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THE FIRST CHRISTIAN COUNCIL; OR, THE TERMS OF CHURCH MEMBERSHIP FOR THE GENTILES DEFINITELY SETTLED
1. Judaising Teachers at Antioch; or, the Circumcision Controversy Raised (Acts 15:1-5).
2. The Council at Jerusalem; or, the Controversy Settled (Acts 15:6-21).
3. The Apostolic Letter; or, the Publication of the Settlement (Acts 15:22-35).
4. The Second Missionary Journey commenced; or, the Separation of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41).
Acts 15:1. Certain men which came down from Judæa.—Lit. having come down from Judœa. These were not the emissaries who came from James (Galatians 2:12), but the “false brethren unawares brought in” (Galatians 2:4), most likely Christianised Pharisees from Jerusalem, who, in their zeal for the Law, had undertaken a mission to Antioch, perhaps on the invitation of some of the same class in the Syrian capital. According to Epiphanius their leaders were Cerinthus and Ebion. With this party Paul was in conflict all his life. Taught the brethren.—Their teaching consisted mainly in an assertion of the necessity of circumcision for salvation.
Acts 15:2. Dissension—In their views. The word στάσις (compare Acts 23:7; Acts 23:10), used by Thucydides (3:82) and Aristotle (Polit., Acts 15:2) to express political faction, suggests that parties, in accordance with those views, had begun to be formed in the Church at Antioch. Discussion, or questioning, about the points in dispute (Acts 25:20). They,—i.e., the brethren, or the Church, in a public meeting, and by formal resolution, determined, appointed, or arranged. Certain other of them.—Not named, but see “Homiletical Analysis.” Should go up to Jerusalem.—This, the apostle’s third visit to Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1), took place fourteen years after his first, that to Cephas and the other apostles to whom he was introduced by Barnabas (Acts 9:27; Galatians 1:18). His second visit was made shortly before the Gentile mission (Acts 12:25).
Acts 15:4. The Church, the apostles and elders.—The reception of the deputies from Antioch took place in a public convocation of the Christian disciples in Jerusalem.
Acts 15:5. The sect of the Pharisees.—First mention of any converts from this body and of the Pharisees as a sect. The name (“Separated Ones”), probably bestowed on them by their opponents, expressed the same idea as their self-chosen designation, Chasidim (“Holy Ones”)—viz., separation, not so much from their fellow Jews as from the heathen world. Their practical obligations, were to observe with strictness all the ceremonial ordinances of the Law of Moses, and to be scrupulous in payment of tithes as well as in discharge of all religious duties. Originating in a genuine impulse towards superior sanctity, Pharisaism in our Lord’s time had degenerated into dead formalism, and become little better than a cloak for hypocrisy (Matthew 23:0; Luke 11:37-52). In Josephus’s day the association numbered six thousand members.
Acts 15:6. The apostles and elders came together.—Not alone, but in presence of and with the Church (see Acts 15:23). How many were present cannot be conjectured.
Acts 15:7. Much disputing, questioning, or debating, concerning the point of controversy. A good while ago.—Lit., from early days. Comparatively speaking (compare “in the beginning,” Acts 11:15); not an exaggeration, in order to take from the conversion of the heathen the aspect of novelty (Wendt). The phrase has a parallel outside of Scripture (polyk. ad Philippians , 1, 2; ἐξ ). Peter referred to the conversion of Cornelius, which had taken place while Paul was at Tarsus (Acts 9:30), probably about fourteen years previous. Baur (Paul, his Life and Works, i., 130), in the interest of his tendency theory, considers that Peter could not have appealed to what took place with Cornelius, or have talked in so Pauline a manner us he here does: but such an assertion will convince none except those who have decided, à priori, that an impassable theological gulf separated the two apostles. Impelled by a like motive, Weizsäcker (The Apostolic Age, i., 208), asserts that “Peter was not the pioneer of the mission to the heathen, but entirely and solely the apostle of the Jews,” and accordingly impeaches the credibility of the whole Cornelius story, By my mouth.—Peter did not mean that never before had the gospel been preached to a Gentile (see Acts 8:35), but that the circumstances under which he preached to Cornelius were such as to show that God wished the door of faith to be opened to the Gentiles.
Acts 15:8. God who knoweth the hearts.—Therefore looks not upon merely outward and accidental marks, such as one’s nationality, but upon the inner moral and spiritual quality of the soul. Compare Acts 1:24.
Acts 15:9. Purifying their hearts by faith.—Therefore not by circumcision or works of any kind. “The thought is quite as much Petrine (compare Acts 3:16; Acts 3:19) as it is Pauline (Acts 13:38; Romans 3:24 ff) or Johanuine (1 John 1:8; 1 John 2:2; Revelation 7:14)” (Zöckler).
Acts 15:10. To put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples.—Compare Galatians 5:1. Decidedly Gentile-Christian and universalist sounds this statement of Peter; yet is it not on that account improbable. “Through frequent conversations with Paul and Barnabas, which, according to Acts 15:4 and Galatians 2:3, must have taken place, Peter was unquestionably once more relieved of all his perhaps temporarily cherished doubts, and completely carried back to the standpoint of apostolic freedom which he had taken after Cornelius’s baptism, and which he had asserted in opposition to the party of James” (Zöckler).
Acts 15:11. Even as.—Better, in like manner, or in the same way, even as they—viz., the Gentiles; i.e., through grace alone, by faith without works. Compare Romans 1:7; Romans 5:15; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 13:13; Ephesians 1:2.
Acts 15:12. The multitude.—I.e., the Church, consisting, no doubt, of members and adherents, or believers, enjoying full ecclesiastical status and catechumens. Kept silenee.—Having been tranquillised by Peter’s speech. Out of this statement, and the similar one concerning James (Acts 12:17), Catholic expositors infer, but wrongly, that only clergy are entitled to speak at Church councils.
Acts 15:13. James.—Not the apostle, but our Lord’s brother (Acts 12:17), who was “a pillar” in the Jerusalem Church (Galatians 2:9), its chief elder, and probably its president.
Acts 15:14. Simeon.—The Hebrew name of Peter (2 Peter 1:1), who is never again mentioned in the Acts, though he is found later at Antioch (Galatians 2:11), and perhaps at Babylon (1 Peter 5:13). According to tradition, not well founded, he ended his career at Rome.
Acts 15:15. The words of the prophets are cited from Amos 9:12, and conform closely to the LXX.—the Hebrew text reading, “That they may possess the remnant of Edom and of all the heathen who are called by My name,” or “upon whom My name is called” (compare James 2:7); so that they are also in the highest sense God’s children. If James, who spoke in Greek (Alford), or in Aramaic (Holtzmann), followed the LXX., it may be reasonably supposed that he regarded it as expressing with suflicient accuracy the essential idea of the Hebrew.
Acts 15:16. The tabernacle of David which is fallen down meant the divided and sunken state into which the theocracy had lapsed since the days of Rehoboam.
