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And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised … ye cannot be saved.
Disturbers of the Church
I. Certain men came down from Judea.
1. Probably they were not appreciated at home.
2. They brought all their intolerance with them.
3. And the Church at Antioch had to suffer.
4. One bigot inside a Church can cause more dissension than two sceptics outside.
II. When certain men come down from Judea.
1. They may sometimes be profitably invited to go back again.
2. It is the wisest course to seek advice from the great Head of the Church. (S. S. Times.)
Controversies and contentions
We have had dissensions before with unbelieving Jews or unconverted Gentiles; but we have now to come to controversies within the Church. There are three of these here:--
I. A controversy that resolved itself ultimately into one of doctrine, though it began with ritualism.
1. In all great movements it is always found that for some time the new and the old overlap each other, and that more or less of collision takes place between them. Men with certain fixed habits of thought and feeling may be compelled to accept some great truth; but they may not be able to accept it with all its conditions, or with all its logical consequences. This was the case in the Church with respect to the relations between Jew and Gentile. Certain Pharisaic members of the Church in Jerusalem accepted the Messiah as the Saviour of the world on the condition of the other nations becoming Jews! They could not understand how that which had once been established by Divine authority could pass away. Certain of these men came down to Antioch and began to disseminate their opinions. Paul and Barnabas met the men by argument, but the Church became so disturbed, that it was judged expedient to get some settlement of the question from the apostles.
2. Paul and Barnabas accordingly went to Jerusalem, and the former refers to this visit in Galatians 2:1-48.2.9. Nor is there any discrepancy between the two accounts. Paul might be deputed by the Church, and at the same time be moved by revelation. The deputation might have been in consequence of the Divine guidance which Paul had received, or it might have been in consequence of the deputation being appointed that the apostle was directed to avail himself of it for a kindred object. This probable double object of the journey is worth attention. During the journey from which Paul had just returned, the powers of an apostle had been displayed. When he returns to Antioch he does not put down the controversy by authority. He felt, perhaps, that, as the elder apostolic men had not heard what “God had done by him,” his position, as the commissioned apostle of the Gentiles, had by them yet to be recognised. This, then, was a personal matter, which might yet be important to his action and influence. It was in relation to this, as I apprehend, that he had the “revelation” he refers to. As deputed by the Church, he went for the settlement of the controversy; as Divinely directed, he went “privately to them of reputation,” that his authority might be recognised.
3. But there is another matter. Paul says “he took Titus with him,” while Luke does not mention Titus. Blot mere silence is no argument; while Titus may have been one of the “certain other” (verse 2). But, even if not, the apostle may have chosen “to take Titus with him” in connection with his own special object. He determined to have what was in dispute, not only as a matter of argument, but of fact. Hence he appeared with a converted Gentile, determined, as the apostle of such, to stand by the side of one confessedly uncircumcised, thus proclaiming his equality as a brother in the Lord.
4. The deputation was received by “the whole Church and the apostles and elders.” Paul and Barnabas gave a general account of their ministry, and immediately some of the Pharisees raised the question (verse 5). It was then determined that a day should be appointed when the elders and the apostles should consider the matter. Now, my idea is, that between this preliminary meeting and the day when they came together for the discussion, Paul and Barnabas had that private meeting with the apostles which he mentions in Galatians
2. It is very likely that the Pharisees at the first meeting, knowing that there was a Gentile with Paul, demanded that he should submit to their rite of initiation. The apostle was quite prepared for this, but gave way to it, “no, not for an hour.” He at once consulted with those “who were of reputation,” and communicated to them the gospel that he preached among the Gentiles. They received the communication, recognised Paul’s apostolic character, and “gave to him and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship.”
5. Seeing how impossible it is to do public business in a great assembly unless you have the thing marked out beforehand, I think this private interview was used for coming to such an agreement as decided the leaders as to the course to adopt. When they “came together,” just as in our House of Commons a number of comparatively undistinguished men are allowed to spend their strength while the leaders reserve themselves to wind up the argument--a number of unnamed individuals opened the controversy. After the matter had been thoroughly “ventilated,” it became the duty of the leaders to interfere.
(1) Peter got up and referred to a matter of fact in which he was the principal actor--the conversion of Cornelius, which he regarded as proving the equality of Jew and Gentile in Christ. “Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul.” Just notice how little things may possess great significancy. On the journey “Barnabas and Saul” was changed to “Paul and Barnabas”; but here, where Barnabas was so well known, how natural it is that he should be made prominent! It is a stroke so fine that a fiction writer would hardly have thought of it.
(2) “Barnabas and Paul” then rose up, and they, too, referred to facts.
(3) Then James, the president, addressed the assembly. As the others had referred to what God had done, he referred to what God had said. He showed that the old prophecies were the basis of the new facts; that they had reference ultimately to the Gentiles being received into the Church. He suggested, therefore, that they should not trouble the Gentile converts by the impositions of the law, but should recommend them, as a matter of expediency, to abstain from certain things which were necessary for the preservation of social intercourse between them and their brethren. This suggestion was accepted. But something else was also recommended; and here you will observe what capital business men these apostles were. The suggestion of James was reduced to writing, and they elected some of their own body to go to Antioch, to confirm, by word of mouth, what was said in the letter. What an admirable arrangement this wast The men went down to Antioch and “delivered the epistle.” “The Gentiles were glad, and rejoiced for the consolation.”
II. A rebuke provoked by an outward act, but which sprang from loyalty to truth (Galatians 2:11, etc.)
The conduct attributed to Peter was just like him. He was a man of impulse, an earnest, sincere man, but wanting in moral courage, and sensitive to others’ opinion. Besides, it is quite in keeping with human nature, that social feelings, custom, and prejudice should be practically stronger than a decision of the understanding. You may proclaim by law that the negro shall be recognised as a man and a brother; and yet you will find that white men shrink from the negro, though perfectly assenting to the righteousness of the law which would place him at their side. Some even of your eloquent orators, who talk largely about human equality, may be found to bow to a social prejudice. It is human nature, and it is constantly to be seen in respect to ecclesiastical parties. Peter’s pusillanimity was contagious. Others “dissembled with him,” and even Barnabas was for a season seduced. Paul, who looked at things in their principles and issues, saw in such conduct far more than Peter suspected. Hence his “withstanding him to the face,” etc. The error of the Judaisers and the error of Peter are the faults of human nature. Few are there, indeed, in any Church who do not need to be reminded that “the kingdom of God is not meat and drink,” etc.
III. A dispute arising out of personal feeling (verses 36-41). Barnabas, when he came back from Jerusalem, had most likely brought down his nephew Mark with him, or he might have accompanied Peter; and Barnabas wished, when the second journey was proposed, that he should go with them. Paul would not hear of it. There were no doubt faults on both sides. Barnabas might have been too lenient; Paul too severe. It is no use attempting to smooth over matters. The men were wrong, and evidently gave way to bad temper and strong words. The “paroxysm was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder the one from the other,” and the pious work of their joint apostolic visitation of the churches was given up! From the infirmity of the men, and the honesty of the historian, much may be learnt. In conclusion, take the three things in reverse order.
1. This schism between Paul and Barnabas was but temporary. We find that afterwards Mark was associated with Paul, and served with him in the gospel. Barnabas and Paul, too, were brought into friendly relations again. It was impossible for such good men, alike servants of the Most High God and fellow workers with Him, “to keep their anger forever.”
2. It was the same with respect to Paul and Peter. It was just like Peter--with his warm, loving, and honest soul, his tenderness of conscience, and genuine humility--to refer, in one of his Epistles, to those of his “beloved brother Paul,” though he probably knew that one of them contained the record of his weakness.
3. In regard to the “council,” we learn the evil of aggravating sectional differences, and insisting on them as terms of communion and salvation. Ritual peculiarities, matters of Church government, external and secondary things which are not of the essence of that “faith” which unites to Christ, and “purifies the heart,” are not to be raised into walls of separation. “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.” (T. Binney, D. D.)
From this interesting chapter learn that -
I. controversies are unavoidable, and are a sign of life and activity. They are preferable to the peace of the graveyard. It is through controversy that truth is developed and error defeated. All the great doctrines, the Trinity, the Incarnation, justification, etc., have come out as pure gold from the furnace of theological dispute. Only, let controversy be conducted in a Christian spirit, and with a single eye to the cause of truth.
II. The best way to settle a controversy is by full discussion and personal conference. Even inspired apostles did not decide the question by mere authority, but travelled all the way to Jerusalem to secure a general understanding, after giving a full hearing to the opposition. It is good for Christians to come together, to think and talk together. In the multitude of counsellors there is safety. One man may be wiser than a whole multitude, but if he can convince the multitude, his judgment is all the more powerful.
III. Synodical conferences are clearly sanctioned by apostolic example and precedent. But the time and number are left to expediency. They may be annual, triennial, or occasional; local, diocesan, provincial, national, or oecuminical; advisory, or legislative; all depends upon the necessities of the Church, which vary in different periods and countries.
IV. The composition of a synod should be democratic. The apostles might have decided the controversy by their own personal weight and authority; but they preferred to confer with the brotherhood, and to allow a free and open discussion. The council of Jerusalem consisted of “the whole Church” (Acts 15:6-44.15.22). It is therefore a departure from apostolic practice if synods have become purely clerical and hierarchical. This is contrary to the principle of the general priesthood of the laity, which gives every believer the right to take an active part in the government and all the general interests of the Church. (P. Schaff, D. D.)
Controversy, frequently the result of misunderstanding
Some time ago I went down to the Lookout Mountain, and an old resident said to me, “Our soldiers fought bravely up there above the clouds; but sometimes the mists were so heavy that they could not distinguish friends from foes, and struck at each other.” (J. M. Buckley, D. D.)
It’s a great pity we can’t agree better. They are small, insignificant beings who quarrel oftenest. There’s a magnificent breed of cattle in the Vale of Clwyd--the most beautiful vale in Wales. They have scarcely any horns, but an abundance of meat; yet if you ascend the hills on every side, there, on the heights, you find a breed which grows scarcely anything but horns, and from morning to night all you hear is the constant din of clashing weapons. So there are many Christians who live on the heights--but on very cold and barren ones. Everything they eat grows into horns, the strength of which they are constantly testing. (J. Thomas.)
Controversy among Christians
I saw once a little incident in Scottish history. It was at the time when conflicts were being waged between two factions in Scotland. One of them was represented by the garrison in the old castle at Edinburgh and the townspeople were on the other side. They fell into a very serious fight about surrendering the town. It was the easiest thing in the world for the castle to subdue whatever force was brought against it. Those of you who have been there know how commanding a position it occupied. In a very little while they opened a terrific cannonade on the town. They were soon subdued. It was an easy victory. But they found that the explosions of their cannon had shaken the rock beneath them and opened the fissures so widely that the waters in the wells that the garrison lived upon had run away into nothing. I don’t believe we can afford to be victorious over each other, and that Christian denomination that holds its own by the destruction of any other one will find that its fissures beneath will carry away the water of piety and grace on which it lives. (C. S. Robinson.)
A catholic platform
Dr. Duncan was in Leghorn, Italy, when two godly shipmasters came to the port--the one from Leith, the other from England--the one a Presbyterian, the other a Wesleyan. The Wesleyan came and asked him to preach in his ship. “Oh,” said he, “I could not do that; for you see I am a Calvinist and you are an Arminian, and I might say something to injure your feelings.” “Sir,” was the reply, “what we wish you to do is to come and preach against the devil.” That is certainly a catholic platform. Calvinist and Arminian should always be agreed to preach against the devil, and in the name of a common Master.
Controversies, after effects of
“Old religious factions are volcanoes burned out,” says Burke; “on the lava and ashes and squalid scoriae of old eruptions grow the peaceful olive, the cheering vine, and the sustaining corn.” Those who have seen the sides of Vesuvius can well appreciate the force of this image. There indeed may be seen tracts of desolation; bare, black, and lurid, beyond any other which earth can show. These are where the sulphur still lingers and repels every effort of vegetation. But there are also tracts, close adjoining to them, and even in the midst of them, where the green vineyard, the grey olive, the golden orange, and the springing herb mark that, out of the attrition and decomposition of the ancient streams of lava, the vital forces of nature can assert themselves with double vigour, and create a new life under the very ribs of death. So it is with extinct theological controversies. So far, indeed, as they retain the bitterness, the fire and brimstone, of personal rancour and malignity, they are, and will be to the end of time, the most barren and profitless of all the works of man. But if this can be eliminated or corrected, it is undeniable not only that truths of various kinds take root and spring up in the soil thus formed, but that there is a fruitful and useful result produced by the contemplation of the transitory character of the volcanic eruptions which once seemed to shake the world. (Dean Stanley.)
The gospel not a matter for controversy, but for use
A huge fragment of rock from an adjacent cliff fell upon a horizontal part of the hill below, which was occupied by the gardens and vineyards of two peasants. It covered part of the property of each; nor could it be easily decided to whom the unexpected visitor belonged; but the honest rustics, instead of troubling the gentlemen of the long robe with their dispute, wisely resolved to end it by each party excavating the half of the rock on his own grounds, and converting the whole into two useful cottages, with comfortable rooms and cellars for their little stock of wine, and there they now reside with their families. After such a sort will wise men deal with the great doctrines of the gospel; they will not make them the themes of angry controversy, but of profitable use. To fight over a doctrine is sorry waste of time, but to live in the quiet enjoyment of it is the truest wisdom. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
I. Disputed. The Church at Antioch was made up of both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 11:19-44.11.23), living in complete harmony. The Church was prosperous. When this is the case the devil tries to get in and break up its concord. Here--
1. There were those who affirmed that, “Except ye be circumcised,” etc. Note--
(1) The doctrine which meant that the law, with all its requirements and penalties, was still in force.
