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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Acts 15

 

 

Verse 1

XV.

(1) And certain men which came down from Judæa.—We enter on the history of the first great controversy in the records of the Christian Church. It might have seemed as if the conversion of Cornelius had been accepted as deciding the question which we now find raised again (Acts 11:18). It would seem, however, that those who had raised objections to Peter’s conduct in that case were not content to accept the conclusion which he drew from it, and it is not difficult to represent to ourselves the train of thought which led them to take a different view. To them it may have seemed the exception that proved the rule. Where signs and wonders came in, they may have been content to accept an uncircumcised convert as a member of the Church, simply on the ground that God had dispensed in such cases with His own law; or they may have urged that though, in such cases, they did not require circumcision as a condition of admission, the continuance in the uncircumcised state after baptism was a wilful transgression, which shut men out from the “salvation” which they were seeking. Circumcision, they may have said, had been given as an “everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:13), and had never been formally abrogated. Who were the new teachers, that they should change what God had thus established? It is clear that they came, claiming to speak in the name of James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, and though he distinctly repudiates having authorised them (Acts 15:24), yet if we suppose, as is probable, that his Epistle was written shortly before the Council, we can easily understand that they might rest their case on the words which he had used in it, that “whosoever shall keep the whole Law, and yet offend in one point, is guilty of all” (James 2:10). Here, they might say, is a point confessedly in the Law, and even prior to it; and they were not prepared to draw the distinctions which we have learned to draw between the positive and the moral, the transient and the permanent, obligations of that Law. And it is to be noted that they did not merely make circumcision a condition of church communion; they carried their principles to their logical conclusion—as mediaeval dogmatism did in the case of baptism—and excluded the uncircumcised from all hope of salvation. (Comp. the account of Ananias and Izates given in the Note on Acts 9:10.)


Verse 2

(2) When therefore Paul and Barnabas.—The two Apostles must obviously have agreed in feeling that the teaching of the Judaisers (it will be convenient to use that term henceforth) involved a direct condemnation of all the work in which they saw the triumph of God’s grace. They had proclaimed salvation through faith in Christ. Their converts were now told that they had been teaching a soul-destroying falsehood.

No small dissension and disputation.—The first of the two words was that which had been used by classical writers, like Thucydides (iii. 82) and Aristotle (Polit. v. 2), to express the greatest evil of all political societies—the spirit of party and of faction. In Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19, it is used of the “insurrection” in which Barabbas had been the ringleader. That element of evil was now beginning to show itself in the Christian Church.

They determined that Paul and Barnabas.—These were naturally chosen as the representatives of the cause of which they had been the chief advocates. The “certain others” are not named, but the prophets of Acts 13:1, and the men of Cyprus and Cyrene of Acts 11:20, were likely enough to have been chosen, and Titus was apparently taken up as an example of the fruits of St. Paul’s labours (Galatians 1:3). Looking to the Roman name which this disciple bore, it is not unlikely that he may have been among the first to whom the term Christian was applied. (See Note on Acts 11:26.) The fulness with which the history of the Council is given, suggests the possibility that St. Luke himself may have been present at it. If not, he must have based his report on materials supplied by St. Paul or one of the other delegates from Antioch, possibly Manaen (Acts 13:1).

Should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders.—The circumstances of the journey make it all but certain that we may identify it with that of which St. Paul speaks in Galatians 2:1. The only other visits that can dispute its claim are those of Acts 11:30; Acts 18:22; but though the latter view has been taken by some able writers (e.g., Lewin’s St. Paul, i., p. 302), there are, it is believed, decisive grounds for rejecting both. Against the first there are the facts, (1) that it is not easy to place fourteen years between the visit of Acts 9:27, and that of Acts 11:30; (2) the visit of Acts 11:30 appears in the history as confined to the single object of carrying relief to the suffering poor of the Church at Jerusalem; (3) the question as to enforcing circumcision had not then been raised, after its apparent settlement in the case of Cornelius; (4) had the agreement referred to in Galatians 2:9 preceded the Council, it would assuredly have been appealed to in the course of the debate at the Council. Against the second there are the facts (1) that the interval would, in that case, have been more than fourteen years; and (2) that it was not likely that the question should have been raised again after the decision of the Council. The only arguments of any weight on the other side are, (1) that the narrative of Acts 15 makes no mention of Titus; and (2) that that of Galatians 2 makes no mention of the Council; but these arguments from omission tell equally against both the other visits. These points will be dealt with as we proceed, and are, in any case, not sufficient to outweigh the evidence in the other scale. The reference of the question to the “Apostles and elders” is in many ways important. (1) As against the dogmatic system of the Church of Rome. On her theory, in its latest forms, the reference should have been to Peter, and to Peter alone, as the unerring guide of the Church into all truth. (2) As a recognition of the authority of the mother-Church of Jerusalem by the daughter-Church of Antioch; and as a precedent for referring local disputes to the decision of a central authority. (3) As showing the confidence which Paul and Barnabas felt that the decision would be in their favour. They could not believe that St. Peter would be false to the lesson which the history of Cornelius had taught him, nor that St. James would recall the definition which he had so recently given of “pure and undefiled religion” (James 1:27). (4) We note that St. Paul ascribes the journey to a “revelation” (Galatians 2:1). The thought came into his mind as by an inspiration that this, and not prolonged wranglings at Antioch, was the right solution of the problem.


