Commentary on Acts 15:22-31
Having decided that circumcision should no longer be imposed on non-Jewish converts, the community leaders together with the whole church gathered together in Jerusalem to promulgate their decision to the wider Church.
They sent a delegation to Antioch in Syria, which was effectively the centre of the Greek-speaking Christians (both Jews and Gentiles). Wisely, the delegation included representatives from the Jerusalem community. Among those from Jerusalem three leaders are mentioned: Judas, Barsabbas and Silas. It is not clear who Barsabbas is but in the first chapter of Acts we are told that a Joseph Barsabbas was one of the two candidates chosen to replace Judas Iscariot. But, as we know, “the lot fell on Matthias”. Silas became a missionary companion of Paul and we will meet him on the Second Missionary Journey. He is the same person known as Silvanus in some of the Pauline letters. At this time he was a leader in the Jerusalem church and called a ‘prophet’ (15:32) and, like Paul, was a Roman citizen (16:37).
But with them went Paul and Barnabas, who represented the outer limits of the Church and who had raised the issue in the first place. Apparently there was unanimous agreement with both the choice of messengers and the contents of the letter which they carried.
The letter comes from the “apostles and the elders (presbyteroi, presbuteroi), your brothers” in Jerusalem and is addressed to the “brothers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia who are of Gentile origin”. Antioch was the leading city of the combined and adjoining provinces of Syria and Cilicia. It is significant that the Jerusalem leaders call themselves “brothers” of the Gentile converts, thus identifying all as belonging to the same family.
They speak apologetically of the Jewish Christians who had, apparently on their own initiative, gone to Antioch to complain about the non-circumcision of Gentile converts. That is why they are sending a delegation from Jerusalem together with Paul and Barnabas, who have their full endorsement. They are men who “have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
They then make a significant statement: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us…” Not only are they speaking unanimously in their own name but they know they have the full endorsement of the Holy Spirit in their decision. They then list the four exceptions mentioned above, Jewish practices which were still binding on all.
We should note the interesting process that is being described during the past three days’ readings.
The Spirit is with the whole Church and communicates its faith with the centre. The centre then discerns and recognises where the Spirit is working and issues an authoritative statement giving confirmation under the guidance of that Spirit.
The Church still works this way. The Pope is not the one who tells the Church what to believe; he tells the Church what it believes after listening to the faith of the whole Church. This listening process on the part of Rome is crucial for the growth and development of the Church in so many different areas with very different needs and aspirations.
There is another element in today’s reading which at first sight seems to be contradictory. Having ruled out the obligation to be circumcised, they still forbid eating meat sacrificed to idols, abstaining from blood, the meat of strangled animals and “illicit” sexual union.
Yet this shows the need for a sensitive balance between the feelings of the Gentiles and those of the Jews. Circumcision was a much more sensitive (in every sense!) issue, involving as it did mutilation of the body and in a particularly delicate area touching not only the body but the whole area of sexuality and generation.
The other Jewish traditions which were still being imposed could be lived with without great difficulty. In the course of time they too would fall away.
All of these issues concerning inviolable principles and acceptable areas of compromise are just as relevant in our Church today as they were at the beginning.