(2) The advocates of the doctrine. “False brethren” (Galatians 2:4). They assumed an authority which they did not possess, and which was repudiated by the Church (verse 24).
2. Paul and Barnabas were their opposers (Galatians if. 5). It will be interesting to turn to Paul’s indignant utterances against circumcision as a saving ordinance (Galatians 5:2; Galatians 6:12, etc.)
And yet this same Paul afterwards circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3). But not as necessary to salvation, only that he might preach salvation to the Jews more acceptably. Here he fought the doctrine without compromise, because it was declared to be essential to salvation.
3. The result (verse 2). Paul went up by revelation as well (Galatians 2:2). Note--
(1) Those sent. Paul and Barnabas, who had the confidence of the Church, and who had been the opponents of the doctrine. Among the “certain other of them” was Titus (Galatians 2:8), and probably some who believed in circumcision.
(2) The wisdom of sending. It sent the dispute where it would receive an authoritative answer. There is no need of a Church being torn asunder by any controversy when it acts in the manner and with the spirit of the Church at Antioch.
(3) The journey. To Paul and Barnabas it was almost a triumphal march (verse 3).
1. The reception. Paul and Barnabas were accorded, seemingly, a formal and cordial welcome. To men of repute, such as James, Cephas, and John, Paul privately explained the gospel he had been proclaiming among the Gentiles (Galatians 2:2); and in this public gathering he and Barnabas “rehearsed all things that God had done with them.”
2. The attack (verse 5). In the council, therefore, the question was sharply and clearly drawn as to whether faith in Christ was alone sufficient for salvation.
III. Proved. Observe--
1. The composition of the council (verse 22). There was no mere pontifical decision. Peter only argued the case, and voted like the rest. Nor did the apostles alone give judgment, but “the whole Church.”
2. The arguments before the council.
(a) God chose that by his mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. It was not Peter that moved in the matter, but God. Peter’s scruples had to be overcome.
(b) The reception of the Holy Spirit was conclusive evidence, for God knows the heart, and He never would send the Holy Spirit to take possession of those that were alien.
(c) Their uncircumcision did not stand in the way of the cleansing of their hearts. His exhortation was short and to the point (verse 10). The difficulty of bearing the yoke of Moses is set forth in Romans 7:7-45.7.14. Christ, in contrast, says, “My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” Peter ends by declaring, “But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in like manner as they.” Not “they in like manner with us,” but “we as they”--without our circumcision!
(2) Paul and Barnabas’s. They simply declared the miracles and wonders that God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.
(3) James’. He makes it manifest that the acceptance of the Gentiles is no new thought, but had been pre-indicated in the Word of God (Amos 9:11-30.9.12). This appeal to prophecy, together with the evidence that God was moving in the matter, settled the controversy. The threatened schism in the Church was avoided, and liberty in the faith became a perpetual birthright. So was it that” the glorious liberty of the children of God “was vindicated. (M. C. Hazard.)
Times in Church history
There is a time--
I. To build and a time to break down (Ecclesiastes 3:3).
1. To build the fence of the law of the Old Covenant.
2. To break down that fence in the New Testament.
II. Of contention and of peace (Ecclesiastes 3:8).
1. Brotherly contention in order to find the right.
2. Brotherly peace after it is found.
III. To speak and to be silent (Ecclesiastes 3:7).
1. To speak boldly when it concerns convictions.
2. To be silent when it concerns obedience to God’s will and brotherly unity. (K. Gerok.)
The first ecclesiastical council--the nature of the dispute
Science informs us that the fiercest hurricanes revolve around a perfect centre of calm. This chapter tells us of disturbance in the centre of the Church. A little examination of this dissension will show that it is, more or less, a type of all Church disputes. It was a conflict between--
I. The ritualistic and the spiritual (verse 1).
1. The names of these breakers of Church peace are not given, nor do we require them. They were not persons of any authority. Their religion had more to do with the senses than with the souls with the form than with the spirit. I can conceive of them urging--
(1) That the law of Moses was the law of God, and therefore immutable.
(2) That the religion of Messiah was to develop, and not abrogate, the Levitical economy.
2. The new religion was, on the other hand, preeminently spiritual; it taught that “circumcision or uncircumcision availeth nothing,” etc.
II. The traditional and the progressive.
1. For many ages the Gentile who sought religious light could only obtain it through the Jew. These Judaising teachers had felt that what had been must continue. They were institutional conservatives--they could not give up the past.
2. On the other hand, Christianity was preeminently progressive; it made the old a mere starting point. It left Palestine for the world, the Jew for the race, the temple of Jerusalem for the temple of the universe, teaching men everywhere that “God is a Spirit,” etc.
III. The fettering and the free. To bind the Gentile converts to this Jewish rite would be to enslave their souls; hence Peter exclaimed, “Why tempt ye God to put a yoke on the necks of the disciples?” To tie the soul to a ceremony is to enslave it, and this those bigots now sought to do. They would fetter the limbs of a new faith with the trammels of old ceremonies. Christianity is freedom; it invests the soul with “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The first ecclesiastical council.
the settlement of the dispute
I. A deputation from the Church at Antioch and a full discussion of the subject at a general assembly of the Church (verses 4, etc.)
(1) It was a general synod, not a mere meeting of the apostles and elders. It is not necessary to believe that every Church member was present, but that all were represented.
(2) It was a popular assembly. Notice--
1. The speech of Peter. It is noteworthy that there is no assumption of superiority on Peter’s part. He speaks only as one of their number, strongly, but with deference to the common judgment. He shows that Jewish ritualism was--
(1) Unnecessary. He quotes his own experience in proof of this, and states that his ministry to the Gentiles was--
(a) By the appointment of God. “God made choice among us.”
(b) Divinely sanctioned. “Giving them the Holy Ghost.”
(c) Productive of the same spiritual results. “Put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.” This work the gospel effects as well without Jewish ritualism as with it, and achieves it in connection with faith and the agency of the Holy Ghost.
(2) Inexpedient (verse 10).
(a) Ritualism is an intolerable yoke.
(b) Men, by their bigoted conduct, may tempt God to put this yoke upon people. Were England to renounce her Protestantism, she would tempt God to put the yoke of Popery upon this country.
(3) Contrary to his faith (verse 11). This is the last speech we have of Peter. Adieu, great apostle!
2. The speech of James. The speech of Peter produced such a deep impression, that, amidst breathless “silence,” Barnabas and Paul arose. Their speeches are not recorded; only so much is said about them as to show that they were historic. But the speech of James is given. He was chairman, summed up the matter, and gave his judgment. He accepts the position of Peter, and supports it by a prophetic quotation, which points to a great restoration--
(1) Among the Jewish people. The building up of that which was in ruins.
(2) That would lead the Gentiles to seek after the Lord.
(3) Effected by that God who sees the end from the beginning.
3. The decision contained four prohibitions. Against--
(1) Food which had been offered to idols.
(2) “Fornication”--mentioned in connection with idolatry, because horrible licentiousness mingled with the devotions of those heathens.
(3) “Things strangled”--things held in abomination among the Jews, and in high esteem among the heathens.
(4) “Blood” (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 10:14; Deuteronomy 12:23; 1 Samuel 14:34).
II. A deputation back to Antioch with the results of the deliberation (verses 22, etc.)
The apostolic letter may be regarded--
1. As a homage to the right of private judgment. It is not an enactment enforced by penalties, nor a mere moral appeal addressed to a corporate body; it is directed to the judgment of every member of the Church in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. The questions at issue were vital to every man, and to every man appeal is made. The whole Bible recognises this right.
2. As a condemnation of ecclesiastical decrees. Its benign and tender spirit, touching references, popular and advisory features, are in striking contrast to the deliverances of later councils. Little men, who claim to be the successors of these apostles, have issued decrees whose arrogance and intolerance insult the Christian name.
3. As a charter of the Church’s liberties. With this letter issuing from the great council of the mother Church at Jerusalem, the result of apostolic deliberation and heavenly guidance, we claim a liberty from the reign of ritualism.
III. The assembling of the Church at Antioch to receive the communication from the mother Church (verse 30). The whole Church is assembled. Paul and Barnabas, Barnabas and Silas, deliver the letter, which yields great “consolation.” The strangers exhort the brethren and confirm them, and after a little while return home. Conclusion: Such was the method of settling this first discussion in the Christian Church. How simple, wise, and successful! Would that more recent councils had imitated it. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The assembly at Jerusalem
1. Previous apostolic speeches were for the most part statements or vindications of the gospel. The only one which prepares us for the present discussion is that of Peter in explanation of his conduct towards Cornelius, which for a time silenced the murmurers. But the question was not dead; it only slept awhile, and awoke with energy when the gospel was openly carried to the Gentiles in Syria and Asia Minor.
2. The “apostles and elders” were seated in order, as constituting a Christian Sanhedrim On the earlier occasion we read of “the apostles and the brethren.” In the interval, presbyters had been appointed. There is no mention of an institution of this order, as there is of that of deacons; and for this reason--that the latter was a new order; but the Jews had always had elders, and, as a matter of course, continued that order in the new Christian fellowship. Along with their acknowledged leaders were assembled many of the private Christians.
3. As battles have often begun with the skirmishing of light troops, that could decide nothing, but could search and clear the ground for the onset of the battalions that were to decide the fortune of the day, so in this assembly there was much informal discussion before the leaders spoke. At last it was evident that the “much questioning” was not moving the subject any nearer to solution, and so--
I. “Peter rose up.” It had always been his way to take the initiative; and the illustrious part he had played on and since the day of Pentecost entitled him to much honour and deference. He saw no need for lengthened discussion. He was guided to his conclusion by the knowledge of facts. The matter was in his view virtually settled by the case of Cornelius. It was not the bent of this apostle’s mind to plough his way through a deep or careful argument; but he knew how to grasp relevant facts, and make them tell. Why should the objectors “tempt God” by assuming that He would not save Gentiles elsewhere as He had saved them in the house of Cornelius? And for what end did they seek thus to restrict the mercy of God, and limit the range of the Christian Church? Was it to impose on the Gentiles a yoke which even Jews had been unable to bear? One thing was quite certain, that salvation for all men was “through the grace of the Lord Jesus”; and no ceremonial or traditional restriction on that grace could be allowed. We can imagine the satisfaction with which St. Paul, who understood the question better than anyone, listened to this clear evangelical statement. He remembered it, and was obliged to remind St. Peter of it on a future occasion at Antioch, when that apostle acted in a manner inconsistent with his speech. St. Peter always spoke with effect, and the whole assembly felt the force of his unanswerable words and “kept silence.” So far truth and charity had gained the day.
II. The silence was broken by the missionaries, perhaps by pre-arrangement with the leading apostles, perhaps on the happy inspiration of the moment. Barnabas seems to have spoken first--a judicious arrangement, because he had a stronger hold on the confidence of the Church at Jerusalem. Neither were likely to surrender any just claim of Judaism without good cause. Barnabas was a Levite, and Paul a carefully educated Pharisee, who even in youth had been a Sanhedrist. They did not so much argue as narrate what God had wrought, the logical deduction from which was that if God has not refused those Gentile converts on account of their uncircumcision, why should the Church refuse them? And if God gave to them His Holy Spirit, why should men hesitate to give them baptism?
III. St. James then moved the judgment of the court. This fell naturally to him on account of his position as president. His character gave great weight to his opinion, and he was not implicated in any personal intercourse with Gentiles, as Peter was. This is the only speech of St. James which has been preserved. It consists of four sentences:--
1. He recognised the importance and relevancy of the case referred to by his colleague, whom he characteristically styled in the Hebrew form “Symeon.”
2. He went to the Old Testament to find prophetic sanction. A mind like his craved some ground of Scripture, as well as of observation and reason. He found it in Amos (9:11, 12; LXX.)
The prophet had foretold that the fallen tabernacle of David would be rebuilt, and that a blessing would fall on the Gentiles. The erection of the Church of Christ, the Son of David, was a restoration of the tabernacle of David; and there came into prominent view those words which intimated that the Lord’s name would be “called” on by the Gentiles. Was not this being fulfilled in the conversion to Christ of a people whom God was now calling out of the heathen world for His name? And, if so, it certainly was not necessary for them to conform to the separate rites of the Jews.
3. In pursuance of this view, he proposed a decision of the case. The Gentile converts should not be harassed by the Jewish law. Enough that they should conform to certain rules of abstention which could not be called irksome, and which might in some degree conciliate those who were apt to regard all Gentiles alike as unclean.
4. In his last sentence he touched with soothing hand the susceptibilities of the more keen Jewish partisans, and his counsel became the unanimous resolution of the whole conclave. The Gentile liberty was secured, and, at the same time, the peace of the whole Church was promoted.
Conclusion: The whole discussion suggests--
1. The advantage of holding Christian assemblies for the adjustment of difficulties. The narrative is fatal to the Popish system of Church government; for there was open discussion, and the decision went out with concurrence of the whole Church. It is also incompatible with a bare system of independency, which leaves every local church to steer its own course. It is easy to point the finger at councils which have been bigoted and superstitious; but these were not constituted like this. Give us a council of the elders of the Church, as the trusted leaders, deliberating in presence of their brethren, and you furnish the best possible instrument for adjusting difficulties, allaying jealousies, maintaining truth and peace.