Verse 3

(3) They passed through Phenice and Samaria.—The route lay from Seleucia, at the mouth of the Orontes, along the coast of Sidon, Tyre, and, probably, Cæsarea, and then through Samaria. They might have gone to Joppa, and so have avoided the old Canaanite cities and the region of the hated Samaritans. The very journey was, therefore, an assertion of the principles for which they were contending. We note, too, that the facts imply that they found “brethren,” i.e., established Christian societies, in both regions. “Tyre and Sidon” had repented and believed, though Chorazin and Bethsaida had hardened themselves in unbelief (Luke 11:13). The “woman of Canaan,” of Mark 7:26, may, by this time, have eaten not of the “crumbs,” but of the “Bread” of Life. Everything points to Philip as the probable Evangelist of this region as well as of Samaria. Paul and Barnabas would accordingly, as they travelled, be setting their seal to his work, claiming fellowship with Canaanites and Samaritans; and wherever they went they were received with joy. Here, at least, they were certain of support; and, on mere grounds of policy, they were strengthening their cause by appearing at Jerusalem as the representatives of such important communities, having the courage of their convictions, and determined, though they might make concessions in things indifferent, not to sacrifice a single principle.

They caused great joy.—The tense implies continued action. Wherever they went the tidings of the conversion of the Gentiles were received by the disciples at large with a gladness which presented the strongest possible contrast to the narrowness and bitterness of the Pharisee section of the Church of Jerusalem.


Verse 4

(4) They were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders.—The words imply a general gathering of the Church, members of different synagogues coining together, with the elders who presided over them. The position of the Apostles, though in some degree analogous in their relation to the elders to the later office of bishops, was yet in many ways unique. They had no local diocese, but remained at Jerusalem, guiding the progress of the Church at large, as a kind of central council, calling in the “elders,” or “presbyters,” to consult with them, and submitting the result of their deliberations to the Church at large. The three bodies stood to each other as the Boulè, or council, the Gerusia, or senate, and the Ecclesia, or assembly, in a Greek republic.

They declared all things that God had done with them.—This obviously implied a narrative of considerable length: the history of acts and sufferings, of signs and wonders, of the fruits of the Spirit as seen in the purity, and truth, and love of the Gentile converts. This took place apparently at a preliminary meeting.


Verse 5

(5) Certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed.—This is the first distinct mention of the conversion of any of the Pharisaic party, but there had been a drift in that direction going on for some time, beginning during our Lord’s ministry (John 12:42), and showing itself in the moderate counsels of Gamaliel (Acts 5:38-39). The position which they occupied was that of accepting Jesus as a teacher sent from God, proved by the Resurrection to be the Christ, and as such the Head of a kingdom which was to present to mankind a restored and glorified Judaism, the Law kept in its completeness, the Temple ritual still maintained, Gentiles admitted only on their confessing their inferiority and accepting the sign of incorporation with the superior race. It appears, from Galatians 2:1, that here, as in so many later controversies, the general issue was debated on an individual case. Was Titus—a Greek, i.e., a Gentile, whom St. Paul had brought up with him—to be circumcised, or not? Was he to be admitted to communion with the Church, or treated as a heathen? Here, probably, there was no official rank as in the case of Cornelius, no previous transition stage in passing through the synagogue as a proselyte of the gate. He was a Gentile pure and simple, and as such his case was a crucial one. Circumcision, however, did not stand alone. It carried with it every jot and tittle of the Law, the Sabbaths and the feasts, the distinction between clean and unclean meats. It may be noted that the position which Titus occupied in this controversy gave him a special fitness for the work afterwards assigned to him, of contending against the party of the circumcision, with their “Jewish fables” and false standards of purity (Titus 1:10; Titus 1:14-15).


Verse 6

(6) And the apostles and elders came together.—The meeting rightly takes its place as the first in the long series of councils, or synods, which mark the course of the Church’s history. It bore its witness that the government of the Christian society was not to rest in the autocracy of a single will, but in the deliberative decision of those who, directly or indirectly, having been appointed by the choice, or with the approval, of the people, represented the whole community. Presbyters had an equal voice with the Apostles, whose position was analogous to that of the later bishops. Those whom we should call the laity were present at the deliberations, and, though we have no absolute proof that they took part in them, gave their vote. (Comp. Note on Acts 15:23.) Strictly speaking, it was, in the later ecclesiastical language, a provincial and not an œcumenical synod, called to decide what seemed a question of discipline rather than of doctrine; but the ground on which the question had been argued made it one of world-wide dogmatic importance. If circumcision was necessary, then faith in Christ was insufficient. St. Paul saw and felt this in all its fulness, and therefore would not “give way by subjection, no, not for an hour” (Galatians 2:5). We have no data for estimating the number of the presbyters who were present. Probably they included those of the neighbouring towns and villages of Judæa as well as of Jerusalem, and if so, we may fairly think of some number between fifty and a hundred.


Verse 7

(7) When there had been much disputing.—This implies a full discussion, in which the Judaising teachers, probably, though not certainly, presbyters, on the one side, and the advocates of freedom, on the other, took part. Light is thrown on the character of the debate by St. Paul’s account of the matter in Galatians 2:2-10. He did not even then bring out what he held and taught, in its fulness. He shrank from startling and offending the prejudices of his countrymen, and was content to argue that circumcision and the Law were not binding upon the Gentiles, to press the precedent of the case of Cornelius and the analogy of the proselytes of the gate. Privately, in interviews with Peter, James, and John, he had gone further, and had declared his convictions that for Jew and Gentile alike circumcision and the Law were hindrances, and not helps, to the spiritual life, and that faith working by love was everything. And they, as the history of the Council and yet more their Epistles show, accepted his teaching. Of all doctrines as to the development of the Christian Church that which sees in Peter, James, and John the leaders of a Judaising anti-Pauline party is, perhaps, the most baseless and fantastic. The fact that their names were unscrupulously used by that party, both in their lifetime and, as the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies and Recognitions show, after their death, cannot outweigh their own deliberate words and acts.