Acts 15:18. Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world.—Taken from A. D. Vulgate and Syriac. The original words, “known from the beginning,” have been enlarged by the addition of “unto God are all His works,” in order to make a complete sentence. The best reading (א B C) may be thus rendered: Saith God, who maketh the things knoum from the beginning, or who doeth these things which are known from the beginning. In either case the sense is the same. Whether James found these words, “known from eternity,” in another text of the Hebrew prophet which was circulating in Palestine, or added them of his own accord, to express the idea that nothing could take place in the development of the plan of salvation without the Divine foreknowledge (Bengel, De Wette, Overbeck, Wendt, Holtzmann, Zöckler), cannot be determined.
Acts 15:20. Pollutions of idols.—I.e., Sacrificial victims, regarded as polluted by being offered to idols rather than such defilements as arose from unlawful contact with idols (Holtzmann). The word for pollutions (ἀλισγημάτων =εἰδολοθύτων, Acts 15:25), occurring only here, should not be viewed as governing the four succeeding genitives, but restricted to the first. “The James clauses represent no arbitrary selection of historical material, but correspond with the regulations for Israel as these at the time existed in the Old Testament.” … They belong, therefore, “to the earliest time of the Church” (Holtzmann). Fornication.—Has been understood here of “forbidden marriages,” as in Leviticus 18:0 (Baur, Zeller, Ritschl, Overbeck, Wendt, Holtzmann, Zöckler), but should probably be taken in the wider sense of uncleanness generally (Bengel, De Wette, Weiss, Alford, Hackett, and others).
Acts 15:22. To send chosen men should be, having chosen men from among themselves to send them.
Acts 15:23. The apostles and (lit. the) elders and (lit. the) brethren.—Signifying three separate bodies, as in Acts 15:22. The best MSS., however, read, “The apostles and the elders, brethren,” which may signify, “The apostles and the elder brethren” (R.V.), or “The apostles and the elders (who are) brethren” (Holtzmann), or “and the brethren who are elders.” This reading is justified by Wordsworth on the grounds
(1) that Paul and Barnabas are said to go up to the apostles and elders (Acts 15:2);
(2) that the apostles and elders are said to have come together to consider this matter (Acts 15:6); and
(3) that Paul is said to have delivered to the Churches the decrees determined by the apostles and elders (Acts 16:4); and by Alford, who thinks “and the” before “brethren” may have been inserted to make the text harmonise with that in Acts 15:22. On the other hand it may be argued
(1) that the whole Church was present at the deliberations of the apostles and elders (Acts 15:4; Acts 15:6; Acts 15:12);
(2) that the whole Church is represented as having at least acquiesced in the finding of the court (Acts 15:22), which certainly implies that they possessed the power to modify, if not reject. the same, and
(3) that the words καὶ οἱ before ἀδελφοί might just as easily have been dropped from the text at a subsequent period in order to justify the exclusion of the laity from all share in Church Synods. Upon the whole it seemed reasonable to conclude that in apostolic times the entire membership, either directly or through representatives, enjoyed the right, if not of initiating measures, at least of voting on them. Who have hazarded their lives.—Not “dedicated themselves soul and body to the service of our Lord the Messiah” (Hess), but exposed themselves to the perils of death, as at Damascus (Acts 9:24), Antioch (Acts 13:50), Iconium (Acts 14:5), and Lystra (Acts 14:19).
Acts 15:27. Who shall also tell you the same things by month, or by word of mouth.—Not the same things—i.e., truths and doctrines that Barnabas and Paul have taught, as if the teaching of these beloved brethren required confirmation; but the same things that we now write.
Acts 15:28. It seemed good unto the Holy Ghost and to us.—The combination of the Divine and human authors of the ecclestical decree is instructive. The expression shows that the apostles and elders claimed for themselves that they had been guided in their deliberations by the Holy Ghost, and for their conclusions that these possessed the authority of an inspired and infallible decision. Necessary things.—Not demanding abstinence as wrong in themselves (except the last), but in obedience to the law of charity (Romans 14:15), which required Christians to avoid what might offend weaker brethren.
Acts 15:33. Unto the apostles.—The best authorities read, unto these that had sent them forth.
Acts 15:34 is omitted by the best texts. It was probably inserted to explain Acts 15:40. Ramsay (St Paul, etc., p. 175) thinks it must have formed part of the original text and been “at some period omitted, from the mistaken idea that Acts 15:33 declared the actual departure of Judas and Silas,” whereas, he continues, “the officials of the Church in Antioch simply informed Judas and Silas that their duties were concluded and that they were free to return home,” a permission of which Silas did not avail himself. In any case, if Silas did depart, he must have soon after returned, on receiving Paul’s invitation to join him in a second missionary tour.
HOMILETICAL ANALYSIS.—Acts 15:1-5
Judaising Teachers at Antioch; or, the Circumcision Controversy Raised
I. The Judaising teachers and their doctrine.—
1. The teachers. Certain men from Judæa. Not those who afterwards came from James (Galatians 2:12), but those who were brought in unawares (Galatians 2:4). Possibly converts from the Pharisaic party in Jerusalem who had been invited by their co-religionists within the Church at Antioch. 2. Their doctrine. That salvation was impossible without circumcision. That the way into the Church of Christ led through the doorway of Judaism. That without submission to this carnal ordinance the spiritual blessing of the gospel could not be enjoyed.
3. Their activity. They taught the brethren. Not content with merely suggesting the doubt as to whether even Gentile Christians could disregard the Mosaic ritual—a doubt which would, at least, have been not unnatural in a narrow-minded and bigoted Pharisee—or with expressing their opinion that the Law God had given to Moses could not safely be set aside, they confidently laid down the dogma that circumcision was imperative: “Except ye be circumcised,” etc.
II. The Christian Church and its resolution—
1. The Church.—Was
(1) divided into factions. “There was no small dissension.” The word points to the rise of parties in the Church. Even had all the Gentile Christians remained upon the side of freedom, there remained still the Jewish Christians (Acts 11:19), who espoused the doctrine of the false teachers; while it is possible that not a few of the Gentiles may have allowed themselves to be overawed by the seeming and perhaps assumed authority of the Judæan emissaries.
(2) Rent by disputation. Impossible that it could have been otherwise. To have admitted the tenet of the Judaisers would have been to subvert the gospel of Christ (Galatians 5:2-4). Hence Paul and Barnabas felt themselves impelled to stand forth in defence of Christian liberty against those Pharisaic legalists who desired to bring the Gentiles into bondage. “To whom we gave place by subjection,” do you say? exclaims Paul. “No! not for an hour” (Galatians 2:5).
2. Its resolution. To refer the controversy for decision to the Mother Church at Jerusalem. This determination was not necessary in the sense that the Church at Antioch possessed no authority to compose the quarrel had it been able. But it was clearly unable. Hence the reference to Jerusalem was a wise procedure, partly because the troublers had come from Jerusalem and may have represented that they spoke with the authority of the apostles and elders there, and partly because a decision by the mother Church would undoubtedly carry greater weight.
III. The delegates and their journey.—
1. The delegates. Paul and Barnabas, with certain others, not named, but most probably chosen from among the prophets and teachers that were in the Antioch Church (Acts 13:1), and the men of Cyprus and Cyrene, whose labours had founded the Church (Acts 11:20). Titus (Galatians 2:3), most likely accompanied Paul as a representative and specimen of the sort of converts that had been made among the Greeks.
