Acts 15

Chapter fifteen introduces the first major theological issue the early Church faced. About A.D. 50 (17 years after Acts 2), as the church at Antioch continued to grow with no sign of slowing down, some of the Jewish believers felt it necessary to “correct” an issue about which they had some concern. Specifically, the Gentiles were not being circumcised “ACCORDING TO THE CUSTOM OF MOSES” (Acts 15:1). In Exodus 12:48, circumcision was required of Gentiles for them to participate in Passover; spiritually, circumcision made them just like a natural-born Jew.

As Gentiles were being saved, many Jewish believers thought that they were essentially joining their Jewish Church, which required becoming a Jew (Acts 15:1-5). 1 To sort this out, Antioch sent “PAUL AND BARNABAS AND SOME OTHERS” to Jerusalem to meet with “BOTH THE APOSTLES AND THE ELDERS…TO DELIBERATE ABOUT THIS MATTER” (Acts 15:6). 2 During the discussion, Peter recounted what had happened to Cornelius (Acts 15:7-11), while Paul and Barnabas shared their ministry among the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). Finally, James spoke, the brother of Jesus and Chief Elder or Lead Pastor of the Jerusalem Church. After reminding the crowd that Gentiles were always part of God’s calling, he concluded that “WE SHOULD NOT CAUSE EXTRA DIFFICULTY FOR THOSE AMONG THE GENTILES WHO ARE TURNING TO GOD” (Acts 15:19). He suggested only that they refrain from a few things that were either blatant sin or that could cause Jews to stumble. So the church sent an official letter back to Antioch via Paul’s team, encouraging the believers and giving the results of their conference (Acts 15:22-35).

The chapter concludes with Paul making preparations for a second missionary tour (Acts 15:36-41). Barnabas wanted to include his nephew John Mark again, but Paul was vehemently against him because the young man had quit on the previous tour. The argument ended with the two apostles splitting ways. Barnabas took John to Cyprus, while Paul invited Silas to join him.

Notes:

  1. This group was probably the source of the Jewish opponents that Paul faced throughout his career, as they followed him around, adding the requirement of circumcision to his message of faith alone.
  2. The mention of elders here, distinct from the apostles, shows that the Seven from Acts 6 were not the only ones the apostles had placed into leadership in the Church. It is significant that they appointed “elders” to lead, not additional or new “apostles.” Thus, even this early, we see the two-fold distinction of elders and deacons that Paul taught further in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and mentioned in Philippians 1:1.

1 Timothy 6

Chapter six addresses three more specific groups within the church and Timothy himself again. First, Paul gave instructions for slaves (1 Timothy 6:1-2). Similar to the instructions in Ephesians 6:5-7 (just a couple of years earlier), Paul wrote that slaves should respect their masters and work well because this glorifies God and keeps a good reputation in the community. For those who have “believing masters,” this is true “all the more.” Apparently, it was common then as now for Christians to treat unbelievers better than their fellow believers in the business world.

Second, Paul addressed those who would spread “false teachings and…not agree with sound words…and with the teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Timothy 6:3-10). It seems that then, like now, “health and wealth” theology (the “Prosperity Gospel”) was prevalent. Paul warned Timothy not to get involved with and to warn the believers to stay away from it as well. It is nothing more than idolatry, loving money more than God, and it results in the destruction of one’s faith.

Third, Paul returned to his original encouragement to Timothy, that he should not give up (1 Timothy 6:11-16). It would be a struggle, one that Paul was familiar with, but he – and we – could do it when we place our full trust in Christ and rest in him.

Finally, Paul closed with a few words to those “who are rich in this world’s goods” (1 Timothy 6:17-19). His comments about the “Prosperity Gospel” was not intended to be a condemnation on wealth itself or those who have it. Money is a tool, and Paul made sure to tell wealthy believers to use it to build God’s Church and enjoy what God has allowed them to have. What we do in this life is the foundation for relationship and reward in the next.

1 Timothy 5

Chapter five returns to instructions about certain groups in the church, specifically widows and elders. The church is to be a family of families, meaning that we should relate to each other as fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters (1 Timothy 5:1-16). Like one would take care of an aging grandparent, Paul said that the congregation is responsible for widows in their church family, under certain conditions. First, if the widow has family, they are responsible for her, not the church. Second, only older widows are included in this care program. Paul specified “sixty years old” (1 Timothy 5:9), but this could be considered descriptive rather than prescriptive, due to cultural life expectancies. Third, she was to be “the wife of one husband” (1 Timothy 5:9). This phrase is the exact opposite of an elder’s “husband of one wife,” meaning that she was “characterized by being a one-man type of woman.” Fourth, she was to be an example of godliness.

Paul specifically commanded that younger widows not be accepted “on the list” (1 Timothy 5:11-15). Rather they should remarry and fulfill their roles as described in 1 Timothy 2:9-15. In a statement that could have been written today, Paul noted that younger women with no responsibilities and full provision “learn to be lazy, and…also gossips and busybodies.” Although this may seem harsh or unfair, every civilization can verify its accuracy.

Another reason Paul wanted them to remarry had to do with a “former pledge.” In context, it seems that this complete provision for widows was a kind of remuneration for devoted service to the congregation. Because these widows had no families and were characteristically godly servants, it is possible that they pledged themselves to their congregation. Early church history shows that this is where the Catholic practice of nuns derived. However, it also may refer to the “women” or “wives” in 1 Timothy 3:11. If this is so, this group of widows probably served with the elders and deacons, possibly in ministry toward women. 1

In 1 Timothy 5:17-25 Paul came back to the elders, this time concerning congregational support for them. Some have argued that elders should not be financially supported, but this passage clearly disputes that notion. First, Paul quoted from both Deuteronomy 25:4 (Moses) and Luke 10:7 (Jesus) to prove that the one who works should receive payment for his work. Even animals get that much. Second, Paul used the same Greek word (τιμή, timē) to describe how the congregation treated both widows (1 Timothy 5:3) and elders (1 Timothy 5:17). Because this word means both “honor” and “compensation,” some argue that elders should only be honored. However, since the word obviously means compensation for widows, and the immediate context is payment for work, it must mean compensation for elders as well. Elders should be taken care of by those they serve, especially those “who work hard in speaking and teaching,” because it does not allow as much time for another form of work to provide for his family.

However, lest anyone think that this elevates elders to a level of “untouchable” clergy, Paul told Timothy that elders were still subject to discipline for sin, just like any other congregation member, and that their discipline should be public within the congregation, “as a warning to the rest” of the seriousness of sin. Thus, elders will be held up as examples, for both good or bad. For this reason, elders should be appointed carefully and slowly. Paul’s mention of Timothy’s stomach ailments may indicate that choosing elders is a stressful and difficult process.

Notes:

  1. Church history shows that once the role of deaconess was established, they helped prepare women for baptism, childbirth, etc.