Peter rose up, and said unto them.—The position of the Apostle is one of authority, but not of primacy. He does not preside, nor even propose, as we should say, a definite canon or resolution. His authority is that of personal and moral influence, that of a vir pietate gravis, but nothing more.

Men and brethren.—Better, as before, Brethren only, and so again in Acts 15:13.

Ye know how that a good while ago . . .—Literally, of ancient days. Ten or twelve years had passed since the conversion of Cornelius. Where Peter had been in the meantime, and what he had done, we have no record. We can hardly believe, as the Romish theory implies, that he came from the imperial city to attend the Council. It will be noted, as has been said before (see Note on Acts 11:20), that the Apostle speaks of this as having been the first admission of the Gentiles.


Verse 8

(8) God which knoweth the hearts.—We note the recurrence of the epithet as characteristic of St. Peter. (See Note on Acts 1:24.)


Verse 9

(9) And put no difference between us and them.—It is obvious that this implies the most entire acceptance of the teaching which St. Paul had privately communicated to the three who were as the pillars of the Church (Galatians 2:9). In Romans 10:12 we have almost the very words of St. Peter reproduced.

Purifying their hearts by faith.—The addition of these words is very suggestive. It was not only in the “gifts” of the Spirit, the tongues and prophecy, that the Apostle saw the witness which God had borne to the acceptance of the Gentiles, but even more than this, in the new purity growing out of a new faith in God and a new hope. Underlying the words we trace the assertion of a higher ideal of purity than that on which the Pharisees were insisting. They looked on the Gentiles as impure because they did not observe the ceremonial law and the traditions of the elders as to purity. He had learnt to call no man common or unclean (Acts 10:28) and to see that it was in the heart, and not in the flesh, that the work of purifying was to be accomplished. Comp. in connection with the thought suggested in the Note on Acts 15:5, the teaching as to purity in Titus 1:15.


Verse 10

(10) Why tempt ye God.—To tempt God was to make the experiment whether His will, manifested in the acceptance of the Gentiles, or man’s will, resenting and resisting it, was the stronger of the two. Nothing but defeat and condemnation could be the issue of such a trial.

To put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples.—No words of St. Paul’s, in relation to the Law, could be stronger or clearer than these. They reproduced our Lord’s own language as to the “heavy burdens” of the Pharisaic traditions (Matthew 23:4) and His own “easy yoke” (Matthew 11:30). They were echoed by St. Paul when he warned the Galatians not to be entangled again in the yoke of bondage (Galatians 5:1). The words that follow, on the one hand, speak out the experience of the Apostle himself in terms that are hardly less striking than those of St. Paul in Romans 7:7-8, though they deal with the Law in its positive rather than its moral aspects, and contain an implied appeal to the experience of his hearers. Was it worth while to “tempt God” by resisting His teaching in history in order to bring the Gentiles down to the level from which they themselves, Jews as they were, were thankful to have risen?


Verse 11

(11) We believe that through the grace . . .—This comes, in what we may well regard as a summary of St. Peter’s speech, as the closing argument. The Pharisee might regard the Law as binding, but even he, if he believed in Christ, was compelled to confess that his hope of salvation was found in the work of Christ as the Saviour; and if so, then, as regards that hope, Jew and Gentile were on the same level, and the judgment that men could not be saved without the Law was but the inconsistency of an intolerant dogmatism, insisting on imposing that which was acknowledged to be profitless. It may be noted that this is the last appearance of St. Peter in the Acts, which from this period turns exclusively upon the work of St. Paul. For the subsequent history of the former, see Introduction to the Epistles of St. Peter.


Verse 12

(12) And gave audience to Barnabas and Paul.—The leaders of the Church had clearly reserved their part in the debate to the last, and the two Apostles of the Gentiles were now called on to repeat more publicly what they had already narrated to the Apostles and elders (Acts 15:4). It was, perhaps, with a special view to the character of their hearers that they laid stress on the “signs and wonders” which had attested God’s acceptance of their work (Matthew 12:38; Matthew 16:1; 1 Corinthians 1:22). Miracles had been wrought among the Gentiles as freely as among the Jews, and those who wrought them, unless they were casting out devils by Beelzebub (and the Judaisers appear to have shrunk from that charge), must have been sent by God (John 3:2; John 9:31-33).


Verse 13

(13) James answered.—The position which James the brother of the Lord (see Notes on Acts 12:17; and Matthew 12:46; Matthew 13:55) occupies in the Council is clearly that of pre-eminence, justifying the title of Bishop of Jerusalem, which later writers give him. No one speaks after him; he sum up the whole debate; he proposes the decree which is to be submitted to the Council for approval.


Verse 14

(14) Simeon hath declared . . .—The Greek form is Symeon, as in 2 Peter 1:1. The use of the old Hebrew form of the Apostle’s name, instead of the more familiar Simon, was natural in the Galilean speaker, and is presumptive evidence in favour of our having a report from notes made at the time.

