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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible
Acts 15

 

 

Verses 1-41


The Question of Circumcision

1-35. The Council of Jerusalem, 49 a.d. The usual view is that Galatians 2:1-10 describes the visit of St. Paul to Jerusalem on the occasion of this Council. Adopting this, the following was the course of events. The baptism of Gentiles by St. Paul on his First Missionary Journey, without requiring them to be circumcised or to keep the Law, was keenly criticised at Jerusalem by the Pharisaic party within the Church. Some of these malcontents even came to Antioch, teaching that 'except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved' (Acts 15:1). They falsely professed to have the support of Peter and James, and St. Paul indignantly refers to them as 'false brethren privily brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus' (Galatians 2:4). They demanded that Paul and Barnabas should go up to Jerusalem, and submit the matter to the superior authority of the Twelve. At first St. Paul refused to go, regarding himself as possessing an independent and equal authority. But on receiving a special revelation (Galatians 2:2) that the result would be favourable to his views, and would tend to the furtherance of the gospel, he consented to go, taking with him Barnabas, and Titus, one of his Gentile converts. Before the Council, private conferences were held between St. Paul and the heads of the Church of Jerusalem, with the object of reaching a settlement. As a step towards this, the circumcision of Titus was vehemently demanded by the Judaisers, and apparently recommended by the Twelve. As Titus was intended to be a fellow-worker of St. Paul, and would accordingly be brought into frequent close contact with Jews, much was to be said for this course. What happened is not quite clear. Most think that Titus was not circumcised; others that St. Paul, receiving an assurance that the main question, that of Gentile freedom, would be decided in his favour, gave way on the minor point, and circumcised Titus, not under compulsion, but as a spontaneous act of Christian charity (compare his conduct in the case of Timothy, Acts 16:3). Before the Conference a complete settlement was reached. The Twelve acknowledged Paul's teaching as orthodox, recognised him as the Apostle of the Gentiles, conceded his demand that the Gentiles should be free from the observance of the Law, and gave him the right hand of fellowship. After this the result of the Council was a foregone conclusion.

Some scholars take an entirely different view of the historical situation. They think that the visit to Jerusalem described in Galatians 2:1-10 is not that of Acts 15 at all, but that of Acts 11:29, Acts 11:30. They regard the Epistle to the Galatians as written before the Council, during the heat of the circumcision controversy, and they place Peter's visit to Antioch (Galatians 2:11.) also before the Council. Much can be said in favour of this view, and the present writer is inclined to favour it.

1. Certain men] They falsely claimed to have been sent by James (see Acts 15:24, Galatians 2:12).

2. Barnabas] St. Luke passes over Peter's visit to Antioch, and Barnabas's temporary 'dissimulation '(Galatians 2:12).

3. The journey to Jerusalem partook somewhat of the character of a triumphant progress, or demonstration in favour of Paul and Barnabas. Outside Jerusalem the Pauline party was clearly in the ascendant.

4. Even at Jerusalem the officials of the church, and its members as a whole, were favourably disposed towards St. Paul. The Judaisers were in a minority.

5. Pharisees] The only express mention of converted Pharisees. What attracted the Pharisees in Christianity was (1) the fulfilment in Christ of the Messianic hope which the devout Pharisees cherished, and (2) the doctrine of the Resurrection.

7-11. The speech of St. Peter endorses the opinions of St. Paul in every particular. He speaks of the Law as a yoke 'which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear' (cp. Galatians 5:1, where St. Paul bids the Galatians not to be entangled again with the yoke of bondage), and emphasises the Pauline doctrine of salvation by grace and faith, and not by the works of the law: cp. Romans 3:24; Galatians 2:16; Galatians 3:6 etc. There is nothing incredible in this. It is plain from Galatians that Peter and even James were in complete agreement in principle with St. Paul (Galatians 2:6.), and 1 Pet makes it evident that St. Peter was much attracted and influenced by St. Paul's theology.

13. James] James, the Lord's brother, presided at the Council, doubtless in the capacity of chief ruler of the local Church of Jerusalem. We should have expected Peter to preside.

14-21. St. James' speech proves him as decided an adherent of Gentile liberty as St. Peter. He approves St. Peter's conduct in baptising Cornelius, and quotes prophecies showing that the Messianic Church will embrace all nations. The Jews are to continue to keep the Law, but the Gentiles are only to be required to abstain from certain practices offensive to Jews.

14. Simeon] RV 'Symeon.' St. James uses the ancient Hebrew form of Peter's name, instead of the more usual 'Simon.' For his name] i.e. 'that his name might be glorified in them.'

16-18. St. James cites from memory, and not quite accurately, Amos 9:11-12; (LXX), of which nevertheless he preserves the true sense.

