Disputes arise in the Church, on the Subject of Circumcision. The Apostles and Elders are consulted on it. Their Determination is sent to the Churches. Paul and Barnabas differ, and separate.
And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. (2) When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. (3) And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. (4) And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. (5) But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.
I beseech the Reader not to overlook, how early dissention arose in the Church, notwithstanding the Apostles had been so openly ordained by the Holy Ghost to the ministry. One might have thought, that nothing would have sprung up to disturb the peace of the Church, at such a golden age, when men so highly taught, were alive to prevent it. Every case of dispute arising from the remains of in-dwelling corruption, might have been brought before them, and their decision unerring and final. But, we learn from hence, how universal and unceasing the deadly fruits of our fallen state are! It is blessed, however, to observe, how sweetly the Lord overrules evil for good; and makes that which is sinful in itself, by his grace, to minister to his glory. There must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you. 1 Corinthians 11:19.
I beg the Reader, however, to observe, (and the same will serve to guide him upon all similar occasions,) that those men which came from Judaea, came not from the Apostles' authority. (See Acts 15:24). All schism, springs from the corruptions of men; they derive no sanction from God. And, it should be further observed, that this rite of circumcision, which they contended for, was joined with the necessity of keeping the law of Moses (see Acts 15:5). And thus they were shackling the free grace of God, with the will-worship, and will-working of man. And, the ultimate object was, to render Christ and his finished salvation, a matter of uncertainty, whether it should prove beneficial or not to the Church of God. Reader! pause over the subject. Will-worship is the same, in every age of the Church, under whatever covering it hides itself. Ordinances, even the purest, and the best of Ordinances, are no Saviors. When men lay more stress upon them, than they do upon the everlasting love of God the Father; the union of Christ with his Church, before all worlds; and his finished redemption in the glories of his Person, blood, and righteousness, when saving her from all the sin and evils of this time-State of her warfare; and the regenerating grace of God the Holy Ghost; they abuse them, in converting them into a purpose for which they were never intended. In such seasons of the Church, it is blessed to live above all party spirit of men, by living upon Christ; and suffering not God's' grace to be made subservient to man's will. If the Reader will consult what Paul said to the Ga 1-6 throughout, particularly Galatians 5:1-6.
It appears, that Paul and Barnabas, who were preachers of free grace, in opposition to the doctrine of circumcision, had warm disputes with those free-will men and work-mongers, before the subject was proposed to be brought before the Apostles and Elders at Jerusalem. And probably, those men, as we find Paul himself took notice of upon several occasions, were disposed to call in question Paul's authority, and to run down his Apostleship as much as possible: as if his judgment was not to be considered, in point of value, with the first and original Apostles. See Galatians 2:1-10. Reader! think it not strange, at what is going on now in the Christian world, in the opposition made to the plainest and purest doctrines of the Gospel; when we find such men as Paul and Barnabas so lightly esteemed. The great enemy of souls, wageth war chiefly with those grand truths, in which the present and everlasting welfare of the Church depends. Such, I mean, as the eternal love, purpose, and grace, of God the Father, to the Church, before all worlds. The Godhead, Person, work, blood-shedding, and righteousness, of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Person, Godhead, love, and grace, of God the Holy Ghost, in his regenerating, convincing, converting, and sanctifying influence, upon the persons of the Lord's people, While these grand, and infinitely momentous doctrines are insisted upon, as the sole life of the soul; the enemy will raise up all the various methods his subtlety can devise, to counteract them, and keep as much as possible in the back ground their importance. He stirreth up enemies from without, among the ungodly and carnal, to say, that good order among men is in danger, and nothing but licentiousness will follow, if such doctrines are allowed to be preached. And, he stirreth up the corruptions of friends within, to lay more stress upon things of less moment, in order to keep out of view those most essential truths, Paul saw this, and felt it in his day, and before his departure from the Church at Ephesus foretold it, as an evil that would follow. I know, (said he,) that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your ownselves shall men arise, speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them, Acts 20:29-30. But, Reader! let you and I learn to make a proper distinction, between things which are essential, and others which are of no moment. If we are called upon to contend, let it be a holy contention for what is worth contending for; namely, the faith which was once delivered to the saints, Jude 1:3. And, let us see that we are living ourselves upon what we contend for with others, or would recommend to them to live upon also. All our springs of grace here, and glory hereafter, are in Christ. His Godhead, and our complete justification in him, are the life of our soul. To give up these, were to give up life. For, if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain, Galatians 2:21.
And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. (7) And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. (8) And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; (9) And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. (10) Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? (11) But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. (12) Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. (13) And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: (14) Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. (15) And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, (16) After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: (17) That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. (18) Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. (19) Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: (20) But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. (21) For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.