Did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people.—The two words present an emphatic contrast. The Jews claimed for themselves the exclusive right to the latter term. They alone were the “people,” the rest of mankind were the “nations”—the “heathen.” St. James proclaims that out of those heathen nations a people had been taken who were as truly God’s people as Israel had ever been. He, too, recognises the change as fully as St. Paul does, when in Romans 9:26 he quotes the memorable prophecy of Hosea 1:10. St. James as well as St. Peter had, it is clear, profited by the private teaching referred to in Galatians 2:2.


Verse 15

(15) To this agree the words of the prophets.—On the mode of quoting without naming the prophet, see Note on Acts 13:40.


Verse 16

(16) After this I will return.—It is a fact not without interest that the prophet from whom these words are taken (Amos 9:11-12) had been already quoted by Stephen (Acts 7:42). Those who then listened to him had, we may believe, been led to turn to the writings of Amos, and to find in them meanings which had hitherto been latent. The fact that the inference drawn from the passage mainly turns on a clause in which the LXX. version, which St. James quotes, differs from the Hebrew, shows, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the discussion must have been conducted in Greek, and not in Hebrew. At first this may appear strange in a council held at Jerusalem, but the trial of Stephen presents a precedent (see Note on Acts 7:1); and it is obvious that in a debate which chiefly affected the interests of Greeks, and at which many of them, and of the Hellenistic Jews, were likely to be present, the use of that language, both in the debate and the decree in which it resulted, was almost a matter of necessity. Both languages were probably equally familiar to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. (See Note on Acts 22:2.) The quotation suggests, perhaps implies, a fuller interpretation than is given in the summary of St. James’s speech. It assumes that the “tabernacle of David,” which to human eyes had been lying as in ruins, was being rebuilt by Christ, the Son of David, that He was doing the work which, in the prophecy, Jehovah claimed as His.


Verse 17

(17) That the residue of men . . .—The Hebrew gives, as in our version, “That they may possess the remnant of Edom and of all the heathen which are called by my name.” The LXX. translators either paraphrased the passage, so as to give a wider and more general view of its teaching, or followed a reading in which the Hebrew for “man” (Adam) took the place of Edom. It will be seen that the argument of St. James turns upon the Greek rendering. The “name of God” was to be “called” upon by those who were “the residue of men,” i.e., all that were outside the pale of Israel. So understood, the words became, of course, a prediction of the conversion of the Gentiles, and to the uncritical habits of the time, accustomed to Targums or Paraphrases of many parts of Scripture, the LXX. was for all but the stricter and more bigoted Hebraists, as authoritative as the original.


Verse 18

(18) Known unto God are all his works.—The better MSS. give “all His work”—i.e., the great work of the government and education of mankind. The words are an implicit answer to the charge of innovation. If the work were of God, it could not be so called, for His mercies are everlasting, and the work which He carries on now must be thought of as contemplated and purposed from eternity. The principle has clearly a wider range than that within which St. James applies it. We do well to remember, whenever we are tempted to offer an obstinate resistance to what seems to us a novelty, and which we therefore are ready to condemn, that we ought first to inquire whether the “signs of the times” do not indicate that it is part of the divine plan, working through the ages, that the old order should change and give place to the new.


Verse 19

(19) Wherefore my sentence is.—Literally, Wherefore I judge. The tone is that of one who speaks with authority, but what follows is not given as a decree, but as a resolution which was submitted to the judgment of the Apostles and elders. (Comp. Acts 16:4.)

That we trouble not them.—The verb is not found elsewhere in the New Testament, and expresses the idea of “worrying” or “harassing.”

Are turned to God.—More accurately, are turning, as acknowledging that the work was going on at that very moment.


Verse 20

(20) But that we write unto them.—The grounds on which the measure thus defined was proposed are not far to seek. (1) It was of the nature of a compromise. The Gentiles could not complain that the burden imposed on them was anything very grievous. The Pharisee section of the Church could not refuse admission to those who fulfilled these conditions, when they had admitted the proselytes of the gate on like conditions to their synagogues, and had so treated them as no longer unclean. (2) The rules on which stress was now laid found a place among the seven precepts traditionally ascribed to Noah, and based upon the commands recorded in Genesis 9:5. These were held to be binding upon all mankind; while the Law, as such, was binding on Israel only. These, therefore, had been thought sufficient for the proselytes of the gate before, and were urged now as sufficient for the Gentile converts by the teacher who represented the most rigid type of Judaism. (See, once more, the history of Ananias and Izates in the Note on Acts 9:10.) Special reasons attached, as will be seen, to each precept.

From pollutions of idols.—The Greek of the first noun is found only in the LXX. and the New Testament; and perhaps its primary idea is that of “wallowing” in blood and mire, and so incurring pollution. As distinguished from the acts that follow, it indicates any participation, publicly or privately, in idolatrous rites. One who acted on the rule would have to refrain from entering a temple, and to dislodge busts or statues of the gods from his house and gardens. The presence of such things, when they presented themselves on entering a house, was a great stumbling-block to devout Jews, and the Gentile convert who, left to himself, might have been disposed to keep them, though no longer as objects of worship, but as works of art, was required to renounce them. The statues of Zeus and Artemis and Hermes were to be to him henceforth as abominations. In the decree itself, however, we find “things sacrificed to idols” instead of the more general term, and we may accordingly deal here with that question also. So interpreted, the rule brings before us a new phase of the life of the early Christian converts. Under the religion of Greece and Rome, sacrifices were so common that it might fairly be taken for granted that the flesh at any festive meal had been so offered. But a small portion of the flesh was burnt upon the altar, and the rest was cooked for the household meal, or sent to the market for sale. Such meat was, in the eyes of the strict Jews, polluted, and the history of Daniel and his companions (Daniel 1:8) was regarded as a precedent to avoiding it. Partly on this ground, partly on that referred to in the next Note but one, the Jew never bought meat in the market, nor of other than a Jewish butcher. He travelled with his cophinus, or basket, on his back, and carried his provisions with him. So Juvenal (Sat. iii. 14) speaks of—

“Judæis, quorum cophinus fœnumque supellex.”

