The important letter from the church council at Jerusalem is circulated, via Judas and Silas.
The inclusion of sexual immorality (v. 29) among the four things the recipients will do well to avoid is unusual. Surely the other matters—blood, eating food offered to idols, and meat of strangled animals—are matters of liberty, which can be avoided for the sake of fellowship with Jewish believers, to whom these would be matters of sensitivity. Sexual immorality however, is not a matter of liberty. Why is it listed here?.
All four are activities associated in some way with pagan religious practices. Therefore, they are no longer appropriate behaviour for believers. Here, the general word used for sexual immorality (Greek, porneia) is best understood to refer to ritual temple prostitution. Therefore, the message is that as believers of the true God, Gentiles are to turn from idolatry and all pagan temple activities, including prostitution.
Two ironic events follow, in a chapter that does so much to ensure unity among believers.
Firstly, verses 36–41 tell of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark’s leaving the first missionary journey (see Acts 13:13). This is a sad event and yet, it leads to good, with two missionary teams being formed to advance the work of the gospel.
Secondly, in Acts 16:1–5 we read of Paul’s request for the uncircumcised Timothy to undergo circumcision, so that the Jews will listen to his preaching. On the surface, this appears to be an ironic request.But Paul has his reasons. He resists circumcision when it is imposed as a necessity for salvation. However, when there is no such demand and it serves to facilitate the gospel’s acceptance, Paul has Timothy circumcised. After all, it is a neutral surgical act.
John Newton, the eighteenth century pastor and hymn writer, said of Paul, “he was a reed in non-essentials—an iron pillar in essentials.”7
The next time you think of “timid” Timothy, remember his ready submission in this matter at about the age of twenty.
7John Newton, quoted in John Stott, Acts: Seeing the Spirit at Work (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 67.
What do Acts 15:1–16:5 teach us about Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy and their priorities?
Why is Acts 16:5 such an appropriate conclusion to this section?