2. The debt of gratitude due to those men who settled what are now to us dead controversies. The questions that tormented early Christianity are nothing now but matters of remote history. Thanks to the men who refuted these heresies, and above all to the Spirit of Truth who enabled them to maintain sound doctrine l The question of circumcision which troubled the infancy of the Church so much is now quite dead. But we should remember that our liberty in Christ was won only by a hard struggle, and should honour the men, who broke down the claims of an arrogant Judaism, But oven this decision did not settle the question. St. Paul had still to fight it out in almost every Church. Thanks to him most of all, and then to other Jewish brethren who championed our freedom from a Jewish yoke! (D. Fraser, D. D.)
The assembly at Jerusalem: a model
I. Its occasion: a life question of the Church (verses 5, 11).
1. Not of faith, for concerning that there was no dispute, and that no assembly can finally decide.
2. But of life, of the practical application of the incontestable truths of faith to ecclesiastics ordinance and Christian practice.
II. Its spirit--truly evangelical. A spirit of--
1. Truth, depending on the Word of God and Christian experience.
2. Love, seeking not its own, but the good of the whole.
III. Its result--a blessing for the Church.
1. Progress by the decisive victory over antiquated external ordinances; but--
2. On the ground of steadfast Christian faith and love. (K. Gerok.)
The assembly at Jerusalem: its importance
I. The question that was discussed: a question concerning salvation.
II. The spirit in which it was discussed: a spirit of love and truth.
III. The rule according to which it was decided: God’s testimony in word and deed.
IV. The confession which lay at the foundation of the resolution determined on (verse 11). (K. Gerok.)
Law and gospel
God hath written a law and a gospel: the law to humble us, and the gospel to raise us up; the law to convince us of our misery, and the gospel to convince us of His mercy; the law to discover sin, and the gospel to discover faith and Christ (J. Mason, M. A.)
Essentials and non-essentials
A gentleman who was in company with the Rev. John Newton lamented the violent disputes that often take place among Christians respecting the nonessentials of Christianity, and particularly Church government. “Many,” he said, “seem to give their chief attention to such topics, and take more pleasure in talking on these disputable points than on spiritual religion, the love of Christ, and the privileges of His people.” “Sir,” said the venerable old man, “did you ever see a whale ship? I am told that when the fish is struck with the harpoon, and feels the smart of the wound, it sometimes makes for the boat, and would probably dash it to pieces. To prevent this, they throw a cask overboard, and when it is staved to pieces they throw over another. Now, sir,” added Mr. Newton, “Church government is the tub which Satan has thrown over to the people of whom you speak.”
They therefore, being brought on their way.
Working on the road
1. For a little time the noise of controversy ceases. Paul and Barnabas might have taken a much shorter way to Jerusalem; but Paul, like the Master, always wished to do some work on the way. When Christ was apparently hastening to a particular locality, He would often on the road stop to do some intermediate miracle. So Paul said, “We will make this a missionary journey.” So they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria--the district where Philip had done his wonderful works. We should all leave footprints behind us; people that come afterwards should know that we were there first.
2. Follow the apostles. They find a line of Churches all the way, generally speaking, from Antioch to Jerusalem. There were houses of call on the road. The pioneer had, by sacred influence, said, “Other and stronger men will be coming this road some day--be prepared for them.” We, too, walk on roads that have been well trodden for us. We take the roads of a country as a matter of course. Who ever thinks of roads, or could suppose that a poet could wax eloquent upon road making? Yet even so common a thing as a road is essential to civilisation. Surely as they passed along Paul and Barnabas would often think of Philip, and would often hear of him in the homes where they lodged. It is pleasant to see, in little wayside houses, the pictures of Wesley and Whitefield, and pastors of humbler name, who have lived in the locality. These pictures are texts. Despise not your forerunners.
3. What peeps we get into the domestic life of the time! The two men coming into a house turned it into an historical temple. There are some visits that transfigure the localities in which they are paid. And the little common feast, and the sort of talk which passes between men and unites men’s hearts! Forget not the little idylls that help to make up the massive poetry of great histories. There were little occasions, as well as great ones, in the development of the Christian story. Handgrips, and special prayers, and visits to the sick chamber, where the tenderest of all supplications were breathed, and still the men passed on, having to maintain a valiant and historical testimony in the face of the first council of the Christian Church.
4. As they went along what did they talk about? “Declaring the conversion of the Gentiles.” There ought to be great joy when soldiers come from the field of war with the latest news. We soon rough down, by dumb applause, the stumbling missionary who tries to tell us that the blood-red banner is floating higher than ever in the wind! The early Christians were full of their subject; we easily slip out of ours. They had but one theme, only it included all other themes. They took pleasure in their work; they liked Sunday better than Monday--nay, they made Sunday seven days long.
5. In Acts 15:4 note that the Church is spoken of in its unity. We have made it into a thousand. I do not object to denominations any more than I object to regiments; but as I expect all the regiments to bow to one throne, so I would expect all denominations to have common ground upon which they can have a common altar. Being received by the Church, the two speakers stood up to tell their tale. Have we no tale to tell? If a thief broke into your house, you would tell everybody about it. If your house was on fire, all the neighbourhood would know it. A man who has a tale to tell tells it; and he is right in doing so. We are not unwilling to speak, but we have no story to relate.
6. Look at Acts 15:5. The contention was Pharisaic. Not many of them believed, and those who did were greater opponents as believers than as unbelievers. There are hinderers in the Church as well as outside. This position was not only Pharisaic, it was founded upon a narrow reading of the letter. If Christianity is a square with well-defined walls, there are men who could stand in the middle of it and defend it bravely; but if Christianity is a horizon which recedes as we advance, and which has room enough within it for other universes tenfold larger than our own, they become bewildered, the letter is of little use to them, and so they make four corners for themselves, and subside within the prison of a creed. It is difficult for some men to see the bud in the seed. Christianity has its blossom as well as its root, its fruit as well as its blossom. The type only lives by its little self until the fulfilment comes, and then it passes away. They who upheld the law of Moses were Pharisees. How marvellous the providence that a Pharisee of the Pharisees was sent to answer them! They would have made short work of other men, but there arose a very prince of the blood, and in his presence they met an unexpected and successful check. A man who knows a smattering of a language may astound the villagers who never heard of it; but let a man arise who knows the language perfectly, and then the blatant pretender will fall away in shame. God grows His own men, and will always find His own champions. Let us rest in the God of truth, and the truth shall never be in want of a man of adequate capacity and needful eloquence to show its grandeur and enforce its claims. (J. Parker, D. D.)
And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up.
I. The time when peter spoke. “When there had been much disputing.” That was the critical moment. Speeches acquire force from the time at which they are delivered. Wise men keep back as long as possible. Thus their wisdom goes for twice the value which it would be appraised at did they speak earlier in the discussion. Many a man who is not of first-rate ability allows all the ready tongues to talk first, to relieve their feelings, to show their weak ability, and to secure what noise, mistakenly called applause, they can. Then when the assembly has fatigued itself, and would be only too thankful for a deliverance from the wordy confusion, he rises, puts together the different opinions, finds the middle line, and invites the controversialists to join along that line of compromise. They hail him as a Daniel, though Daniel he is none! He came in at the right time. This is the way in all great assemblies. Peter, then, is growing in grace and knowledge. There was a time when he would have been heard first. Now that he has waited until there has “been much disputing,” he will make his noblest speech.
II. Peter kept to facts. Over some ground we walk very daintily, because we are not quite sure of it; but Peter walks upon solid rock. “Men and brethren, ye know this is not a question of a speculative kind; I will ask you to walk with me over a road macadamised with facts.” As Christian men, we might have gone farther upon our journey if we had not tried to cut it short by crossing bogs and swamps. The longest way about is often the shortest way home. How does Peter come to speak this new language? He has been in conference with Paul. Privately Paul has bad interviews with them “which were of reputation.” There are private processes of education going on in every life and in every house. We feel that Peter has touched the man to whom we owe doctrinal Christianity! He was an apt scholar. Keep company with the wise if you would grow in wisdom.
III. In Peter’s speech you have a whole system of Divinity. I know of nothing outside this deliverance. Here you have--
1. The Trinity “God,” “the Holy Ghost,” and “the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Trinity must assert itself; it does not ask to be proved.
2. Divine sovereignty. “God made choice.” “God gave them the Holy Ghost.” “God put no difference between us and them.”
3. The whole scheme of Judaism. A yoke which could not be borne, but needful at the time. We must have chafing before we can have rest. God must show us what the law really is in all its details and tyrannous demand, before we cry out for mercy, pity, and grace.
4. Salvation by grace (verse 11).
IV. Peter surpasses himself in the breadth of his Christian philosophy.
1. He must have in all his thinking as its vital point Divine action. In fact, he says, “Men and brethren, this is a question that involves the Divine sovereignty; that being so, I start with this fact, that I went to the Gentiles against my convictions, my prejudice, my inclinations; but the law of gravitation drew me; it was God that inspired and directed me.” The reason why we have so many superficial theories of life is that men exclude Divine action. It is not evolution that perplexes me, but creation; and I find no fuller answer than “God created the heavens and the earth.” And so in the evolution of circumstances, the development of spiritual and moral history, I cannot consent to begin at some point indicated by a creature as limited as myself. Here, again, I say, “My difficulty is not with evolution, but with creation; and to that difficulty I find no answer so commanding, so gracious, as, ‘Men and brethren, ye know that a good while ago--God.’“ All the chapters of the Bible are hewed out of the quarry of its first verse!
2. Then Peter gives us a doctrine which has become commonplace to us; as uttered from his mouth it was a miracle. “And put no difference or distinction between us and them.” We ourselves being the Gentiles received into the great Abrahamic circle, do not feel the value of the inclusion as we ought to do; but the men who were inside that enclosure, and thought they completed its circumference, when they saw a rent made in the circle of the covenant, and hordes of uncircumcised Gentiles coming in, were appalled and disgusted. What could you say to such men? Could you propose a theory of social evolution to them? They would have burned you with their angry glances! Peter went right into the broken circle, and said, “Ye know that a good while ago--God!” There are times when we must gather up our whole enthusiasm and reasoning and hope into the Divine name, and hurl it, like an infinite thunderbolt, against all the petty action and conceit of a narrow-minded age. Think of a Jew acknowledging that God put no distinction between himself and a barbarian! You do not wonder that Peter should afterwards write: “Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
3. And then how broad again his philosophy becomes when he says, “Why tempt ye God?” This urging of the law beyond its intended province is a temptation of God. This is not obedience; not homage; it is temptation. Even Divine ordinances are not to be thrust beyond Divine boundaries. Paul himself never made a grander speech. How singularly and wondrously God trains one man until he is almost another! (J. Parker, D. D.)
God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness.
It is the sovereign’s stamp which settles the question as to the right of a coin to be counted current among loyal subjects of that sovereign. When God puts His stamp of approval on a man, or on a woman, or on a movement, that fact ought to weigh beyond any individual opinion as to the original propriety of such an approval. It may seem to us that the elder and more imposing Eliab is far better suited to the kingship than the youthful rustic David; but when God decides in favour of the latter, it is time for us to reverse our opinion on this point. So, also, as to preachers and methods of preaching, as to denominational peculiarities and modes of working, as to special agents and agencies in Christian endeavour; not what we thought God would approve, but what we find God has approved, ought to weigh most with us in deciding the question of our accepting or belittling that instrumentality or undertaking. Gamaliel’s warning is as timely for our day as it was for his, in many a matter of treating Christian work and Christian workers. In opposing those who claim to stand for God, while they differ with us, we may “be found to be fighting against God.” (H. C. Trumbull, D. D.)
Purifying their hearts by faith.--
Purity of heart
I. Its nature.
1. By the “heart” we must understand the inner, as opposed to the outer, man--the spirit and not the flesh. Circumcision--indeed any external ceremony, even Christian baptism can only affect the outer man. The text, therefore, in opposition to mere ceremonial purity speaks of purity of heart.
2. It is implied that the heart of man is by nature impure (Romans 1:28-45.1.32). Perish then the delusion that the human heart is good!
3. It is to the purification of the heart that the text calls attention. Things are commonly said to be pure when they are simple and unmixed; and purity of heart implies sincerity and simplicity, as opposed to the base mixtures of hypocrisy and deceit The work of Christian purity is commenced in regeneration There is “a new creation: old things are passed away; behold all things are become new.” There are new views, principles, feelings. But these things are at first immature (1 John 2:13). The law of progress is stamped on the whole economy of Christianity. Perfect purity is the goal at which it aims. This implies--
(1) A complete deliverance from sin--its pollution and power. This is obviously implied in the word “pure.” And here arises the difficulty, whether a perfectly pure state of heart is possible in the present life. Many contend only for the subjugation of sin, and not for its destruction, affirming that whilst the spirit remains in the flesh sin must remain in the spirit. But this is to ascribe some moral power to the flesh which it does not possess; sin is spiritual (Mark 7:21-41.7.22). Now Divine grace either can or cannot counteract this fearful state of things. If it cannot, then the work of human redemption, professedly effected by the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, was inadequate. But if the grace of God can counteract the influence of sin, the question is settled. “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.” “Christ loved the Church … that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.” “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin.” But, say some, the work cannot be completed till death. Now, if this mean by death, it destroys itself, for death is an enemy whose office is simply to separate the soul from the body; if it mean at death, it may soon be exposed--for if Divine grace can purify the heart a moment before death, why not an hour? why not a month? why not a year? why not twenty, or even fifty years? why not now?