[“Basket, and wisp of straw to serve as pillow,—

That’s the Jew’s luggage.”]

Here, therefore, was a new stumbling-block, and the Gentile was required to avoid this also. It involved many sacrifices, and what would seem privations. The convert had to refuse invitations to birthday, and marriage, and funeral feasts; or, if present, to refuse to eat at them. A man with a sensitive conscience would refuse to partake of what was set before him in a private house or offered for sale in the market, unless he had satisfied himself that it had not so been offered. It was natural that this restriction, which did not rest directly on a moral ground, should give rise to some resistance, and the controversy connected with it assumed many different phases. At Corinth men claimed the right to eat what they chose, and St. Paul conceded the right in the abstract, but urged abstinence on the ground of charity (1 Corinthians 8-10.). At Pergamos and Thyatira, somewhat later in the apostolic age (Revelation 2:14; Revelation 2:20), the lawfulness of eating things sacrificed to idols was openly maintained in contravention alike of the teaching of St. Paul and of the apostolic decree, and was joined with a like claim to be exempted from the law which forbade illicit sexual intercourse. At Corinth, it would seem from 1 Corinthians 8:10, the assertion of freedom had led men so far as not only to eat of the flesh that had been sacrificed, but actually to sit down to a feast in the idol’s temple. (Comp. Romans 2:22, as expressing the Jewish feeling.)

And from fornication.—We are surprised at first to find, what seems to us, a moral law placed in juxtaposition with two rules which, like those that follow, seem purely positive and ceremonial. We have to remember, however, (1) that the first command was moral also, and that we may fairly recognise something like a practical, though not a formal distinction, by thinking of the first two precepts as grouped together; (2) that the sin named, involving, as it did, the absence of any true sense of self-respecting purity or reverence for womanhood, was the wide-spread evil of the ancient world, against which Israel had from the first been called to bear its witness (Genesis 34:31; Leviticus 19:29; Deuteronomy 23:17; Proverbs 7:6-27). The increasing laxity of morals throughout the Roman empire, showing itself in the well-known line of Terence—

“Nihil peccati est adolescentulum scortari, “

had led men to think of it as natural and permissible, bringing with it no sense of wrong or shame (comp. Horace, Sat. i. 2, 119), and it might well be that the ethical standard of the Gentile converts was not all at once raised to a true ideal of purity. The old license may have seemed venial, and the disciples may have thought, as Christians have too often thought since, that it did not call for any deep repentance, or exclude them from fellowship with Christ. And yet it was clear that to the Jewish Christian, trained from his childhood to condemn the sin severely, this, too, would legitimately be a very grave stumbling-block in the admission of Gentile converts. How could he feel any assurance that they might not have come from the embraces of a harlot to the Feast of Charity or to the very Supper of the Lord? (Comp. 1 Corinthians 6:15; Revelation 2:14.) Such a state of things required to be dealt with by a special enactment. The moral command had to be re-enacted, and brought into a new prominence. The Church had to take its first step in purifying the morals of mankind, not only by its general teaching, but by canons and rules of discipline. Stress has often been laid on the fact that in many cases, as in those of the Hetæræ?, or harlot-priestesses, of Aphrodite at Corinth and Paphos, prostitution was in closest alliance with idolatry, as a reason for the prohibition, and it is, of course, true that in such cases the sin assumed, in the eyes of Jews, an aggravated character. The man identified himself, by his sinful indulgence, with the coltus of the woman who was its avowed devotee. We can scarcely think, however, that the sin was forbidden, not on account of its own intrinsic evil, but only or chiefly, with a view to this ulterior and incidental consequence.

Things strangled.—Literally, of that which has been strangled. The prohibition rested on Genesis 9:4, and was connected with the symbolic meaning of the blood as representing life, and therefore consecrated to Jehovah. It was repeated in the Law (Leviticus 3:17; Leviticus 7:26; Deuteronomy 12:16; 1 Samuel 14:33), and has been maintained with a wonderful tenacity. For this reason, long after sacrifices have ceased, the Jew will still, if possible, only eat what has been killed by a butcher of his own persuasion. Meat so killed, which may be eaten without defilement, is known technically as Kosher. Here the moral element falls entirely into the background, and the prohibition has simply the character of a concordat to avoid offence. St. Paul and St. Peter were alike persuaded that “there is nothing unclean of itself” (Acts 10:15; Romans 14:14). Practically, the effect of the rule would have been to compel Christians to buy their meat, poultry, &c., from a Jewish butcher or a Christian who followed the Jewish mode of killing, and in some places this must have entailed considerable inconvenience.

From blood.—As distinguished from the preceding rule, this forbade the separate use of blood, as with flour and vegetables, or in the black-puddings of modern cookery, as an article of food. Dishes so prepared were common in the cuisine both of Greeks and Romans, and here also, therefore, the restriction would have involved a frequent withdrawal from social life, or a conspicuous singularity. On the history of the observance, see Note on Acts 15:28.