16. After this I will return] Amos simply has 'In that day,' i.e. in the day of the Messiah. The tabernacle of David] i.e. the royal family descended from David. David's family is compared to a fallen tent, because, when Amos wrote, the southern kingdom was quite insignificant compared with the northern.

17, 18. Who doeth all these things. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world] There is nothing in Amos corresponding to these words. RV reads, 'who maketh these things known from the beginning of the world.' RM reads, 'who doeth these things which were known from the beginning of the world.'

20. St. James mentions four prohibitions: (1) pollutions of idols, (2) fornication, (3) eating the flesh of strangled animals, (4) eating blood. The object of these prohibitions was to render social intercourse between Jews and Gentiles, and particularly common meals, less difficult. Pollutions of idols] No Christian would directly worship an idol, but Gentile Christians might easily incur pollution according to Jewish ideas, (1) by buying flesh in a heathen market, (2) by attending a feast in a heathen house. In both cases there would be a danger of eating flesh offered in sacrifice to idols. Fornication] Most interpret this of ordinary fornication, but seeing this was already forbidden to all Christians, there is much to be said for J. Lightfoot's view, that what is really meant is marriage within the degrees forbidden in the book of Leviticus. Such marriages, common among the heathen, would be most distasteful to the Jews, and would be regarded by them as fornication: cp. 1 Corinthians 5:1.

Thing's strangled] This refers to Leviticus 17:13-14; Deuteronomy 12:16, Deuteronomy 12:23, according to which the blood was to be drained out of all animals before they were eaten. This prohibition, however, is entirely omitted by D and other ancient authorities both here and in Acts 15:29. From blood] see Leviticus 3:17; Leviticus 7:26; Leviticus 17:10; Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 12:16, Deuteronomy 12:23; Deuteronomy 15:23. D and other authorities add here this injunction: 'And that they should not do to others what they would not have done to themselves.'

21. Here St. James recognises that Jewish Christians are still to attend the synagogue services and to keep the Law.

22. This v. is evidence that the whole Church, and not merely the clergy, were consulted in matters of public policy. Judas surnamed Barsabas (Barsabbas)] probably the brother of the Joseph Barsabbas who was a candidate for the apostolate (Acts 1:23). He was clearly a Hebrew. Silas, on the other hand, was probably a Hellenist, as his Latin name ('Silas' = 'Silvanus') indicates. He appears again, Acts 15:40; Acts 16:19; Acts 17:4, Acts 17:10, Acts 17:14; Acts 18:5; 2 Corinthians 1:19, as a companion of St. Paul. Later he was an associate of St. Peter (1 Peter 5:12). Apparently he possessed the Roman citizenship (Acts 16:37).

23. The apostles and elders and brethren] Recent editors read, 'the apostles and presbyters, brethren.' Apparently the apostles and presbyters describe themselves as 'brethren' to give the letter a fraternal and affectionate character. But the text is probably corrupt.

25. Being assembled with one accord] rather, 'having come to one accord.'

28. Observe the claim to inspiration.

34. This v. is omitted as an interpolation by many modern editors. It is contained in D, which adds, 'and Judas went alone.'

35. In Antioch] Here should be placed, according to the usual view, Peter's visit to Antioch, mentioned Galatians 2:11. At first Peter ate publicly with the Gentiles, but on the arrival of 'certain from James,' he 'separated himself, fearing them that were of the circumcision.' The rest of the Jews, and even Barnabas, 'dissembled' with him. St. Paul then publicly rebuked him, and apparently St. Peter confessed himself in the wrong. According to the other view, which the present writer favours, Peter's visit to Antioch took place before the Council. It is easier to understand the refusal to eat with the Gentiles before than after the Council.


Verse 36


St Paul's Second Missionary Journey, 49, 50 a.d. (
Acts 15:36 to Acts 18:22)

Having secured the formal recognition by the Twelve of Gentile Christianity, St. Paul was free to resume his missionary labours. He first revisited the Churches founded on the First Journey, and then carried the gospel to Europe, preaching at Philippi, Thessalonica, Berosa, Athens, and Corinth, He then returned to the Syrian Antioch, and visited Jerusalem.

Acts 15:36 to Acts 16:5. The Galatian and other Churches revisited.

Acts 15:36-41. St. Paul's grievance against Barnabas was that the latter insisted on taking with them an unsuitable assistant simply because he was a relation. The Church of Antioch seems to have sympathised with St. Paul (see Acts 15:40). St. Paul was subsequently reconciled with. Barnabas (1 Corinthians 9:6) and also with Mark (2 Timothy 4:11; Colossians 4:10).

41. Confirming the churches] see Acts 16:5, and op. Acts 14:22.

 


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Bibliography Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Acts 15:4". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcb/acts-15.html. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, December 15th, 2019
the Third Week of Advent
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