(2) And because all sin is destroyed, love fills the heart. Hence obedience results from purity; “this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments.” Every spring of feeling, and all the arcana of thought are sanctified by its magic touch. The wandering eye, the listening ear, the loquacious tongue, the busy hands, the willing feet are all actuated by the ruling principle of love to God.
II. Its author. “The Holy Ghost,” as Peter elsewhere says. “Ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit first convinces of the necessity of purity; for it is by His inward illumination that we discover the corrupt state of the heart. If we welcome this discovery we shall sorrow for and hate this indwelling sin. The same Spirit will create a strong desire for deliverance, which if cherished will express itself in earnest, wrestling prayer. This will be followed by the encouraging excitement of humble hope, and the filial confidence that the desire shall be granted. Whoever thus cooperates with the Holy Spirit, the Divine Author of purity of heart, will eventually be brought to the exercise of that faith which casts out sin and purifies the heart. The reason that so few Christians obtain this great salvation will now be manifest. They do not obey the truth, whereas the law of the Spirit is that we are sanctified through the truth. “Ye have purified your souls, in obeying the truth through the Spirit.”
III. Its means. “By faith.” All salvation is obtained by faith.
1. Its warrant is the promises, (see Ezekiel 36:25-26.36.29; Deuteronomy 30:6; 2 Corinthians 6:16). These are the believer’s fulcrum. They do actually supply to him what Archimedes once boasted as his only deficiency to rival Omnipotence. “Give me a place on which to stand and I will move the world.” But the promises of God supply the believer with a fulcrum by which he may move both earth and heaven.
2. The object of faith is the “precious blood” of Christ (Acts 26:17-44.26.18).
IV. Its scope. It is offered to all. Whatever differences or distinctions men may make, God makes none. There is no difference with respect to--
1. Our need of this great change. Throughout the world human nature is the same. “There is none righteous, no, not one.”
2. The mode of purification. In every case it is by faith. (H. J. Booth.)
Faith purifying the heart from
1. This is setting up the honour of self above the honour of God. It is self-worship, and refuses to recognise any righteousness but self-righteousness.
2. What is the very prime object of faith! What do I receive into my heart if I realise Christ’s work for me? Is it not this, that the mighty God, He who is greater than the greatest, higher than the highest, laid aside all His glory, and came down into the very depth of humiliation for me? If I live Christ, how can I worship self? When faith has once entered, what room is there for pride? Where is the boasted glory of man before the Eternal Word, who became flesh, and by the very hiding of His glory manifested it--through Him humiliation entered into His exaltation? Where is human merit, when once the fulness of the rich stream of God’s unmerited grace is shed over the soul? No; the life of faith is the death of pride.
3. But does faith substitute nothing for self thus dethroned? Far from this. With the sense of a man’s own worthlessness comes the sense of his Redeemer’s worth--comes love to God, the true answer and return of God’s love to him. This last, faith apprehends; that other, faith renders. The humility of those who are born of the Spirit is exactly in proportion to their appropriation of the work of Christ. As He increases in a man’s esteem, self decreases. And thus humility is the true work of faith.
II. Covetousness--the inordinate valuing of created objects--the esteeming self not by self alone, but by the things wherewith self is surrounded and enriched.
1. We have in man all degrees of this sin, from the ambition which grasps empires to the miserly greed which hoards the farthing. And the secret of the sin is the same throughout all--the creature, not the Creator; my own possessions, not God’s gifts; my position my promotion, my increased income--not my stewardship before God; it is in every case a direct consequence of the substitution of self for Him.
2. And in every case faith in Christ is as directly opposed to it. If my inner regards are really fixed on Him who gave all He had, yea, Himself, for me, where is there room in me for covetous desires? Will not he whose life is hid with Christ in God be laying up treasures in heaven rather than on earth--be enriching his home rather than his tent in the wilderness?
III. Self-indulgence--the love of pleasure--the inordinate valuing of our own delights in created objects. How does faith deal with this all but universal tendency? Who is its object? Is it not He who has solemnly told us that none can be His disciple without daily self-denial? Can a man be justified by faith in Him and disregard these His words? Understand me: the Christian who lives by faith in Christ can and does enjoy life in the best and highest sense; but he cannot be a seeker of pleasure--cannot surrender his noble privilege of self-denial for the bondage in which he sees the children of the world fettered. (Dean Afford.)
Faith purifying the heart
Peter was enabled through his experience to answer those who said that unless a man was circumcised he could not be saved. There is nothing like practical work for Christ to teach us Christ’s truth. For the most part heretics are a set of theorisers. They do nothing, and then criticise those who are doing hard and successful service. Give a man practical work for Jesus and keep him at it, and he will, like Peter, learn as he goes on, and, like a river, filter as he flows. Peter could not continue to believe in restricting the gospel to the Jews after the conversion of Cornelius. His actual service refined his theory. If those who ruled botanical science never saw a flower, would you wonder if they ran into gross heterodoxies of belief? Let us consider the point upon which Peter’s argument depends.
I. The agent of heart purification--faith. There was nothing but faith in the case of Cornelius, faith born of hearing, and resting alone on Jesus.
1. Faith purified directly, not by month after month of contemplation; for, to the astonishment of the circumcised believers, the Holy Ghost fell upon them there and then.
2. Water baptism did not aid therein. The Lord will not permit us to mix up even His own ordinances with the work of His Spirit in purifying the heart by faith alone, and God forbid we ever should fall into such an error.
3. Do not, then, be looking for pure hearts within yourselves before you come to Christ by faith. Do not look for the fruits before you have the roots, but look by faith to the great Purifier, however impure you feel your heart to be.
II. The secret of its power. Believing other things does not purify the soul; why does believing the gospel? I answer, because--
1. God works by it (Acts 15:8). You know the old story of the sword of Scanderbeg, with which he used to cleave men in twain from the crown of the head downwards. As one looked at it he declared that he saw nothing about it to make it so fatal a weapon; but the other replied, “You should have seen the arm which was wont to wield it.” Now faith looked at of itself appears to be contemptible; but who shall resist the everlasting Arm that wields it? This greater than Hercules careth little for the weakness of the instrument; but, behold, He cleanseth the Augean stable of our nature with no other agency than childlike faith.
2. God is at work in the heart by His Holy Spirit. Now, the Holy Spirit comes as a heavenly fire to consume sin, as a flowing stream to cleanse away evil, and as a rushing mighty wind to chase away all that is foul and polluted in the stagnant air of the soul. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of holiness, and as He always dwells with faith, being its Author, its Strengthener and Guardian, where faith comes the heart will speedily be purified.
III. The seat of its action--the heart. Faith changes the current of our love, and alters the motive which sways us: this is what is meant by purifying the heart. It makes us love that which is good and right, and moves us with motives free from self and sin: this is a great work indeed. Hence the change which faith produces is--
1. Radical and deep. It is a small matter to wash the outside of the cup and of the platter.
2. Thorough and complete. “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” Faith lays the axe at the root, and heals the stream at the fountain head.
3. Operative throughout the whole life. A diseased heart means a sickly man all over. Neither can you have the heart right without its telling upon the entire nature.
4. Permanent. Restrain appetites which still remain, and the dog returns to his vomit; purify externals and leave the nature untouched, and the sow that was washed goes back to her wallowing in the mire.
5. Acceptable with God, who searcheth the heart. Man judgeth according to the outward appearance, but God looketh at the heart.
IV. The mode of its operation.
1. Faith believes in sin as sin, and sees the horror of it as an offence against a holy and gracious God.
2. Faith delights to set Christ before the heart and to make it gaze upon His side pierced by sin, and therefore hates the sin which slew its best Friend.
3. Faith delighteth much in the Person of Christ, and therefore she sets before the soul His incomparable loveliness, as the well-beloved of saints. Thus is enkindled a vehement flame of love to Him, and this becomes a powerful purifier, for you cannot love Christ and love sin.
4. Faith has a wonderful art of realising her gracious privileges. What manner of persons then ought you to be?
5. Faith has yet further a wondrous power of bringing near the things to come. What could more effectually purify the heart than the vision of heaven which faith presents to us?
6. Power is gained by faith through pleading the promises of God. “Sin shall not have dominion over you, for ye are not under the law, but under grace.”
7. Faith daringly lays hold upon the power of God Himself. How she smites the Philistines then!
8. Faith brings us real power to conquer sin by applying the blood of Christ. The blood of Jesus is the life of faith and the death of sin. All the saints overcome through the blood of the Lamb.
9. Faith gives us power against sin by mixing herself with all gospel ordinances--with hearing, communions, prayer, Bible study. Faith will enable you to draw nourishment out of ordinances, and make you vigorous against sin. 10. Faith rouses the new man to intense resistance of sin. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved.
The Christian’s creed
I. Of penitence, which rests on a clear consciousness of sin.
II. Of humility, which attests the demerits of good works.
III. Of faith, which has recognised the riches of God’s love in Christ.
IV. Of joy, which is founded on the peace of a pardoned heart. (Leonhardi and Spiegelhauer.)
Salvation by grace
I. The peculiar blessing of the gospel. Salvation. This implies a bondage, in which the whole human race is involved. Not content with its sway in this world, sin pursues the sinner even beyond the grave. “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” In the midst of this universal corruption,--the voice of the Eternal, re-echoed by the sinner’s conscience, rolls--“The soul that sinneth it shall die.” “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.” Is not this a yoke from which deliverance is essential? Yes! and from this the gospel proclaims deliverance: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us”; and His disciples are emancipated, not only from the guilt, but also from the power of sin.
II. The channel through which this blessing is conveyed. “Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Salvation is not the reward of merit, but the gift of grace; not the purchase of man’s desert, but the unearned bounty of God’s free favour. As it is freely offered, so must it be freely accepted. No unbelieving doubts and hesitation on account of the magnitude of the gift and our own unworthiness to receive it; no Pharisaical standing-out upon conditions which, if required, could never be fulfilled; but a humbling sense of our own unworthiness, coupled with a grateful sense of God’s undeserved mercy. Free grace shines conspicuous throughout the whole plan of man’s salvation. It was grace that planned the remedy ere yet the disease was felt; it is grace that renders that remedy effectual. The Church was hewn out by grace, and by grace all its members are, as lively stones, built into a spiritual temple; and when the whole edifice shall be perfected, the Headstone thereof shall be brought forth with shoutings, crying “Grace! grace!” unto it. Unhumbled men will doubtless be offended at this, and rejecting salvation as a gift, will endeavour to earn it as a reward by seeking to establish some distinction between themselves and more vulgar sinners; but this is all labour in vain. It has pleased God to pronounce, on the one hand, that “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight”; and on the other, that man is “saved by grace through faith.” Salvation through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is the only salvation recognised in the Bible; the only salvation that will either exalt the holiness, vindicate the justice, and magnify the mercy of God, or speak peace to the sinner’s conscience and assure him of acceptance with God. Such, then, is the peculiar blessing of the gospel. A salvation altogether of grace, decreed by the grace of God the Father, wrought out by the grace of God the Son, and applied and rendered effectual by the grace of God the Holy Ghost.
III. The extent to which this blessed salvation reaches. “We shall be saved, even as they.” There is no longer any distinction between Jew and Gentile; but “the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon Him.” Our commission, as ministers of the gospel, is as extensive as the globe on which we live. And this is true also of the various degrees of affliction and of crime. (W. Le Poer Trench, B. D.)
Grace--the one way of salvation
Consider the text as--
I. An apostolical confession of faith. “We believe.” We will call it the “Apostle’s Creed,” and it has quite as clear a right to that title as that which goes by the name.
1. The apostle did not believe in--
(1) Ritualism. All his testimony is concerning the grace of Christ. He says nothing whatever about ordinances, ceremonies; and those are the true successors of the apostles who teach you that you are to be saved through the free mercy of God.
(2) Self-righteousness. Peter did not say, “We believe that through doing our best we shall be saved like other people,” nor even “that if we act according to our light, God will accept that little light for what it was.” If we are ever saved at all we must be saved gratis, not by wages; by God’s love, not by our own merits. Those who preach mere morality, or set up any way except this, preach another gospel, and they shall be accursed, even though they preach it with an angel’s eloquence.
(3) Salvation by the natural force of free will. He takes the crown from off the head of man in all respects, and gives all glory to the grace of God.
2. Take this creed to pieces. It implies the doctrine of--
(1) Human ruin. Peter saw this most clearly, or he would not have been so explicit upon man’s salvation.
(2) The atonement. What does the apostle mean but the grace which came from the Cross of the Saviour? What the sun is to the heavens, that the doctrine of a vicarious satisfaction is to theology. Take away the cleansing blood, and what is left to the guilty?
II. The converted moral man’s statement. A company of Jews have assembled to discuss a certain matter, and some of them say, “Well, perhaps these Gentile dogs may be saved; yes, Christ told us to go and preach the gospel to every creature; therefore, no doubt, He must have included them--we do not like them, though, and must keep them as much under our rules and regulations as we can; we must compel them to be circumcised.” Now, you expect to hear Peter say, “Why, these ‘Gentile dogs’ as you call them, can be saved, even as you.” No; he turns the tables, and says, “We believe that you may be saved, even as they.” It was just as if you should say, “We believe that a drunkard, etc., may be saved,” and I respond, “You may be saved even as these.” What a rebuke that would be! This is precisely what Peter meant.
1. Now, some of us were favoured with Christian parents, and consequently never did know a great deal of the sin into which others have fallen. This is cause for great thankfulness; but if you ever are saved, you will have to be saved in the same way as those who have been permitted to plunge into the most outrageous sin. In this respect we are all alike; we are born in sin, and alike are we dead by nature in trespasses and sins, heirs of wrath, even as others.
