Acts 15 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Council's Letter
James's assessment and proposal carry the day not only with the leaders but with the whole church. The Judaizers lose the argument, though their influence may continue (compare 21:20-25). The council decides to send a letter and personal envoys to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. Judas (called Barsabbas) is possibly the brother of Joseph Barsabbas (1:23), though the patronymic Barsabbas ( son of Sabba, Seba or sabbath) was common. Silas, the diminutive of Saul (little wolf), later becomes a traveling companion of Paul (Lake and Cadbury 1979:179; compare 15:40). Both are leaders, prophets (v. 32) and possibly representatives of the Hebraic Jewish and Hellenistic Jewish wings of the church, respectively. They will carry the letter (not write it; contrast Campbell 1988:509) and verify the council's decision in person.
The letter's very address shows a balance between unity in Christ and respect for diverse cultural identities. The apostles and elders, your brothers, address Christian brothers and sisters, recognizing their ethnic identity: To the Gentile believers, literally, "to the brothers from among the Gentiles."
The body of the letter communicates in essence the decisions on the two key issues: the spiritual status of uncircumcised Gentiles who have joined the church and regulations for their table fellowship with Jewish Christians (vv. 24-27, 28-29). The council does not address the first issue directly. It indicates its position through a disassociation from the Judaizers and an identification with and commendation of Paul and Barnabas. It describes in the strongest terms the disturbing effects of the Judaizers (compare Gal 1:7; 5:10). Troubling your minds is quite literally "a ravaging of your souls," as destructive as an army's devastation of enemy territory (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 14.406). In blunt terms the council disowns their mission and message, saying that these went out from us without our authorization.
By contrast, Paul and Barnabas are owned as our (esteemed) dear friends (literally, "beloved ones"; compare Rom 16:5; Jas 1:16; 1 Pet 2:11) and commended as those who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. This commendation does not refer to their total commitment to Christ (contra Bruce 1990:345). Rather, it points to the literal hazarding of their lives (contrast the Judaizers--Gal 6:11-13).
The council handles the second issue through a Spirit-inspired apostolic decree (Acts 15:29). The rationale in verse 21, the presence everywhere of Jews with scruples in these matters, indicates the circumstances in which this responsibility or burden must be met. It is normative practical wisdom, applicable as a matter of courtesy and Christian love whenever fellowship with Jewish Christians with scruples should warrant. Abstaining from sexual immorality as an ethical norm, however, is universally applied.
The decree's prohibitions still come into play today, either universally in the case of sexual practices or particularly in the case of dietary regulations--wherever Gentile Christians encounter Jewish Christians who are keeping a kosher table. By extension these rules guide all Christians to use their freedom to abstain from practices that would offend the cultural sensitivities of another. What interethnic and intergenerational harmony the church could know if all rushed to give up their "rights" to please the others!