‘Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men out of their company, and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren, and they wrote thus by them,’
Having come to their conclusions the church meeting closed. They had heeded the request of their sister church and would now send them details of their conclusions. It should be noted that this was not an official council, although it was undoubtedly a little more than just a regular church meeting. It was a gathering particularly designed to help a sister church who were having difficulties, and at the same time to decide a crucial question for them. It was a kind of enquiry made primarily to the Apostles, but including the elders of the mother church who had been responsible for the establishing of the church at Antioch. . It would make little difference to the behaviour and attitude of the Jerusalem church, living in the midst of an increasingly nationalistic Judaism, except for those who had to travel into the wider world. It was rather in order to offer fellowship help between the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch, so that the church of Antioch might be at peace, even though it would certainly have wider implications. For no doubt all present recognised that they had become a forum in which they had sorted out their own position with respect to Gentiles, something which would clearly affect any similar decisions in the future. It had set a precedent (just as the enquiry over what Peter had done had in 11.1-18). It had become an important milestone in the advance of the word, and confirmed all that Paul and Barnabas, and others like them, were doing.
In the light of the inward looking and enflamed nationalistic zeal and exclusivism which was growing up among the Jews themselves, for they were gradually building up towards the soon-coming rebellion against Rome that would result in the destruction of Jerusalem, it was a brave letter. It went against the trend. Once known, and the details would no doubt soon spread, it would unquestionably set the Christian Jews at odds with their more zealous Jewish fellow-citizens. They would be in danger of being looked on as traitors. But it was to their credit that they did not consider that. It was God’s will that they had wanted to know. And it was a clear expression of how Jesus Christ had completely transformed their own attitudes that this did not hinder them for a moment from sending the letter.
The conclusions were put in writing out of consideration for the whole church at Antioch. It was a message from church group to church group. Note the stress on who were involved. It was from ‘the Apostles and the elders, with the whole church’. They wanted Antioch to know that all were in agreement and that the whole church of Jerusalem were involved, and were with them on the question. Interestingly the Qumran community similarly made their decisions on the basis of the combined contribution of the leadership and the community members.
Furthermore, in order to give the letter extra solidity two prominent prophets from the church at Jerusalem, who were considered to be ‘chief men’, were sent with them to add their backing to the letter. They recognised that the living voice would give greater emphasis to what was being said, would assure any doubters and would give the opportunity to any who wished to do so to clarify anything in the letter. And it would assure them of their brotherly love. Papias later tells us how much emphasis was placed on ‘the living voice’ in the 1st century AD.
One of these ‘chief men’ was Judas Barsabbas. He was possibly related to Joseph Barsabbas, who had been a disciple of Jesus from the beginning (1.23), (although Barsabbas was a fairly common name), and is possibly, with his very Jewish name, to be seen as very much a representative of the Hebrew wing of the church, although as one with a warm heart towards his brother Gentiles.
In contrast it would seem from what follows later that Silas was a Roman citizen (16.37). He might therefore be seen as representing the more cosmopolitan and Hellenistic wing of the Jerusalem church. If this is so, like the earlier appointment of Barnabas, this brings out how carefully they thought about their messengers and how much they sought God’s wisdom in their choices. With the two wings of the Jerusalem church being represented, once they arrived in Antioch all portions of the church would then be catered for and would recognise that they were being taken into account.
‘And they wrote thus by them.’ Judas and Silas would deliver the letter personally. This is the first example we have of one Christian group writing to another. It does not begin with a formal ‘the church of Jerusalem’, it basically begins, ‘the Apostles and elders, (who are) brothers (to you), to the brothers who are of the Gentiles’. It is warm in feeling and designed to make the Gentile recipients aware of the love of all their Jewish ‘brothers’.
15.23b ‘The apostles and the elders, brethren, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting.’
The letter is addressed a little more widely than just to Antioch itself. ‘Syria and Cilicia’ was the province in which Antioch was found. The church at Antioch had by now established groups throughout their area, and it was recognised that the surrounding church groups would also have been affected by the visitors and they wanted the letter to be all-inclusive. Cilicia was in fact where Paul came from originally and where he had conducted much of his early ministry before Barnabas had sought him out and brought him to Antioch. But the letter was not an encyclical. We are not told that it was sent to other parts of the Christian world. It was a brotherly letter from one group (Jerusalem and Judaea) to another (Antioch and Syria and Cilicia), a warm response to their request for guidance.
15.24-26 ‘Forasmuch as we have heard that certain who went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, to whom we gave no commandment, it seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose out men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’
They first of all made clear that those men who had come among them in Antioch and had troubled them had not been sent with any authority from them. They were those ‘to whom we gave no commandment’. They had received no authority or command from the church in Jerusalem and Judaea. They had simply been acting independently on their own authority. Thus anything that they had taught could be disregarded, for it was contrary to the views of the Apostles and the Jerusalem church.
They then expressed their deep regret that those at Antioch had been ‘troubled (stirred up) with words’ and that their ‘souls had been subverted (plundered)’. The expressions are strong. It was a recognition of how deeply affected they knew those at Antioch to have been, and the unnecessary searching of soul that it had unnecessarily caused, and they regretted it.
They then stressed that their message was a united one from the whole body of the church. They assured them that they had ‘come to one accord’. They were all agreed. Sadly it would prove not to be fully true, for there would still be those who through the coming years would fight against the decision, and go round denying it, but it was true of the church as whole. And it was certainly the Apostolic position.
And finally they stressed their total oneness with, and admiration for, ‘Barnabas and Paul’, whom they could call ‘beloved’, and whom they pointed out were men who had ‘hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ They were greatly concerned that all should recognise the standing that the two had in the eyes of all the leaders in Jerusalem.
15.27 ‘We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who themselves also will tell you the same things by word of mouth.’
In order to ensure that there could be no doubt about the agreed situation they were sending Judas and Silas, so that they would not only have the letter, but would hear by word of mouth all that had been said and agreed from the mouths of elders of the Jerusalem church. There could be no tampering with a verbal witness, especially such distinguished ones, and it would bring home the message more really and personally.
15.28-29 ‘For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things, that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication, from which if you keep yourselves, it will be well with you. Fare you well.’
The final conclusion was then laid out, and it is pointed out that its real source was the Holy Spirit. It was He who had guided their discussions, especially as the One Who had been given to the Apostles in order for them infallibly to come to the truth (John 16.13). Thus their decision was not just to be seen as that of the church, but of the Holy Spirit Himself to Whose guidance they had continually looked.
And their advice was that there was to be no question of a need for them to be circumcised or live according to Jewish ceremonial customs. There were, however, three or four things that they felt it necessary to enjoin. These were:
This remarkable conclusion demonstrated how much the Holy Spirit had been involved in their decision. They had been able to throw aside the trappings and get to the core. You can almost hear the words, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself’. 1) indicated that God must be God, and God alone. 2) indicated especially His lordship over all life. 3) inculcated consideration by Gentile Christians for their fellow Christians among the Jews. 4) lay at the very heart of right and considerate behaviour before God and man.
15.30 ‘So they, when they were sent away, came down to Antioch, and having gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter.’
All deliberations being over the Antioch party, together with Judas and Silas, were sent away back to their waiting church group, where they gathered the whole church together and formally handed over the letter.
15.31 ‘And when they had read it, they rejoiced for the consolation.’
The contents of the letter came as a great strengthening and encouragement to the church at Antioch, and it resulted in great rejoicing. They were delighted with that fact that what they had believed had been vindicated and their freedom in Christ confirmed.
15.32 ‘And Judas and Silas, being themselves also prophets, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them.’
Meanwhile they also enjoyed the ministry of Judas and Silas who as prophets exhorted them and confirmed them in their faith. There was a mutual ‘sharing in common’ between the churches. This is a further illustration of the fact that the main task of prophets was not foretelling but forthtelling. The fact that the ministry of these two men could be so continually acceptable emphasised the genuine unity between the two churches.
15.33-34 ‘And after they had spent some time there, they were dismissed in peace from the brethren to those who had sent them forth.’
Then once they had spent some good time there, they were sent back to their own church with expressions of peace and goodwill from the Christians of Antioch which were to be borne to their brethren in their sister church.
In view of verse 40 it may be that ‘they’ here means a Jerusalem party who had come along with the two, and that Silas remained behind. But there is no hint of that and there is really no reason why Silas should not have returned with Judas, in order to report back to Jerusalem and then later have returned to Antioch, either wholly of his own volition, or even because called on specifically by Paul when he recognised that he would need a new fellow-worker. The time scale certainly allows for it.
15.35 ‘But Paul and Barnabas tarried in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.’