Verse 21

(21) For Moses of old time.—Literally, of ancient generations. The conjunction gives the reason for writing to the Gentiles, and giving them these injunctions. The Jews, who heard the Law in their synagogues every Sabbath, did not need instruction. It might be taken for granted that they would adhere to the rules now specified. So, in Acts 15:23, the encyclical letter is addressed exclusively to “the brethren of the Gentiles.”


Verse 22

(22) The apostles and elders, with the whole church.—The latter words are important, as showing the position occupied by the laity. If they concurred in the letter, it must have been submitted to their approval, and the right to approve involves the power to reject and, probably, to modify. It is probable enough, as in the analogous constitution of Greek republics above referred to (see Note on Acts 15:4), that the Ecclesia, or popular assembly, did not possess the power of initiating measures; but their right to vote appears, from this instance, to have been indisputable. (See, however, Note on the next verse.) It does not follow, of course, that what was thus the polity of the apostolic age was necessarily adapted for the Church of all subsequent ages; but the exclusion of the laity from all share in Church synods, though it may be defended as a safeguard against the violence of a barbarous or faithless age, must, at any rate, be admitted to be at variance with primitive and apostolic practice.

To send chosen men.—Literally, the participle being active in meaning, to choose and send men. This was obviously necessary, to guard against suspicion. Had Paul and Barnabas alone been the bearers of such a letter, it might have been said that they had forged it.

Judas surnamed Barsabas.—The same patronymic meets us, it will be remembered, in Acts 1:23, as belonging to “Joseph, called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus.” It is a natural inference that the two were brothers, and therefore that the disciple now mentioned had been among those who were personally followers of our Lord. This would naturally clothe him with a high authority. The fact that he is spoken of in Acts 15:32 as a prophet, makes it probable that he was of the number of the Seventy. (See Note on Luke 10:1.)

Silas.—This may have been either a contracted form of Silvanus, as Antipas was of Antipatros, or an Aramaic name, for which Silvanus was adopted as the nearest Greek equivalent. It is probable that he, too, fulfilled the same conditions as his companion. He also was a prophet (Acts 15:32). His later history will be noticed as it comes before us. As the name is connected with the Hebrew for “three,” he has by some been identified with the Tertius of Romans 16:22; but it is hardly probable that one who had been known at Corinth as Silvanus (2 Corinthians 1:19), should afterwards have changed his name.

Chief men among the brethren.—The title thus given is the same as “those that bear rule over you,” in Hebrews 13:17, and implies that they had a position of greater authority than the other elders, as at least primi inter pares. This also falls in with the view that they had been disciples of Christ, who, as the number of witnesses diminished, came more and more into prominence.


Verse 23

(23) And they wrote letters by them.—Literally, wrote letters by their hands. What follows, unless we assume a deliberate fraud, is clearly the transcript of a document—the first in the long list of decrees and canons and encyclical letters which mark the Church’s history.

The apostles and elders and brethren.—The MSS. present a singular variation of readings, some of the earliest omitting the conjunction and article before the last noun, and giving “the Apostles and elders, brethren.” Such a mode of speech, however, is foreign to the usage of the New Testament, and it is probable that this reading originated in a desire to bring the text into harmony with the later practice of the Church, which excluded the laity from all participation in its synods. (See Note on Acts 15:22.)

Send greeting.—Literally, wish joy. The formula was common in Greek epistles, but is not used in the New Testament, except here and in James 1:1. As it is reasonable to suppose that this letter was written or dictated by him, its occurrence is primâ facie evidence of the authorship of the Epistle that bears his name, and which, on the view taken in these Notes, had been already written to the Church of the Circumcision.

Unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles.—The letter was therefore addressed to them exclusively (see Note on Acts 15:20), as the Epistle of St. James had probably been previously addressed to the Jews of the “dispersion,” and not to the Gentiles.

In Antioch and Syria and Cilicia.—The mention of the latter country is important as showing the extent of St. Paul’s work there prior to his joining Barnabas at Antioch (Acts 11:25). There also he had founded churches in which Gentile converts were admitted as such to full communion.


Verse 24

(24) Certain which went out from us.—The reference is obviously to the teachers (their names are wisely and charitably suppressed) who had appeared at Antioch, as in Acts 15:1. St. John, who was present at the Council (Galatians 2:9), and who, though he took no part in the debate, may well have had a share in drawing up the letter, uses a like mode of speech, “They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19).

Subverting your souls.—The Greek verb, literally, turning upside down, implies throwing into a state of excitement and agitation. The Gentiles had been “unsettled” by the teaching of the Judaisers.

And keep the law.—Assuming the Epistle of St. James to have been already written, there is something almost like a touch of irony in his repeating the phrase of James 2:10. The teachers who bade the Gentiles keep the Law were reminded in that Epistle that they, in their servile respect of persons, were breaking the Law deliberately in one point, and were therefore guilty of all. Putting the two passages together, they bring St. James before us as speaking in the very accents of St. Paul, “Thou, therefore, which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?” (Romans 2:21.)

To whom we gave no such commandment.—The word “such” is a needless interpolation. What St. James declares is that the teachers had had no commission of any kind from him. The passage is important as throwing light on the nature of a later claim set up by the same party (Galatians 2:12).


Verse 25

(25) Being assembled with one accord.—Literally, being of one mind, unanimously.