2. Moreover, the method of pardon is the same in all cases. I never heard of but one “fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins.” That fountain is for the dying thief as much as for you, and for you as much as for him.
III. The confession of the great outward sinner when converted. Now, I will speak for you. We shall be saved, even as the best are saved.
1. Yonder sits a very poor believer. Now, do you expect that when you get to heaven you will be placed in a corner as a pauper pensioner? “Oh, no!” you say, “we shall leave our poverty when we get to glory.” Some of our friends are rich, but we believe that we shall be saved, even as they.
2. Others of you are poor in useful talent, You cannot preach, or conduct a prayer meeting, etc. Well, do you expect that the Lord Jesus will give you a second-hand robe to wear at His wedding feast, and serve you from cold and inferior dishes? “Oh, no! Some of our brethren have great talents, and we are glad that they have; but we believe that we shall be saved, even as they.”
3. Most likely there is some doubting brother here--Mr. Much-afraid, or Mr. Little-faith; but, how is your heart? Do you believe that you will be put off with a second-rate salvation--will be admitted by the back door into heaven? “Oh, no!” say you; “I am the weakest lamb in Jesus’ fold; but I believe that I shall be saved, even as they who are the strongest in grace.”
4. I will suppose that there has been a work of grace in a prison. There are half a dozen villains there, but the grace of God has made new men of them; and, if they understood the text, as they looked across the room and saw half a dozen apostles, they might say, “We believe that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as those apostles are.”
5. I will select the three Marys whom Jesus loved and who loved Jesus. These holy women, we believe, will be saved. But I will suppose that I go to one of our Refuges, and there are three girls there who were once of evil fame: the grace of God has met with them. These three might say, humbly, but positively, “We believe that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ we three reclaimed harlots shall be saved, even as they.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
I. An anticipation of an invaluable blessing. “Salvation” implying deliverance from spiritual danger, the enjoyment of spiritual good, the attainment of heaven. Man’s state rendered redemptive interference necessary. Law was followed by rebellion: rebellion involves penal consequences.
1. The Scriptural statements of man’s guilt and danger.
2. Observation and experience verify the Word.
3. The individual involvement in guilt and danger.
4. The necessary elements of salvation. Freedom from debasement, defilement, fear of death and judgment and what lies beyond. The bestowment of life, immortality, heaven.
II. The method by which this blessing is to be secured.
1. The Incarnation was for the purpose of securing human salvation. Determined in the councils of the Father; types prefigured it; prophecy proclaimed its approach until the fulness of the time came. The necessary proofs of His appointment were the voice from heaven, miracles, witness of Scripture to His character and mission.
2. The manner in which He met the requisite conditions of human salvation. He was a great teacher, but He was more at the last supper, in the garden, on Calvary. There salvation effected. The fire fell and consumed the sacrifice which must otherwise have consumed the world.
3. Christ’s sufferings were propitiatory, and formed part of a plan essential to the manifestation of the Divine mercy. Apart from Christ’s atonement there is no salvation.
4. The Saviour rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and presents there the memorials of His sacrifice.
5. The principle upon which this salvation is bestowed. Through grace, unmerited mercy. Penance and merit are excluded.
III. The types which will be followed in the bestowment of salvation and the extent to which it shall be carried. “Saved even as they.” The mistake of Jewish converts that they had some advantage. Their attempt to impose circumcision.
1. This salvation is available wherever the sovereignty of God applies it.
(1) This is true of the various nations. Of all to whom it has been sent we can say we shall be saved even as they.
(2) This is true of all the varieties and degrees of crime.
(3) This salvation binds its recipients in perfect union, “Neither Jew nor Greek.” (James Parsons.)
Then all the multitude kept silence and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul.
1. When Paul speaks we want to know what Paul says. But some men must be their own reporters. So we turn from the Acts to the opening verses of Galatians. Where Luke contents himself with a summary, Paul passes into detail. Some reports are too condensed, and therefore unjust. The minister “called and prayed.” We do not say that he walked miles, and that when he prayed his heart wept.
2. Paul says he went up to Jerusalem “by revelation.” If he had gone up to Jerusalem awed by its position and fame, he would have picked out dainty inoffensive words that would win the ear of many. In reality, Paul went from heaven to Jerusalem, and withered its contemptibleness under the majesty of the visions from which he had just turned his eyes. We have dropped the word “revelation” except on the Sabbath, when we venture to say it sometimes. We have meaner words--such as impression, feeling, etc. These are inoffensive terms; an atheist might use such mock jewellery. The apostle said, “I went up by revelation. I knew that the truth was with me, and I was anxious only that Christ’s Cross should be lifted up and seen everywhere as the one way of salvation.”
3. Was Paul then afraid of Jerusalem, and “pillars,” and “men of reputation”? Paul was anxious to let the leaders of the Church know exactly what he had been preaching, so he had a private interview with those who were of reputation. Could we have heard him then! Speaking to a sympathetic audience, to men who had seen the Lord! Paul had no fear about his gospel. He said, “I have been preaching salvation by Christ; now, brethren, what say you?”
4. Paul was not ashamed of his Gentile converts. He took Titus with him, and said, “This is a Gentile convert. He has begun in the Spirit; is he to be made perfect in the flesh?” Always vindicate your arguments by your converts.
5. Paul illustrates by anticipation the right of private judgment. To those “who were of reputation,” “who seemed to be pillars,” he “gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour.” And speaking of those “who seemed to be somewhat,” he said, “They added nothing to me.” Where, then, was submission to papal authority? Here is one man who stands up in the Church, and says, “This is the gospel which I have received, which I will preach, for which I mill live, for which, and in which, I will die.” “I am crucified with Christ,” etc. That was the true assertion of private judgment: not the expression of an individual will, but the expression of a personal loyalty to a living Christ.
6. Paul showed the true nature of real and enduring unity. In effect, he said: We may be one without seeming to be united. There are men to whom circumcision is a hereditary rite. There are others to whom it would be an intolerable yoke. Now, let us go, the one to the circumcision, and the other to the uncircumcision; for I know that as this gospel spreads it will be seen at the last that neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision.
7. But the council could not break up so. “One thing,” said the council, “shall unite us--that we remember the poor.” The poor have ye always with you. So they all--the circumcision and the uncircumcision--in philanthropy showed their union in the Lord, who lived to redeem the human race! Speculative theology divides men; practical philanthropy unites them. Let us unite where we can. Never inquire into the creed of a needy man. The man is hungry; the creed must be bread. When he has eaten his bread you may ask him questions. Begin where you can; wherever the heart door is ajar, go in; wherever opportunity is offered, speak the living word or do the helpful deed. Always seek for the centre of union, and always avoid the cause of division or distrust. (J. Parker, D. D.)
And after they had held their peace, James answered.
The decision of the council
This was a crisis in the history of the Church. The greatest disasters might have befallen it at this critical time. The man who saved the Church was Paul. There was in him a fine spirit of conciliation as to methods and usages; but when it came to the liberty of Christ, and the independence of the Church, he stiffened into inflexibility, and he “gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour.” The little picture before us enables us to look into the detail of early Church life. Note here--
I. The place of human thought and independence in the consideration of Christian problems. No man was hooted down on either side. In modern Christian controversy we have all seen lamentable spectacles. It makes one ashamed of the Christian cause when orthodox men employ a heterodox tone for the purpose of putting down an opponent. Take care how you maintain a good cause. I have seen an infidel display a nobler spirit than has been shown by his nominally Christian antagonist. Here the discussion was full, impartial and thorough; due deference was paid to the apostles and elders; all things were done decently and in order.
II. The beginning of Christian liberty. A wrong step here, and Christian liberty would have been lost. Paul was raised up at the very moment of time. He who made havoc of the Church now kept it together. Under the illumination of Paul the horizon of James widened. Sometimes the Church needs inspiration more than information. When the grate is full of fuel, what is wanting is a light. James began to see that Christian liberty was founded on prophecy. How did James become so great a man all of a sudden? Because he had touched the Pauline spirit. Great men make great men. We do not need a new Bible; we need new readers. It was actually found that in the Old Testament this very question had been settled. In every synagogue Moses was read, and nobody understood him.
III. The sight way of treating new converts. They were to begin by not doing things. The trouble with our new converts is that they are converted on Monday, and on Tuesday promoted to places of eminence. The apostles said, “Brethren, you will do well to begin by not doing certain things.” That is where we ought to begin.
IV. The happier aspects of controversy. But for this controversy, who knows when Paul and James might have been brought together? And after the controversy was over, the bishop writes: “Our beloved Barnabas and Paul.” James looked at the question partly from the characters of the men, and he called them “men that have hazarded their lives for our Lord Jesus Christ.” So judge in every controversy, This proof of devotion must go for something in the exciting controversy. It is not enough to be clever; we must be true. What have we done for the Lord Jesus? (J. Parker, D. D.)
Wherefore my judgment is, that ye trouble not them which from among the Gentiles turn to God.--
A triumph of spirituality and liberty
A few lessons come to us from a study of that first Ecclesiastical Council.
I. We see in this conference the true way of settling difficulties, both between churches and between individuals--it is by conferring together. That does not mean by writing letters, or making assertions at arm’s length, but by getting near to one another so that the persons distrusted may be seen and understood. If that letter had been sent from the Church at Antioch to the Church at Jerusalem, and Paul and Barnabas had not been seen--a living spirit can never be put into cold words--the judgment of the council might have been different; and St. Paul would have continued on his way, and there would have been a breach between those who ought to have been united. I have come to feel that letters almost always make more difficulties than they mend. Let those who misunderstand one another come together, take each other by the hand; while one says to the other, “Now, perhaps, I do not understand you; you explain your meaning; let me explain mine.” Few enmities could withstand that process. Only an egotist of the first water ever believes that he has all the truth. The life in nature has one manifestation in a flower; another in a tree; another in an animal, another in a man; none conflict; they are only varying manifestations of the one energy which pulsates from the sun. We have one name for the sum of life and all the manifestations of energy, and that is, the universe. The universe of matter and life is too vast for any individual to comprehend--how much more incomprehensible is the spiritual universe! Differences of opinion on doctrine and ritual will arise. There is but one right way to adjust such differences between individuals or in churches, and that is for those who feel themselves growing apart to take the first opportunity to look into each other’s eyes and clasp each other’s hands as brothers, and then bring all the things which separate into light.
II. The Council at Jerusalem makes very clear the distinction between liberty and authority in the Christian life. Christians recognise only one authority, and that is God. Just so fast and so far as the will of God concerning them can be learned, they are under obligation to obey. We are at liberty to believe everything that is true, and to do whatever is right and expedient; all encroachments on this liberty are to be resisted; and in the last analysis we ourselves must decide what is true, wise and right. How easy it would be if someone else could decide for us! Men are made strong by the exercise of their faculties. Those representatives of the venerable Church in Jerusalem came to Antioch with their “Thus saith the law,” and there the law was written in cold black letters as it was supposed to have been written by Moses himself, and they said: “Can you get away from that?” If the letter was to decide, the case was already closed. But St. Paul believed that there had been another revelation; that while law had been best for one time, it was not for all times; that he had a commission from Christ to preach His gospel wherever there were souls to be saved; and so, turning away from the letter, he boldly and confidently followed the spirit. But while we emphasise liberty and individual responsibility, we cannot fail also to see that, if we really desire to know what is true and right, we must be very careful about going contrary to what is generally believed to be truth and right by those who we have reason to believe are Christians. If, for instance, in this Church of nearly seven hundred and fifty members, seven hundred believe that one course of conduct is wrong, and one believes that it is right, that one ought to be very sure that he has not been influenced by prejudice, conceit, or some evil motive before he concludes that he is right and all the others are wrong. This Council at Jerusalem illustrates the proper relation of liberty and authority. When the Jewish party asked to have Titus circumcised, and so indicate that the law was still binding, Paul indignantly refused. When the meddlers came from Jerusalem and stirred up a misunderstanding, he said: “Well, let us confer together”; in other words, “I am willing to find all the truth that there is anywhere; the only authority is in truth and right--that is in the revealed will of God--and all men are free from all other obligation except the obligation to obey the true and the right.” To learn that, he was willing to go to Jerusalem. So should we be, or to go anywhere else.
III. This contest in the early Church makes plain the contrast between spirituality and formality in religion. Men are everlastingly inclined to put emphasis on things of no importance. The Pharisees who tithed mint, anise, and cumin are not yet all dead. Formality says: “If you observe certain rites, you are doing all that is required of you.” Spirituality says: “Have the mind of Christ; wherever you can do good, do it; pray without ceasing; no one place alone is holy, but all places are equally holy because God is everywhere; live the life of love, and open your hearts in the day and in the night so that the Spirit of Truth may lead you at all times.” Why do we have so many denominations? What is it that separates Christians but this everlasting tendency to put emphasis upon form rather than life? Life can always be trusted; it will make its own form. All we need to be anxious about is to make sure that our poor weak human hearts are open to the Divine life. No ceremony is of any value except so far as it contributes to growth in the spiritual life. The apostle violated all the traditions by which he was surrounded, but in doing so he tore a rift in the world’s darkness, and made it possible for the sunlight of the grace of God to flood a struggling race. But the question presses, If we are to trust the Spirit rather than forms, how are we to know whether a man has the Spirit? Well, first, what difference does it make whether we know or not? Who made us judges? “To his own master he standeth or falleth.” But we may know whether men have the Spirit. “By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one toward another.” (A. H. Bradford, D. D.)