2. Their journey.
(1) Its object. Whilst the delegates had in view the execution of the Church’s commission which had been entrusted to them—viz., the submission of the disputed question to the apostolic tribunal—Paul informs us (Galatians 2:2) that he went up by revelation; which may be harmonised with the statement of Luke by supposing that the revelation instructed Paul either to propose or to agree to the reference to Jerusalem; and indeed, without some such inward intimation of the will of his Divine Lord it would not have been surprising had Paul hesitated to submit the decision of this vital question to the mother Church, out of which the very parties had come who had attempted to fetch away from Gentile believers the liberty they enjoyed in Christ. “We need not be surprised if we find that Paul’s path was determined by two different causes: that he went up to Jerusalem partly because the Church deputed him, and partly because he was Divinely admonished. Such a combination and co-operation of the natural and supernatural we have observed in the case of that vision which induced Peter to go from Joppa to Cæsarea” (Conybeare and Howson); and, the same writers add, in Paul’s escape from Jerusalem to Tarsus, which was urged on him by the brethren (Acts 9:30), and at the same time commanded by Christ, who appeared to him in a trance (Acts 22:17-18).
(2) Its commencement. The delegates were accompanied a portion of their way by the Church, as a mark of honour to themselves and as an indication of the interest the Church took in their mission (compareActs 20:38; Acts 20:38, Acts 21:5; 3 John 1:6).
(3) Its progress. They passed through Phœnicia and Samaria (see on Acts 11:19, and Acts 8:5). As Galilee is not mentioned, it may be concluded that they travelled along the coast as far south as Ptolemais (Acts 21:7), and then crossed the plain of Esdrælon into Samaria.
(4) Its accompaniments. The delegates, wherever they appeared, declared the conversion of the Gentiles, and caused great joy unto all the brethren.
(5) Its termination. They came to Jerusalem, within whose gates seldom had a more important embassy arrived.
IV. The mother Church and its procedure.—
1. The reception given to the envoys.
(1) By the whole Church, with the apostles and elders at its head, the various congregations having come together for this purpose.
(2) With the utmost cordiality: this implied in the verb used to express the ceremonial.
(3) In patient hearing of their story, when they rehearsed all things that God had done with them. That Paul laid not before the collective Church the gospel which he preached among the Gentiles, with its doctrine of salvation without “the works of the Law,” but reserved this for a private interview with the Church leaders, one naturally infers from Galatians 2:2. Had he done so, instead of confining himself to a simple narration of his Gentile mission, he would most likely have prematurely kindled a conflagration. As it was, his address acted like a spark thrown into a heap of combustible material. It awoke the slumbering prejudices of his Judaising hearers.
2. The opposition developed against the envoys.
(1) This proceeded, in all probability, from the party that had despatched the emissaries to Antioch—viz., the sect of the Pharisees who believed, and who may have felt their doctrinal position to be in danger through the enthusiasm aroused by the orations of the missionaries.
(2) The form it assumed was a reassertion of the false and pernicious doctrine which had brought the delegates to Jerusalem—“that it was needful to circumcise the Gentiles and to command them to keep the Law of Moses.”
1. The persistence of outworn creeds.
2. The celerity with which error intrudes itself into the Church. 3. The duty of Christian teachers to resist every attempt to corrupt the simplicity of the faith.
4. The function of the Church, as a whole, to guard the truth.
HINTS AND SUGGESTIONS
Acts 15:1; Acts 15:5. No Salvation without Circumcision.
I. An old-time truth.—Under the Mosaic dispensation it was true that no Israelite could be saved who, in unbelief and disobedience, repudiated circumcision, though, from the nature of the case, submission to the rite was not left in the hands of the individual. Hence it is doubtful if, even under the Old-Testament economy, circumcision was of universal obligation as an indispensable condition of salvation. Certainly submission to the bodily ceremonial was no absolute guarantee of the soul’s forgiveness and renewal, or of its future enjoyment of eternal life.
II. A plausible doctrine.—Like many another mistaken theory, it had some considerations to advance on its behalf. It was by no means surprising that a Jew should have argued that circumcision must have been designed to be of permanent and perhaps also universal obligation, considering that Jehovah Himself had imposed it on the fathers of Israel, that it had descended from a hoar antiquity, and that its value as a religious ordinance had been recognised by so many even of the Gentiles themselves.
III. A dangerous error.—To assert that circumcision was indispensable to salvation was
(1) directly to challenge the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice as an atonement for sin;
(2) virtually to impair the fulness of salvation as a gift of grace, by imposing an external condition of enjoying the same;
(3) practically to teach the doctrine of salvation by works, against which the gospel is a vigorous and uncompromising protest;
(4) certainly to destroy all hope of Christianity ever becoming a world-wide religion;
(5) absurdly to exalt a positive enactment to the same level, in respect of saving worth, as a spiritual precept;
(6) foolishly to maintain that a positive institution could never be abrogated or set aside by its founders;
(7) sinfully to corrupt the truth of God which had been revealed through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
IV. An exploded heresy.—Nobody now within the Church of Christ thinks of maintaining the necessity of circumcision; though unfortunately the same error survives in spirit among those who teach the doctrines of baptismal regeneration and sacramental grace, or the impossibility of being saved unless one has been baptised and partaken of the Lord’s Supper.
Acts 15:2. How to Deal with Heretics.
I. Endeavour to convince them by reasoning (Titus 3:10).
II. Lay the matter in dispute before the courts of the Church (Matthew 18:17).
III. Separate from such as refuse to obey the decision of the Church (1 Timothy 6:5; 2 John 1:10).
Acts 15:3. The Conversion of the Heathen a Source of Joy to the Church of Christ. (A Missionary Sermon.)
I. As a solid increase to the sum of human happiness.—Every sinner saved being a soul rescued from the guilt and power of sin.
II. As an irrefragable proof of the saving power of the gospel.—The progress of foreign missions the most powerful apologetic of to-day.
III. As a valuable extension of the Saviour’s kingdom.—Every convert won from heathenism becomes a subject of the empire of truth and love, of salvation and eternal life.
IV. As a delightful prophecy of the millennial era.—Each tribe and nation brought under the power of the gospel being a foreshadowing of that happy era when “the kingdoms of the world shall have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ.”
Acts 15:3-4. Paul and Barnabas on the Way to Jerusalem; or, what all ministers ought to be.
I. Champions of orthodoxy.—i.e., of the truth. Certainly men who claim to be Church teachers should not war against the faith they profess, or propagate opinions contrary to the truth they have been appointed to expound.
II. Messengers of peace.—Constantly directing their endeavours towards maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace. As representatives of the Prince of Peace, they should themselves be lovers of peace.
III. Publishers of grace.—Heralds of the good news of salvation through the free grace of God in Christ—a theme so great and glorious that none other in the estimation of a true preacher should for a moment be suffered to dispute its claims on his attention.
IV. Dispensers of joy.—Such those preachers and ministers cannot fail to be who are mindful of their calling, and unwearied as well as hearty in its exercise.