To send chosen men unto you.—Literally, to choose men and send them unto you. The men, are, of course, Barsabas and Silas.

With our beloved Barnabas and Paul.—The order in which the names stand is, perhaps, characteristic of the Church of Jerusalem, to whom Barnabas was still the more conspicuous teacher of the two. The way in which the two are named may be taken as illustrating St. Paul’s statement that the “pillars” of the Church of Jerusalem gave to him and Barnabas the “right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2:9).


Verse 26

(26) Men that have hazarded their lives.—It is clear from this that the narrative of the hairbreadth escapes at the Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:50) and Lystra (Acts 14:19) must have been laid before the Church. Prominence is given to the fact as likely to secure reverence for those whom many had hitherto regarded with distrust.


Verse 28

(28) It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us . . .—The measure was, the Apostles were persuaded, one of wisdom and charity, and they could not ascribe those gifts to any other source than the Spirit who gives a right judgment in all things. The words have since become almost a formula for the decrees of councils and synods, often used most recklessly when those decrees bore most clearly the marks of human policy and passion. Here we may well admit that the claim was founded on a real inspiration, remembering, however, as we do so, that an inspired commandment does not necessarily involve a permanent obligation. (See Note on next verse.)

To lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.—The words throw light upon the message addressed to the Church of Thyatira, “I will put upon you no other burden” (Revelation 2:24). Looking to the prominence in the Epistles to the Seven Churches of the two points of fornication and eating things sacrificed to idols, there can scarcely be the shadow of a doubt that we have in those words a distinct reference to the decree of the Council of Jerusalem. The letter does not say why these things were necessary, and the term was probably chosen as covering alike the views of those who held, like the Pharisee Christians, that they were binding on the Church for ever, and those who, like St. Paul, held that they were necessary only for the time, and as a measure of wise expediency.


Verse 29

(29) From meats offered to idols.—The specific term takes the place of the more general word which St. James had used. The change, if the two words were not used, as is possible, as altogether equivalent, may be thought of as favouring the Gentiles by narrowing the prohibition to a single point.

Fare ye well.—The closing salutation was, like the opening, a Greek and not a Hebrew one. It meets us again in Acts 23:30. Both were naturally used in a letter addressed to Greeks, and intended to be read by them and by Hellenistic Jews. It does not occur, however, in any of the Epistles of the New Testament.

It is natural to ask, at the close of the great encyclical letter, in what relation it really stood to the life of the Apostolic Church. As a concordat between the contending parties it was framed, as has been said, with a sagacity that may well be looked on as inspired. But obviously it was not, and from the nature of the case could not be, more than that. The time had not come for proclaiming to the Church of Jerusalem the full width of St. Paul’s teaching (Galatians 2:2), and accordingly, though something may be read between the lines, the decree seems to treat the precepts of Noah as perpetually binding, places moral and positive obligations on the same footing, and leaves the ground on which they are “necessary” an open question. St. Paul, who had accepted it as a satisfactory settlement of the matter in debate, never refers to it, even when he is discussing the chief point with which the decree dealt (1 Corinthians 8-10). In his narrative of what passed on this occasion (Galatians 2:1-10) there is no mention of it. The private conference with the three great “pillars” of the Church was for him more than the decree of the synod, and he felt himself able to discuss the whole question again on different grounds, and with a more distinct reference to spiritual and ethical principles. It was wrong to eat things sacrificed to idols, not because the act of so eating in itself brought defilement, but because it might involve a participation in the sin of idolatry in the consciousness of the eater, or wound the conscience of the weaker brother who saw him eat. It was natural that those who lacked his largeness of view should become slaves to the letter of the rules long after the grounds on which they rested had ceased to exist, and so we find that the prohibition of blood was re-enforced in the so-called Apostolic Canons (c. 62), and in the fourth century by the Council of Gangra (c. 2), and in the seventh by that at Constantinople, known as in Trullo (c. 67), and continues to be the binding rule of the Greek Church still. In Africa and in Europe, however, truer views prevailed (August, cont. Faust. xxxii. 13), and not even the most devout believer in the inspiration of the Apostles, or in the authority of primitive antiquity. would venture to urge that the two last precepts of the four here enjoined were in any degree binding. Hooker (Eccl. Pol. iv., xi., § 5) rightly refers to this decree as a crucial instance proving that commands might be divine and yet given only for a season, binding as long as the conditions to which they applied continued, but no longer. It would almost seem, indeed, as if St. Paul felt that the terms of the decree had the effect of placing the sin of impurity on the same level with that of eating things sacrificed to idols, and things strangled, and blood, and so tended to keep men from seeing it in its true hatefulness. Those who claimed a right, which in the abstract St. Paul could not deny, to eat of things strangled or offered to idols, thought themselves free to fall back into the old license of the heathen world, and he needed far stronger motives than the canons of the council to restrain them (1 Corinthians 5:9-10; 1 Corinthians 6:15-20, and found those motives in the truths that they had been bought with a price, that the will of God was their sanctification, and that their bodies were His temple.


Verse 30

(30) When they were dismissed, they came to Antioch.—It is natural, in the absence of anything to the contrary, to infer that they returned, as they had come, through Samaria and Phœnicia, and gladdened the hearts of the disciples there by telling them of the triumph which had been won at Jerusalem for the cause of freedom.