And they wrote letters.
The Apostolic letter
1. A model of brotherly love and Divine wisdom.
2. A pattern for the modern Church.
3. A great standing deliverance from all ceremonial and ritualistic observances.
(1) Be not narrow-minded.
(2) Trust in Christ and not ordinances. (J. Dowse.)
The yoke broken
I. The relation of Christianity to Judaism. The decision was an admission that the Jewish ordinances were not permanent or essential. That old system had only “a shadow of good things to come.” It educated for the gospel, and having accomplished this its work really ended. The gospel succeeded. Christ was declared to be the end of the law to everyone that believeth; and the apostle to the Gentiles said, “He is not a Jew which is one outwardly,” but “We are the circumcision which worship God,” etc. To insist on the continued obligation of the Mosaic customs would be like drilling a reader in the alphabet. As well might the butterfly keep up its caterpillar existence--fly and crawl at the same time. For the Gentiles to practise the customs of the Old Law would be both irksome and also liable to lead to the error that salvation was dependent on these observances. Against this danger Paul most carefully guarded. The epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians are the strong ramparts which were erected to oppose it.
II. The tolerant spirit of Christianity. It seems strange to have such an example in the infant Church, since toleration is usually the fruit of long experience. Even more surprising is it, when we consider the antecedents of the men who displayed it. They were Jews, of a most bigoted race. One of the hardest lessons for men to learn is to unlearn, and act contrary to early convictions. Though they themselves, through force of habit, continued to observe the national customs, they would not bind the Gentiles to do the same. It is strange that this decision should have been ever forgotten. The intolerance which has resulted from losing sight of it has been the disgrace of Christianity. The greatest names have been in fault here. As an old divine says, “Whilst we wrangle here in the dark, we are dying and passing to that world which will decide all controversies: the safest passage thither is by peaceable righteousness.”
III. Christianity, while tolerant in spirit, has its self-denials (verse 29). If, after their conversion from heathenism to Christianity, they still continued to eat meat offered to idols, and to frequent the idolatrous feasts where it was served, they were more likely to relapse into their old heathen life. “Evil communications corrupt good manners.” The same thing in effect has to be perpetually guarded against. The Christian of today must, for his own spiritual good, beware of certain worldly habits and indulgences, lest he go back to the world. (A. H. Currier.)
Saying, ye must be circumcised and keep the law.--
Thousands and tens of thousands of Christians yet live in the dreary shadow of legalism. God is only Lawgiver and Judge to them; and their experience is limited, first, to self-condemnation and suffering, then to violent endeavours of the spirit, or of the body, or of both to throw off this suffering, with results, sometimes of exhaustion, and sometimes of unnatural peace, and then to reaction into moral indifference, arising from a totally unsatisfied heart and soul. There are thousands of persons who think that they are Christians because they are endeavouring to live aright, but they are Christians because they are endeavouring to live aright no more than a person is at home because he is trying to go there, though he does not know the way. A child that has lost its father’s house, and that is striving to find it, is not at home, but is a wanderer; and the person that is simply endeavouring to live aright, and nothing more, and that when he measures his life by the law of God, as interpreted to him through his own conscience, is conscious of daily breaking that law in every direction, is no more a Christian than a wanderer is a child at home. For a Christian is one that has found his way home, and to the fatherhood of God, and not one that is merely seeking to do his duty. A Christian is a child under the parental roof, saying, “Abba, Father.” (H. W. Beecher.)
Our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I. The principles by which they were actuated.
1. The highest admiration for their Lord and Master.
2. An entire consecration to His service. We must honour Christ--
(1) From gratitude.
(2) From duty.
II. The work they undertook. “To proclaim the name,” etc. This was--
1. An arduous duty.
2. A disagreeable toil.
3. A continuous self-sacrifice.
III. The reward they attained.
1. A reward of their magnanimity.
2. The approbation of God.
3. An immortal crown.
IV. The instruction they impart.
1. That there is something more precious than life or pleasure--Christ.
2. That however humble our sphere we may hope to accomplish something for our Lord and Master.
3. That whatever efforts we may make for our Master’s glory shall be acknowledged and rewarded by God. (Preacher’s Analyst.)
The motto of Christian service
During the American war with England, a young midshipman named Joel Abbot was serving under the United States flag. Winning the good opinion of the commander, he was put in the way of promotion by being commended to Macdonough, then controlling the forces on Lake Champlain. Reports were received that the English were accumulating a large supply of spars at Sorel. Could not the spars be destroyed? Who would undertake the task? Joel Abbot was sent for. Grimly the commander asked him if he were willing to die for his country. “Certainly, sir: that is what I came into the service for,” was the prompt reply. Entrusted with the dangerous commission, Joel Abbot fulfilled it in the spirit of his words. The perils and privations of his exploit were so great, that although he came back alive, he was completely prostrate for a considerable time, and his recovery was slow. Later, a sword of honour was voted him for his gallantry. How is it with soldiers of the Great King--workers for Christ? The test word of this service is “Self-surrender for Christ.”
A life hazarded for Christ
A touching story is told as characteristic of the missionary spirit by a friendly writer in the Contemporary. Rev. John Robinson was suddenly summoned one day to the Leper asylum to baptise a dying convert. My friend went in fear and trembling, baptised the dying man, consoled him, and then was seized with a throe of mental agony. It is the custom of many missionaries on receiving a neophyte, especially if sick, to give him the kiss of peace. Mr. Robinson thought this his bounden duty, but he was himself a half-breed, and he was absolutely persuaded of the Indian theory that leprosy, though non-contagious in the case of a white man, is frightfully contagious in the case of one with native blood in his veins. He hesitated, walked to the door, and returned to kiss the leper on the lips and then to lie for days in his own house, prostrated with an uncontrollable and not an unreasonable nervous terror. A superstitious fool, the doctor thought him. True soldier of Christ, say I, who, when his duty called him, faced something far worse than shot.
For some time after Mr. Hunt settled in Somasoma, one of the Fejee Islands, his life was in daily danger from the hostile and cannibal savages. But he went on with his Christian work, and when the captain of an American warship heard of their threats to kill and eat the missionary, and sent to offer him an asylum on board his vessel, Mr. Hunt declined with thanks, saying that he regarded the horrible depravity of the natives as only an additional reason for risking his life to convert them.
Life hazarded in Christ’s cause
I. The spirit which is described in the text. Several particulars are included here.
1. Their ardent love for Christ Jesus. It was not always thus with these men. Paul’s object was to root out the name of the Saviour. What occasioned then this marvellous change? In his case they were very extraordinary means. In other cases, the means are ordinary. The Spirit of God convinces them of sin, shows them that they have no help in themselves; but must accept Christ and His cross. And then they love Christ. They love Him
(1) For dignity of His person.
(2) For the perfection of His atonement. They “love Him because He first loved them.”
(3) Because He has taken their nature and their cause to heaven. When they see this, it is impossible but their hearts should glow with love to such a Saviour. The life He so dearly bought becomes His, and they “hazard it” willingly in His service.
2. Their high estimation of the gospel. Man is a depraved creature. This depravity exhibits itself in different forms; in one country in idolatry, in another in blasphemy, etc. Philosophers have bent over the scene and wept, and politicians have devised innumerable schemes to recover fallen creatures. But they have failed. Now God sent the gospel to redeem and sanctify man. Now the men, that “hazarded their lives for the name of the Lord Jesus,” believed that there was “no other name whereby men might be saved”; and therefore they published it. They had the conviction of an enlightened understanding, and an experimental enjoyment of the truth.
3. Their tender compassion for lost souls. Christ’s value met their enlightened judgment. “What shall it profit a man,” etc. They saw millions of immortal spirits, hurrying on to irremediable woe. Now when the men had this remedy, and saw souls in this condition, and had their hearts lighted with the heavenly fire, you do not wonder that they went forth and “hazarded their lives” to communicate it to lost souls.
4. The aggressive spirit in which they attempted to set up Christ’s kingdom. They did not wait till a petition came from these miserable souls, requesting them to send the gospel; or till a door was opened by some special act of the government of the country, or a change of opinion took place among the people; but wherever they could open their lips for Jesus Christ, there they went, though edicts were issued against them, and they were imprisoned and reviled and threatened with death.
5. Their exalted character in the opinion of the Church. They selected them to go on an important embassy, as men who copied most of their Master’s spirit. It appeared to them, that the chief excellency was in “hazarding their lives for Him.” Doubtless many in their day considered them very visionary men, and thought they had better not plunge rashly into things; but “the apostles and elders,” those who had love to Christ, thought their zeal their glory, and held it up to the imitation and approbation of the Church.
1. We see in the text a picture of fallen and of regenerated humanity; and among which class are you? Here is one class of men, opposing those who come to them with the gospel; here is another, ready to die for the name of the Lord Jesus. “He that is not with Me is against Me.”
2. A suitable apology for all those who exhibit the same conduct. By many it has been upbraided as zeal without knowledge. But here is the answer; it is done “for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” A soldier “hazards his life,” it may be, for fortune, for fame, for honour. But here are men who “hazard their lives,” without honour, fame or fortune, “for the name of Jesus Christ.”
3. One of the modes by which God augments the number of His servants and the efficiency of their service. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” It is not the cold, calculating, cautious men, who carry measures either in Church or in state; but the men who “hazard their lives” for the cause which they undertake.
4. The honour which God puts upon us by permitting us to send out such men to evangelise the world.
5. A spirit worthy of imitation. Who is willing to “hazard his life for the name of our Lord Jesus?” (J. Sherman.)
The true missionary
Once, in lifting from its shelf a certain folio, there fluttered out from between its leaves a paper dated 1763. It had evidently been mislaid as soon as it was written, and one hundred years after, just where the writer left it, I found it. It ran thus, “We beg to certify that the bearer, Mr. John Wyers, is well known to us, and we do hereby commend him to all Christian Churches where, in Providence, he may come as a godly minister who hath much devoted himself to the service of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This was signed “David Fermie, Thomas Blackett.” My text is a line out of an old letter of introduction written by the elders of the Church at Jerusalem. Now, this old certificate is not to be torn up for waste paper as a thing that is now dead and done with. It is a live thing, it is wanted now, to show what kind of missionaries are wanted, and how the armies of Christ in the field of foreign service are to win the day. Just take the words as they stand.
I. Men. An ancient lawgiver said, that what Sparta wanted was not a wall of bricks but a wall of men. “Men,” said a certain sarcastic journalist, “are cheap.” No. If “men” be what is meant by certain advocates of “muscular Christianity,” then men are cheap, but when I look at Paul I remember that it is not muscle that makes a man. If you mean by a “man,” an undesigned result of molecular forces, then men are cheap, and they ought to be, but a man is not the consummation of a tadpole. If by “men” you mean an average human being, men ought to be cheap; but many a human being passes for a man who is not so much a person as a thing. What I mean by “man” is a son of Adam, who has been born again, and who is therefore a Son of God by faith in Christ Jesus, and of whom we may say, “Like father, like son.” I want to blow into infinite space the mean, false notion that anything will do for a missionary; anything will not do. Before you are a missionary you must be a “man.”
II. That have hazarded their lives. This, in itself, is not matter for plaudit. Most extreme must be the case, when the author of life sanctions the hazard of life. But, while grace makes us understand the sanctity of life, grace inspires us with a will to give ourselves to the service of something higher than life. That man is not worth calling a “man” who lives to save himself. The man who answers to the standard we are now looking at, is a man who, being called to the service of Christ, is prepared, if need be, to hazard his life for that service.
III. For the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. This means that the men hazarded their lives--
1. Out of love to Christ. The name of a person is the person to whom that name belongs. We all know the rousing, or soothing, or melting magic of a name. But no name has such power to stir the hearts of men as the name of Jesus Christ. When it was first uttered to the Jews, it stirred their hearts to hatred. Among the most inexorable and deep haters was Paul. He breathed out threatenings and slaughters till Jesus stopped him. After that, the love of Christ set his life on fire. What have we hazarded for Christ? Where is your love to Christ? Is that the thing you call love? Then love knows how to take care of itself; looks upon religion as a question of safe investment and social respectability; sometimes joins the Church like a traveller taking his ticket who books himself quite through, wraps his rug around him, and goes to sleep till the train stops; hates originality like the plague. What you call love I call prudence. But love, whether to God or man, tends to scorn of consequence, and to the forgetfulness of self.
2. Out of obedience to Christ. “If ye love Me keep My commandments.” The commandment now waiting for our obedience is, “Go, make disciples of all nations.” Now it is strange the first thing men in general do is to give their opinion about this. One man is of opinion that it is unnecessary; another, that it is impossible; another, that we should look at home; another, that we should civilise first; another, that every nation has already its own religion fitted to its own nationality. But Christ waits not for our opinion but our obedience. The question is how we can best obey. Some can best obey in this way, some in that. The principle is not that Christians should leave work at home for work abroad, but that all Christians are charged with the evangelisation of the world to do it between them. Though the difficulties may be massive, they are not your concern. “Charge,” is the captain’s cry. Say, as the negro said, “Does Jesus Christ ask me to jump through that stone wall? Here I go at it.”