Everything now having settled down, and the crisis being over, Paul and Barnabas now returned to the situation as it had been in 14.28. It was as though the crisis had never been. All was as it was before the interruption, with the added blessing that the issue had been resolved once and for all as far as they were concerned. They continued with their teaching and preaching of ‘the word of the Lord’ in Antioch, along with many others who did the same. And the result of the wise decision that had been reached was that the word which had come from God, the word about ‘the Lord’, continued to spread and be multiplied.
We see here that the spreading of the word continues to be the central theme and all else is built into it. It is that which is central to Acts and what appear to be the ‘major themes’ such as Stephen’s martyrdom, the conversion of Saul, the gathering of the Apostles and elders at Jerusalem in order to examine Peter, the persecution of Herod Agrippa, and the necessity for this further gathering of the Apostles and elders in order to reach this important decision, are all seen as simply a part of that ongoing movement of the word and a means to that end. Again and again it is to the fact of the spreading of the word that we are brought back. The purpose of these ‘decrees’ was in order that the churches might be made strong in the faith and continue to increase in number daily (16.5, compare 2.47) as the word spread. For they too were to aid in the spreading of the word.
Paul and Barnabas Agree To Separate (15.36-39).
The ministry of Paul and Barnabas now continued in Syrian Antioch for some time. But the question would eventually necessarily arise as to the wellbeing of the churches that they had been used by God in establishing. Thus Paul one day suggested to Barnabas that it was time that they returned to those cities where they had established churches in order to minister to them and see how they fared. And this appears to have been mutually agreed. The date would be around 49 AD.
However, in the event, because of disagreement over John Mark they separated their ministries and by mutual agreement each took responsibility for one section of the work that they had accomplished together. There is no reason why we should not see this as having been accomplished fairly amicably. Christians can disagree on such things without fighting. This would in fact result in a wider work being done than would otherwise have been possible. As in the case of persecution previously, God used man’s weaknesses in order to advance His purposes. He was sovereign in all that happened.
15.36 ‘And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return now and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they fare.” ’
After some days’ is vague and allows for a considerable amount of time. But eventually Paul suggests to Barnabas a round trip in which they will visit all the cities where they had proclaimed the word of the Lord, in order to ensure that the churches were prospering, and no doubt with a view to ministering to them.
15.37-38 ‘And Barnabas was minded to take with them John also, who was called Mark, but Paul thought not good to take with them him who withdrew from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.’
Barnabas was clearly happy to fall in with the idea, but when the matter was further considered Barnabas firmly insisted that John Mark came with them. Paul on the other hand did not feel that he could agree with this. In his view Mark could not be depended on. He had failed once on their previous mission, he could fail again. He was unreliable. And experience had shown him how important it was that all the party on any of their journeys were reliable.
The fact that Barnabas was so insistent helps to support the idea that part of the reason for Mark’s ‘failure’ had been due to his loyalty to Barnabas. Thus Barnabas would feel that he must respond with a similar loyalty. Furthermore it was of the nature of Barnabas to seek to encourage those who were having difficulties. He had done it with Paul. He was an encourager. He would not desert Mark.
Paul, however, was single-minded, and at this stage in his life unyielding. To his mind Mark had failed God and could therefore only be a hindrance in the work. He might well have seen in him what appeared to him to be a lack of dedication which he feared could act as a barrier that could hinder the work of the Spirit and their spiritual usefulness. He may well have considered that compromise was unacceptable.
We need not therefore see Paul and Barnabas as falling out with each other in any personal way. It was rather a question with each of principle, on which, as strongminded men, they were taking up a different viewpoint, the result being that they simply agreed to differ and go their separate ways. We may see it as a mature Christian decision on both sides, and it unquestionably turned out for the good of the work, for by separating and forming two parties they would be able to accomplish twice as much. In fact Barnabas, who in his gracious way had probably given way to Paul on much, was no doubt now able to expand and develop his ministry in his own way, in a way that he could never have done while he was with Paul.
15.39-40 ‘And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they parted asunder one from the other, and Barnabas took Mark with him, and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas, and went forth, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.’
The word translated ‘sharp disagreement’ means a ‘stirring up’ It can refer to a stirring up of love, and in this case a stirring up of disagreement and differing views. It does not necessarily mean that they had a flaming row. It was a case of two men with firm views not being able to come to agreement on what each saw as an important issue and looking at each other eye to eye with firm expressions, and interestingly enough a case where both may have been right under the different circumstances. We do not need to idealise them, on the other hand we should not stigmatise them so that we can get a good sermon out of it. What we can say is that as neither could agree they went their separate ways, but there is no reason for us to think that in the end it was other than amicable and by agreement. And we can reasonably assume that Barnabas as a Cypriot went to Cyprus by mutual agreement, taking Mark with him, in order to look after that side of the work. Later history suggests that he was right to do what he did. But that does not man that Paul was wrong. Had Mark gone with Paul and Barnabas together it might have been a disaster.
We must recognise that there are times when Christians will on principle take up differing positions, and may have to do things differently. It is inevitable, and as long as it does not cause division, is healthy. Paul certainly never speaks of Barnabas in any other than a friendly manner, and we can be sure that Barnabas, that supremely gracious man of God, was the same. Paul would in fact later soften his attitude towards Mark, probably because Mark later demonstrated how reliable he was, and Mark would also later become a help to Paul in his ministry and one on whom he learned to depend. During his first imprisonment at Rome, Paul mentioned Mark to Philemon as a fellow-labourer present there with him (Philemon 1.24), and to the Colossians he speaks of him as one who was a fellow-worker in the Kingly Rule of God and as one who had been a comfort and strength to him (Colossians 4.10-11), while during his second imprisonment, he writes to Timothy: "Take Mark and bring him with you; for he is profitable to me for ministry" (2 Timothy 4.11). But all this might not have been had they set off on that second journey together.
We might reasonably assume therefore that they agreed together that it would be best if Barnabas and Mark looked after the Cypriot side of the work, while Paul and whoever he chose looked after the work on the mainland in Asia Minor.
For Barnabas to take on the Cypriot side of the work clearly made sense as he would be going to his fellow-countrymen. In the same way so would Paul, at least to some extent, when he went to Asia Minor. But it was Paul who would, partly through force of circumstances, also be going to pastures new, and that is one reason why Luke in his narrative follows Paul. His aim was to portray continual expansion and spreading of the word. (Another reason was because he himself would eventually meet up with Paul and take part with him in his ministry).
‘Paul chose Silas.’ As we know Silas was a distinguished figure in the Jerusalem church, a prophet, and one who could confirm the agreement reached at Jerusalem. He may well also have been a witness to the resurrection. He was almost certainly a Roman citizen, as was Paul. This would provide them with mutual status. As Silvanus (his Latin name) we see him acting as amanuensis to both Paul and Peter. He was thus both competent and spiritual.
‘And went forth, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.’ We are told this of these two simply because the concentration of Luke is on this venture. There are no grounds for suggesting that the Antioch church was showing favouritism and ignoring Barnabas. The point that is being made is that what happens in the future in the ministry of Paul and Silas results from the grace of the Lord, and has behind it the fellowship of the whole church.
Paul Ministers to the Churches Along with Silas and Selects Timothy To Be With Them, And The Churches Are Continually Strengthened (15.41-16.5).
15.41 ‘And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.’
Paul, along with Silas and possibly one or two others then journeyed through the region of Syria and Cilicia, visiting older churches which he had set up prior to visiting those that he had set up more recently, and then reaching his newer converts.
16.1-2 ‘And he came also to Derbe and to Lystra: and behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewess who believed, but his father was a Greek. The same was well reported of by the brethren who were at Lystra and Iconium.
Eventually therefore he came to Derbe and Lystra. And there he came across a young man who would be closely connected with him for the remainder of his life. Often in the days to come Timothy was to be Paul's trusted messenger (1 Corinthians 4.17; 1Thessalonians 3.2-6). He was at Rome with Paul when Paul was in prison (Philippians 1.1; 2.19; Colossians 1.1; Philemon 1.1). Indeed Timothy and Paul had a very special relationship like father and son. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 4.17) he called him his beloved and faithful child in the Lord, probably indicating that Paul had led him to Christ. When he wrote to the Philippians he said that there was no one whose mind was so much at one with his own (Philippians 2.19-20). Happy indeed are those who enjoy such close affinity with each other. He would later write to him two letters for guidance in his important ministry.
It must be considered possible that his disagreement about taking Mark had made him think about his own responsibility for enabling young men to mature. He may well have thought things over and recognised that perhaps Barnabas had been right after all in insisting on helping Mark. Timothy also would prove to need encouragement and nurturing. And in the event two young men instead of one would grow and be established as Christian teachers whose impact on the future of the church would be great.