They delivered the epistle.—We can picture to ourselves the eager excitement of that moment, the listening crowds, the letter, which as a formal missive would be sealed and tied round with thread, solemnly opened and read out aloud, mortification and murmurs on the one side, clamorous applause on the other, as each sentence repudiated the claims of the Judaisers and confirmed the principles and the work of St. Paul and Barnabas. To the Gentile converts it was, indeed—won, as it had been, after a hard battle—as the great charter of their freedom.


Verse 31

(31) They rejoiced for the consolation.—We ought not to forget that the letter was probably read out by one who was himself emphatically “the son of consolation” (Acts 4:36) in all the manifold aspects of that word, and who now proved himself worthy of the name.


Verse 32

(32) Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves.—See Note on Acts 15:22.

Exhorted.—The verb is that from which the Greek for “consolation” was formed, and includes that meaning here. This was the chief end to which the gift of prophecy was directed. The two teachers thus showed that they had not come only as formal representatives of the Church in Jerusalem, but took a personal interest in the work. Their work was the very reverse of those who had previously come from Judæa “subverting the souls of the disciples” (Acts 15:24).


Verse 33

(33) Unto the apostles.—The better MSS. have simply, “to those that had sent them,” and omit Acts 15:34, which was probably added by a later copyist to explain the fact mentioned in Acts 15:40.


Verse 35

(35) Preaching the word of the Lord.—Here, as often elsewhere, preaching the glad tidings of the word.

With many others.—Among these we may fairly reckon the prophets of Acts 13:1. Looking to the later history of the Church of Antioch, it is not improbable that we may think also of the martyr Ignatius, and Euodius, afterwards Bishop of Antioch, as among those who were thus active, though they were not prominent enough, when St. Luke wrote, to be specially named. Ignatius was said to have been, together with Polycarp, a disciple of St. John (Mart. Ignat. c. 3), while another tradition represents him as a follower of Peter. It is possible that the dispute between St. Peter and St. Paul, referred to in Galatians 2:11-13, occurred during this period, but the evidence on the whole tends to connect it with St. Paul’s visit to Antioch in Acts 18:22, where see Note.


Verse 36

(36) And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas.—The commonly received chronology of the Acts makes the interval between the Council of Jerusalem and St. Paul’s second missionary journey somewhat more than a year.

Let us go again.—The proposal was characteristic of one whose heart was ever full of “the care of all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28), ever making mention of them in his prayers night and day (Romans 1:9; Ephesians 1:16; Philippians 1:3). We may well believe that it was a desire to know, not only the general condition of the churches, but the spiritual growth of each individual member.


Verse 37

(37) Barnabas determined.—The Greek verb is hardly so strong, better, was minded. The ties of relationship led the uncle, or cousin, to wish to make another trial of his kinsman’s fitness (Colossians 4:10). He saw extenuating circumstances which St. Paul could not recognise, and which half-excused his turning back when he had set his hand to the plough. (See Note on Acts 13:13.) To St. Paul one who had so acted, seemed, in our Lord’s words, “not fit for the kingdom of God,” and needing at least the discipline of rejection for a time, from the higher work for which he had shown himself unworthy.


Verse 39

(39) And the contention was so sharp between them, that . . .—Literally, there was a sharp contention, (or paroxysm), so that . . . The warmth of previous affection, of a friendship begun probably in boyhood, and cemented by new hopes, and a great work in which both were sharers, made the breach between the two more painful. At this stage, both Barnabas and Mark disappear from the history of the Acts, but it will be worth while to note the chief facts in the after-history of each. (1) Probably Barnabas and Paul met again in the visit of Acts 18:22, unless, indeed, we refer the incidents of Galatians 2:11-13 to an earlier period, and then there was a yet further cause of division in his yielding to the dissimulation of the Judaising teachers. (2) In writing to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 9:6) the Apostle names Barnabas as setting the same noble example as himself in labouring with his own hands and accepting nothing from the churches. (3) On the later life of Mark see the Introduction to St. Mark’s Gospel. Here it will be sufficient to note that the discipline did its work. After labouring with his cousin in Cyprus, he appears to have returned to St. Peter, as his first father in the faith, and to have been with him at Babylon (1 Peter 5:13). He and St. Paul met during the latter’s first imprisonment at Rome (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24), and the Apostle learnt to recognise in him one who was “profitable to him for the ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11), and whom he wished to have with him at the last.


Verse 40

(40) Paul chose Silas.—It is clear from this, even if we reject Acts 15:34 as an interpolation, that Silas had remained when the other delegates from the Church of Jerusalem went back. This in itself was a proof of his interest in the mission-work among the Gentiles, and no one, perhaps, could be found so well fitted to fill the place of Barnabas. He too had the gift of prophetic utterance, and, as we have seen (Note on Acts 15:22), was probably able to speak as one who had followed the Lord Jesus, and could bear witness of the Resurrection.

Being recommended by the brethren.—See Note on Acts 14:26. This obviously implied a full gathering of the Church and a special service of prayer on the departure of the two Apostles. Silas, as thus sent forth by the Church, might now claim that title no less than Barnabas.


Verse 41

(41) He went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.—Cilicia, it will be remembered, had not been visited on St. Paul’s first journey with Barnabas, and the churches must accordingly have been founded at some earlier period, probably during St. Paul’s residence at Tarsus before he came to Antioch (Acts 9:30; Acts 11:25).

Confirming is, it need hardly be said, used in the general sense of “strengthening,” but as the bestowal of spiritual gifts by the laying-on of hands was a chief part of the work so done, it, at least, approximates to the idea of “confirming” in the later and more technical sense of the term.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Acts 15:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/acts-15.html. 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, November 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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