Acts 15:4. Paul’s Third Visit to Jerusalem.—Was this the visit recorded in Galatians 2:1? An affirmative reply seems justified on the following grounds:—
I. The impossibility of synchronising the Galatian visit with any other alluded to in the Acts.—Either with that recorded in Acts 11:30, which occurred before the famine predicted by Agabus, or that reported in Acts 18:22, which happened at the close of Paul’s second missionary journey; all others being practically out of the question. Decisive against the latter of the above two is the circumstance that Barnabas was not then a travelling companion of Paul, as he was on the occasion of the visit spoken of in Galatians; while opposed to the former stand a number of considerations, as, e.g:
1. The different object of the Acts 11:30 visit, which was to carry a benevolent contribution to Jerusalem; whereas the Galatian visit contemplated conversation with the Church leaders about Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles.
2. The date of the Acts 11:30 visit which coincided with that of Herod’s death, not more than ten years after Saul’s conversion, whereas the Galatian visit fell at least seventeen years after that event.
3. The unlikelihood of an ecclesiastical council being convened in Jerusalem during, or so near, the time of the Herodian persecution.
4. The improbability of Paul having attained, in the course of one year’s labour at Antioch, to such preeminence over Peter as he appears in Galatians to have reached.
5. The almost certainty that, if Paul’s mission to the heathen had already been recognised at the visit of Acts 11:30, there would have been no need to undertake a second journey to Jerusalem to obtain another decision thereupon; and
(6) the difficulty of harmonising this supposed commission of Paul to the Gentiles, received at the visit of Acts 11:30, with the express statement of Acts 8:1, that Paul’s mission was entrusted to him after that visit.
II. The obvious correspondence between the Galatian visit and this to the Jerusalem council.—
1. The two narratives assume that Paul and Barnabas had already conducted a gospel mission among the Gentiles.
2. In both journeys Paul is accompanied by Barnabas.
3. Both visits have the same end in view—to obtain a judicial settlement of the controversy which had broken out at Antioch, concerning the amount of liberty to be accorded to Gentile converts.
4. The settlement reported in both accounts is practically the same—that the Gentiles were not to be subjected to the yoke of circumcision.
5. In both narratives Peter and James appear as principal parties in bringing about the deliverance which restored peace to the Church.
HOMILETICAL ANALYSIS.—Acts 15:6-21
The Council at Jerusalem; or, the Circumcision Controversy Settled
I. The composition of the council.—
1. The apostles. The twelve; Paul not yet included in their number. These, as having been chosen by Christ, were naturally regarded as the heads of the Christian community, which accordingly looked to them for counsel in matters of Church administration, and especially for guidance in circumstances of difficulty.
2. The elders. The presidents, superintendents, or overseers, of the different Christian synagogues, or Churches. How large a body the eldership formed cannot be surmised; but all its members, it is clear, stood on an equality as presbyters.
3. The brethren. The members of the Church called “the multitude” (Acts 15:12); “the whole Church” (Acts 15:22). Whether these took an active part in the discussion cannot be answered without knowing in what capacity James (Acts 15:13) spoke; that they were associated with the apostles and elders in the finding of the court the narrative distinctly states (Acts 15:22). “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” (Plumptre).
II. The deliberations of the council.—
1. Peter’s speech. After considerable discussion, in which the “brethren” may have taken part, the Man of Rock, Cephas, or Peter, asked a hearing from the court.
(1) He reminded those present of a series of facts with which all were familiar (see 11.): first, that about fourteen years before God had specially selected him (Peter) to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, under such circumstances as evinced it to be the will of Heaven, that they (the Gentiles) should be invited to believe, and so be received into the Christian Church (see Acts 10:34); secondly, that God Himself, who, from His character as Heart Searcher, could be under no mistake concerning the inward attitude of any toward the gospel, had borne witness to the genuineness of their conversion, by granting them the Holy Ghost in the same manner as He had done unto the Jews (see Acts 10:44); and thirdly, that God had put no difference between themselves (the Jews) and the Gentiles on becoming Christians—that in the case of both, faith had operated in the same way, and produced the same results—viz., had led to the purification of the heart from sin, or, in other words, had made the nature holy.
(2) He asked them a question which contained a very powerful argument. Why they should seek to impose circumcision on the disciples? First, to do so was to be guilty of tempting God—i.e., of presumptuously putting Him to the proof by demanding additional evidences of His will, when those already furnished, and just recited by Peter, ought to be enough. Secondly, to do so would be to place upon the necks of the Gentile disciples a yoke which the Jews themselves had found to be intolerable, irksome, burdensome, oppressive, slavish in the extreme, as it could not fail to be when men came to regard it (as the Jews unfortunately did, and now desired to teach the Gentiles that it was) indispensable for salvation. Thirdly, to do so was to insist upon a ritual which experience had shown to be altogether unnecessary. The Jews themselves who believed had practically confessed that they could not be saved by the ceremonies of the Law, and had turned to seek salvation by grace; if so, how could it be other than inconsistent and ridiculous to impose upon the Gentiles that in which the Jews themselves had lost faith.
2. Barnabas’s and Paul’s orations. One after the other the two missionaries addressed the House—Barnabas preceding, presumably on account of age, and because the council had, as yet, greater confidence in him. The subject handled by both was their missionary travels. One can imagine the eloquence with which the “chief speaker” would dilate upon the thrilling tale of their experiences and of God’s signs and wonders among the heathen, and almost see the bated breath—“all the multitude kept silence”—with which the thronged assembly would listen to the story “of the greatest revolution the world has ever seen.” The speakers appear to have confined themselves to an unvarnished narrative of facts.
3. James’s advice. The James who, after Barnabas and Paul had sat down, claimed the attention of the meeting was the brother of the Lord (Galatians 2:9), “who, from the austere sanctity of his character, was commonly called, both by Jews and Christians, James the Just” (Conybeare and Howson, i. 204). From the circumstance that he spoke last it has been quite reasonably inferred that he acted as president of the council, and that in all probability he was chief pastor in the Church of Jerusalem. From his well-known character as a strong legalist, his decision in favour of freedom, coming after Peter’s, could not fail to carry great weight. The substance of what he said was
(1) that the conversion of the Gentiles, as rehearsed by Simeon (Peter’s Hebrew name), was an exact fulfilment of Old-Testament prophecy, the particular prediction cited being taken from Amos 9:11-12; and
(2) that, that being so, the conversion of the Gentiles manifestly had a place in the plan and purpose of God, to whom all His works were known from the beginning, so that nothing could occur by accident. After this he proceeded to give judgment on the case, which judgment the court unanimously adopted.
III. The finding of the council.—
1. That Gentile Christians should not be troubled about circumcision, or other Jewish ceremonies. Neither those who already had turned, nor those who in future might turn, to God, by believing on Jesus, should be molested, worried, or harassed about these beggarly elements; but all should be left alone in that liberty wherewith Christ had made His people free (Galatians 5:1).
2. That Gentile Christians should be asked to abstain from certain things.
(1) Pollutions of idols. I.e., parts of sacrificial victims which had not been used in sacrifice, and which the heathen sold in the market for ordinary food, but which, as having been presented to an idol, the Jew regarded as entailing upon him who ate them the guilt of idolatry (compareRomans 14:15; Romans 14:15; 1 Corinthians 8:10).
(2) Fornication. The heathen mind had become so corrupt as to have practically lost all sense of chastity as a virtue; and besides, in connection with heathen festivals in honour of their deities, the most shameless licentiousness was frequently practised: hence, both of these considerations called for stringent prohibition of this sin.
