Being Kind to the Weaker Brother (Acts 15:19-35)
Although James concluded that Christian gentiles need not come under the Mosaic legislation, he did ask three things of them (5:19-20)1. Therefore I for my part come to this conviction: we should not harass people from the gentiles who turn to God (15:19), but we should write to them asking them to abstain from the pollutions of idols, and from wrongful sexual relationships, and from what is strangled and from blood (5:20). He wants to ask gentile Christians (i) not to buy and eat food which was associated with idolatrous worship (having been offered in sacrifice before being sold); verse 29 uses the phrase ‘food sacrificed to idols’. He wants them (ii) to be specially careful about immorality. And he wants them (iii) not to eat meat from which the blood had not been drained.
How should these be interpreted. There are three possible interpretations.
(i) Do James’s three points deal with permanent principals of behaviour? Are Christians forever forbidden to buy meat with dubious associations, forever forbidden immorality, forever forbidden certain types of food? This interpretation makes sense with regard to immorality and idolatry but not with regard to the other two matters. Christians are not permanently compelled to refused meat with blood in it.
(ii) Do James’s three points deal only with minor Jewish sensitivities to which gentiles make concessions? Are Christians temporarily forbidden to buy meat with dubious associations – as a concession to Jews? Are they temporarily forbidden immorality – as a concession to Jews? Are the temporarily forbidden certain types of food with blood in it – as a concession to Jews? This interpretation makes sense with regard to one or maybe two matters, but not with regard to immorality, which is permanently forbidden.
There are expositors who think that ‘wrongful sexual relationships’ refers here only to Jewish sensitivity about the forbidden relationships of Leviticus 18. But this would imply that such relationships are now allowed, and gentile Christians had then to stay away from them only as a concession to Jewish sensitivites. Yet the wicked relationships of Leviticus 18 are permanently forbidden – not because of the permanence of the law but because of the permanence of the conscience, and the forbidding of the Holy Spirit. Although the Christian is free from the law in general, there are certain parts of it which are are are fulfilled without change (especially Levticus 19:18) for reasons of conscience and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Leviticus 18:6-20 is not dealing with marriage; it is dealing with criminal sexual relationships that were punishable by the death-sentence (see Lev.18:29). The Christian knows the sins of Leviticus 18 are still wicked. He does not need the law to know it. ‘The works of the flesh are obvious’ (Gal.5:19) – even without the law. But is would be wrong to take this phrase in Acts 15:20 as only a ‘temporary concession’. Leviticus 18:6-20 will be obeyed by those who keep a good conscience and walk in the Holy Spirit – without their having to come under the entire law..
(iii) Actually, two of these matters are dealing with Jewish sensitivities, and one of them deals with a permanent matters of behaviour. This third approach is less tidy but it is necessary. Two items are dealing with minor sensitivities to which gentiles make concessions. But immorality is more serious. Gentile Christians are forever forbidden immorality; but the Christian gentiles are temporarily asked not to buy meat with dubious origins – as a concession to Jews with tender consciences. And they are asked to temporarily abstain from food with blood in it- as a concession to Jews. The three matters are not all of similar importance.
It may seen puzzling that the three thing are not all of the same kind. Two of these matters are about food-laws or the purchasing of food; and one of them is about more serious sexual morality. The explanation, I believe, is that these three (unequal) matters really were, as a fact of history, three concerns of Jewish Christians. Jewish people were concerned about (i) indirect contact with idolatry, (ii) looseness of gentile morality (which they feared might still characterize even Christian gentiles), and (iii) horrow at the thought of eating blood. James says: please make a concession about two matters, and please forever be very careful about a third.
What then are the practical implications of all of this for the modern Christian? One is: Christians should wise and kindly even where they have freedom. Two of these three points are not strict ever-lasting legislation for the Christian. Yet they were necessary in the first century if Jews and gentiles were to have fellowship together. Care about what you eat would make it possible for Christian Jews and Christian gentiles to have fellowship together without Jews being horrified. A modern Christian trying to talk to a Hindu friend had best not invite him to a meal with beef in it! Although Christian gentiles were not under the law, Christian Jews were likely to want to keep their culture for a long time. If the two groups were to have fellowship and were to eat together, some concessions would have to be made. Moses gets read in the main cities of the empire (15:21). Jewish people everywhere are specially sensitive about these three matters, so gentile Christians would do well to restrain themselves, even though they are not bound to the Mosaic law-code.
It must be realised that these three requests are not things that are binding on Christian gentiles for all time. The three requests are not a new law-code! They were guidelines to help gentile Christians to avoid offending Christian Jews needlessly.
