Acts 15:1-35: In Luke’s book, the apostles, filled with God’s Spirit, share the good news of God’s loving action in Jesus with others, first with fellow Jews, then with Jews of other ethnic backgrounds, then with Samaritans, and finally with Gentiles. Both Peter and Paul offered a relationship with God through Jesus to Gentile persons. This new missionary outreach begins to create tensions and raise questions. How much of the Jewish heritage of Jesus and the first of Jesus’ followers do Gentile believers need to follow?
The initial answer of some of Jesus’ followers is that males who become a part of the Jesus movement need to be circumcised. While this may seem strange to us today (and not a very helpful outreach strategy!) it is important to remember the deep significance of circumcision to the Jewish people. The two prime identity markers for God’s people were circumcision, given by God to Abraham, and the Law, given to Moses (New Interpreters Study Bible). Paul and Barnabas disagree with this point of view and there is “no small dissension.” The church has never been without issues over which people disagree. Whenever issues of deep significance – self-identity, relationship with God – are discussed, disagreement is a real possibility.
Paul and Barnabas, along with some others, are sent to go to Jerusalem and check this matter out with the apostles and elders in the church there. Writers often refer to this gathering as “the Jerusalem Council.” On the way there, Paul and Barnabas share their stories of how God has been at work in the lives of Gentiles, and their news is received with joy. Arriving in Jerusalem they are welcomed by the apostle and the elders, but greeted with skepticism by Christians who were also Pharisees.
Discussion ensues, not unlike some of the discussions in the church today about significant issues. Peter shares his experience of witnessing the way God gave the Spirit to Gentiles. God, who knows the human heart, “made no distinction between them and us.” Grace is what makes relationship with God possible. Paul and Barnabas were also given the chance to share their experience with the Gentiles, and how God was at work among them.
James, the brother of Jesus, offers a word. After hearing the witness of Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and upon reflection on Scripture and tradition, James renders his judgment (New Interpreters Study Bible). In the Methodist tradition, that branch of Christian faith which traces its beginnings to the 18th century Anglican priest, John Wesley, we often talk about basing our decisions about faith on Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. One could argue that the Jerusalem Council is a good example of this. James issues a decision that the Gentiles who are becoming a part of the Jesus movement, the Christian community should not have to be circumcised or obey all the dietary restrictions found in the Law. They would be asked to “abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” All these refer to ritual cleanliness and do not form a moral code for Gentile Christians. Things polluted by idols refers to meat ritually slaughtered and used in the worship of other gods, fornication (while it can have broader application) probably here means marriage to a close relative, and the final two items have to do with the proper slaughter of meat. Paul will write about this Council in Galatians, and his account has some differences which we will explore when we get to that passage.
Men are chosen to return with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch to share and interpret the action of the council – Judas/Barsabbas and Silas. They bring with them a letter that shows respect for Gentile believers, deep appreciation for Paul and Barnabas, and details the position of the Council. They share the work of the council – “what seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” Often in the church today we focus primarily on what seems good to us and forget that sometimes what seems good to God’s Spirit may be somewhat different – though we discern this only in the context of on-going dialogue. “The Holy Spirit works through human reflection, struggle, discussion, and decision” (Peoples New Testament Commentary).
Acts 15:36-41: Paul and Barnabas are in Antioch when Paul comes up with an idea, they should return to visit those areas where they were before to see how the Jesus communities they established are doing. Barnabas wants to take John Mark (who was perhaps his cousin) with them, but Paul does not, and their disagreement becomes sharp. “The presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of both Barnabas and Paul did not exclude such disagreement” (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Barnabas and Mark sail to Cyprus, the home region of Barnabas. They disappear from Acts at this time, just as Peter and the Jerusalem apostles will disappear from this chapter on. Paul, who will be followed in the remaining chapters of this book, takes Silas with him and proceeds with the plan he proposed. There are some indications in Paul’s letters that perhaps he later reconciled with Mark. Again, even at this early date, disagreement and division were a part of the experience of the church. How much of this is inevitable and how much can be prevented?