As we learn here Timothy was a half-Jew. The mention of so small a place as Derbe may suggest that Timothy actually came from Derbe (as would later Gaius), although it may equally have been Lystra. We cannot be sure (‘there’ could apply to either). Timothy was clearly well known in the churches of both Lystra and Iconium, and well thought of in both, so that he probably ministered acceptably in both cities. Paul saw in this young man the person that he could become.
16.3 ‘Him would Paul have to go forth with him, and he took and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.’
It was the normal Jewish position that a son would take on the religion of his mother (it certainly became so later), so that Paul would be inclined to see Timothy as a Jew, especially if his father was dead, which the verb might suggest. Recognising that by being circumcised Timothy’s usefulness in evangelising Jews would be greatly increased, he had no hesitation in suggesting that he be so. This would then give him full acceptability with both Jew and Gentile. Uncircumcised there would be a tendency for Jews to frown on his position even more than they would on a Gentile for they would see him as an apostate Jew.
This bring out Paul’s eagerness to maintain connection with the Jews, and to keep them open to the Good News. It demonstrated his own flexibility of mind. While he had firmly rejected the idea that circumcision become binding on Gentiles, and would equally firmly have resisted any suggestion that Timothy could not be a full Christian without being circumcised, he was flexible enough to be willing for a half-Jew like Timothy to be circumcised if it would mean that it would help in the ministry among Jews. In Timothy’s case no principle was at stake. Timothy’s circumcision would be accepted by the Gentiles as being because he was a Jew, and therefore as not affecting their position, and would make the Jews see him as a fellow-Jew. It was a reflection of Paul’s determination to be all things to all men if thereby he could win them to Christ (1 Corinthians 9.20), and of his deep concern still to reach the Jews, for whom he had a burning passion (Romans 9.2-3).
We may probably also see it as signifying that Timothy in general, because of the influence of his mother and grandmother, followed Jewish customs and was not averse to the idea, indeed probably welcomed it, wishing to align himself with the Jews so that he could win them for Christ. There is no reason to doubt that the ceremony was carried through with due solemnity and with genuine religious emotion. Not only was Timothy’s mother a Jewess, but also his grandmother Lois. And they had both become genuine believers (2 Timothy 1.5), who would both have brought him up to observe Jewish customs. We may also assume that Paul had recognised that Timothy’s not being circumcised had somewhat hindered his ministry among Jews.
The contrast between verses 3 & 4 must be seen as deliberate, even emphatic. Even while the decrees not requiring circumcision of Gentiles were being openly declared in the churches, Paul arranged for the circumcision of one who was in Jewish eyes recognised as a Jew. It was a gesture that would quieten many Jewish Christian fears. Paul supported both sides.
EXCURSUS on Circumcision.
The question with which we are faced when we consider circumcision is made very much apparent by putting into juxtaposition two of Paul's statements, and two of his actions. In 1 Corinthians 7.18-19 Paul says, "Is any man called being circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God." Yet in Galatians 5.2 he writes: "Behold, I, Paul, say to you, that if you receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing." What then is the difference between the two statements? The answer lies in asking the question as to whom they are addressed. The first is addressed to both Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles, clearly differentiating the two, the one being circumcised and the other not, the second is addressed to Christian Gentiles warning them not to cross over the line by being circumcised and making themselves Jews. The first is saying that circumcision cannot improve anyone. It is merely a sign of who is a Jew physically. What matters for all is keeping the commandments of God. The second is saying that if a Gentile considers circumcision is necessary, because it is necessary for him to become a Jew in order to be saved, he is bypassing Christ, and Christ will not profit him. He is looking for the wrong thing to save him. He is using circumcision in a way for which it was not intended.
This is also illustrated by Paul’s actions. When he was in Jerusalem in respect of the appeal of the Antioch Church, some Jewish brethren urgently insisted that he should circumcise Titus, a Gentile who was with him. But he sternly refused. Indeed he says, "I gave place to them by subjection, no, not for an hour" (Galatians 2.5). And his reason was so that the truth of the Gospel might remain with them. In other words the truth of the Gospel excluded the requirement for the circumcision of a Gentile in order to make him complete as a Christian. On the other hand in the case of the circumcision of Timothy he circumcised Timothy with his own hand, and this "on account of certain Jews who were in those quarters." But this was because he was born of a Jewish mother and was therefore in the eyes of Judaism a Jew, and as uncircumcised was in their eyes as an apostate. Circumcision was therefore neither frowned on, or required,
This therefore brings us back to the question of the significance of circumcision. We may observe, first, that in the language of Jesus, circumcision "is not of Moses, but is of the fathers" (John 7.22). This distinction is important. The obligation which the Jews were under to observe circumcision did not therefore originate in the Law of Moses, or in the covenant of Mount Sinai. It existed independently of that covenant and the Law, having originated four hundred and thirty years before the Law, and encompassed many who never submitted to the Law.
In fact it is quite surprising how little reference there is in the Law as given at Sinai to circumcision. It was assumed in it, almost incidentally, that once they were in the land, any male child would be circumcised on the eighth day once the impurities of childbirth had been dealt with (Leviticus 12.3). Otherwise it is simply assumed as lying in the background and is only mentioned three times. In Leviticus 19.23 the impression is given that not having been circumcised was seen as a sign of something being not yet ready to fulfil its purpose, as something still not yet available to the community because reserved to God. In Deuteronomy 10.16; 30.6 it is used as an illustration of a change of heart towards obedience and loving God. Thus it contains within it the idea of dedication and membership in the community. Earlier it was required of those who would eat the Passover once they were in the land (Exodus 12.44, 48). It was thus the outward sign of membership in the redeemed community, and not directly associated with the giving of the Law.
So the connection of the law with circumcision is not found in the initial setting up of the institution, which occurred hundreds of years before the giving of the Law, and only occurred because the law was later given to one section, and only one section, of the circumcised descendants of Abraham, who eventually, long after the Law was first given, related the two together in their own case. The connection is therefore secondary. We say one section of his descendants, because circumcision was also enjoined on his descendants through Ishmael, and through Esau, as well as on the Jews. Since, therefore, the law did not originate the obligation to be circumcised, or include it specifically as part of its ordinances (although assuming it in the background as a recognised custom), the abrogation of the law could not be seen as annulling that obligation in its original significance. As long therefore as it was not connected with the idea of salvation circumcision could be allowed if it was seen as serving another purpose.
Indeed its perpetuity is enjoined at the time of its institution. Then God said to Abraham, "He who is born in your house, and he who is bought with your money, must necessarily be circumcised, and my covenant will be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant" (Genesis 17.13). An everlasting covenant is one which continues as long as both parties to it continue to exist. This covenant was to be ‘everlasting’, because it was to continue as long as the descendants of Abraham and their households continued physically to exist. In the same way the covenant of Aaron's priestly dignity was everlasting, because it continued in Aaron's family as long as such a priesthood had an existence. Circumcision therefore did not depict the people of the Law, it depicted the physical descendants of Abraham, and those who been bought or adopted in, whether through Ishmael, Esau or Jacob. It was the sign for the future that they still existed and had not died out.
The covenant of circumcision must therefore be everlasting, because it was to continue as long as the flesh of Abraham was perpetuated, and that would be till the end of time, and thus circumcision will not cease, and cannot cease, until that time comes. We could argue, and Christian Jews did argue, that this conclusion that it indicated the physical descendants of Abraham cannot be set aside, unless we can find something in the nature of the Gospel which is inconsistent with it, or some express release of circumcised physical descendants of Abraham from obligation to it.
It is true that Paul says that, "Abraham received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while yet uncircumcised" (Romans 4.11). But what it was to Abraham, it never was to any other, for from the time that circumcision was instituted it was carried out on a male child of eight days old who could not possibly have any righteousness of faith while yet uncircumcised, of which circumcision could be the seal. The sign of circumcision, as applied to all his descendants, was rather Abraham’s reward for being righteous, in the indicating of the fact that his seed would never die out, whether Israelite, Edomite or Arab. It had nothing to do with the application of righteousness or the process of being accounted righteous, or of law-keeping.
That is why in Romans 4.10 Paul emphasises that Abraham was reckoned as righteous before he was circumcised. The two were not directly associated. Circumcision was not given at the time as a sign that he was accounted righteous, it was an evidence given long afterwards that he was seen as already approved, as accounted righteous. But that that was not its main significance, except in so far as his imputed righteousness had obtained the benefit of the promises for all generations, comes out in that it was applied to babes and that it was in future to be seen as indicating those who were physically descended from Abraham, or who were adopted permanently into the household of Abraham, and were thus included in the promise of becoming numerous and being permanent.
