How the governing body reached a decision and the unifying effect it had on the congregations
Based on Acts 15:13-35
1, 2. (a) What serious questions face the governing body of the first-century Christian congregation? (b) What help do those brothers receive in order to reach the right conclusion?
SUSPENSE fills the air. The apostles and older men occupying this room in Jerusalem look at one another, sensing that they have reached a pivotal moment. The issue of circumcision has raised serious questions. Are Christians under the Mosaic Law? Is there to be any distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians?
2 The men taking the lead have considered much evidence. They have in mind God’s prophetic Word as well as powerful firsthand testimony revealing Jehovah’s blessing. They have expressed themselves fully. The evidence that has mounted regarding the issue at hand is overwhelming. Jehovah’s spirit is clearly pointing the way. Will these men respond to that direction?
3. How may we benefit from examining the account in Acts chapter 15?
3 It will take real faith and courage to accept the spirit’s guidance in this case. They risk intensifying the hatred of the Jewish religious leaders. And they face resistance from men within the congregation who are determined to lead God’s people back to reliance on the Mosaic Law. What will the governing body do? Let us see. In the process, we will see how those men set a pattern that is followed by the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses today. It is a pattern that we too need to follow as we face decisions and challenges in our life as Christians.
“The Words of the Prophets Agree” (Acts 15:13-21)
4, 5. What insight from God’s prophetic Word did James bring into the discussion?
4 The disciple James, the half brother of Jesus, spoke up.* It seems that on this occasion he was acting as chairman of the meeting. His words crystallized the consensus that the body as a whole appears to have reached. To the assembled men, James said: “Symeon has related thoroughly how God for the first time turned his attention to the nations to take out of them a people for his name. And with this the words of the Prophets agree.”—Acts 15:14, 15.
5 The speech by Symeon, or Simon Peter, and the evidence submitted by Barnabas and Paul probably brought to James’ mind pertinent scriptures that shed light on the subject under discussion. (John 14:26) After saying that “the words of the Prophets agree,” James quoted the words of Amos 9:11, 12. That book was listed in the part of the Hebrew Scriptures commonly called “the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:40; Acts 15:16-18) You will note that the words quoted by James are somewhat different from those we find in the book of Amos today. It is likely that James quoted from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
6. How did the Scriptures shed light on the discussion?
6 Through the prophet Amos, Jehovah foretold that the time would come when He would raise up “the booth of David,” that is, the royal line leading to the Messianic Kingdom. (Ezek. 21:26, 27) Would Jehovah once again deal exclusively with fleshly Jews as a nation? No. The prophecy adds that “people of all the nations” would be brought together as “people who are called by [God’s] name.” Remember, Peter had just testified that God “made no distinction at all between us [Jewish Christians] and them [Gentile believers], but purified their hearts by faith.” (Acts 15:9) In other words, it is God’s will that Jews and Gentiles alike be brought into the Kingdom as heirs. (Rom. 8:17; Eph. 2:17-19) Nowhere did such inspired prophecies suggest that the Gentile believers must first be circumcised in the flesh or become proselytes.
7, 8. (a) What did James propose? (b) How should we understand James’ words?
7 Moved by such Scriptural evidence and the powerful testimony he had heard, James went on to offer these words for consideration: “Hence my decision is not to trouble those from the nations who are turning to God, but to write them to abstain from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For from ancient times Moses has had in city after city those who preach him, because he is read aloud in the synagogues on every sabbath.”—Acts 15:19-21.
8 When James said “hence my decision is,” was he asserting his authority—perhaps as chairman of the meeting—over the other brothers and arbitrarily deciding what was to be done? Not at all! The Greek expression rendered “my decision is” may also mean “I judge” or “I give an opinion.” Far from ruling over the entire body, James was proposing for their consideration a course of action based on the evidence heard and on what the Scriptures say about the matter.
9. James’ proposal offered what benefits?
9 Was James’ proposal a good one? Obviously it was, for the apostles and the older men later adopted it. With what benefits? On the one hand, the recommended course would not “trouble,” or “make it difficult for,” Gentile Christians by imposing upon them the requirements of the Mosaic Law. (Acts 15:19; New International Version) On the other hand, this decision would show respect for the conscience of Jewish Christians, who over the years had heard “Moses . . . read aloud in the synagogues on every sabbath.”* (Acts 15:21) The recommended course would surely strengthen the bond between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Above all, it would please Jehovah God, reflecting his advancing purpose. What a fine way to resolve a problem that threatened the unity and well-being of the entire congregation of God’s people! And what an excellent example this is for the Christian congregation today!
10. How does the Governing Body today follow the pattern set by its first-century counterpart?
10 As mentioned in the preceding chapter, like its first-century counterpart, the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses today looks to Jehovah, the Universal Sovereign, and Jesus Christ, the Head of the congregation, for direction in all matters.* (1 Cor. 11:3) How is this done? Albert D. Schroeder, who served on the Governing Body from 1974 until he finished his earthly course in March 2006, explained: “The Governing Body meets every Wednesday, opening the meeting with prayer and asking for the direction of Jehovah’s spirit. A real effort is made to see that every matter that is handled and every decision that is made is in harmony with God’s Word the Bible.” Similarly, Milton G. Henschel, a longtime member of the Governing Body who finished his earthly course in March 2003, presented a fundamental question to the graduating students of the 101st class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead. He asked, “Is there another organization on earth whose Governing Body consults God’s Word, the Bible, before making important decisions?” The answer is obvious.