(3) Things strangled. I.e., the flesh of animals not put to death in the ordinary way, which the Jews were not allowed to eat, because it was not properly drained of blood (Leviticus 17:13-14; Deuteronomy 12:16; Deuteronomy 12:23).
(4) Blood. This heathens often drank at their idolatrous feasts, and even at other times, mingled with their food.
3. That the Gentile Christians should be instructed as to the reason for this partial restriction of their liberty. “For Moses of old time (or from generations of old), hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” Meaning that because of this constant reading of the Law the feelings of such Jewish Christians as had not broken with the synagogue would be wounded should Gentile Christians be exempted, not only from circumcision, but from such restrictions as were wont to be imposed on proselytes coming over from heathenism to Judaism. Hence, as a compromise, the above-mentioned prohibitions, the so-called Noachian precepts, were enjoined upon Gentile Christians.
1. The right of the Christian laity to take part in Church synods, assemblies, and councils.
2. The propriety of conducting all Church deliberations with decency and in order.
3. The wisdom of the Church membership giving heed to the counsels of its leaders.
4. The duty of Church councils to depend on nothing but moral suasion for the enforcement of their decrees.
HINTS AND SUGGESTIONS
Acts 15:6-21. The First Ecclesiastical Assembly.
I. The question discussed.—Concerning the conditions of salvation.
II. The spirit manifested.—A spirit of love and truth.
III. The standard recognised.—God’s testimony in the Scriptures and in providence.
IV. The decision given.—One of Christian wisdom, calculated to conciliate and promote union among the saved.
Acts 15:8. God’s Knowledge of the Heart.
Acts 15:9. No Difference between Us and Them—i.e., between Man and Man.—In respect of—
I. The need of salvation. The hearts of all, being impure, require cleansing.
II. The provision of salvation. Christ’s atonement and the Spirit’s grace designed for all.
III. The condition of salvation. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
IV. The possession of salvation. All who believe receive the Holy Spirit, which is the earnest of our inheritance.
I. The heart is by nature unclean, and requires cleansing.
II. This cleansing can be effected only by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost.
III. The Holy Ghost always operates through the faith of the individual.
IV. The faith of the individual rests upon the truth of God.
Acts 15:11. The Apostle’s Creed.
I. That Jews, as well as Gentiles, alike need salvation.—Both being alike under sin (Romans 2:9).
II. That for Jews, as well as Gentiles, salvation can be only through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. None other name (Acts 4:12); only one Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5)
III. That as a consequence, Jews, as well as Gentiles, can be saved in no other way than by faith without works.—By the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified (Galatians 2:16).
IV. That Jews and Gentiles alike are sure of salvation, if they do believe.—“Whosoever believeth” (John 3:16).
The First Confession of Faith.
I. The error against which it guarded. Salvation by works.
II. The ground on which it rested. God’s word and Christian experience.
III. The spirit by which it was pervaded. Courage and humility; boldness and love.
IV. The gospel which it proclaimed. Salvation through God’s grace and man’s faith.
V. The assent which it received. It was embraced by all the office-bearers and members of the Church.
Acts 15:14-18. The Conversion of the Gentiles.
I. An accomplished fact.—God hath visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name.
II. A fulfilment of prophecy.—In addition to Amos 9:11-12, such passages as the following might have been quoted: Isaiah 2:2; Isaiah 9:2; Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 25:6; Isaiah 52:15; Jeremiah 4:2; Jeremiah 16:19; Daniel 7:14; Joel 2:28; Zechariah 8:23.
III. A foreseen event.—Having had a place in God’s eternal counsel, it was known unto God from the beginning.
IV. A progressing work.—The residue of men are still seeking after God. (See Hints on Acts 15:3.)
Acts 15:17-18. Old-Testament Views of God.
I. The Father of Men.
II. The Lord of the Nations.
III. The Ruler of the Universe.
IV. The Omniscient Worker.
V. The Supreme Good of Mankind.
HOMILETICAL ANALYSIS.—Acts 15:22-35
The Letter from the Church at Jerusalem; or, the Publication of the Settlement
I. The resolution of the Church.—
1. To prepare an encyclical letter, to be sent round the Gentile Churches. This suggestion, made by James (Acts 15:20), was formally adopted by the whole Church, under the visible leadership of the apostles and elders (Acts 15:22), and at the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, the supreme president of the assembly (Acts 15:28).
2. To forward it to Antioch, the missionary centre, by chosen messengers, along with Paul and Barnabas. This addition to James’s motion, by whomsoever proposed, commended itself to the sanctified intelligence of the community as at once respectful to the brethren at Antioch and expressive of their own high sense of the importance of the occasion.
II. The special messengers.—
1. Their names.
(1) Judas, called Barsabbas. That he was not the apostle Judas Thaddeus his surname shows. That he was a brother of Joseph Barsabbas, the candidate for the apostleship (Grotius) is an unproved conjecture. It is enough to know that those who selected and sent him were acquainted with his person as well as with his name.
(2) Silas. Silvanus in the Epistles. Paul’s companion on the second missionary journey (Acts 15:40). Whether the bearer of the first epistle of Peter to the Churches of Asia (1 Peter 5:12) cannot be decided. Not the writer of the Acts (see Acts 1:1).
2. Their character. “Chief men among the brethren,” eminent disciples, had in reputation perhaps both for piety and ability. The word translated “chief,” meaning “leading,” may point to the fact that they were elders (Hebrews 13:17).
3. Their standing. Whether they had been among the seventy (Luke 10:1) may be doubtful; no uncertainty exists as to this: that they ranked as prophets (Acts 15:32; compare Acts 8:1).
4. Their companions. Barnabas and Paul, who returned to Antioch bearing the affection of the whole Church at Jerusalem. “Our beloved Barnabas and Paul” the letter styles them, and—knowing that their splendid services in the cause of Christ had been acknowledged—“men that have hazarded their lives,” etc., it continues.
5. Their selection. Rendered necessary in order to authenticate the letter to the Churches, and to free Paul and Barnabas from all suspicion of having tampered with the letter, or imposed their views on the assembly.
III. The encyclical letter.—
1. The reason for its sending stated. That the Church of Jerusalem had heard how the Gentiles in these Churches had been troubled, even to the degree, in some instances, of having their souls subverted by certain unauthorised teachers who had gone forth from their midst (and perhaps pretending to their authority).
2. To whom it was addressed. To the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, which shows how widely these false leaders had diffused their pernicious doctrines. That it was designed to be laid before all Gentile Churches cannot be inferred (but see Acts 21:25).
3. In whose names it was despatched. Those of the apostles, elders, and brethren (A.V.), or of the apostles and elder brethren (R.V.); i.e., either of the Church’s office-bearers alone (Presbyterianism) or of the Church membership as well (Congregationalism). See Critical Remarks.
4. The writing it contained.
(1) After the opening salutation (Acts 15:23), in which the word used for greeting points to James’s band as that which drew up the document (see Critical Remarks), and
(2) the insertion of the above-stated reasons (Acts 15:24), there follow
(3) the names of the special envoys sent with Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:27), and
(4) the decision of the council—its authorship (the Holy Ghost, with the apostles and elders), and its contents (Acts 15:28-29); after which it closes with
(5) a word of farewell (Acts 15:29).
