Acts 15:23-41

A letter to believers (15:23-29)

Luke reproduces, at least in summary, the letter crafted by the council regarding circumcision. It is addressed to the Gentile Christians in Antioch, the church that serves as a kind of headquarters for the Gentile mission. It is also addressed to the churches in the provinces of Syria and Cilicia, who presumably were the most affected by the controversy. (Syria-Cilicia was the double province of which Antioch was the capital.)

James’ letter apparently is not sent to the entire church. However, as Paul later travels from town to town in Galatia, he delivers “the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey” (16:4).

The letter begins by acknowledging that the extremist Christian Jews who stirred up the controversy over circumcision came from Jerusalem. But they did so “without our authorization” (15:24). Thus, the letter rebukes the Judaizers for overstepping their authority in laying down requirements Jerusalem had not agreed to.

Barnabas and Paul (the letter mentions Paul in second place) are called “our dear friends” (15:25) and “men who have risked their lives” for the gospel (15:26). Paul, the letter is saying, is held in the warmest regards by Jerusalem. Thus, James, Peter and the Jerusalem church make it clear that they stand together with Paul and Barnabas in what they have been teaching. The church presents itself as unified against the Judaizers.

The letter next appeals to divine guidance in the circumcision matter by saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (15:28). The Holy Spirit is called the author of Jerusalem’s decision. The council is claiming that it reached its decision under the guidance of God through the Holy Spirit. The letter ends with a restatement of the four requirements. The decrees were the same ones given in verse 20, except for a slight change in order.

The final statement in James’ letter tells the Gentile Christians: “You will do well to avoid these things” (15:29). It does not even say that people must avoid these things in order to be saved; it just says that it is good to avoid these things.

Luke gives us evidence of the letter being read in three localities where a Gentile mission occurred: Antioch of Syria (15:30-35), Syria and Cilicia (15:46-41), and the southern part of Galatia (16:1-4).

Judas and Silas read the decision in Antioch, and their message is warmly received. After encouraging everyone in the church, they return to Jerusalem (15:33). Paul and Barnabas remain in Antioch, teaching the church and preaching the gospel.

Luke’s story now takes a decisive turn. Paul and his associates will dominate the account from now on. Peter and the rest of the Twelve disappear. James and the Jerusalem church appear only once more, in 21:17-26, and then only in the context of Paul’s trip to the city.

Further Preaching in Asia Minor (Acts 15:36-16:10)

Visit the believers (15:36)

After the Jerusalem Council, Luke begins to narrate Paul’s second major journey. Paul’s original objective on this trip seems to be more pastoral than missionary. Paul says to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing” (15:36).

Paul apparently wants to deliver the Jerusalem decrees to these churches personally. He is encouraged to have the support of the other apostles, especially Peter and James. He knows that the Judaizers have created problems among the believers in Galatia – problems that he addresses in his letter to the Galatians, which may have been written before the Council. Now he wants to see how the churches in the region have responded to his letter.

Controversy about Mark (15:37-39)

Barnabas agrees that another trip through Galatia is in order. However, he wants to take Mark as an assistant. Paul refuses, and their disagreement over Mark is so bitter “that they parted company” (15:39).

The story of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas does not make pleasant reading, but Luke’s realism in recording it helps us to remember that the two men, as they themselves said to the people of Lystra, were “human beings with feelings like” any other (The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Rev. ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988], page 301).

Paul believes that Mark’s refusal to go with the missionaries into Galatia during the first missionary trip amounted to desertion (15:38). Perhaps Mark has some defect in his character that makes him unreliable.

On the contrary, Barnabas, the “Son of Encouragement,” sees some promising qualities in Mark and wants to give him experience and training. Mark is his cousin, and Barnabas knows the family traits (Colossians 4:10). Or perhaps family loyalty was more important to Barnabas than commitment to the work.

In the end, Mark proved Barnabas right, and perhaps Paul was being too hard-nosed (Colossians 4:10Philemon 23). Years later, Paul would say to Timothy of the young man he had once rejected: “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). Actually, both Paul and Barnabas may be right: Mark would do poorly under Paul’s leadership, but would grow while helping Barnabas.

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

Barnabas has occupied a central part in Luke’s story as a trusted representative of the Jerusalem church (11:22-24). He has been vital to Paul’s work and his relationship to the church — as his associate on the first missionary tour (13:1-14:28); for intervening on his behalf with Jerusalem (9:27); in recruiting him for missionary work at Antioch (11:25-26); and in supporting his Gentile mission at the Jerusalem conference (15:12).

But after separating from Paul, Barnabas is not again mentioned in Acts. Luke’s story is about Paul, not anyone else. Barnabas is referred to in passing in only three other places in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 9:6Galatians 2:1913Colossians 4:10). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of his and Barnabas’ need to get jobs in order to support themselves while doing missionary work. Since this epistle was written after the split between the two men, it indicates that they worked together again, or at least had buried their differences.

Paul chooses Silas (15:40-41)

Barnabas takes Mark and sails for Cyprus, presumably to visit the churches on that island (15:39). Luke doesn’t tell us anything about this mission, probably because it isn’t a trip that advances the gospel toward Rome.

Paul chooses Silas as his missionary partner and sets out on a tour of the churches in eastern Asia Minor. Silas (or Silvanus) is a good choice as an associate. He was a leader in the Jerusalem church, and can speak with authority on its behalf (15:12, 27). He is a prophet (15:32) and a Roman citizen (16:27). He is respected in the church as well as in the wider Roman society.

With Silas, Paul begins his trip by traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches in these provinces (15:41). But what begins as a pastoral visit turns into an extensive missionary journey through large parts of Asia Minor, as well as Macedonia and Greece. It is on this missionary tour that the gospel reaches the eastern frontier of Europe.

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012