His righteousness arose because he believed God (Genesis 15.6). He was enjoying that, and the certainty of the promises that went with it, long before he was circumcised. And in fact circumcision was introduced for a different reason, it was introduced precisely so as to include Ishmael within the promises of continued physical descent. Thus his point in Romans is that we who become the children of Abraham by faith, enjoying the righteousness of God which is by faith which Abraham enjoyed, and entering into the promises to Abraham of worldwide blessing, do so without being circumcised, just as Abraham did, because we are not declaring our physical descent from Abraham.
He then goes on to add that it was by submitting themselves to the law as a way of obtaining righteousness that men put themselves under the wrath of God (4.15). But this submitting of themselves to the law as a way of righteousness did not take place at Sinai. At Sinai they submitted themselves to be obedient to God and keep His commandments as a response to a covenant that resulted from the grace of God. They responded to the grace of God their Saviour as revealed through the redemption of the Passover and the Red Sea, both gifts of God’s grace. They entered into grace. It was centuries after this that they would submit themselves to the law as a way of righteousness, when theologically they began to see the keeping of the law as the way by which they could obtain eternal life, and as the way by which they could become restored to the favour of God. This was when they invented Judaism.
We may thus see a number of steps in the progress of God’s people:
The Good News is that through Christ only 1, 3, 4c and 6 apply to the new Israel of God, because through His death and resurrection Christ has replaced 4a and b and demonstrated that 5 is invalid. Meanwhile 2 remains for those who are physical descendants of Abraham and his household. In so far as there are any benefits in the idea of circumcision, ideas which are not physical (the circumcision of tongue, eyes and heart), these apply to God’s people because they are circumcised in the circumcision of Christ (Colossians 2.11).
That circumcision was never seen as an initiatory rite comes out in that the refusal to be circumcised resulted in being cut off from among the people, precisely because that was an indication that the covenant had been broken. But someone who has not been initiated cannot be cut off. The point was rather that they were initiated into the covenant by birth, and circumcision was simply the outward sign to all men of the fact. Those therefore who refused to accept the outward sign were to be cut off from being seen as physical descendants of Abraham.
Furthermore had it been seen as an initiatory rite it would not have remained unperformed during the whole period in the wilderness. Many who died in the wilderness had never been circumcised. But this did not exclude them from Israel. It simply indicated that they did not carry the sign that they were Abraham’s ‘descendants’. This helps to bring out that the purpose of circumcision was in order to mark off Abraham’s ‘descendants’ (including those who were adopted) so as to keep them as distinct earthly peoples, and to enable the world to identify that they had not ceased, thus confirming that God had maintained His promise of continual seed to Abraham. While they were in the wilderness, so that circumcision could not be a sign to anyone, circumcision had not been required. But, as soon as they entered the populated land of Canaan, where there was a danger of intermingling, the separating mark was to be put on them, and that separating mark was circumcision on the eighth day’. It distinguished those who were in the physical community of Abraham.
Thus circumcision on the eighth day was continually to be seen as the outward sign of the continuation of Abraham’s physical seed, and not as a commitment to keep the Law. For the descendants of Ishmael and Edom made no such commitment. It was later Judaism that introduced this idea that circumcision was the sign of a commitment to keep the Law. Israel were not circumcised at Sinai at the time when they committed themselves to keeping the Law, because that covenant arose from the fact that they had been saved by the grace of God. Being saved by grace, keeping the law in response and circumcision were three separate issues.
When therefore we come to the New Testament this principle is maintained. Those who claim physical descent from Abraham (including descent through those who have been adopted by the tribes) are to be circumcised so as to indicate that God’s promises of seed to Abraham continue to be fulfilled. But his spiritual seed do not need to be circumcised. To them Paul says, "If you are circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing." Why? Because they are being circumcised for the wrong reason. They are being circumcised so as to bind themselves to become Jews so as to keep the Law. They are not accepting their own freedom as portrayed in the vision of Peter with respect to Cornelius. They are rejecting God’s way of grace. And that leads to disillusionment and not salvation.
It was right that the Apostles were circumcised. It was right that Paul was circumcised. And it was right that any of them should circumcise their children. It was thus right to circumcise Timothy, born of a Jewish mother. These circumcisions were all evidence of physical descendants of Abraham. But it would have been wrong to circumcise Titus. For him it would not have indicated physical descent from Abraham. The only purpose of it would have been so that it could be seen by Judaisers as requiring him to keep the whole Law, as signifying that he had become a proselyte. It would be giving circumcision the wrong significance.
It was this distinction that made James say to Paul, "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who believe, and they are all zealous of the law. And they are informed of you, that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they (the Jews) ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. Do this, therefore, that we say to you. We have four men which have a vow on them. Take them, and purify yourself with them, and pay their expenses, in order that they may shave their heads, and all may know that the things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself walk orderly, and keep the law" (Acts 21.20-24). This speech shows that James considered it slanderous to say that Paul taught the Jews among the Gentiles not to circumcise their children, and not to obey the law, and Paul's ready consent to the proposition made to him shows that he was ready to agree with James. Yet this occurred after he had written the letter to the Galatians, in which he says, "If you are circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing." There could not be clearer proof that this last remark was not intended for Jewish Christians.
Furthermore James himself, in the speech from which we have just quoted, makes a distinction, in reference to this rite, between the Jewish and the Gentile Christians. He says: "Concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written, having decided that they observe no such thing, save, only, that they keep themselves from idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication" (Acts 21.25). This remark refers to the decree issued by the Apostles from Jerusalem, which Paul was carrying with him at the time that he circumcised Timothy. It should be observed therefore that there never did arise among the disciples any difference of opinion as to the propriety of circumcising Jews. This was granted by all. The controversy had exclusive reference to the Gentiles, and the fact that the Judaisers (wrongly) based their plea for circumcising Gentiles on the continued validity of the rite among the Jews, confirms that all the disciples considered it should be continued among Jewish Christians. If Paul, in disputing with them, could have said, that, by the introduction of the Gospel, circumcision was abolished even among the Jews, he would have overturned at once the very foundation of their argument. But his argument would have found no acceptance. However, this fundamental assumption that Christian Jews should still be circumcised was admitted and acted on by Paul himself, and no one ever called it into question in the New Testament.
That certain Jews linked circumcision directly with the requirement to keep the Law, and then linked both with the requirements for salvation cannot be doubted. What can be questioned is whether any of the Apostles ever did once they had become Christians. And the answer is a clear ‘no’. They circumcised their children in order to indicate that they were physical descendants of Abraham. They followed the customs of the Jews because they were the customs of their fathers and indicated that they were Jews. But they never looked on either as a requirement for salvation. They recognised that salvation had come to them separately through Jesus Christ.
We can now therefore account for Paul's stern refusal to circumcise Titus. He had become a test case. The question being asked was not as to whether he was willing to become a recognised descendant of Abraham by adoption. The question was as to whether he could possibly be saved without it. The Judaisers were demanding of Titus what God had not demanded of Cornelius. They were demanding that all converts entered physical Israel. And indeed, had all Christians been circumcised, its distinctiveness as marking off the physical descendants of Abraham would have been lost.
Yet Paul does distinctly stress the need for Jewish Christians to continue to circumcise their children. He declares quite blatantly, "Is any man called being circumcised, let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision, let him not be circumcised." And it is immediately followed by these words: "Let every man abide in the calling in which he is called." So far, then, is this text from making it indifferent whether a Christian become circumcised or not, that it positively forbids those who had been in uncircumcision before they were called, to be circumcised, while it equally forbids the other party to render themselves uncircumcised, an expression which must mean to act as if they were uncircumcised by neglecting it in reference to their children. For to become literally uncircumcised was impossible. That circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision nothing, means, therefore, simply that it is indifferent to God from the point of view of salvation whether a man had been, before he was called, a Jew or a Gentile, but it is far from indicating that it is right for a Jew to neglect this rite, or for a Gentile to observe it.
And this is so because of the original purpose of circumcision, and that was that it would mark off all the physical descendants of Abraham, whether Ishmaelite, Edomite or Israelite, and those who physically aligned themselves with them, so as to evidence that God had not failed in His promise to Abraham of never ceasing physical seed. It was thus never intended to be an initiatory rite for all who would serve God. It was rather a mark of physical antecedents.
What then does ritual circumcision indicate? It indicates that a person is physically descended either from Abraham, or from those who were physically adopted into one of the Abrahamic tribes. It is a declaration of God’s faithfulness in preserving the physical seed of Abraham and his household.