There is somewhat very interesting in what is here related, of this holy meeting. The three Apostles, Peter, James, and John, were at Jerusalem at this time: (Galatians 2:9.) and, no doubt, though no notice is taken of John 's speaking on the subject, as Peter and James did, he was present also. And, as it is said, (Acts 15:4.) that Paul and Barnabas were received of the Church at Jerusalem, and a goodly company of the Church from Antioch accompanied them thither; we may well suppose this meeting must have been very numerous. Five, at least, Apostles, with the Elders of Jerusalem, and the whole Church of that city; (Acts 15:22) and many of the Church from Antioch! And, above all! How eminently must have been the presence of the Lord in the midst? Reader! Is it not a subject of great animation, to contemplate, if but in idea, an assembly so formed under the Lord?
I consider it a subject, which calls for great thankfulness to God the Holy Ghost, in causing those words of the Apostles upon a point of such consequence as was here determined in this assembly to be recorded. Who but must behold God speaking in them, and by them, to this important purpose! And, while we find the matter so fully decided, as if to put an end to everything of a like nature, which might arise in the future ages of the Church, to disturb the peace of it; how truly blessed is it to find included also in this decision, the oneness of the Church of Christ, in both Jew and Gentile. This was a grand point to be made fully known to the Church. And, in what Jas 1-5) in reference to the Church of our spiritual David, whose tabernacle, in the Adam-nature of sin, was fallen down, and by Him was to be rebuilt; he adds, that all upon whom his Name was called might seek the Lord. And these things were not the result of any after act, in the divine mind, but the eternal purpose of Jehovah; Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in Covenant purposes and engagements, from everlasting. There is somewhat so truly blessed in this, short as the Apostle's statement is, as can never be sufficiently admired; neither God the Holy Ghost sufficiently thanked for, in causing it to be recorded. Truly we may say, with the Apostle: known unto God are all his works from the beginning! I must not trespass by quotations. But I beg the Reader, in confirmation of this precious truth, (for indeed it is most precious,) that he will look at a few scriptures before he quits the subject, Ephesians 1:3-6; Eph_3:1-11; John 10:16; Isaiah 49:1-6.
Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas: namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: (23) And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia. (24) Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: (25) It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, (26) Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (27) We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. (28) For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; (29) That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well, Fare ye well. (30) So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle: (31) Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation. (32) And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them. (33) And after they had tarried there a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles. (34) Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still. (35) Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
Though the purport of this Apostolic Epistle is as plain as words can be rendered; yet I think it necessary to detain the Reader with a short observation, to avoid any misapprehension. This letter from the holy College, it should be remembered, was sent, to settle the main point in question, respecting Circumcision, By the full decision of the Apostles and Elders, and the whole Church, assembled for that purpose, under God the Holy Ghost; (Acts 15:28) this Jewish rite was now forever done away. But, lest the Gentile Church should abuse this Christian liberty; or the Jewish Church should be tempted to conceive, a total freedom from all restrictions whatever, was included; the Apostles declared, that while that Jewish rite of circumcision was removed, the abstinence from those idolatrous customs to which the Gentiles, before their conversion to God were accustomed, must be, fully observed. And, I would beg to make another observation, respecting the several things, which are four in number, here brought together. The eating meats offered to idols, and blood, and things strangled, are classed with fornication; but this doth not imply as though these things were equally sinful. The former ceased when idolatry ceased, which at conversion, when the work was of God, and the sinner truly regenerated; took place. But the latter, namely, fornication, is, and will be, of everlasting obligation to abstain from, as long as the world remains; and the holy estate of God's ordinance in marriage, (which is a type of Christ's marriage with his Church,) shall continue.
Reader! how blessedly the Gospel enforceth everything that is lovely, in an holiness of life and conversation, and brings with it to every renewed soul, grace and strength from God the Spirit, to perform it; while teaching at the same time, that it is grace we are saved through faith, and not by the deeds of the law. Blessedly indeed is it said, that through the Spirit alone it is, that we can mortify the deeds of the flesh, and live, Romans 8:13. Oh! thou Spirit of holiness! create in thy people new hearts, and new minds, by thy continual renewings, Put forth the efficacy of Christ's blood, upon all whom thou hast called with an holy calling, to purge the conscience, and daily, hourly, to wash away everything that is unholy, and unclean, in our lives and conversation. Oh! for the renewings of the Holy Ghost, to be shed upon the whole redeemed family abundantly, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Titus 3:5-6.