“Sending Chosen Men” (Acts 15:22-29)
11. How was the governing body’s decision communicated to the congregations?
11 The governing body in Jerusalem had reached a unanimous decision on the issue of circumcision. For the brothers in the congregations to act in unity, however, that decision had to be communicated to them clearly and in a positive, encouraging way. How could this best be done? The account explains: “The apostles and the older men together with the whole congregation favored sending chosen men from among them to Antioch along with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was called Barsabbas and Silas, leading men among the brothers.” In addition, a letter was prepared and sent along with these men so that it could be read in all the congregations in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia.—Acts 15:22-26.
12, 13. What good was accomplished by sending (a) Judas and Silas? (b) a letter from the governing body?
12 As “leading men among the brothers,” Judas and Silas were fully qualified to act as representatives of the governing body. The delegation of four men would make it clear that the message they brought was, not simply a reply to the original inquiry, but the express direction of the governing body. The presence of these “chosen men” would forge a close bond between the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and the Gentile Christians in the field. What a wise and loving arrangement! It no doubt promoted peace and harmony among God’s people.
13 The letter provided clear direction for Gentile Christians not only regarding the circumcision issue but also regarding what they must do in order to receive Jehovah’s favor and blessing. The key part of the letter stated: “The holy spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to you, except these necessary things, to keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication. If you carefully keep yourselves from these things, you will prosper. Good health to you!”—Acts 15:28, 29.
14. How is it possible for Jehovah’s people to work in unity in today’s divisive world?
14 Today, harmony of belief and unity of action prevail among Jehovah’s Witnesses, who total some 7,000,000 in well over 100,000 congregations around the earth. How is such unity possible, especially in view of the turmoil and divisive thinking prevalent in today’s world? Principally, unity results from the clear and decisive direction that Jesus Christ, the Head of the congregation, provides through “the faithful and discreet slave.” (Matt. 24:45-47) Unity also results from the way the worldwide brotherhood cooperates willingly with the direction of the Governing Body.
“They Rejoiced Over the Encouragement” (Acts 15:30-35)
15, 16. What was the outcome of the circumcision issue, and what accounted for such a result?
15 The account in Acts goes on to tell us that when the delegation of brothers from Jerusalem reached Antioch, “they gathered the multitude together and handed them the letter.” How did the brothers there react to the direction from the governing body? “After reading [the letter], they rejoiced over the encouragement.” (Acts 15:30, 31) In addition, Judas and Silas “encouraged the brothers with many a discourse and strengthened them.” In that sense, the two men were “prophets,” much as Barnabas, Paul, and others were called prophets—a term referring to those who declared or made known God’s will.—Acts 13:1; 15:32; Ex. 7:1, 2.
16 Jehovah’s blessing was clearly upon the entire arrangement, bringing the issue to a happy resolution. What was the key to the positive outcome? Unquestionably, it was the governing body’s clear and timely direction, based on God’s Word and on the guidance of the holy spirit. Added to that was the loving, personal way in which the decisions were communicated to the congregations.
17. How was the pattern set for some features of visits by traveling overseers in our day?
17 Following that pattern, the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses today provides timely direction to the worldwide brotherhood. When decisions are made, they are communicated to the congregations in a clear and direct manner. One way is by visits of traveling overseers. These self-sacrificing brothers travel from one congregation to another, providing clear direction and warm encouragement. Like Paul and Barnabas, they spend much time in the ministry, “teaching and declaring, with many others also, the good news of the word of Jehovah.” (Acts 15:35) Like Judas and Silas, they ‘encourage the brothers with many a discourse and strengthen them.’
18. How can God’s people be certain to continue to receive Jehovah’s blessing?
18 What about the congregations? What will enable the congregations throughout the earth to continue to enjoy peace and harmony in today’s divisive world? Recall that it was the disciple James who later wrote: “The wisdom from above is first of all chaste, then peaceable, reasonable, ready to obey . . . Moreover, the fruit of righteousness has its seed sown under peaceful conditions for those who are making peace.” (Jas. 3:17, 18) Whether James had the meeting in Jerusalem in mind or not, we have no way of telling. But from our consideration of the events recorded in Acts chapter 15, it is certain that only when there is unity and cooperation can there be Jehovah’s blessing.
19, 20. (a) How was it evident that peace and unity existed in the Antioch congregation? (b) What were Paul and Barnabas now able to do?
19 That peace and unity now existed in the Antioch congregation was clearly evident. Rather than contending with the brothers from Jerusalem, the brothers in Antioch treasured the visit of Judas and Silas, for it was only after “they had passed some time, they were let go in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them out,” that is, back to Jerusalem.* (Acts 15:33) We can be sure that the brothers in Jerusalem also rejoiced when they heard what the two men had to say about their journey. Thanks to Jehovah’s undeserved kindness, their mission was happily accomplished!
20 Paul and Barnabas, who remained in Antioch, could now focus their efforts on taking a strong lead in the evangelizing work, much as traveling overseers today do when they visit the congregations under their care. (Acts 13:2, 3) What a blessing for Jehovah’s people! How, though, did Jehovah further use and bless these two zealous evangelizers? This we shall see in the next chapter.
See the box “James—‘The Brother of the Lord.’”
James wisely referred to the writings of Moses, which included not only the Law code but also a record of God’s dealings and indications of His will that predated the Law. For example, God’s view of blood, adultery, and idolatry can be plainly seen in Genesis. (Gen. 9:3, 4; 20:2-9; 35:2, 4) Jehovah thus revealed principles that are binding on all of mankind, whether Jew or Gentile.
See the box “How the Governing Body Is Organized Today.”
In verse 34, some Bible translations insert words to the effect that Silas chose to remain in Antioch. (King James Version) However, such words appear to be later additions.