Does this then mean that Israel and the church are totally separate? The answer to that question is ‘no’. What it means is that physical Israel is separate for it includes both Christians and non-Christians. It is a declaration of the continual existence of physical descendants from Abraham and his household. But that Christians are part of the true Israel, of God’s Israel, and that non-Christian Jews are not, is firmly declared in Romans 11.13-29; Ephesians 2.11-22; Galatians 3.29; 6.16; James 1.1; 1 Peter 1.1; 2.9; Revelation 21.10-27. It is believers who enjoy the blessings of Abraham. It is they who enjoy the permanent benefits of God’s revelation to Moses. It is they who enjoy the Messiah. But what they do not do is look to observance of the ordinances of the Law as the means by which they can become right with God or become acceptable to God. They recognise that circumcision as signifying any other than physical descent (Colossians 2.11), and the law of commandments contained in ordinances (as seen as replaced, for example, in the letter to the Hebrews), have all been fulfilled in Christ and are therefore no longer applicable. They recognise that they have entered into the grace of God. It is they therefore who are the true Israel, not Judaists.
End of EXCURSUS.
16.4 ‘And as they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep which had been ordained of the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.’
And as they went through the cities they passed on the details of the decisions made in Jerusalem, with Silas there to confirm them. This is in fact the only time that these are referred to as such. The issue of food offered to idols, which would always be offensive to Jews under any circumstances, Paul deals with elsewhere in more detail (e.g. 1 Corinthians 8) when he softens its application, and clearly idolatry and fornication were always forbidden. The question of strangulation of meat was a fellowship matter and simply never seems to have arisen as a problem. This would suggest that it was observed where it was felt necessary out of Christian consideration, as was right.
It should be noted that this was the advice of the enquiry sent to churches in areas very much involved with Jewish connections. It is actually nowhere said to be binding on all Christians. Thus among these churches its requirements were very necessary. It would be different among fellowships where Jewish Christians were rare, although we would always expect Christians to take into account people’s idiosyncrasies. It may well be because Paul did not want the advice to become a ‘decree’ that he never mentions it in his letters, even when the issues arise.
16.5 ‘So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily.’
This section now closes with the usual summary section. As a result of all these activities and decisions the churches were strengthened in the faith and continued daily to increase in numbers. The witness to the uttermost part of the earth was going well. It was shortly yet to expand further.
The Mission to Europe (16.6-19.20).
Paul’s plans now seemed to begin to go awry. All doors seemed to be closing to him as in one way or another he was first hindered from going one way, and then another. But unknown to him it was to be the commencement of the mission to Europe. Why then does Luke emphasise these negative responses? It was in order to underline that when the move to go forward did come it was decisively under God’s direction. He was saying, ‘the Spirit bade him go’.
We need not doubt that new Christians had already entered Europe, as converts at Pentecost and other feasts had returned to their home cities taking the Good News with them, and that Christian traders and travellers also spread the Good News, but as far as we know this was the first direct Spirit-impelled attempt to evangelise Europe as a whole. Europe, as it were, now lay within God’s sights. It was a prepared Europe, a Europe using one main language, Greek, with good main roads and an established system of justice. What it lacked was the truth.
Paul Is Guided By The Spirit to Europe And Arrives in Philippi (16.6-12).
16.6-8 ‘And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden of the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia, and when they were come over against Mysia, they made an attempt to go into Bithynia; and the Spirit of Jesus suffered them not, and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas.’
As they passed through ‘the region of Phrygia and Galatia’, presumably confirming churches he had previously visited, his intention of going to the province of Asia (and to Ephesus) was somehow hindered. It may have been as a result of prophecy, or because something got in the way. Then he decided to aim for Bithynia, and again he was prevented. Thus he moved on and came to Troas (an Aegean port a few miles from the site of ancient Troy), not sure what to do next.
‘The Spirit of Jesus.’ This phrase is only used here. It emphasises that Jesus has something especially in mind for Paul’s party in the fulfilment of His commission (1.8), something new and beyond the ordinary. Jesus was now in special and personal control of this party. Note the close linking of Jesus with the Holy Spirit. It is interesting to note that we have in the same context ‘forbidden of the Holy Spirit’, ‘the Spirit of Jesus suffered them not’, and ‘God had called us to preach the gospel to them.’ Three seen as acting as One. And all are united in ensuring that Paul now go to Europe.
‘The region of Phrygia and Galatia’. The two names are adjectival forms limiting ‘region’, only the first carrying the article. This probably therefore means ‘Galatian Phrygia’ in contrast to wider Phrygia, or ‘the Phrygian-Galatic region’ within the province of Galatia. It is doubtful whether it refers to the ethnic kingdom of Galatia. ‘Mysia’ was in north-west Asia Minor, and further north moving north-eastward around the Black Sea were the Black Sea ports of Bithynia. Paul was seeking to move northwards using the Roman roads. He was, however, somehow prevented and arrived in the Aegean port of Troas.
16.9 ‘And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: There was a man of Macedonia standing, beseeching him, and saying, “Come over into Macedonia, and help us.” ’
The hindrances were soon explained by a vision in the night. It was the vision of a Macedonian pleading for help for his people. Jesus now wanted Paul in Europe. He wanted him to have a larger vision, ‘to the uttermost part of the earth’.
If Luke was a Macedonian (he remained in Philippi when Paul and Silas left) it is perfectly conceivable that he had been urging Paul to evangelise Macedonia. We can then appreciate why Paul might have had a vision from God in which a Macedonian (Luke?) called on him to come and help Macedonia which would forcefully back up Luke’s original plea. If he saw Luke in vision it would also give fuller significance to the phrase, ‘a certain man of Macedonia’.
16.10 ‘And when he had seen the vision, straightway we sought to go forth into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.’
Paul was immediately responsive. This call explained the prohibitions that they had been facing, and was a clear message from God. So concluding that God had called him to proclaim the Good News to the Macedonians he prepared to embark.
We note at this point that the pronoun changes to ‘we’. It is apparent that Luke has joined the party, and feels himself an essential part of it. He was a physician and if the hindrances to Paul had been because of his health may well have ministered to Paul. He travelled with them to Philippi and went with them to the place of prayer, but seemingly remained in Philippi when they moved on, being still there when they returned and returning to Troas with them (20.5-6). From then on he remained with Paul on his journey to Jerusalem, and was again with him from Caesarea to Rome (27.1 - 28.16).
16.11-12a ‘Setting sail therefore from Troas, we made a straight course to Samothrace, and the day following to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a city of Macedonia, the first of the district, a Roman colony.’
The necessary voyage is now outlined for us, well remembered by the writer. Taking boat from Troas, they sailed for Samothrace, a high, rocky, forested island lying between Troas and Philippi, then on to Neapolis on the Aegean coast and from there inland the few miles to Philippi which was in Macedon. Philippi was important both agriculturally and as a source of gold, it had a strategic location on both sea and land routes, and possessed a famous school of medicine. It is pointed out that Philippi was a Roman colony, partly settled by retired legionnaires who were Roman citizens, and a prominent city in the area. Here at least as themselves Roman citizens they might have expected just treatment. It was not to be. Luke probably mentions that it is a Roman colony because ‘being Roman’ lies at the heart both of the accusation against Paul, and his final response.
‘Made a straight course (because the wind was favourable and behind them).’ The wind was with them, an indication that the Spirit was with them too. God’s pleasure was expressed in the wind. In contrast with all the delays it could only be seen as striking. Paul knew that he had got it right at last.
‘On to Neapolis.’ Who could have dreamed that when the ship moored at Neapolis and the gangplank was let down, the little bald-headed man with bow legs who came down it to stand on the soil of Europe for the first time was about to change the face of Europe. God’s triumphs are rarely trumpeted beforehand. This was not an Alexander. A greater than Alexander was here. Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.
‘The first of the district.’ Unless this means simply in one district, this may have been a touch of local pride, for Thessalonica was the provincial capital. But the writer may well have had in mind its fame and what it said about itself rather than its political distinction. Such claims to be ‘first’ among cities were typically Greek.
Ministry in Philippi From the House of Lydia (16.12b-40).
The arrival in Europe was clearly seen by Luke as very important. He illustrates the successful ministry there by a threefold description of Paul’s effectiveness which covers a wealthy businesswoman, a slave girl and a jail proprietor, three different grades in a multiple society. And two of these along with their households, included servants and slaves. The threefoldness stresses the completeness of the success of the ministry. They would form the solid nucleus of a small but multi-layered church grouping.
It was also seen as important by Satan. He first of all seeks to attack the new mission through the testimony of a spirit--possessed girl, and when that fails he raises persecution against Paul and Silas. But both attempts fail and as a result of his activity an important household is added to the church.
It may be asked why, when Paul usually (but not always) selects thriving cities where there are synagogues, he chose Philippi. The answer may well lie, firstly in Luke’s recommendation (Paul had never been in this area before), secondly in the fact that it was the nearest large city and therefore a good place to ‘test things out’ so as to ensure that God really was behind this venture into Europe, and thirdly, and certainly, because it was of God’s doing.
16.12b-13 ‘And we were in this city tarrying certain days. And on the sabbath day we went forth without the gate by a river side, where we supposed there was a place of prayer (or ‘prayer being offered’), and we sat down, and spoke to the women who were come together.’
There appear to have been no synagogues in Philippi, presumably due to the lack of the necessary ten adult male Jews who could form a synagogue, and on the Sabbath day Paul and his party, with the writer, made for the riverside where they would expect to find a place where the Jews met for prayer. This meeting at the riverside appears to have been the custom where there were insufficient males to form a synagogue (‘we supposed’), although the later Rabbinic requirement would simply be under the open sky. Psalm 137.1 may well have provided the impetus for the idea of meeting by rivers in foreign places, and such places were usually ‘without the gates’ and therefore undefiled.
They were correct in their surmise for they discovered there a group of women who came together regularly for formal Jewish prayer and the reading of the Scriptures. It is noticeable that even though it was the Sabbath no men are mentioned as present. It was a company of women. So sitting down with the women, and being recognised, possibly from their clothing, as being Jewish teachers, they began to teach them.
These women would be pleased to see a seemingly prominent Jewish teacher among them willing to come and teach them. Faithfully week after week, month after month, and even possibly year after year, they had met there, praying and reading the Scriptures, aware that no man came among them, and in their tiny women’s group looking off to God they must often have prayed for male support. They knew that they were in a large world, and were looked on as an irrelevance by all but God, but they kept on praying and believing. And now this man had come. It would seem to them as a brief ripple in the flow of time. And soon he would go and they would be left with the pleasant memory of what he had taught until the next one came, and the trouble was they came so rarely. How would this be different from any other time? But what they did not realise was that this one had brought ‘the Name’. He had brought Jesus Christ among them, the One Who would never leave them or forsake them. That was why it would be different.
‘We sat down.’ Who would have believed in former days that Saul of Tarsus, whose daily prayer as a Pharisee had been, ‘I thank God that you have not made me a Gentile, or a slave, or a woman’ would have come to join such a woman’s meeting, in which only women were present and a God-fearing Gentile woman was prominent along with her women slaves. But it was different now, for God had so changed his life that he saw it, not as ignominious, but as a glorious opportunity. He had already learned that God used what was weak to confound the mighty.
So there in that quiet place by the riverside there met that small group of women, and that once proud Pharisee with his followers, and together they launched the official work of Christ in Europe. None among them, except perhaps Paul, could have dreamed that they were just about to become the vanguard of the greatest spiritual movement that Europe had ever known. Big oaks from little acornesses grow.
16.14 ‘And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple of the city of Thyatira, one who worshipped God, heard us, whose heart the Lord opened to give heed to the things which were spoken by Paul.’
Among those who listened was Lydia, a dealer in purple dyes and dyed cloth from Thyatira, that centre of syncretistic religion (compare Revelation 2.20), who had a house in Philippi, and who was a true ‘worshipper of God’, a ‘God-fearer’. And her heart was opened by God to Paul’s words and she drank them in and in her innermost soul she responded fully, knowing that this was what she had waited for, for so long.
16.15 ‘And when she was baptised, and her household, she besought us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there.” And she constrained us.’
‘And when she was baptised.’ From the very beginning there had never been any doubt that she would be. Her every look and response had revealed it.
She was clearly well-to-do, as her trade suggested, and having a number of servants and slaves, who no doubt joined with her at the place of prayer, she and her household were baptised, possibly that very day in the river by which they had prayed so often. Then she begged him and his party, if he was satisfied with the genuineness of her faith, to come to her house as honoured guests to stay there while they were in Philippi. Hospitality was a regular feature of ancient life for inns were not abundant, and were often only rough and ready. It was not therefore unusual for well-chaperoned wealthy woman to offer hospitality. He yielded to her persuasion. No doubt he remembered the Lord’s words concerning searching out those who were worthy (Matthew 10.11). And thus for the remainder of their time in Philippi they stayed at the house of Lydia (verse 40).
And unknown to her shortly would come through her doors a gnarled and middle-aged retired Roman centurion, the Philippian jailer, together with his household, and after him many another, both freedmen and slaves. She did not know it but her quiet life now was at an end, for her dreams were coming to fruition. Here were the beginnings of that flourishing church which would later receive from Paul his ‘Letter to the Philippians’.
Attempts are often made to connect her with people mentioned in that letter, (e.g Euodia or Syntyche (Philippians 4.2), or even the ‘true-yokefellow’ of Philippians 4.3), but none with any sound foundation. By the time of the letter the church had expanded greatly, and she would be that much older, and even possibly dead. But her most important work had already been done, and none could take it away from her.
The Healing of the Girl Possessed With The Python Spirit (16.16-18).
But Paul could not land in Europe in the power of the Holy Spirit without expecting opposition. Following Luke’s usual necessary pattern (necessary because this is how Satan constantly works) things could not continue to go on quite so smoothly. At some stage the emissaries of Satan had to arrive. And this time it would be in the form of a poor spirit-possessed girl.
16.16 ‘And it came about that, as we were going to the place of prayer, a certain maid having a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much gain by the giving of oracles.’
We may assume here that some weeks had passed, with the ministry continuing by the riverside, and no doubt steadily growing. And then one week they were met by a woman possessed by a ‘divining spirit’, literally the ‘Python spirit’. The Python was a mythical serpent who was said to have guarded the Delphian oracle and to have been slain by Apollo, and the name had come to be used of those through whom the spirit of Apollo was supposed to speak. Such people generally spoke with the mouth closed, uttering words completely out of their control and were known as ‘ventriloquists’. This ‘gift’ resulted in her bringing much gain to her masters by her fortune-telling. She was one of many people who were seen as having contact with the gods and as being able to foresee the future.
No doubt she was fairly well known, and feared. Here was one who was a portal to the unseen world. Thus when she began to follow Paul and his companions about many would take notice. And they would know that these men whom she was following were Jews. Thus when she began to cry out they would probably interpret it in that light.
‘The giving of oracles.’ A word only here in the New Testament and referring to demonically inspired oracular utterances.
16.17 ‘The same following after Paul and us cried out, saying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” ’
The spirit within this woman recognised in the Pauline party messengers of the true God. From such they could not be hidden. It was probably also deeply concerned that they should be here and wanted to give a warning to the people. The result was that it caused her to follow them and begin to shout after them, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”
The description was probably intended to be detrimental, and to be a warning to the people of Philippi. ‘The Most High God’ was a title used of the God of Israel by foreigners (Daniel 3.26; 5.18, 21; Genesis 14.18-22), and the spirit was warning the people that these Jews, the servants of the Most High God, had come claiming to bring them a way of salvation, a way that was best avoided. There were few Jews in Philippi (no synagogue), possibly because it was known to be antagonistic towards Jews. Let them then beware of these Jews. It spoke a form of truth but its intention was to deceive men into rejecting s ‘Jewish salvation’.
Others, however, see this as an attempt by Satan to ally himself with the Gospel with the aim of destroying it by later introducing error. If the Gospel could be linked with the spirit of Apollo it could become just another aspect of idol worship, with Jesus linked with the Python spirit. We see similar attempts in spiritualism today to distort the truth about Christ by making Him simply another spirit.
As regularly in the Gospels, we see here that evil spirits were aware of the presence of Christ. They could not help but testify of Him and His saving power, for they feared Him. But they did not do so in a friendly way. It was always in fear and antagonism. Thus here it was probably intending by its words to express a warning concerning something that it saw as wholly detrimental. ‘Be careful,’ it was saying, ‘ or these men will save you by a Jewish salvation,’ and this in what was clearly an anti-Semitic city. Not wanting to have anything to do with Jesus itself, it assumed that no sensible man would want to either.
‘The Most High God’. This was a title used by evil spirits of God in Mark 5.7, in the Psalms of God as exalted in Israel (Psalm 78.56) and was a title by which the God of Israel was known to Gentiles (Daniel 3.26; 5.18, 21; Genesis 14.18-22; Hebrews 7.1). It could be used as a title of fear, of worship and as a designation for the One God Whom the Jews claimed to worship. It could, however, be used as a title of Zeus, and of other gods. It was therefore an enigmatic title. Thus different hearers would interpret it in different ways. But the spirit probably intended by it a hated name.
16.18a ‘And this she did for many days.’
The party may not have been too aware of it at first. If the streets were noisy and busy they may not have taken too much notice of what she cried and thought of her as just some poor mad girl, seeing it wise to ignore her. It would not be the first time they had been yelled at. There were many strange people about. And as her mouth never moved they might have found it difficult to identify where the cries were coming from. It was just the kind of thing that a heckler might yell. It was best ignored.
16.18b ‘But Paul, being sore troubled, turned and said to the spirit, “I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.’
