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FIRST GENERAL CHURCH COUNCIL
This lesson is one of the most important in the whole historical part of the New Testament. It is the record of the first general council of the church, called to settle the fundamental question as to how a man may be just with God. We have become acquainted with “they of the circumcision” who, at chapter 2, objected to Peter’s fellowship with the Gentiles in the case of Cornelius. The party was strong and growing stronger. As Jews of the stricter sort they could not understand how Gentiles could become Christians without in a sense first becoming Jews. Their theory is expressed in Acts 15:1 . Some of them, who have come to by styled “Judaizing teachers,” had followed Paul and Barnabas to Antioch and sought to undermine their work there. The immediate result is given in Acts 15:3-4 . The second of these two verses should be read in connection with Paul’s account of this gathering in Galatians 2:0 . The appearance of Peter (Acts 15:7-11 ) is his last in this book, and it is remarkable that as an apostle of the circumcision so-called (Galatians 2:8 ), he should have been used by the Holy Spirit to reprove the error of the Judaizing teachers. He does so by a plain relation of facts, an interrogative argument and a statement of belief. The preciousness of that statement is enhanced by a recurrence to the later dark ages of the church when its momentous truth was obscured by the sacramentalism of the papacy.
But the settlement of this great doctrine is not the only feature marking the value of this Council, since we have in the inspired words of James following (Acts 15:13-18 ), the Divine program for the whole of this age and the following. Here we have the great truth of the dispensations so necessary to the understanding of the Bible, and so little appreciated by many Christian teachers today. How different would be the work of our large denominational gatherings if the facts here alluded to were taken into consideration? Here is the order of events: First, God is now in this Christian age visiting the Gentiles “to take out of them a people for His Name.” This, in other words, is a time of outgathering of an elect number from the nations to form the church or the body of Christ (see Ephesians 3:6 in the light of its context). Secondly, “After this” Christ “will return” (Acts 15:16 ). The feature of the return of Christ here spoken of is not that for the translation of the church which is his body (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 ), but His visible return in power and glory of which the Old Testament prophets speak. This is that second feature of His second coming to which reference has been made before in these pages. It follows the rapture of the church synchronizing with the threatened judgments on the living Gentile nations and the deliverance of Israel from her great tribulation. Thirdly, following this event will transpire the building again of “the tabernacle of David” (Acts 15:16 ), in other words the restoration of the kingdom to Israel (compare Luke 1:32-33 ). Finally, during the Millennial Age “the residue of men” will “seek after the Lord” (see Isaiah 2:2 ; Isaiah 11:10 ; Isaiah 60:5 ).
The divine program enunciated by James is followed by his “sentence” (Acts 15:19 ), which is, in effect, the judgment of the whole assembly now reduced to writing, and to be transmitted to the churches by a committee of the brethren named in Acts 15:22 . All that the Gentiles are asked to abstain from are those things more or less associated with idolatry (Acts 15:20 ), and which were not distinguished as Mosaic prohibitions, but based on the earlier covenant of Noah (Genesis 9:4 ), binding equally on Gentile and Jew. Nevertheless, Acts 15:21 , indicates that in the abstinence therefrom they were to show a suitable respect for their Jewish neighbors who were instructed in these things in the Old Testament scriptures, of which the Gentiles until that time were ignorant.
1. With what event does this lesson deal?
2. What question, or doctrine, was now settled?
3. What was the contention of the Judaizing teachers?
4. In what epistle does Paul refer to their false teaching?
5. What is the nature of Peter’s address on this occasion?
6. What other feature gives an outstanding character to this chapter?
7. What is the divine order of the ages as indicated here?
8. What was the final sentence of this Council?
Though the text of this lesson is long, it will be interesting to read it through at a single sitting, and get the whole journey at one view. The events are clear cut, easily remembered and apparent in their spiritual teaching.
It begins with the contention between Paul and Barnabas men “of like passions” with ourselves, which was providentially overruled so that two missionary journeys grew out of it instead of one (Acts 15:36-41 ). Note that there were churches in Syria and Cilicia though no account is given of their origin beyond that of Antioch. It is a hint of the activity of the preachers of the Gospel, and the extent to which the gospel may have spread in that early time far beyond the record.
The story of the second visit to Lystra (Acts 16:1-3 ), gains interest from the subsequent prominence of Timothy, of whom further data are found in the epistles Paul afterward addressed to him. His circumcision is no evidence of inconsistency on Paul’s part, since no question of principle was involved, but only expediency (Acts 16:3 ). As Timothy’s father was a Greek, it would be known that he was uncircumcised which would prevent this ministry among the Jews (compare here 1 Corinthians 9:20 ).
The outstanding feature of this journey is in Acts 16:6-10 of this chapter. “Asia” (Acts 16:6 ) was a name given to a large part of the coast of Asia Minor especially on the southeast. Why the Holy Spirit forbade the missionaries to preach there at this time, or the manner in which the prohibition was communicated, is not stated; but we know that later a great work was wrought there especially in Ephesus. The story is repeated with reference to the North (Bithynia), and as the only point of the compass left is the West, they make for the seaport of Troas. The student is urged to identify these localities on the map. At Troas special direction is required, for the sea is to be crossed, and God meets the need in the vision vouchsafed to Paul. At this point interest is added by the pronoun “we” in Acts 16:10 , indicating that the author, Luke, has now joined the party.