5. The reception it met with. Arrived at Antioch, towards which they had been solemnly dismissed, perhaps with religious services (see Acts 15:33; Acts 13:3), and possibly an escort for several miles of the way (Acts 15:3), Judas and Silas, having convened a meeting of the Church, formally delivered into their hands the epistle, which, when they had read (it may be, had heard read by Barnabas, the son of consolation), they rejoiced, for the consolation it gave them by the happy settlement of a hard question, which most likely, had it not been settled, would have proved troublesome, and even dangerous to the peace and prosperity of the Church.
IV. The return of the envoys.—
1. After a period of happy service at Antioch, in which they (Judas and Silas), themselves prophets, delighted to engage, and in which they attained considerable success (Acts 15:32), exhorting the disciples there with many words to cleave to Christ alone for salvation.
2. With a parting salutation of peace, or with best wishes for their happiness and safety (compareActs 16:36; Acts 16:36; Mark 5:34; Luke 7:50).
3. To those who had sent them forth—i.e., to the Church at Jerusalem, leaving Paul and Barnabas behind at Antioch, to continue there the work of teaching and preaching the word of the Lord; though from the narrative (Acts 15:40) it may be gathered that Silas soon after rejoined Paul at Antioch.
1. That wisdom and love combined are much required in dealing with the difficulties of Christian members.
2. That Church courts should strive to attain unity in all their decisions.
3. That the decisions of supreme ecclesiastical courts should always be announced with tenderness.
4. That only persons of approved piety should be entrusted with special missions for the Church:
5. That the Holy Ghost requires unity among Christians only in essentials.
6. That decisions of ecclesiastical assemblies, if come to under the Holy Spirit’s presidency, may be fitly regarded as His decisions.
HINTS AND SUGGESTIONS
Acts 15:22. “Chief men among the brethren;” or the prominent leaders in the first Christian council.
I. Two apostles.—
1. Peter. One of the original twelve: who opened the door of the Church to the Gentiles in the person of Cornelius.
2. James. Of apostolic rank, though not included in the twelve; the president of the Jewish Christian Church at Jerusalem.
II. Two missionaries.—
1. Paul. The apostle to the Gentiles par excellence, the pioneer evangelist who carried the gospel beyond the bounds of Palestine—first into Asia, and subsequently into Europe.
2. Barnabas. The son of consolation, the good Levite; the modest and self-effacing companion of his great colleague.
III. Two deputies.—
1. Judas Barsabbas. A Jerusalem Christian of good repute among his brethren; otherwise unknown.
2. Silas. Also a recognised disciple of good standing; afterwards Paul’s companion on the second missionary tour.
Acts 15:23. The Jerusalem Concordat.—
1. The salutation—“Greeting.” “The actual form of the salutation is remarkable—χαίρειν: Hail! The secular traditional Greek salutation is used here, and not yet, as in the subsequent epistles, the apostolic greeting: ‘Grace and peace from God and Christ’; but the Israelitish salutation of Jesus and his disciples is no longer adopted, which ran, ‘Peace be with you!’ We find this χαίρε used in the New Testament by Judas with the kiss of betrayal (Matthew 26:49), by the mocking soldiers (Matthew 27:49; Mark 15:18; John 19:3); in the letter from the chief captain Lysias to the governor Felix (Acts 23:26); it is also quoted as a salutation of everyday life in 2 John 1:10-11, and it is made use of in the Epistle to James (Acts 1:1). This Greek expression, χαίρειν, is certainly spiritualised by Christian use, and raised to its true and highest signification, just as is the Israelitish שָׁלוֹם לְךָ in the mouth of the Lord; here, however, it is a friendly mode of address to the Greek brethren, and a greeting highly suited to the case” (Stier).
2. The contents. “As an independent commandment of loving wisdom for the edification of the Jewish and Gentile Church, this letter formed the remarkable beginning of inspired writing of the New-Testament system, as the Decalogue did in the Old Testament.… In this letter we find the first transition from oral teaching to the principal form of the New Testament Scripture” (Stier).
3. The authority. “It seemed good unto the Holy Ghost and to us.” “We must neither look upon this expression as a mere formula, as in the later councils, nor must we refine upon it, as if the apostles and elders said, The Holy Ghost instructed us in this in the house of Cornelius, and we now decide therefrom; as if they had been taught by that outpouring of the Holy Spirit that these four items were to be specially imposed on the Gentile brethren. In this decretal formula now made use of there is, of course, some allusive reference to the matters of fact which had been set forth by Peter, and to the Scripture that had been quoted by James, both being alike testimony of the Holy Spirit, by which testimony the assembly had been induced to come to a conclusion.” … “But the ἔδοξε of the Holy Ghost refers as much to the four requisitions of abstinence as to the principal resolution, which declared the liberation of the Gentiles; consequently, it is always maintained that these four requisitions were made by the full authority of the Holy Ghost” (Stier).
Acts 15:24. Subverting Souls.
I. An easy performance.—May be done by
(1) promulgating erroneous doctrine;
(2) setting a bad example; or
(3) unduly exercising liberty (Romans 14:15).
II. A frequent practice.—By no means seldom occurring. Sometimes ignorantly, but often also deliberately done (2 Timothy 2:14; 2 Timothy 3:6; Titus 1:10-11).
III. A dangerous achievement.—
1. Imperilling the salvation of the subverted soul.
2. Involving in awful guilt—that of soul murder—him who subverts (2 Peter 1:1-3).
Acts 15:26. Hazarding One’s Life for the Name of Christ.
I. To decline to do so when necessary is sin.—To save one’s life at the expense of one’s fidelity to Christ, or to deny Christ in order to save one’s life, is to be guilty of apostasy.
II. To do so when called on by conscience is duty.—When one who is called to serve Christ finds that he cannot do so without imperilling his life, it becomes his duty to embrace the risk.
II. To do so voluntarily, in order to serve Christ, is heroism.—One who would not hesitate to sacrifice his life when serving might still shrink from deliberately encountering such risk, in order to find opportunities of serving Christ. This latter did Barnabas and Paul.
Acts 15:30. The Jerusalem Epistle: the Church’s Charter of Liberty.
I. Its urgent occasion.—It concerned the question, Moses or Christ.
II. Its unassailable origin.—Dictated by the Holy Ghost.
III. Its honourable bearers.—The heralds of evangelical grace, accredited by God Himself.
IV. Its incontestable contents.—Freedom from the ceremonial, but not from the moral, law. Deliverance from the yoke of slavish obedience, but not from the service of self-denying love.
V. Its joyous publication.—First to the Church at Antioch, and afterwards to the Churches in the cities visited by Paul and Silas (Acts 16:4).
Delivering the Epistle.—That this encylical was never composed and far less delivered—at least in the way recorded in the Acts—has been argued (Baur, Zeller, Weizsäcker, Holtzmann, and others) on various grounds.
I. The apparent discrepancy between the narrative in Acts and the account given by Paul, who was an eyewitness of what took place in Jerusalem, it is said, shows the letter to be unhistorical.—It is urged—
1. That the conference with the Jerusalem authorities, according to Galatians, was sought for by Paul alone; whereas, according to Acts, it originated in a Church resolution.