And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do. (37) And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. (38) But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work. (39) And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus; (40) And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God. (41) And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.
I would pause over this contention of these faithful servants of the Lord, to make all suitable reflections upon it. As God the Holy Ghost hath been pleased to have it recorded in his Church, it may well be supposed, that it will be to our profit, to attend to it. Here then, we see two eminent fellow laborers in the service of their Lord, who had gone for several years, as it should seem together, and with their lives in their hands, and moreover sent forth by the Holy Ghost, to his work; (Acts 13:4) now separating asunder, upon a point of apparently no great importance. And, this separation was made at a time, when the peace of the Church had been but just established, from the saw of contention having passed over the Church, about the introduction of the law with the Gospel: Acts 15:1-2. Yea, Paul and Barnabas were sent by the Church to Antioch jointly to deliver the decrees ordained by the Apostles and Elders at Jerusalem, on this question of Circumcision, Acts 15:22-23. And, a very blessed time it should seem, they had together at Antioch, on that occasion. But yet, all these things, were not sufficient to suppress the risings of contention between them; but part they would, and part they did. And thus the Church is taught, that the best of men are but men; and, as Paul himself had but a little space before told the people of Lystra, so here was shewn; that they were men of like passions with ourselves, Acts 14:15. Reader! let this be our improvement from it. Look to Jesus. He, and he alone, is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens, Hebrews 7:26. Oh! how sweet is the relief, when amidst everything unsatisfying in ourselves, and all creature comforts, we can, look to Jesus; and cease from man whose breath is in his nostrils, for wherein is he to be accounted of, Isaiah 2:22.
Let it be observed, however, in the instance of this quarrel, how graciously the Lord overruled it, to his glory, and the promotion of his Church's welfare. For, by this separation, the word of God was further extended, when Barnabas, by going unto Cyprus, and Paul through Syria and Cilicia, carried the glad tidings of salvation to those places. But, though the Lord's providences in extracting good from evil, calls upon the Church to adore his Almighty hand, in the grace, manifested; yet we should learn also, that while this ministers to his glory, the evil of sin in our fallen nature remains the same. It is still our infirmity, which produceth such sad consequences. The Lord's is the sole praise, which, even from the unworthiness of his people, will bring sweet from the bitter, and manifest divine strength to bear up against creature weakness.
We should not, I think, dismiss the subject of this contention of those holy men, without taking into our view of it, what afterwards followed. It is very plain, from the history of the Church, that though Paul, rather than take Mark with him at that time, separated from Barnabas, yet he still loved them both, and afterwards, upon more than one occasion, spoke of them with all the love of a brother. Yea, this very Mark was with Paul just before his martyrdom; and the aged Apostle, then with full prospect of death in view, tells Timothy, that he must bring Mark with him, for, said he, he is profitable to me for the ministry. See 1 Timothy 4:11. See also 1 Corinthians 9:6; Colossians 4:10. Grace in the heart will revive as the Corn, though the remaining weeds of indwelling corruption will too often choke it, Hosea 14:7. But how, and from whence is this revival ? Read the last six words of the following verse. From me (saith the Lord,) is thy fruit found. Oh! precious Jesus! how sweet in all things is thy Person, grace, and power?
How can I begin, or end, the perusal of this blessed Chapter, without having my whole soul led to the Lord Jesus, in contemplating the infinite preciousness of his Almighty Person, and the finite preciousness of his Almighty work. Truly, Lord, thou hast shewn thy Church and people, that in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature, No obedience to the law, nor all the imperfect and unmeriting services of thy servants under the Gospel, can recommend to God. All justification is alone in thee. And oh! how very blessed to the souls of thy redeemed ones, is that precious Scripture, Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth. Be it my portion, 0 Lord, under the sweet influences of the Holy Ghost, to enter into an heartfelt enjoyment of these things, that I may be included in that glorious assurance of my God, by his servant the Prophet, In the Lord shall all the seed of Israel be justified, and shall glory.
Praises to God the Holy Ghost for thus causing the frailties of his faithful servants to be recorded, for the edification and encouragement of more frail and exercised servants of our God, in the service and ministry of his word. Oh! that the Lord the Spirit may render the review of it at all times profitable to his Church. Earthen vessels at the best, even the Apostles of Christ were, and how less than nothing, but as the sufficiency is in Christ, must be all that labor in the Word and doctrine. Oh! then vouchsafe thy sovereign grace, O Lord the Spirit, to all thy sent servants. Make them one in Christ, and then will they with one mouth and one heart glorify God, and be at peace among themselves.
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Hawker, Robert, D.D. "Commentary on Acts 15". "Hawker's Poor Man's Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany