Chapter 14: An important letter
14 ‘Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: 16 “After this I will return And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, And I will set it up; 17 So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, Says the Lord who does all these things.” 18 Known to God from eternity are all His works.
19 ‘Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.’
22 Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren. 23 They wrote this letter by them: The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, ‘You must be circumcised and keep the law’—to whom we gave no such commandment—25 it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.
30 So when they were sent off, they came to Antioch; and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter. 31 When they had read it, they rejoiced over its encouragement. 32 Now Judas and Silas, themselves being prophets also, exhorted and strengthened the brethren with many words. 33 And after they had stayed there for a time, they were sent back with greetings from the brethren to the apostles. 34 However, it seemed good to Silas to remain there. 35 Paul and Barnabas also remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
James sums it all up: experience based on Scripture
James now wishes to summarise the issues and the inputs, and take all along with him in the unity which the Holy Spirit gives those who trust in His word. He is not a man arguing for his own opinions: he is seeking to crystallise what is clearly God’s will for them. As an apostle among apostles, God has gifted him for this challenging task.
His approach is simple and reflects the points made in the discussions. God has clearly called Gentiles to repent and trust in Jesus for forgiveness and eternal life. Simon Peter, also an apostle with God’s authority, has already confirmed that. Barnabas and Paul, another apostle, have underlined that they have found that so as well. James makes it clear that this is entirely consistent with the Old Testament scriptures, and quotes from Amos 9:11–12 as an example. He could have quoted from other parts of the Old Testament to make the same point. He does not need to since it is common knowledge to Jewish Christians that God has said He will save Gentiles. Here is one example of that truth: ‘“from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles … For My name shall be great among the nations,” Says the Lord of hosts’.1 As the best known Bible verse says, ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved’.2 Consider the word ‘world’ (used four times) and the all-embracing ‘whoever’. God loves His earthly people, the Jews, and wants them to be saved. But He loves Gentiles too and saves anyone and everyone ‘who calls on the name of the Lord’.3 James emphasises that all this has been in God’s mind ‘from eternity’.
The decision is made
Proceeding from this wonderful truth that God’s saving love is to be made available to all sinners, everywhere, James comes to His Spirit-led judgment. There are two parts to it. First, he insists that no requirements for salvation should be laid on Gentiles other than what God has decreed simply in the gospel. Jesus Himself, in His first words of public ministry in Mark’s gospel, could not have made it simpler: ‘Repent and believe in the gospel’.4 To be saved eternally from God’s eternal judgment on your sins, you simply need to turn, humbly but definitely, from them and, trusting that Jesus has paid for them by His death in your place, ask Him to enter your life as your personal Saviour and Lord.
The second part of James’s judgment shows that Christians should be concerned not to offend the consciences of others unnecessarily. Some Jews who have trusted Christ have not yet realised how free they really are. In good conscience—not in rebellion—they continue also with some Jewish pre-conversion practices which are not wrong in themselves, but which can never save a sinner from sin and Hell or contribute towards them being saved. For the sake of the consciences of those Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ the Gentile Christians are urged to avoid those practices which would offend them. They should not be involved with things associated with idolatry, or with eating meat from strangled animals, or with consuming blood, or with ‘sexual immorality’. Sexual sin must be avoided anyhow, both inside and outside the marriage relationship.5 James probably has in mind more than the obvious prohibition to all people everywhere not to act immorally sexually. He wants them to flee temptation by avoiding the undesirable kind of gatherings which can easily turn into the sex orgies abounding at the time he speaks. He also wants them to resist immorality in the mind, remembering that Jesus said ‘whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart’. He wants them to be holy examples to all believers. Jews and Gentiles must be holy.6
Christians today can learn from James. Consider carefully the consciences of others in exercising personal freedom. Avoid idolatry at every level. Don’t let what you eat or drink stumble another person with a weaker conscience. Resist immorality in action, in thought, and in obvious association. Be holy. Encourage holiness in others. It’s good advice!