Chapter 7 Coming To Agreement (Acts 15:22-16:5)
Part of the precise requests of Acts 15:20 have fallen aside for the modern Christian, and today the concessions about the kind of food we eat are no longer directly relevant. Yet there is a principle here which still stands. When relating to people who have some cultural restraints or some excessive sensitivities, one might have to go along with them for a while until the ‘weak brother’ comes to a clearer mind. Christians should be sympathetic to those who have cultural inhibitions; they should be kindly to those with such inhibitions, even where they themselves have freedom.
1. One way of resolving disagreement is discussion by church conference. It is a matter of joy when dispute comes to a happy conclusion. The meeting at Jerusalem agrees with James’s conviction, and they write a letter to the Antioch church. The letter comes from the entire leadership of the Jerusalem church, with the involvement of the people (15:22). It is addressed only to the area around Syrian Antioch (15:23). They explain that the trouble-makers who had come to Antioch had no authority from Jerusalem (15:24). The letter commends Barnabas and Paul (15:25-26), and it is to be taken to Antioch by people who will explain it more fully (15:27). The Christians at Jerusalem are resolved not to ask for the Jewish law to be kept by gentiles (15:28), but they do have three requests to make (15:29).
The letter is taken to Antioch and the gentiles Christians rejoice at what has happened (15:30-31). The ministry of the Jerusalem prophets is received (15:32) and friendly greetings are sent back to Jerusalem (15:33). The ministry of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch continued (15:34).
So the dispute came to a happy conclusion. This Jerusalem consultation between two churches is a model of what churches need to do from time to time. When there is doctrinal dispute, when there are cultural perplexities, there needs to be inter-congregational consultation. Churches need to cooperate well with other churches, in so far as it can be done.
2. Another way of resolving disagreement is for both sides to follow different procedures while maintaining friendship. Immediately after the agreement at Jerusalem, another kind of disagreement springs up between Paul and Barnabas! Paul wants to visit the church in Cyprus and south Galatia again, but refuses to take John Mark. Barnabas refuses to go without Mark (who is Barnabas’s cousin – Col.4:10). The disagreement between the two men is sharp (15:35-39). In the end they divide the mission into two. Barnabas takes the Cyprus section of the trip. Paul takes the Galatian section. The dispute did not cause permanent bitterness. Although the disagreement was sharp for a short time, eventually a good solution was reached. They made two missions instead of one. Insoluble disagreements do arise in the church. God may bring good out of them if they are handled with wisdom and love. Sometimes an amicable parting is the best way to handle the matter, in which case great care needs to be taken that good relationships are preserved after the separation. Love can find a way of separating in a friendly manner, and good may come out of it despite bad appearances. Paul speaks well of Barnabas in 1 Corinthians 9:6, and later Paul and Mark were colleagues again (Col.4:10; 2 Tim.4:11; Philem.24).
Because of the dispute the evangelistic team became two teams. God gave Paul some new colleagues. Silas took the place of Barnabas (15:40-41). He was als0 (like Barnabas originally) from the Jerusalem church (15:22) and was a prophet (15:32). It appears from what we read later that (like Paul) he was a Roman citizen. Although Paul would probably not have replaced Barnabas if it had not been for the dispute, yet it is likely that Silas was a more suitable co-worker for Paul at this point. Sometimes God pushes us into decisions that we would not have taken for ourselves.
When the two men got to Lystra (16:1), Paul found a replacement for John Mark also. Timothy had been in Lystra as a young believer when Paul and Barnabas. He was one of the Christians who had received Galatians. Presumably he was in heart agreement with what Paul said in Galatians. As someone who was half-Jew, half-gentile, he was a useful man. Such people can relate to Jews as a Jew, and to gentiles as a gentile. He was just the kind of colleage Paul needed. Paul was very firm about salvation through grace, but so long as grace was clearly established he was a very yielding and gracious man. He had Timothy circumcised. It was a step taken to make thing easier for Paul when relating to Jews. As long as no one thought Timothy received grace from God by circumcision, than Paul did not mind Timothy’s being circumcised as a concession to culturally touchy Jewish Christians.
3. The important matter is the preaching of the gospel. One can see that behind both of these disputes (the conference at Jerusalem, the forming of two evangelistic teams) is a concern for the preaching of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Ways are being found to overcome difficulties in the way of preaching. The kingdom of God is not circumcision; it is not disputes over opinions. It is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus. The apostles settle these matters as speedily as they can, and then the outreach teams get on with the work of building up the churches. The decisions made at Jerusalem are told to the churches (15:4-5). Paul is now ready for a further step in taking the gospel of Jesus to areas where the message is unknown.
Being Kind to the Weaker Brother (Acts 15:19-35)