But at some stage Paul became distressed at her activity, and it took a lot to upset Paul. It may be that it had come to his notice that people were saying things and that it was getting them a bad reputation. Lydia may have mentioned that the girl was well known and have gathered from comments that she was hindering the ministry. Or it may be that he had gradually identified the source of the cries, and from being used to them had come to a point of feeling sorry for her, and upset at her condition. Or it may be that God brought home to him the power of evil at work through the girl. It is not really likely that he was just annoyed because he was exasperated. Something deeper than that is called for here, something sufficient to make him decide to confront this spirit. It is the first time we actually learn of him seeking to cast out an evil spirit, and while it had no doubt happened (compare the signs and wonders of 14.3; 15.12. But there they ‘laid hands on’ people and spirits were never dealt with in that way) it was not something he was constantly used to. But now he felt impelled, and turning, ordered the spirit to come out of her.
Once he did really become aware of the details of the situation, he would recognise that he must enable all to see that this spirit was indeed contrary to Jesus and His ways. He could not allow anyone to be in doubt that this spirit must not be seen as having Jesus’ approval in any way, and could not even be accepted as being a rival or as having a parallel ministry. It had to be made clear once and for all that this spirit, and all like it, were in total contrast with Jesus. Thus he cast it out in the Name of Jesus Christ, thus stressing the total opposition of the One to the other, and revealing that Jesus was more powerful than Apollo.
So in the end Paul turned to the spirit and charged it in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of the woman. And to everyone’s astonishment the spirit came out and she was made whole. They had never experienced anything like it before, not with a girl empowered by the Python. Thus here in Philippi the power of the name of Jesus Christ was seen to be as effective as in Galilee and Judaea in the subjugation of evil spirits. They were just as much subject to Him in Europe as in Palestine. One blessing would come from this among many. We need not doubt that here was another candidate for the infant church in Philippi.
Arrest and Imprisonment Lead To Additions To The Church In Philippi (16.19-34).
But the problem was that what he had done would hit at men’s pockets. They did not care about the girl herself, they had not cared that she was making a nuisance of herself, they were not too concerned about what it meant to the gods, but they were concerned about one thing , and that was Mammon. What had happened would lose them a great deal of money and the result was that they were angry. They were a picture of the greed and lack of compassion of people over things that concerned themselves.
16.19 ‘But when her masters saw that the hope of their gain was gone, they laid hold on Paul and Silas, and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers,’
Her masters, who were no doubt already wealthy and influential, were angry when they realised that the source of their profits had been removed, and they had Paul and Silas dragged into the market place before the authorities, the ‘archontes’, the chief men. The marketplace was often the place where justice was carried out, because the marketplace was the focal point in any city. Archaeological discoveries in ancient Philippi may in fact well have unearthed this very ‘place of justice’.
16.20-21 ‘And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city, and set forth customs which it is not lawful for us to receive, or to observe, being Romans.” ’
This being a Roman colony the men before whom they were brought are correctly called the strategoi (Latin - praetores), the two chief magistrates. The charge being brought was that these Jews were forcing their beliefs and customs on those who were Romans, and thereby causing trouble in the city, subverting Romans and disturbing the Pax Romana.
This was in fact a turbulent time for Rome in dealings with the Jews. In 41 AD the Emperor Claudius had written a threatening letter to the Alexandrians, saying he would take measures against Jews who were "stirring up a universal plague throughout the world". In 44 AD there had been a number of public disturbances in Palestine in the wake of Herod Agrippa I's death, and Palestine was constantly a hotbed of trouble. In A.D. 49 Claudius expelled Jews from Rome because of public disturbances in the Jewish community at the instigation of "Chrestus" (Suetonius Claudius 25.4). And these were no doubt not the only examples. Thus a charge against troublesome Jews would be listened to.
What noble men these accusers were! All they cared about was that Rome was being undermined, and Romans led astray. But in fact the truth is that they were liars, as all men are, using religion and patriotism to hide their main concern. Until the girl had been healed they had not cared a jot about the activities of these men. Their real cause for concern was the loss of profit they had suffered, and their aim was rather more to stir up the people against Paul and Silas in order to gain revenge. They were simply angry because they had lost the source of their profits and they wanted to take it out on these men.
The irony of the situation is that it was they who were the more in breach of Caesar’s desires. The Emperors Augustus and Tiberius had been very sensitive about the activities of astrologers and other prognosticators and had issued decrees forbidding predictions and enquiries affecting the affairs of state or the emperor's personal well being.While not all of that kind of activity had been banned, it clearly came under Imperial diapproval (Dio Cassius Roman History 56.25.5-6; 57.15.8; Tacitus Annals 6.20; 12.52).
16.22 ‘And the multitude rose up together against them, and the magistrates tore their clothes off them, and commanded to beat them with rods.’
These men clearly took pains to incite the crowds in the market place, who responded to the charge and expressed their disapproval of ‘these Jews’. The danger of an uproar probably persuaded the magistrates to act. They therefore had them stripped and beaten with rods. This would be done by the ‘lictors’ (a kind of police who were the magistrates’ assistants). It was a high-handed treatment quite regularly meted out to ordinary people ‘in trouble with the law’ whether they were innocent or not. It was looked on with careless unconcern as a salutary reminder to them that they must treat the law, together with the courts and their deliberations, seriously. It would also help to settle the crowds. Justice could be sorted out later. Roman citizens were in fact exempt from it, but no one would listen to any protests while tempers were so enflamed (Cicero gives an account of a similar case of a Roman citizen who was beaten while all ignored his claims).
Roman justice was undoubtedly better than most other systems, (that was why they were eventually released), but it still left a lot to be desired.
16.23-24 ‘And when they had laid many stripes on them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely, who, having received such a charge, cast them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.’
The beating that they were given was not a mild one (‘many stripes’) and then, in view of the serious nature of the charge, that they had been seeking to lead Romans astray from their worship of Roma and of the other gods of Rome, they cast them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them safely. They had to be seen as taking such a charge seriously. Being a Jew was not illegal, but trying to turn Romans from the worship of Roma and the emperor was. They dared not ignore such a charge.
The prison would probably be a specially adapted private residence. Many prisons in those days were private enterprises, and the jailers, who owned the prisons, were often ex-soldiers. They were paid by the authorities to look after prisoners for the state, and were held fully and personally responsible for the secure holding of any such prisoners. It may well have been only for temporary prisoners to be kept in while awaiting charge and only have held a few prisoners.
Recognising the seriousness of the charge, the jailer was so concerned to keep them safe that he set their feet in stocks in the ‘inner prison’. This was probably a strongly built underground room in his prison house. But while intent on keeping them safe he was not so concerned to attend to their wounds. They were just another two troublemakers. He was a hard man who had lived a hard life, a man whom nothing could move, and he was used to injury and blood. No doubt they would survive, he would think causally. Prisoners usually did.
16.25-26 ‘But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison-house were shaken, and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed.’
However, being deprived of their opportunity of worship at the riverside, Paul and Silas, in spite of the pain that they must have been suffering, took the opportunity provided by their situation to pray, that is, to worship, and to sing hymns to God, probably mainly in Greek, but also possibly in Hebrew. And it seems that many prisoners listened interestedly to what they said and sang. This last is Luke’s way of indicating that the word was still being effective, even in that prison cell.
That prison had witnessed cursings and imprecations, it had witnessed groanings and cries, it had witnessed pleadings and grovellings. But it had never witnessed anything like this. No prison could hold men who behaved in this way, and suddenly there was a great earthquake which shook the prison house to its foundations. All would recognise that it must be the result of their God Who was responding to His servants. The doors were broken open, and the chains which were fastened to the floors and walls became loosened. The point being stressed here was that God had stepped in and that Paul and Silas had been miraculously made free in response to prayer. The lesson was that no one could hold the servants of God, unless He allowed it. But it was a demonstration rather than a jail break, for they made no attempt to escape. It is in complete contrast with previous description of ‘jail breaks’ where those who were freed were led out (5.19; 12.7-10).
The doors would only be held by wooden bars so that the movement of the ground causing the doorposts to widen would necessarily release the bars, with the result that the trembling would force the doors open. The cracking of the walls would ensure the release of the chains which were attached to them. In one sense there was no miracle. It was simply a natural catastrophe. It was all in the timing.
Yet the prisoners did not escape. This confirms both the reality of the earthquake, which left conditions such that escape was not so simple as it sounded, and the condition which it left the building in, which clearly made escape difficult, especially in pitch darkness. Furthermore while they may no longer have been fastened to the walls and floors of the prison, the prisoners would still be handicapped by chains and fearful of any guards who would show no mercy to escaping prisoners, and none knew where the guards were or whether there would be another quake. It was safer to remain where they were until morning came. The prison had withstood the shock well and appeared safe enough.
16.27 ‘And the jailor, being roused out of sleep and seeing the prison doors open, drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.’
