Monday, June 18, 2012

Silas the Sidekick (Acts 15:40)

Who was Paul’s companion on his second missionary journey? Silas (Acts 15:40)

Endorsed by the church at Antioch (Acts 13:2), Paul (then known as Saul) and Barnabas embark on Christianity’s first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-14:28). Later, after defending their position regarding the Gentile mission to outsiders at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:2), another dispute arises from within (Acts 15:36-40).

The team disbands when Barnabas wants to give John Mark, who had abruptly deserted them on their first missionary journey a second chance on their second (Acts 13:13, 15:37-38). Unable to agree, Barnabas takes John Mark and sets out on the mission field without Paul (Acts 15:39).

Undeterred, Paul, who seldom traveled alone, also selects a new partner: Silas (Acts 15:40).

But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. (Acts 15:40 NASB)
The choice is Paul’s and he makes it quickly. Though no mention is made of what is likely a substantial pool of candidates, Paul presumably has his pick of potential traveling companions. The decision appears to be a no-brainer as Paul does not hesitate to choose Silas nor does Silas delay in accepting.

Though Silas is a relative unknown at the time of his selection, he had been introduced earlier in the same chapter (Acts 15:22, 27, 32, 34). Silas begins his career as an apostolic delegate (Acts 15:22, 27). He and an otherwise unknown Christian named Judas called Barsabbas are selected as letter bearers of the edict declaring the Council of Jerusalem’s verdict (Acts 15:22, 27). Their task was to personally convey and expound upon the council’s impersonal letter. Though unknown to the letter’s recipients as it contains no letter of commendation (Acts 15:23-29), the duo could verify the council’s decisions impartially as Barsabbas and Silas have independent authority. Letter bearers were not uncommon as documents could be forged and consequently oral tradition was held in higher esteem (I Maccabees 12:23; Ephesians 6:21-22; Colossians 4:7-8) .

Silas is presented as the logical choice to be Paul’s new partner and he has several qualifications working in his favor:

  • He and Judas Barsabbas are described as “leading men among the brethren” (Acts 15:22). Silas is a prominent member of the Jerusalem church, likely an elder in function if not in name. Silas’ endorsement is politically advantageous. If anyone questioned Paul’s credibility, as happened in Galatia, Silas could corroborate his representation of Jerusalem’s position. David G. Peterson (b. 1944) notes, “Paul’s choice of Silas as his partner is particularly significant in context. He represents ‘the unity of purpose between Jerusalem and the mission launched form Antioch, a unity achieved through the Jerusalem agreement’ (Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 448).”
  • He is designated a prophet and seen as an orator (Acts 15:32). Ajith Fernando (b. 1948) deduces, “Silas was a leader in the church of Jerusalem (Acts 15:22) and a prophet who ‘said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers’ in Antioch (Acts 15:32). This must mean he was an enthusiastic backer of Paul’s program of Gentile evangelism (Fernando, Acts (The NIV Application Commentary), 431).”
  • He and Paul have worked together previously. Silas obviously impressed the missionary. As Fernando suggests, at the Council of Jerusalem, everyone’s cards were on the table giving Paul the opportunity to see who is sympathetic with his cause (Acts 15:22-35). It can be surmised that Silas is a proponent of the Gentile mission, otherwise Paul would not have taken him.
  • Like Paul, he is a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37), a fact that will take on significance that neither likely could have imagined at the time of their pairing. Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) speculates, “It is perhaps probable, in view of Acts 16:37-38, that Luke intends us to see him as a person of significant social status (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 467).”
  • He is evidently literate. The name Silas does not appear outside of Acts but many believe he is referenced in the New Testament epistles. Though later church tradition distinguishes between Silas bishop of Corinth and Silvanus bishop of Thessalonica, scholars almost unanimously equate the two names as Silvanus is the Latin equivalent of Silas (II Corinthians 1:19; I Thessalonians 1:1; II Thessalonians 1:1; I Peter 5:12). Robert L. Cate (b. 1932) reminds, “he could apparently write, an unusual skill in those times (I Peter 5:12). He, along with Timothy, later assisted Paul in writing the apostle’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica (I Thessalonians 1:1) (Cate, One Untimely Born: The Life And Ministry of the Apostle Paul, 77).”
  • Perhaps most significantly, he is available. Judas Barsabbas and Silas are granted an honorable discharge (Acts 15:33) but in a narrative aside we are told that Silas opts to stay (Acts 15:34). (This narrative aside is confusing, appears to contradict the previous verse [Acts 15:33], is only in the Western text and absent from many reliable manuscripts, is typically interpreted as a later scribal addition and as such is omitted from some translations such as the NRSV.) No explanation is given as to why Silas remains. But in doing so, he is able to immediately respond to Paul’s call.
Silas has experience, a lot of upside and is a suitable companion for the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Another advantage Silas has may be a Jewish heritage. It is possible that Silas is the Aramaic parallel of Saul, Paul’s original Hebrew name (meaning “little wolf”). C. Peter Wagner (b. 1930) conjectures:

Why Silas? Why would Silas be a better partner for Paul at this stage of his career than Barnabas? One obvious reason was that Silas did not have a cousin Mark whom he insisted on bringing along. But other than that...another more fundamental difference existed between Silas and Barnabas...The difference did not lie in their personal characters or statuses as mature Christian leaders...It is not totally clear whether Silas was a Hebrew Jew or a Hellenistic Jew like Barnabas. My guess would be that because the Hellenistic believers had been driven out of Jerusalem after the murder of Stephen (Acts 8:1) leaving only the Hebrew church there, it would be unlikely that one of the elders of the Jerusalem church at that time would have been a Hellenist. If such were the case, it might have been to Paul’s advantage to take a Hebrew leader from the Jerusalem church with him when he went back to visit the churches he had planted in Galatia. The Judaizers who had gone and messed things up in the Galatian churches had also come from Jerusalem, and Paul already had anticipated that he would have to engage in some potentially difficult damage control when he arrived. Silas would be an asset. (Wagner, The Book of Acts: A Commentary, 347-48)
E. A. Judge (b. 1928) sees further benefit in Silas’ Roman citizenship:
Paul always refers to him by his Roman name, Silvanus, and it is not impossible that their common Roman status opened the way for Paul’s new stance at Philippi. If Barnabas was not a Roman, this might equally explain the puzzling lack of initiative shown by Paul in Lycaonia. If this is to hold water, however, we should also have to suppose that Timothy was a Roman, since he now joined the party (being made a Jew for the purpose [Acts 16:3)], and was linked with Silas as a lieutenant. (Judge and Harrison, “The Early Christians as a Scholastic Community”, The First Christians in the Roman World: Augustan and New Testament Essays, 547)
Regardless of the rationale, the tandem is commended by the church in Antioch to take to the mission field (Acts 15:40). Bruce Chilton (b. 1949) sees advantages for the church in this decision:
The meeting with James, Peter, and John gave Paul new authority; working with Silas assured that he would not exceed that authorization. Antioch no longer had to take responsibility for its most contentious apostle. He departed that city with Silas (Acts 15:40). Paul was now Jerusalem’s man, and Silas’s problem. (Chilton, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography, 147)
Above all, Lloyd J. Ogilvie (b. 1930) sees God at work:
We have seen how the Spirit had Silas in the wings. He was able to drop everything and respond to the call to go with Paul. Note how free these early Christians were. They could be open to changes of plans because their purpose was clear. Daily guidance is given to those who are set in the ultimate will of God. (Ogilvie, Acts (Mastering the New Testament), 240)
Silas succeeds Barnabas and the succession is a success.

Do you think Silas had hoped for an opportunity to serve as a missionary? Is there a position that you are praying will open? If you could pick any partner in any realm of your life, who would it be? When has a replacement been as good as her predecessor? What is the best recasting you have seen in a television or movie series? Why is it Paul’s custom to take a partner? Which team is better, Paul and Barnabas or Paul and Silas? Why? Who were the other candidates? (Evidently like the other Barsabbas [Acts 1:23-26], Judas is overlooked.) Is Silas selected through logic alone? If so, would this in any way discount God’s involvement in the decision?

The new arrangement proves successful for everyone involved. The church now has two mission teams, Barnabas is essentially promoted to leader of his own team (Acts 15:39), John Mark’s missionary career is revived, and Paul and Silas embark on the now famous “second missionary journey” (Acts 15:36-18:22).

In spite of the bump in the road, for Paul, the beat goes on. Paul and Silas perform admirably. Silas is with Paul when he is arrested in Philippi (Acts 16:19) and in prison with him when an earthquake hits the region (Acts 16:25, 29). Throughout the remainder of book of Acts, Silas is paired either with Paul (Acts 16:19, 25, 29, 17:4, 10, 14) or Timothy in Paul’s absence (Acts 17:14, 15, 18:5).

Silas’ presence, valuable though it may be, is all that is referenced. In spite of all of his credentials, Silas never again performs an action in the book of Acts. Silas spends the remainder of the book as Paul’s sidekick. There is no question as to which partner is more influential. Silas is Robin to Paul’s Batman, Watson to Paul’s Holmes, Garfunkel to Paul’s Simon. Paul likely would have been successful with a broomstick as his companion and Silas, like most of his partners, ends up playing second fiddle.

Silas is always listed second when paired with Paul (Acts 16:19, 25, 29, 17:4, 10, 14) but first when mentioned alongside Timothy (Acts 17:14, 15, 18:5). Perhaps Silas is the leader of his team with Timothy and working with Paul prepared him for this role. Sidekicks do not always become leaders as evidenced by the fact that only four vice presidents, habitual sidekicks, have later been elected president.

Are Christian sidekicks always being prepared to lead? Who is the quintessential sidekick? Literarily speaking, sidekicks always serve some function: What is Silas’? How did Silas benefit from his pairing with Paul? Is Silas better with Paul? What does Silas do for Paul? What tandems can you think of where one member is decidedly more prominent? Is there anything wrong with being a sidekick? In your story, are you the hero or the sidekick?

“The sidekick business has been good to me.” - Sean Astin (b. 1971)

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