3. In the service of their fellow men. It is a great service to save lives, and a noble thing when men do it at the hazard of their own. Lady Edgeworth, in the days of King Charles II, had suddenly to defend the family castle at Lissom, in the absence Of her husband. In doing so she had to go down and fetch powder from the castle vaults. On her return she said to the woman who had gone with her, “Where did you put the candle?” “I left it stuck in the barrel of black salt.” Then did that glorious lady go down to the spot where the candle was burning into the powder, and put her hand round it like a cup, and lift it up and take it out, and so at the hazard of her own life saved the lives of others. Dear, glorious lady, that was well done. The lifeboat with its brave crew shoots out into the night over the swaying hills of water, to snatch twenty men off from a wreck. On their return, when the cry comes on the wind, “All saved,” my heart gives a great bound, and I say, “There is a noble service nobly done.” “The Son of Man came not t¢ destroy men’s lives, but to save them”; and if it be a great thing to save the lives of bodies through the hazard of our own bodily life, it is a small thing to hazard it to save the lives of souls. Conclusion: We learn from these men--
1. How our faithful and mighty Master through all hazards keeps His servants alive until their work is done.
2. Only men like these hazard their lives, and the men who at Christ’s call to service most totally give themselves up, most totally let themselves go, are the men whom the “King delighteth to honour.” (C. Stanford, D. D.)
Who shall also tell you the same things by mouth.--
Preference for the spoken word
The Dean of Rochester said: A woman said about a certain preacher, “He’s a very nice gentleman, but he has no deliverance.” He himself had been wont for years to preach written sermons. One night, to his horror, the church was so dark that it was impossible to read his sermon. He passed through a brief period of anxiety. Then, thinking, “Have I nothing to say to these people? Am I really a servant of God?” He threw himself on the Holy Spirit’s help, and spoke as best he could. The churchwarden apologetically told him that the people said “It was the best sermon he had ever preached, and they hoped he would never read another.” “Nor did I,” said the Dean; “and then I awoke not to find myself famous, but at any rate more useful than I had been before.”
The spoken word
A preacher is, in some degree, a reproduction of the truth in personal form. The truth must exist in him as a living experience, a glowing enthusiasm: an intense reality. The Word of God in the Book is a dead letter, it is paper, type, and ink. In the preacher that Word becomes again as it was when first spoken by prophet, priest, or apostle. It springs up in him as if it were first kindled in his heart, and he were moved by the Holy Ghost to give it forth. He is so moved. (H. W. Beecher.)
For it seemed good unto the Holy Ghost and to us.
The Holy Spirit and the Church
Here we have--
I. The spirit guiding the church.
1. This was in accordance with the Saviour’s promise.
2. This was demonstrated by the previous history. Pentecost; the mission of Philip to Samaria, and to the Eunuch; that of Peter to Cornelius; that of the disciples to Antioch, and that of Paul and Barnabas to Cyprus and Asia Minor. With each of these the work of the Spirit was directly connected, and each pointed to the widening of the Church’s boundaries so as to embrace the Gentiles.
3. This is guaranteed still, and may be detected.
(1) In the evangelistic impulses of the Church.
(2) In the doors of opportunity opening to the Church--the second invariably following the first.
II. The spirit’s guidance acknowledged by the church. “It seemed good,” etc.
1. “And to us” is not an assumption of co-ordinate authority, for the Church is a creature and servant of the Spirit. It simply means acquiescence in the decision of the Spirit as indicated by recent events and no doubt by special inspiration.
2. “And to us” gives weight to the Spirit’s decision, inasmuch as--
(1) Part of the Church had been opposed to what was now clearly the mind of the Spirit.
(2) Part of the Church had known the Spirit’s mind, but had taken no further steps.
(3) Part of the Church had fully acted in the disclosures of the mind of the Spirit.
So the divided Church was now united upon the only true basis of union. This is a lesson to the Church in all ages. When men, in spite of early training, prejudice, etc., give themselves to the work of God, what a mighty testimony to the Spirit’s guidance.
III. The spirit’s guidance seen in the decision of the church.
1. In the liberality of its sentiment, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.”
2. In its sanctified common sense. Certain things were “necessary” in order that Jews and Gentiles might work together. (J. W. Burn.)
The upshot of the first ecclesiastical assembly a triumph of the Holy Ghost
1. As a Spirit of freedom over the yoke of external ordinances.
2. As a Spirit of faith over the illusions of our own wisdom and righteousness.
3. As a Spirit of love over pride, obstinacy, and narrow-mindedness. (K. Gerok.)
The first principles of Church life and action
1. In things necessary, unity (Acts 15:11).
2. In things doubtful, liberty (Acts 15:19).
3. In all things, charity (Acts 15:7; Acts 15:11; Acts 15:20). (Irenaeus.)
And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren … and see how they do.
Paul felt that he was not called to spend a peaceful though laborious life at Antioch, but that his true work was “far off among the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21). He knew that his campaigns were not ended; that as a soldier of Jesus Christ, he must not rest from his warfare, but must endure hardness, that he might please Him who had called him. As a careful physician he remembered that they, whose recovery from sin had begun, might be in danger of relapse, or to use another metaphor, he said, “Come, let us get up early to the vineyards: let us see if the vine flourish” (Song of Solomon 7:12). We notice here for the first time, a trace of that tender solicitude concerning his converts, that earnest longing to behold their faces, which appears in the letters which he wrote afterwards, as one of the most remarkable and attractive features of his character. Paul was the speaker, not Barnabas. The latter’s feelings might not be so deep, nor his anxiety so urgent. Paul thought, doubtless, of the Pisidians and Lycaonians, as he thought afterwards at Athens and Corinth of the Thessalonians, from whom he had been lately taken (2 Thessalonians 2:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:10). He was “not ignorant of Satan’s devices.” He feared “lest by any means the tempter had tempted them, and his labour had been in vain” (1 Thessalonians 3:5). He “stood in doubt of them,” and “desired to be present with them” once more (Song of Solomon 4:2). We are here reminded of the importance of continuing a religious work when once begun. We have had the institution of presbyters, and of councils, and now we have an example of that system of Church visitation, of the happy effects of which we have still some experience, when we see weak resolutions strengthened, and expiring faith rekindled, in confirmations at home, or in missionary settlements abroad. (J. S. Howson.)
The pastor’s visit to his flock
Solomon tells us that “to everything there is a season,” etc. Among these he specifies a time to plant and a time to build up. The husbandman must not only sow, but he must use other arts of cultivation, to ensure the abundant crop; and the architect must not content himself with laying the foundation, but must rear the superstructure. Thus, too, it should be with the ministers of the gospel. There is a season when they are to break up the fallow ground, and one in which they should examine whether their labours have been successful--a season when, having laid the basis, they are to build thereon, and raise to higher elevation that structure which is to grow into a holy temple of the Lord.
I. Let me offer some prefatory remarks which rise out of the text.
1. Christianity is a religion of benevolence. Those greatly mistake its character who suppose that its possessors are to become recluse. Nor does it merely refine and direct our social affections, in reference to the ordinary engagements of life, but it renders their subject solicitous for the best welfare of those by whom he is surrounded. It was on the principle of holy love giving birth to pious zeal, that Paul and Barnabas went among the heathen preaching the gospel of the kingdom. They were solicitous for the improvement of those who had received the truth in the love of it. Here is a test by which to try our ministry--we are not to be content with calling men “out of darkness into marvellous light,” but we must be anxious for their advancement in religion.
2. Christian ministers and people should stir one another up to works of usefulness. Barnabas was incited to this particular part of his work by Paul. Now this teaches us to provoke one another, “to love and to good works.” This association is important. It often happens that one has knowledge but no wisdom, ardour but no discretion, and therefore his companion may act as a regulator to the rapid movements of the watch or a machine, etc. Besides which, “two are better than one,” in counsel, strength, courage, probable success, because, bye combination of their talent and energy, they may accomplish what the solitary individual could never effect.
3. Wherever the disciples of Christ travel, they should endeavour to do some good on the spots which they visit.
4. Expectations of fruitfulness in proportion to the means of cultivation are justly cherished. Paul and Barnabas visited the Churches, hoping to witness the auspicious results of their missionary efforts.
II. Indulge in some close interrogations as to your state.
(1) Sinners! How is it with you? Have you reaped any advantage from the discourses which you have often heard?
(2) Believers! How do you do? What of your knowledge? is it more clear, extensive, deep? What of your faith? does it embrace more firmly the testimony of Jesus? What of your love? is it more fervent? What of your patience? does it bear with more submission the afflictive dispensations of providence? What of your zeal?
(3) Backsliders! How is it with you? Have you seen your error and mourned your departures from God?
(4) Afflicted Christians! How do you do? Are your trials mortifying your corruptions?
(5) Young people! How do you do?
(6) You that are advanced in life! how is it with you? Are you like old trees stretching your fibrous roots wider and deeper into the earthly soil on which you stand?
2. Relative. My inquiry is, whether you whom God has set in families have established an altar in your houses. Is there a spirit and life in your sacred transactions? And are you guarding against those hindrances to these engagements which will multiply upon us without great caution? Do you, mothers, take your little ones alone, and converse with them about Him who says, “Suffer little children to come unto Me”? Do you, fathers, charge your offspring to fear the Lord in their youth? But, perhaps, some will say, we have no families. Have you any leisure hours? Are you living an idle and a selfish life?
3. Collectively. Suffer me to ask whether as a Christian society you are constantly bearing one another on your hearts before God in prayer--whether you are regular in your observance of the Lord’s Supper, and are walking in love, as Christ also loved you and gave Himself for you? whether you are sustaining the several institutions connected with your place of worship?
III. Glance at the advantages which are likely to result from this inquiry.
1. It will tend to the removal of obstructions to the prosperity of our Christian society. The artificer and the engineer frequently look into the works of the watch, or the wheels and different parts of the machine, that they may remedy any defect which examination may discover. The husbandman often walks along the fields which he has sown, to notice whether the weeds are growing there; and he cuts down the thistles and nettles, which would hinder the growth of the corn. Thus we may discover and correct those evils which are apt to creep into the best constituted communities on earth.
2. It sets the minds of many at work. The spirit of anxiety on behalf of yourselves will necessarily produce a solicitude on behalf of your families, etc. Thus all reap the benefit.
3. May I be allowed to make a reference to our own ministerial encouragement and satisfaction? You, who are in business, are not content unless you are making a profitable concern of your avocation, and are grieved if you are not making a good percentage on your capital. And do you think that we do not long for success in our occupation of saving souls from death, and winning them to Christ?
4. To all which I will add, that another result will be the extension of such an aspect in the Church, as to produce a favourable impression upon spectators without. They will see that Christianity is not a mere profession, but a real and important business. (J. Clayton, A. M.)
Revisiting the Churches
I. Revisiting the churches. The converts’ old faults still clung to them in part, and their union in the same Churches stirred up strifes. They were but weak bands in the midst of worldly and licentious communities. No wonder that their spiritual father felt the necessity of confirming their faith (Acts 16:36; Act 16:41). Brief report of a large work, parts of which are more fully disclosed in the epistles. Such labours are the main work of every pastor, too commonly underestimated in comparison with revival effort. The evangelist comes to a people with many advantages, and no wonder that he succeeds. But the hardest work yet remains--to lead the new converts from the excitement of revival scenes to the steady activity and growth to daily religion in commonplace surroundings.
II. The new work. Old scenes arouse longings for new service. On the edge of the light the darkness is terribly visible. The better to do this new work, Paul finds a companion to take Mark’s place in Timothy, who had doubtless been converted with his mother and grandmother during the apostle’s first visit, and had already gained the confidence and praise of the Church. He is circumcised, simply to avoid needless irritation of Jewish prejudice, and then ordained, making a good profession before many witnesses. The work in Phrygia and Galatia is told in a single sentence, with that inspired reticence which is more surprising than speech. Paul and his companions seem to have been inclined to devote themselves to a region so important and receptive; but God was calling them another way. We note in passing that this heavenly control is attributed first to the Holy Spirit, then to the Spirit of Jesus, then to God. So Ananias and Sapphira are said to lie to the Holy Ghost, unto God, and to tempt the Spirit of the Lord. These unstrained allusions show how deeply fixed in the early Church was the doctrine of the Divine Trinity. Very striking, also, are the disclosures of the Lord’s guidance of His servants. In planning his journey to this point, the apostle depended upon what we may call business sagacity--his knowledge of the Churches and their needs. Now pushing on to promising work, he is suddenly turned away by direct supernatural interposition. Then comes the most vivid disclosure, calling to strange and overwhelming tasks. How like the Christian life of today! At one period our path leads on in common, uneventful ways. We realise no Divine guidance, no special care or appointed mission. Again, in the thick of useful labours, we are hindered, forbidden. Sickness, loss, failure, etc., sharply arrest us, to our wonder and grief. But there are glorious hours when the call comes divinely clear, as it did to Paul at Treas. The blood of Trojan and Greek had stained the earth where he stood. Xerxes, Alexander, and Caesar had lingered here, and crossed to their conquests. But the grandest event which ever happened on that shore was the vision and the cry which led the gospel of Christ into that continent which ruled for centuries the mind and the heart of the world. Conclusion: One great truth breathes through the whole--the living Christ is always present in His Church.
1. How else could He trust us with such interests?
2. How else could we bear such responsibilities. (Sermons by the Monday Club.)
Paul’s second missionary journey
I. The work resumed.
1. Working together. The Council at Jerusalem had been an interruption, but was more profitable to the Church than if the apostles had kept on with their work. For the settling of great principles, at times even a revival may well stop. And the principle which they went to settle was one that strengthened the nerve of revival effort among the Gentiles.
2. Working apart.
(1) The cause of the separation, from which we learn that a quarrel can arise--
(a) Over a very good cause.
(b) Between very good men.
