The important letter from the church council at Jerusalem is circulated, via Judas and Silas.
The inclusion of sexual immorality (v. 29) amongst the four things the recipients will do well to avoid is unusual. Surely the other matters—eating food offered to idols, blood, and the 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 with pagan temples. 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 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 amongst believers.
Firstly, verses 36 to 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 16:1–5 we read of Paul’s ironic request for the uncircumcised Timothy to be circumcised, so that the Jews will listen to his preaching. Paul 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.”*
The next time you think of “timid Timothy,” remember his ready submission in this matter at about the age of 20.
What do these verses teach us about Paul, Barnabas and Timothy and their priorities? Why is 16:5 such an appropriate conclusion to this section?
*John Newton quoted in John Stott, Acts: Seeing the Spirit at Work (Nottingham: IVP, 2008), pp. 67.