2. That the Galatian story bears no trace of the antecedent disturbance at Antioch; whereas the picture drawn by Luke is that of storm and dissension, both at Jerusalem and Antioch. 3. That Acts is absolutely silent about the Titus episode, which forms so striking a feature in the Galatian letter. But, as to the first, why may not both statements be true, and Paul have resolved, on his own account, while executing the Church’s commission, to lay before the Jerusalem authorities a full and clear exposition of the gospel which he preached among the heathen, in the hope and belief that this would put an end to all further controversy? As to the second, may not Paul have deemed it quite unnecessary to inform the Galatians of every detail concerning the struggle for liberty at Antioch and Jerusalem, and considered it enough to emphasise the main point, that his apostleship to the Gentiles had been expressly recognised by the three pillar apostles, James, Cephas, and John? The third, the Titus episode, though not particularised in Luke’s narrative, is not contradicted, or even excluded, and may well have formed an item in the much questioning (Acts 15:7) which preceded Peter’s speech; or it may have been deliberately omitted from Luke’s narrative because it formed no part of the public discussion. In any case the two accounts, when impartially viewed, are rather supplementary than contradictory of each other.
II. Had the letter been written as reported, it is held Paul could not have stated in Galatians, as he does, that those who were of repute imparted nothing to him.—“There is no getting beyond this,” says Weizsäcker. “It is a round assertion, and perfectly clear.… All possibility of an exception, of anything having been added by the apostles, is excluded.… Paul has not said that nothing burdensome, but that nothing at all, was imposed upon him.” But surely this is to misunderstand the meaning of the apostle, who is not writing about ecclesiastical decrees for the observance of Gentile converts, but about apostolic authorisation for himself, and who distinctly asserts that the three pillar apostles imparted nothing to him—i.e., did not for a moment ever imagine that he required to be authorised by them, and certainly did not arrogate to themselves the right to authorise him as an apostle to the Gentiles, but, on the contrary, recognised that he had already been authorised as such by God.
III. Had the letter been written, it is difficult, we are told, to see how either Peter could have acted at Antioch or James at Jerusalem, as they are represented afterwards to have done (Galatians 2:11-12). But
(1) with reference to both apostles it should be borne in mind that it is by no means uncommon for even the best of men to act at times inconsistently and in flat contradiction to their previously expressed opinions and principles—even Barnabas, as well as Peter, was carried away with the prevailing spirit of dissimulation.
(2) As regards Peter, had the letter not been written it is doubtful if Paul would have been justified in so sharply censuring Peter’s conduct. Nor
(3) is it likely that Paul would have so distinctly charged Peter with having acted contrary to his avowed principles had he not been aware how Peter had expressed himself at the Jerusalem conference. While
(4) as to James, it is not certain that his emissaries did not travel beyond their instructions; or, if they did not, it is by no means unintelligible that, while James may, at the conference, have recognised the Church membership of uncircumcised Gentiles, he may also have desired that Jewish Christians should not be too free in social intercourse with the Gentiles.
IV. Had the letter been written, it is further contended, it would hardly have dropped so completely as it appears to have done out of the Pauline epistles.—Though referred to again in Acts (Acts 16:4; Acts 21:15) it is not alluded to again by Paul, it is said, in either Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, or Ephesians. But—
1. Paul may have deemed it unnecessary to cite the apostolic decrees either
(1) because they were sufficiently well known, or
(2) because they were more or less Palestinian in their colouring, and therefore less suitable for impressing Churches in Europe and Western Asia;
(3) because the purpose of his letters did not call for their citation; or
(4) because he chose to rely rather on fundamental gospel principles than on ecclesiastical enactments.
2. Even in Galatians Paul may have judged it better to make no appeal to the decrees, in case of weakening his claim to apostolic autonomy and total independence of human authority in the exercise of his ministry.
3. It is scarcely accurate to assert that all trace of the encyclical, if it ever existed, quickly disappeared, since each of the above-named epistles contains manifest allusions to its contents, as, e.g.,
(1) to abstinence from flesh and wine (offered to idols) for the sake of a weak brother (Romans 14:21);
(2) to the practice of fornication (1 Corinthians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 6:13; 1 Corinthians 10:8);
(3) to things offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 8:13; 1 Corinthians 10:7; 1 Corinthians 10:19-21; 1 Corinthians 10:28);
(4) to the freedom of the Gentiles from circumcision (Galatians 2:3; Galatians 2:11; Galatians 2:14; Galatians 5:2); and
(5) to marriage (Ephesians 5:25).
V. The recognition by Paul of the mother Church in Jerusalem as the supreme court, whose decisions were universally binding (it is added), does not harmonise with his claim for independence of all human authority in the gospel which he preached (Galatians 1:1).—But while Paul’s conviction that he had received his gospel by express revelation from heaven may have been, and was, for himself a sufficient authorisation of the same, he may also have felt (or been taught by the special revelation that sent him to Jerusalem) that a decision from the mother Church would not be without importance as a means of securing the acquiescence of Jewish Christians, who could hardly be expected to remain satisfied with his statement about the heavenly source of his views.
VI. Other objections to the historicity of this decree, such as that it opens and closes like Claudius Lysias’ letter to Felix (Acts 23:26-30), and that the sentence formations of Acts 15:24-25, are analogous to Luke 1:1-3, do not strike one as weighty. Both only show that there were customary modes of composition, which were known to Theophilus’s friend and to Claudius Lysias, as well as to the apostles and brethren in Jerusalem—surely by no means an impossible or even violent supposition!
VII. The suggestion that, nevertheless, the letter has a historical basis, and that a concordat of similar purport must have been arranged subsequent to the Antioch dispute (Weizsäcker), shows how hard put to it objectors feel themselves in their attempts to get rid of the document as it stands, and how difficult they find it to explain the growth of Gentile Churches without some such deliverance as Acts records.
Acts 15:33. Let Go in Peace.
A testimony to—
I. The success of their mission.
II. The unity of the Church.
III. The influence of the letter.
Acts 15:36. Some days (as in Acts 16:12; compare ἡμέραι ἱκαναί, Acts 9:23) might be weeks or months. After.—Subsequent to the departure of Judas or Judas and Silas from Antioch. In visit our brethren substitute the for “our.” How they do?—I.e., how they fare, spiritually. The clause requires an antecedent supplement, and see.
Acts 15:37. Determined.—ἐβουλεύσατο. The oldest MSS. have ἐβούλετο, wished, which some consider a correction, with a view of softening down the altercation between Barnabas and Paul (Alford and Hackett).
Acts 15:39. The contention was so sharp between them.—Better, there arose a severe contention. If the incident described in Galatians 2:11 had occurred in the days preceding this contention (Alford, Lechler, Conybeare and Howson) that incident would help to explain the hotness of the dispute between the two missionaries; but it seems improbable that such a reaction in favour of Judaism as that scene at Antioch represents could have taken place so soon after the decision at Jerusalem (Hackett). They departed asunder one from the other.—Not in friendship, but in service. Barnabas.—Not named again in Acts, but reported by one tradition to have proceeded to Milan, and died as first bishop of its Church; and by another to have spent some years in Rome and Athens. Took Mark, who afterwards gained Paul’s esteem (Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11), and sailed to Cyprus, his native city (Acts 4:36), where, according to the second of the above traditions, he suffered martyrdom. The authenticity of the well known Epistle of Barnabas cannot be defended.