EXPERIENCES IN PHILIPPI
Their stay at Philippi is full of movement (Acts 16:12-40 ). It was an important city found by Philip of Macedon, inhabited chiefly by Roman citizens, but lacking in a Jewish population as is shown in the fact that it contained no synagogue (Acts 16:13 ). It is unusual to read of a woman (Lydia) as engaged in commercial pursuits on her own account in that early time, but she seems to have been an exporter of Thyatira, noted for its purple dyes (Acts 16:14-15 ).
The case following is that of demon possession, with phenomena not very different from modern clairvoyance or the spiritualistic seance (Acts 16:16-18 ). Of course the resultant proceedings were all illegal (Acts 16:19-24 ), but how greatly was God glorified thereby (Acts 16:25-34 )! Acts 16:35-38 illustrate that a Christian may with dignity insist upon his legal rights. Immunity from corporal punishment was one of the most valued privileges of Roman citizenship, and to impose it was a crime in the eye of the law. No wonder the magistrates were afraid. But learn the lesson of these verses concerning the way of Satan with the gospel. He first applauds and seems to help it along by flattery and with advertisement (Acts 16:17 ), but when his testimony is rejected, he shows his true character (Acts 16:19 ). Paul’s preaching aimed at the idol worship of Rome which gave the excuse of Acts 16:20-21 . Let us also be impressed with the simplicity of the gospel in Acts 16:31 . To believe on the Lord Jesus Christ is simply to commit one’s self to Him to be saved. Nothing else is to be done, for God has put away our guilt in His atonement, and offers reconciliation for our acceptance. Note the reference to the jailer’s “house.” No one can be saved except by the exercise of a personal faith in the Savior, but there is great encouragement here for the Christian parent to bring his offspring to the Lord in full assurance.
THESSALONICA TO ATHENS
Thessalonica now claims our attention (Acts 17:1-9 ), a most influential city then and now, located on the Aegean Sea, and on the direct route to Rome.
Paul’s method with the Jews is further presented here in Acts 17:2-3 . He employed the Old Testament scriptures. He reasoned with them, doubtless in the form of questions and answers. They were expecting the Messiah, the Christ, and he showed them that when He came it was necessary according to their own scriptures that he should suffer, die and rise again from the dead. Establishing these points he was then ready to show that “this Jesus Whom I preach unto you is the Christ,” because He has fulfilled these things. The customary results follow, faith in some, envy and opposition in others, persecution, and removal to another place. The experience is repeated in Berea (Acts 17:10-14 ), and then we find Paul at Athens (Acts 17:16-34 ), still at this time “the intellectual and artistic capital of the world.” It was also a religious capital, the strongest in Greek mythology, as illustrated in the text. The “Areopagus” (Acts 17:19 ) was a court somewhat like the roman Senate; and here Paul addressed the philosophers and leading citizens in terms familiar to them. Their “unknown God” he introduces to them as the Creator of all things and the “Lord of heaven and earth,” and the future judge of men through His Son Jesus Christ, Whom He hath “raised from the death” (Acts 17:23-31 ). The poets he quotes (Acts 17:28 ) were Cleanthus and Aratus, whom he tactfully employs against their countrymen, whose boasted philosophy was “ignorance” (Acts 17:30 ). The times of this ignorance God had “winked at” thus far, in other words, overlooked. Not in the sense that they would not be held to account or judged for it, but that He had sent them no special revelation of Himself until now. There is no distinctive application of the gospel here, and possibly because Paul’s hearers were not prepared for it, but still his testimony was not in vain (Acts 17:34 ).
CORINTH AND EPHESUS
Corinth was the capital of Achaia, the lower peninsula of Greece; and in comparison with Athens, a great commercial center, cosmopolitan in its population, and as immoral as could well be conceived. The record of Paul’s experiences here is varied by several details, for example his association with Aquila and Priscilla; the reference to his trade, for all Jewish lads, no matter what their circumstances, were taught trades; the encouraging vision he received; the length of time he remained in the city; the turning of the tables on his enemies; the Jewish vow he assumed, etc. (Acts 18:1-18 ). To speak of the vision, judging by Acts 18:5 , and also by certain allusions in Paul’s two epistles to this church, there was special need of it at this time. He seems to have been much depressed, and the Lord graciously desired him to be without anxiety. This explains why he remained there so long. The event before Gallio brings to mind one of the incidental evidences of the historical accuracy of this narrative. He is called the “deputy” of Achaia, and as a matter of fact that is what he was only, and not a proconsul, for at this time Achaia was united to Macedonia. Somewhat later it was constituted a province on its own account, and then came to have its own proconsul. The vow which Paul took may have been one of those concessions to the Jews he thought needful for expediency’s sake.
Ephesus next reached (Acts 18:19-21 ). Was just across the Aegean Sea from Corinth, and was the capital of the Roman province of Asia, noted for its commerce, but particularly for its temple of Diane (Artemis). There was a large Jewish population there, and they were accorded special privileges by the local government. We shall learn more of Paul’s work there in our next lesson.
1. What hint does this lesson give of the development of Christianity at this time?
2. Have you read 1 Corinthians 9:20 ?
3. Have you traced this journey on the map?
4. Name the four missionaries in the journey.
5. How were the rights of Paul and Silas infringed upon in Philippi?
6. What is it to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ?
7. What encouragement for Christian parents is found here?
8. What is the meaning of Acts 17:30 ?
9. Tell the story of Paul’s stay in Corinth in your own words.
10. What was the geographical relation of Corinth and Ephesus?
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Gray, James. "Commentary on Acts 15". The James Gray's Concise Bible Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16