Acts 15

Paul and Barnabas are at Syrian Antioch [1]. Some men come down [2] from Judea and start telling Gentile members of the church that they have to be circumcised. Paul and Barnabas contradict them and are sent to Jerusalem to get the apostles and elders[3] to resolve the question. When they pass through Phoenicia [4] and Samaria [5], they tell those congregations about the conversion of the Gentiles.

In Jerusalem, the assembly is awed to silence by word of the miracles that Paul and Barnabas wrought, though it’s not entirely clear which miracles are being referred to: in Acts 14, Paul healed a man who had been crippled in his feet, and in Acts 13, Paul foretold the blindness of Bar-Jesus/Elymas. But Pharisee Christians, less impressed, say that the Gentiles must become Jews, including in circumcision. Peter (who James later calls “Simon”)[6] tells the church of Jerusalem that purification is through faith and salvation is through grace, and that following Jewish law is something that the Jews have never been able to attain. James then says that Peter has set aside a portion of the Gentiles, and quotes Amos 9:11-12 to assert that this has been prophesied [7]. Whether James’ reliance on Amos is accurate or not, his argument wins the day, and he proposes that they only require that the Gentiles “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” The council decides to send Judas/Barsabbas [8] and Silas [9] as delegates to not only Antioch, but all of Syria and Cilicia [10] to disown the teachings of the men from Judea and to impose the restrictions suggested by James.

This fissure in the Antioch church having been healed, Paul and Barnabas open another by arguing over whether John/Mark [11] should be brought along in a return visit to the churches they have previously passed through, since John/Mark deserted them in Pamphylia. So Barnabas takes John/Mark to Cyprus [12], while Paul and Silas head to Syria and Cilicia.

The main point of interest in this chapter appears to be the question of John/Mark who, in Acts 14, left Pamphylia to go to Jerusalem. No explanation is given. Paul evidently believed that this made John/Mark unfit to be a missionary, but John/Mark’s cousin Barnabas was less harsh in judgment. However, Paul is given the more prestigious and presumably more satisfying task of returning to Syria and Cilicia with senior church leadership to affirm that he had indeed been right in including the Gentiles, while Barnabas went to Cyprus. Interpreters suggest that John/Mark was opposed to the evangelizing of the Gentiles or that he became fearful. Matthew Henry points out that Cyprus was Barnabas’ native land, and Cilicia was Paul’s.

1. Antioch, according to Strong’s, means “driven against.”
2. The use of the phrase “coming down” is literally true, since Antakya (Syrian Antioch) is at 87 meters above sea level, while Jerusalem is 630 meters. However, there seems to be an implication that the men from Judea have special authority because they come from above.
3. Acts is the only book of the New Testament that mentions both apostles and elders in one sentence, and all but one of those mentions is in Chapter 15. Outside of Acts, the elders (sans apostles) are mentioned only five times in the epistles. So, the inclusion of both implies that this is both an inspired and an institutional decision.
4. Phoenicia was a coastal, seafaring empire stretching from Dor in Israel through Tyre and Tripolis in Lebanon to north of Arwad in Syria. The Greek word “phoinix” (phoiniken in the present text) refers to purple, though Strong’s says it means “land of palm trees.”
5. According to Strong’s, Samaria in Hebrew means “watch mountain”.
6. Peter/Simon. Simon means hearing (Who’s Who in the the Bible), so Simon Peter is the “hearing rock”.
7. This is a dubious use of Amos 9. Amos 8 sets the stage for this prophecy, saying that His vengeance will arise because the needy have been neglected, the use of dishonest scales has become rampant, and that the nation has become obsessed with mercantilism. He says that “The whole land will rise like the Nile;it will be stirred up and then sink like the river of Egypt,” and that there will be a famine. Then in Amos 9, He promises to kill them all except for a remnant, and reiterates that “the whole land rises like the Nile, then sinks like the river of Egypt.” The NIV translation of Amos is not consistent with James’ quotation:
Amos: so that they [David’s descendants] may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name [my name may seek the Lord]
James: that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name ,
where the bracketed material is the variant that appears in the Septuagint.
So, not only has Amos predicted dire events before the restoration of the Temple, events that have not happened at the time of the council in Jerusalem, but it’s not clear that the version of Amos that James is citing says exactly what he quotes it as saying.
8. Judas/Barsabbas. Judas means “praised”. “Barsabbas” means “son of the Sabbath” or “born on the Sabbath” (Who’s Who in the the Bible)
9. Silas means “asks of God” (Who’s Who in the the Bible)
10. Cilicia. Cilicia is on the southeast coast of Turkey. According to Strong’s, Cilicia means “land of Celix”. Paul was born in the capital, Tarsus. No unimpeachable sources describing the meaning of “Celix” were found. According to the Kabalarians, a group that believes that language shapes mind (among other, more exotic beliefs), Celix connotes “a very aggressive and independent nature, one with big ambitions, giving you original, progressive, large-scale ideas, salesmanship and promotional ability as well as the excellent business judgment”
11. John/Mark. “John” means “God has been gracious.” “Mark” comes from “large hammer” (Who’s Who in the the Bible)
12. Cyprus means “love: a blossom” according to Strong’s in the Blue Letter Bible. However, it could also mean “cypress” or “copper.”

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