Acts 15:40. That Paul and Silas, on setting forth, were commended by the brethren to the grace of God suggests that the Church at Antioch espoused the side of Paul, as no similar commendation appears to have been given to Barnabas and Mark.
Acts 15:41. Confirming the churches.—Not candidates for admission to, but those already in, them (Acts 14:22). Of the founding of these churches in Syria and Cilicia no account has been preserved, but they most likely dated from the time of Paul’s visit to those regions (Acts 9:30; Galatians 1:21). One of these churches was probably located at Tarsus.
HOMILETICAL ANALYSIS.—Acts 15:36-40
The Second Missionary Journey Commenced; or, the Separation of Barnabas and Paul
I. Paul’s proposal to Barnabas.—
1. To what it referred. The initiation of a second missionary journey, for the purpose of visiting the brethren—i.e., the young converts in every city in which, on their previous tour, they had preached the gospel—and inquiring into their spiritual condition. Not only must the work of spreading the gospel never stop, but the equally important business of edifying and building up those who have been converted must never be neglected. A true pastor will not only labour to bring souls into Christ’s fold, but will watch with assiduity and care over such as are already in.
2. When it was made. Some days after the return to Jerusalem of Judas and Silas (Acts 15:33), or of Judas alone (see “Critical Remarks”), and after their own evangelistic activity at Antioch had continued for some time, though how long remains uncertain. Perhaps the commencement of this second journey should be dated A.D. 51.
3. How it was received. Obviously Barnabas assented to the proposal, though it had been mooted by Paul rather than by himself. Of jealousy on Barnabas’s part not a trace appears. Though probably older than Paul he appears to have recognised, with equanimity and satisfaction, Paul’s superior genius and greater fitness to be a leader. That they quarrelled before the proposal could be carried out was, doubtless, to be regretted. But meanwhile it may be noted that the cause of that quarrel was nothing connected with the subordinate position of Barnabas.
II. Paul’s contention with Barnabas.—
1. Quite simply it arose. As great contentions often do.
(1) Barnabas very naturally wished, as before, to take along with them John Mark, his kinsman (Colossians 4:10)—probably for his own sake, as having a liking for his relative as well as a desire for his society, and probably because Mark, having got over his home-sickness, or, having laid aside his early feeling of offence (see on Acts 13:13), was once more desirous of resuming active service in the cause of the gospel.
(2) Paul, on the other hand, demurred to the proposal of Barnabas, probably because he had not been able to sympathise with Mark’s motives for going back on the previous occasion, and because he was not yet assured of Mark’s stability and courage. It is, however, pleasing to observe that Paul susequently took a kindlier view of the young man (2 Timothy 4:11), and even accepted him as a companion in travel (Colossians 4:10).
2. Very hotly it blazed. The contention became so sharp that the two missionaries felt obliged to separate. Barnabas’s kinship with, and affection for, the young man would not allow him to yield. Paul’s judgment as to the unlikelihood of a fickle character like Mark being of much use in the mission field determined him to hold out. Which was right is not clear. If Barnabas had Christian feeling on his side, Paul had Christian reason. Most likely both erred in exhibiting temper and in not trying to understand each other’s view of the case. Had they done this, and omitted to do that, they would surely have come to some amicable arrangement.
3. Exceeding peacefully it ended. As they could not agree, they let the matter drop, and took each his own independent course. What a pity they had not done this before the quarrel! It would have saved an unpleasant episode in the history of both.
III. Paul’s separation from Barnabas.—“They parted asunder the one from the other.”
1. Not in perfect friendship. There is some reason to suspect that they were a trifle displeased with one another. All the more likely if this occurred shortly after the rebuke which Paul administered to Peter for conduct of which Barnabas also had been guilty. Yet that the present rupture did not permanently estrange the good men appears from the way in which Paul afterwards alludes to Barnabas as a Christian teacher worthy of the fullest confidence of the Churches (1 Corinthians 9:6).
2. But in Christian service. Neither of them retired from his work as a Gentile missionary, as modern Christian workers often withdraw from service altogether when they quarrel with one another. Both continued to labour in the cause of the gospel, but each pursued his own path. Barnabas, taking with him Mark, sailed to his native Cyprus on a missionary tour, thus following the track of his first journey with Paul; Paul, choosing as a companion Silas, who must by this time have returned to Antioch (Acts 15:33), started on a similar journey over the old route, only approaching it from the opposite end, travelling to Derbe and Lystra through the Cilician gates.
3. And with the prayers of their brethren. Although it is only of Paul that it is written that he was “commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord,” it is hardly to be supposed that Barnabas would be allowed to depart without the prayers of his fellow-Christians. To infer that he was, because the Church had taken sides in the quarrel and decided for Paul as against Barnabas, is to ascribe to the Church quite an unworthy part. Better far let it be said that Luke has omitted to record anything of the Church’s attitude towards Barnabas, and confined himself to what was done in the case of Paul—not because Barnabas was left to go his way alone and unsympathised with, but simply because Paul was the hero whose future fortunes it was Luke’s object to trace.
1. That good men are, unhappily, not above quarrelling, though they should be.
2. That when good men do quarrel, they should study to go asunder rather than come to blows.
3. That God can overrule even the quarrels of good men, for good.
4. That Churches should never send forth missionaries without commending them to God’s grace.
5. That ministers and missionaries should not neglect the work of confirming young converts.
HINTS AND SUGGESTIONS
Acts 15:36-40. Four Valuable Lessons.
I. For Christian preachers.—Never to desist from their holy work of converting sinners and edifying saints.
II. For Christian friends.—Never to contend with one another, except in love and Christian activity.
III. For Christian workers.—Never to grow weary in well-doing, but to be steadfast and immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.
IV. For Christian Churches.—Never to omit praying for both ministers and missionaries.
Barnabas, Paul, and the Lord.
I. The forbearing love of Barnabas was good.
II. The holy severity of Paul was better.
III. The wisdom of the Lord, converting all things into good, was best.—Gerok.
Acts 15:36. Pastoral Visitation.
I. A necessary part of ministerial work.—Christ’s sheep and lambs have not merely to be gathered into the fold, but also to be carefully fed and tended (John 21:15-17).
II. A kindly display of Christian sympathy.—If it betokens an amiable and brotherly disposition to ask after each other’s welfare (Exodus 18:7), much more does it do so to inquire after each other’s spiritual progress.
III. A profitable form of religious service.—Like mercy, “it blesses him that gives and him that takes.” It benefits those who are visited and them who visit; it contributes to the spiritual upbuilding of both.
Acts 15:39. The Quarrel between Barnabas and Paul illustrates—
I. The imperfection of good men.
II. The danger of success. even for eminent Christians.
III. The grace of God in making the wrath of men to praise Him.
The Quarrels of Good Men—
I. Are of more frequent occurrence than they ought to be.
II. Are less deeply lamented than they should be.
III. Are seldom healed as quickly as they might be.
IV. Are more tenderly dealt with than they deserve to be.
V. Are sometimes productive of more good than they promise to be.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Acts 15". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 12 / Ordinary 17