The jailer, aroused by the earthquake, came from his room (his family living quarters would be a part of the prison), and no doubt carrying a small lamp, went down into the prison, and taking one look at the conditions caused by the earthquake, and fearing the worst, decided that there was only one thing to do. It appeared to him that he must have lost all his prisoners, and that he would be publicly disgraced and probably himself be put to death in a most painful way. A jailer who allowed prisoners to escape was subjected to the penalty that they were due to receive. He did not stop to consider the niceties of the law, or whther he would be held responsible for an ‘act of God’. Suicide was better than the future that he saw ahead of him. He drew his short sword and prepared to plunge it into himself.
16.28 ‘But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.” ’
Paul, seeing him in the light of his glowing lamp, recognised his intention and yelled to him not to harm himself as all the prisoners were still safe. Those that were there were possibly traumatised and sheltering from falling masonry, and, hindered by their manacles, unable to find a way to climb out of the dungeon, or even afraid to do so, and they may only have been but few.
The jailer would undoubtedly be astonished that this man sought to save his life. He had known such care and concern from comrades-in-arms but never from a prisoner whom he had treated so brutally. Here were these men who had caused these strange occurrences and instead of cursing him and bringing down maledictions on him they were concerned to save his life. It was all very strange. Indeed it was uncanny.
16.29-30 ‘And he called for lights and sprang in, and, trembling for fear, fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out and said, “Sirs (lords), what must I do to be saved?” ’
The jailer immediately called for lights (and thereby assistance) and it seemingly came home to him that the earthquake must have been the result of these two men and their prayers. He would know that they were there on a charge of having by some supernatural power cast out an evil spirit who had declared them to be servants of the Most High God, and their worshipping and singing would have further affected him (especially if some of it was in Hebrew). He probably wished that they were elsewhere, but his ruined prison proved otherwise. And being fearful at what must be the power and awesomeness of their God, he recognised the danger that this fact placed him in. Falling before them he asked what he must do to be saved from the anger of this mighty God.
Contrary to some commentators this could hardly simply mean saved from the consequences of what had happened to the prison. That was all clearly in hand. What he was concerned about went deeper. His question was as to how he could be spared from the wrath of this Most High God whom Paul and Silas worshipped and clearly influenced. If they could destroy a prison with their incantations, what could they not do to him? But Paul had already demonstrated good will towards him. Perhaps then they would arrange for him to be spared. It was clear from what had happened that this powerful God was able to save His own servants. There must be some way by which he could be persuaded to spare him too.
‘Sirs/lords.’ He probably intended a little more than ‘sirs’. He recongised that the men had contact with the gods. They were important emissaries who could speak to him authoritatively from the gods.
16.31 ‘And they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your house.” ’
The reply came back immediately. Paul and Silas declared to him that the way in which both he and his house could be saved was by response to ‘the Lord, even Jesus’. That was the ‘Lord’ he should look to. Only in Jesus, ‘the Lord’ (which would be recognised by a Gentile as denoting someone who was divine), was there safety, security and salvation. Note that the saving of all depended on the belief of each. This is speaking of those of an age to respond. All who believe will be saved (compare 11.14; 16.15; 18.8; 1 Corinthians 1.16; 16.15). In those days it would be normal for the household to follow the lead of its head, and we must remember that this was a time of especially powerful working of the Holy Spirit.
In Roman 10.9 Paul declares, if you will confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved’. For that is the essence of what is necessary for salvation. It is the same message as here. A recognition of the Lordship of Christ, and the fact that as the risen Lord He can save. This is not a question of whether we see Jesus ‘as Saviour or as Lord’ as though there was an alternative. We are not talking here about our petty responses and attitudes. We are talking about a recognition of the One with Whom we are dealing. Salvation is by faith, and it is only as we see Him as the Lord with power to save that we will respond for salvation. We may then leave to Him both the saving and the exertion of His Lordship. If we have truly responded He will bring about both. If He leaves us still in our chains we need to ask what we wanted from salvation. If we want it simply as a fire insurance we need to read the fine print.
16.32 ‘And they spoke the word of the Lord to him, with all that were in his house.’
They then proceeded to speak ‘the word of the Lord’ (8.25; 13.48-49; 15.35-36; 19.10) to all who were in the house, providing full teaching, no doubt including both the cross, the resurrection and enthronement, on which they could base their belief. Chronologically this presumably mainly follows verse 33, although it may have begun at once.
16.33 ‘And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes, and was baptised, he and all his, immediately.’
Meanwhile the jailer had taken them immediately from the prison and washed their wounds. He was a changed man. We are probably to see that he did the washing himself. Unbeknown to him he was following in the footsteps of a Greater than he (John 13.1-5). This would presumably be done at a well in the courtyard of the house, and having heard more of ‘the word’ he and all his family and servants were baptised. ‘Immediately’ means that there was no delay. It does not mean that they were not instructed first.
16.34 ‘And he brought them up into his house, and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, with all his house, having believed in God.’
Furthermore he also brought them into the part of the prison building which was his home, and set food before them. And he and all his house were rejoicing greatly ( a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit. This work was genuine) because they had believed in God.
We see here that the jailer was already a new creation (2 Corinthians 5.17). Never before had he bathed prisoners wounds, fed them at his table, and rejoiced greatly in God. He was a new man. And many a prisoner in the future would have cause to rejoice in it. As another has said, ‘I care not a jot for that man’s religion whose very dog and cat are not the better for it’. His prison would never treat people in the same way again.
16.35 ‘But when it was day, the magistrates sent the lictors, saying, “Let those men go.” ’
Next day the lictors were sent by the magistrates with instructions that the two might go free. It was no doubt recognised that the case having been looked into it was seen as questionable, even frivolous, and they presumably felt that the lesson had probably been learned. The men were free to go.
16.36 ‘And the jailor reported the words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Now therefore come forth, and go in peace.” ’
The jailer was no doubt delighted to learn this and reported the situation to Paul probably expecting that he too would be delighted.
16.37 ‘But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Romans, and have cast us into prison; and do they now cast us out privily? No, truly, but let them come themselves and bring us out.” ’
But Paul felt it necessary to stand his ground. They had, as Roman citizens, been illegally beaten, and made a public disgrace. If they departed like that the disgrace would still attach to the local church. This must now be put right for the sake of Lydia and the other believers. It should be noted that the charge against them included the fact that they had behaved badly towards Romans. Paul therefore wants it publicly known that they too were Romans, which makes the charge look foolish. This was the first time that charges had been brought against him by men claiming to be Romans which may explain his first use of the defence. It removed from the situation any suggestion of either him or the church being anti-Roman.
So he insisted that the magistrates themselves be made aware of the situation and themselves come to bring them out. Their imprisonment taken place publicly. Their release as innocent must be equally made public.
This emphasis on the fact that once the activities of Christians were properly considered they were constantly cleared of all charges of misconduct is one of the themes of Luke, partly, of course, because it was true.
16.38-39 ‘And the lictors reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Romans, and they came and besought them, and when they had brought them out, they asked them to go away from the city.’
When the magistrates learned that Paul and Silas were Romans they were afraid. They recognised that they also could now be accused of acting against Roman law. Thus they came and sought to make all right between them, publicly arranged their release and then asked them to leave Philippi. The last was presumably in order to prevent further actions by the mob so that good order might be maintained and Romans not be assaulted. They were not forbidden to return. The main concern was for law and order.
We do not know full details of the rights of Roman citizenship, but they certainly included protection for them from treatment meted out quite happily to lesser people. Presumably a Roman citizen carried with him some kind of certificate in order to prove his status. On the other hand, as all knew, an appeal to Caesar was not necessarily to the advantage of the appellant, thus the observation of the rules was probably mainly caused rather by consent and a theoretical fear of what could happen if such a citizen did appeal to Caesar. Other cases of Roman citizens having been illegally beaten are known, and disapproved of, but with no apparent central action having been taken.
16.40 ‘And they went out of the prison, and entered into the house of Lydia: and when they had seen the brethren, they comforted them, and departed.’
But the agreement to leave was amicable. They were not escorted from the city. Thus they returned to Lydia’s house, gathered the believers together to say farewell, exhorted and encouraged them, and then left Philippi with honour intact, probably leaving Luke behind to aid in the nurturing of the young church (the ‘we’ section ceases). Luke would not carry stigma in Philippi as ‘a Jew’.
‘The brethren (the brothers and sisters).’ We have here the suggestion of a nucleus of believers who now formed a church. The three highlighted conversions, together with households, were not the only conversions in Philippi. The word of God had continued to prevail.
The deep love that these disciples had for Paul comes out in Philippians 4.15-16. Their love, and practical demonstration of it in sending him constant material support, made them stand out from all the other churches.
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