Acts 16:1-5: Paul visits Derbe and Lystra, and in Lystra he encounters a disciple named Timothy who he wants to be a part of his team. In spite of the decisions made in the previous chapter, Paul has Timothy circumcised. Paul is not concerned about circumcision itself, but about things that might get in the way of others hearing the gospel. Sometimes the issue is not whether an action is right or wrong in itself, but whether, even if it is permitted, should it be done given the effects on others. In a bit of irony, part of the message that Paul and Silas and Timothy share is what has been decided in Jerusalem.
Acts 16:6-10: The outreach mission of the church is seen as guided by the Holy Spirit, also called, here, the Spirit of Jesus. Evangelism was the principle mission of the church in Acts. God had acted in Christ for the salvation of the world, and the good news had to be shared. The new faith had implications for life together in the new community and eventually for the transformation of society. But the church’s mission began with proclamation of the gospel and the invitation to Christian faith and membership in the Christian community. (Peoples New Testament Commentary)
Acts 16:11-15: Among those who became part of the early Christian community were strong women. Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, is the first Christian convert in what is now Europe. That she dealt in purple cloth indicates that she was a prosperous woman – purple being the color of royalty. Lydia is also a model of a new kind of disciple community – people maintaining their lives but beginning Christian faith communities in their homes. Lydia is not asked to give up all she has to join a community elsewhere. This is not to say that generosity is not an important part of Christian faith, but only to note that not all early Christians were asked to give all they had for mutual community sharing.
Acts 16:16-40: The ministry of Paul and Silas encounters difficulty, as had Jesus and other disciples before them. Paul heals a woman who had a “spirit of divination” and was used by others to make money. Her gift was exploited by others. Their action cut into the economics of her owners who charge them with “advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” Paul and Silas are arrested, beaten and imprisoned.
In prison, we find Paul and Silas praying and singing, unusual behavior for imprisoned persons, but indicative of a faith in God that trusts God’s care in difficult circumstances. As Luke tells it, God’s care comes in remarkable fashion, in an earthquake that loosens the chains and opens the prison doors. This kind of action is indicative of the character of God. However, while this is good news for the prisoners, it would mean death for the jailer who would have been seen as grossly negligent. Rather than await his punishment, the jailer is about to take his own life, when Paul shouts out that all the prisoners are present and accounted for. What would make them stay? Their actions are so astonishing that the jailer asks “what must I do to be saved?” The biblical language of “being saved” presupposes that life as we know it is incomplete, that it lacks something to be what life should be…. Being saved is having one’s life put in right relation with God and other human beings, being given one’s life as it was intended to be by God in this world, and being given the sure and certain hope of eternal life beyond this world. (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Being saved has something to do with having one’s life directed in a better way, being oriented toward God’s dream for the world. It has something to do with healing and forgiveness. It has something to do with knowing we are loved and knowing that we are to share that love with others. This is rich language and a number of metaphors are appropriate to it. It is unfortunate that in many places this language has become almost unusable because it has been so narrowly used by some within the church to refer only to “being saved from hell.”
Paul tells the jailer that in order to be “saved,” to have his life made whole, he needs to “believe on the Lord Jesus.” For Luke this is a summary statement that includes much more than intellectual assent to certain propositions. To believe on the Lord Jesus is to trust that God has acted in Jesus, and that God’s action in Jesus shows God’s love for humankind. It is to trust that Jesus way is the way of life. Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. Jesus way is the way of life, not the Roman way with its oppression and brutality and deep economic division. One trusts and acts in accord with that trust. One becomes a part of the community of Jesus when one “believes.” Again, overuse of the idea that “believe on the Lord Jesus” means thinking some things and not thinking others has made this statement another one that is difficult to use in our day and time. The jailer demonstrates the richer meaning of the statement. He takes Paul and Silas into his home, washes their wounds, feeds them, is baptized by them.
While the good news Paul shares contains within it a critique of Roman society and culture, Paul is not averse to using his status as a Roman citizen to claim his rights against unjust imprisonment and beating. That he could do this says that we should be grateful for laws that promote justice, but we should also bemoan the way that justice is unequally applied. As a citizen, Paul had certain rights that the Jewish Christians beaten earlier in the book did not have.