Signed, sealed and to be delivered
God is amazingly at work in the immediate and gracious unity that follows. Everyone agrees. Apostles, elders, and the ‘whole church’ are behind James, because God is in control. When Christians are one-minded in putting their Lord first, God’s truth becomes clearer to them, unity follows and fellowship deepens. Here we see how true are the words of Jesus: ‘If anyone wants to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine’.7 Obedience is more important than intellect in knowing and doing God’s will.
Two of the Council’s ‘leading men’, Judas (also called Barsabas) and Silas, are chosen to go with Paul and Barnabas to deliver a letter from the apostles, elders and church to their Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. It has not escaped the apostles’ notice that Paul and Barnabas ‘have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Those whose lifestyle is one of sacrificial service, rather than personal comfort and convenient respectability, seem to be more influential when they speak with individuals about Christ or preach the gospel to larger numbers.
The letter first greets the Gentile Christians. It outlines the problem addressed that some are wrongly teaching the necessity of being circumcised and keeping the law to be saved. It reveals that the Christian Jerusalem Council has met together and is ‘of one accord’. The Council now sends Judas and Silas with Paul and Barnabas to report by word of mouth what they have discussed. Sometimes a letter helps communication and clarification, but it is not enough in circumstances like these. Personal contact is better. The letter however makes clear the two points that James summarised earlier. First, no requirements are laid upon Gentiles to be saved other than those which have already brought them to Christ. Second, they should abstain from the four things already detailed. No doubt the four men will clarify personally that repentance and faith in Christ alone are needed for a sinner to be saved. They will explain that the reason for abstaining from the four things mentioned earlier is to avoid causing unnecessary offence to some Jewish believers, and to promote holiness.
Off to Antioch
Paul, Barnabas, Judas and Silas deliver the letter to a ‘multitude’ at Antioch in Syria. They rejoice that it is so encouraging. Encouraging letters do help people. Judas and Silas are prophets and exhort and strengthen the Antioch Christians. They must have ministered a number of times. Their hearers are blessed through their ‘many words’. They stay there for some time before being told to go home to Jerusalem with the Antioch Christians’ greetings to the apostles. A sign of real conversion to Christ is the desire to both read God’s word and hear it faithfully preached and taught, and also to develop links of fellowship with other Christians miles away.
Silas, however, decides to remain in Antioch. So do Paul and Barnabas. They continue teaching God’s word and preaching the gospel, ‘with many others also’. No doubt the example of both sets of men, Judas and Silas from Jerusalem and the team of Paul and Barnabas, encourages others to make Christ known and to search and share the truth of God’s word. Christianity was never intended to be simply a ‘spectator sport’ but to produce disciples to bring others to the Lord Jesus and teach them to follow Him in dedicated discipleship. How encouraging for the often persecuted Paul and Barnabas that ‘many others’ are now doing that.
If you know Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, you will find it a great blessing and privilege to share His truth with others in wholehearted devotion to Christ and His gospel, as God gifts, strengthens and helps you.
Questions on Chapter 14
Acts 15:14–35 An important letter
A. In his summary of the discussion, how does James link the Scripture with what has been experienced by Peter? Why does James not mention Paul and Barnabas in his summary? How important is it to make sure that experience is based on the truths of the Bible, and why?
Acts 15:13–16, 2 Timothy 3:16–17, Romans 16:26, 1 Corinthians 15:3–12
B. What are the main points covered either by James’s summary of the discussion of the Jerusalem Council or by the letter to be sent to the Gentiles, or both? Why are those points important?
Acts 15:19–21, Acts 15:23–29
C. Describe the teaching ministry of Judas, Silas, Paul and Barnabas. Why is this so helpful to the Christians at Antioch and what does it achieve?
Acts 15:32–35, Matthew 28:19–20, Acts 5:42, Acts 28:31, Colossians 1:28, 2 Timothy 4:2
- Malachi 1:11 ↩
- John 3:16 ↩
- Acts 2:21, Romans 10:13 ↩
- Mark 1:15 ↩
- Galatians 5:19 forbids both adultery (sexual unfaithfulness involving at least one married person) and fornication (sexual immorality involving married or unmarried people). All adultery is also fornication. Not all fornication is adultery. ↩
- Matthew 5:28, 1 Corinthians 6:18–20 ↩
- John 7:17 ↩