(c) Between very good friends.
(2) The results of separation. A division of the field of labour. By this the whole field was more quickly revisited, and Mark made into a good worker for Christ.
II. The work prospered.
1. The workers increased (Acts 16:1).
2. The Churches increased. The Churches were strengthened by the visit, and so “increased in number daily.” Each day was a birthday of souls. There were no blank days in their books of record.
III. The work enlarged.
1. Guided by the Spirit. Twice the Spirit did not allow the missionaries to preach the Word where they were inclined to proclaim it. He suffered them to work in Galatia and Phrygia. In the latter region they gathered some disciples (Acts 18:23), and in the former there grew up some Churches as the fruit of their labours (Galatians 1:2). But they were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to speak the word in Asia, and when they essayed to go into Bithynia, the Spirit of Jesus suffered them not.
2. Called by the Spirit. “Come over into Macedonia, and help us.” Now they understood why they had not been permitted to preach in Asia, or to go into Bithynia. God had closed those doors that He might open to them a wider one. The call of the heathen today for the gospel is a call of the Spirit. (M. C. Hazard.)
Paul’s second missionary journey
I. A new journey decided on.
1. The reason for this decision. It shows Paul’s zeal. Had he not already done his share of this perilous work? It was very pleasant at Antioch. It needs a missionary fully to understand the sweetness of that simple phrase, “with the disciples.” It was not only pleasant to abide at Antioch; certainly they were very useful there, “teaching and preaching this word of the Lord.” Why not let well enough alone? What an appalling mass of work yet remained to be done at home! But God saw that the best thing for Antioch herself was to send forth her best men to distant and still darker fields. The missionary force sent to Antioch, and then to Asia Minor and to Europe, did not weaken--it strengthened--the Church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:3-44.15.4). It rolled back to the Churches at home accumulating and mighty evidence of the power and faithfulness of their living Lord.
2. The preparations for the journey. Who shall form the party? Important question! It is a vital matter, both for their happiness and their usefulness, that they should be congenial companions--especially that they should feel great confidence in each other. Paul felt that he must be sure of his comrades. Still, it is not strange that Barnabas should have favoured his young relative. They could not agree, and accordingly they wisely decided to divide the field. So, to a great extent, our missionaries do today. It would be somewhat difficult for Methodists and Baptists and Presbyterians and Episcopalians all to work together in the same party and on the same ground. And they need not. The field is large enough to give to each body a place of its own. Yet their hearts are one. Paul chose Silas, already well known and useful, for his companion, and after a farewell meeting in which the Church with prayer and words of love “commended them to the grace of God,” the two departed.
II. The plan of their journey.
1. The former fields were revisited.
(1) What did those fields need?
(a) Sympathy. He knew that the converts must suffer “much tribulation.” And there are tens of thousands of Christian converts in heathen lands today in equal need of sympathy from us.
(b) Inspection. “Let us go again and see how they do.” Read closely the allusions in the Acts and Epistles to the first Churches, and you will see that they needed careful supervision. These converts had just been plucked out of utter paganism. Even their elders and preachers were in many cases men who had never seen a Christian example except for a few days in Paul. It was inevitable that errors and abuses should creep in. This necessity is the same now.
(c) Instruction. A thousand questions plain to us were new and full of perplexity to them. Discussions about so simple a thing as the meats they might eat arose, and there was need of special warning and teaching respecting some matters of the most ordinary morality (chap. 15:29). Think of Paul in the fulness of his Christian knowledge and his power burying himself for years in remote provinces to teach these weak, dark-minded people the first beginnings of Christian truth on such points as these! It may well rebuke the folly and fastidiousness of any Christians who feel themselves too nicely educated to take a Sunday school class, and the vanity of any preachers who think themselves too gifted to expend their lives on the heathen or even on a “country parish” in their own land.
(2) What they gave.
(a) Multiplying converts. Paul found that the Churches he had planted “increased in numbers daily.” His visit gave them a new impulse. The parallel between missions then and now is still maintained. In no part of Christendom today is the rate of increase in the Churches equal to what we see in the Churches planted in heathen lands.
(b) Ripening Christian character. These converts were “established in the faith.” Notwithstanding the faults to be expected both in Paul’s day and ours, there has always been witnessed growth in knowledge and grace, and on every field lives which have filled the hearts of our missionaries with joy.
(c) Most notable help. From the neighbourhood of Derbe came Timothy. The annals of modern missions tell of numbers who, without his advantages, have more than equalled the devotion and courage of Timothy. Have you ever read the life of Quala, the native preacher of Burma, or of Papehia, the first fruits of Tahiti?
2. New fields were opened. Phrygia and Galatia, large provinces north of Lycaonia, are traversed by them. There also Churches sprang up as the result of their labours (1 Corinthians 16:1). At a point about a hundred and fifty miles from the coast Paul would stand with Bithynia on his right, mountainous, but wealthy and populous, a favourite region with the emperors of Rome; on his left Asia, with its great ports and cities, Ephesus, Sardis, Thyatira, Laodicea, Philadelphia, Smyrna, with vast populations sunken in idolatry and utterly ignorant of the gospel. What a field! And it is just at hand. It seems a well-laid plan, but it is for some unknown reason “forbidden by the Holy Ghost.” Paul then turns northward; but again “The Spirit suffered them not.” Mysia also, under the same Divine intimations, they are compelled to “pass by.” It must have seemed a strange providence! What is this unknown plan which God has laid? At length they reach Troas. It is a great mercantile city. Is this their destination? No. Thus far all their own plans are thwarted, although no doubt formed with thought and prayer. But they need not mourn. They are now to see God’s plan disclosed. That night there is given to Paul a vision: “There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia and help us.” Yes, to another continent the seed of the gospel is to be borne. It is to be planted. God shall watch over its growth and spread in those new lands. Then Paul may return and preach in Asia.
(1) It is a circumstance useful for us to notice that even so good a man as Paul is often led by God in the dark.
(2) A lesson is found in Paul’s interpretation of the vision. That Macedonian phantom called for help. Upon the wharf at Troas stood four wayworn travellers, unknown, penniless. What succour had Greece to ask from them? There never had been a civilisation on earth equal to hers, and yet there she lay, wretched and guilty beyond anything which we are permitted to describe. What wonder is it that when Paul heard that prayer for help he “gathered assuredly that the Lord had called him to preach the gospel unto them”! Give the gospel, first of all, if you would give sure help to any people. Would you help a fellowman? Tell him of Christ. Would you help your country? See to it that every village and every lane in her crowded cities is reached by the gospel. Would you help this unhappy world? Then hasten in the spirit and the wisdom of Paul to bear the gospel to every Macedonian shore. (A. Mitchell, D. D.)
Paul’s second missionary journey
1. Christianity is essentially missionary in its purpose.
2. God will direct by hindering or helping His servants in doing His work.
3. God wants the best equipped servants for missionaries.
4. God will not allow honest differences among His servants to hinder “the gospel’s progress.
5. God will always give increase in numbers where His people are established in the faith.
6. The gospel will have accomplished its purpose only, when there shall be none to cry--“Come over and help us!” (J. M. King, D. D.)
And Barnabas determined to take with them John.
The contention between Paul and Barnabas
The contents of this chapter are famous for two things, that had most contrary events. The one, how a great variance was concluded with a happy concord. The other, how a small variance did proceed to an unhappy discord. The great variance was, whether such as were converted to believe in Christ must continue in the observation of the law of Moses. For some in the first verse of the chapter were so rigid that they held, except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. This point was decided. And they that were Jewish were overborne by a moderate determination agreed upon by all the apostles and elders that met at Jerusalem. But when matter of doctrine and deep dispute could not divide the Church, Satan laid a smaller stumbling block in their way, and the two most holy servants of God, Paul and Barnabas, dashed their foot against it; and they that plucked a beam out of their brother’s eye were troubled with a mote in their own. It was not about a point of doctrine, but upon a circumstance of a person, no way considerable to the main benefit of the gospel, that begat a quarrel and a disjunction between them. Rather than Barnabas would suffer Mark to be discountenanced, he would forsake Paul. Rather than Paul would consent to Mark’s readmission, he would forsake Barnabas. And the contention was so sharp between them that they departed asunder the one from the other. Upon the handling of the text in several points--
1. We must enter in at a breach. Here was a contention.
2. This struggling was not between mean and ordinary persons, but between the champions of the holy cause, between Paul and Barnabas.
3. It was not carried with meekness and cool temper, but it swelled high, it was παροξυσμὸς, a sharp, a fretful contention.
4. They fell not out for anything that touched the life of truth, or the honour of Christ; the fortunes of Greece, as the proverb is, did not lie upon it; it was only about the accommodation of a person, whether Mark were fit for the present work: that was all the matter, and no more.
5. As small a matter as it was, it waxed to a separation, and to disjoin these two in body as well as in mind. They departed asunder the one from the other. Now I resume all this again.
I. And that which we meet first of all at the door of the text is contention. None of the least sins, none of the least punishments. For if Babel itself could not be built up among discord of tongues, how much more can Sion never be well built up with discord of hearts? If the nets be broken, the fishers of men may catch a draught, but they can keep nothing. Cut a seed of wheat in twain, and the pieces lose the nature of fructification. If words be not well put together they will make no sense; and if men’s senses do not well join together in one profession, they will make no Church. Contention is the devil’s wedge to rive asunder the Cross of Christ; it turns order into a heap, amity into jangling, unity into schism, and truth into heresy. The work of men is contention, the way of God is peace. We are sure He is in the still voice, and we are sure that He is not in the whirlwinds of controversies and uproars. Be it therefore propounded what we should do as well as pray, that we may be one, and that no contention fall among us. First bring a supple, a soft, a tractable mind, that hath a good affection to agreement, and I will undertake to furnish you with rules enough, that if you differ in no greater things than Paul and Barnabas did (yea, what if they were greater?) you may soon greet one another with the kiss of peace. “Only by pride cometh contention,” says Solomon (Proverbs 13:19). He that is wise in his own opinions will never want occasions to begin them, nor arguments to maintain them. And he that thinks the yielding party loseth in his honour, had rather lead and perish than follow after and be preserved. But humility is limper, and will easily bend; it is never given to contradiction; it stands not upon vain points of reputation, to carry the sway in every opposition. For let the wrangler get the better in obstinacy, the modest Christian shall overcome in charity. Mortify self-love, and peace will please you better than victory. The best that he can say for himself that continues in contention is, It is unreasonable that I should yield, for I am in the right. It were no hurt for a modest judgment to suspect itself in that confidence of persuasion. After this which I have required, that men be not rigid, but humble and flexible, the rules to be kept for composing smaller debates, and my text reacheth to no other, are these:
1. There is no exception to be made against the sentence of the law under which we live.
2. As the kingdom hath statute law, so the Church hath canons, which served our turn, to much benefit, in the best ages, before imperial laws came forth to help us.
3. When some cases fall out, for which neither laws nor canons have provided, custom hath much force to decide them. Long permission is a tolerable confirmation.
4. If it fall out that laws are silent, and customs are contrary one to another, then, by the privilege which we have above beasts, we must resort to reason.
5. I report me to the apostles, how they handled a discord in this chapter. Some would have all the ceremonies of Moses kept, which would have made the Gentiles become Jews, and not Christians. To prevent all schism, the apostles and elders fall upon that course, which we call media consilia, a middle temper. Some ceremonies the Gentile shall conform unto, that will appease the Jew. Some ceremonies the Jews shall forego, that will edify the Gentile.
6. What think you of arbitration? And the fewer arbiters the better. When many take the thing in hand, commonly it is so long a doing that it is never done. Make the appeal then to few.
II. Though there are so many remedies to stop contention, law, canons, custom, reason, middle temper, arbitration, yet my text tells you they do not always prevail, for the most considerable members of Christ’s body were at odds, Paul and Barnabas, which is the next point. Had they been enmities with infidels and pagans, with those that are without, they had been natural: for “what agreement hath light with darkness?” But this was a war at home, among themselves, a civil war. God help us if the right hand fight against the left, when both are made to defend the body. When the rams of the flock contend, the poor sheep that look on must stand amazed. But I stand to this doctrine, that Paul and Barnabas, and such good men as they are, may pursue a good meaning in a contrary way one to another, and be guiltless. For it is the ignorance of good men, and not their perverseness, which makes them seek the true end by multiplicity of means, and very opposite. Cloth of the same making hath not always the same dye. And they that are propense to glorify one God in the same Church, with the same charity, do not always build with the same materials. Paul loves the Church as well as Barnabas, but he would not offend it for want of justice. Barnabas loves the Church as well as Paul, but he would not offend it for want of clemency and compassion. Here is one wool and one cloth, but dipped in two colours. Then I let you see, that for their part that do equally consent to maintain the true gospel, the inequality of their judgments may be inoffensive. I would I could say for our own parts, that the dissensions of our Reformed Churches were unblamable, and that there were no transgression against charity in our discords. And no wonder if there be turbulent opinions in the congregation of malignants; for the best of God’s servants draw not the same yoke without a little jogging of the ark, there was a contention between Paul and Barnabas.
III. Nay, to our wonder, it rested not there, it exceeded the bounds of meekness, for in the third point my text says it was παροξυσηὸς, a sharp contention. “An unanimity of opinions is not necessary to friendship,” says Aristotle very well. Dear friends may retain the sweetness of love together, and yet vary in some conclusions of judgment. The dissensions of them that keep benevolent minds are not failings out, but wranglings. As Paul resisted Peter to his face (Galatians 2:11) boldly, but charitably. His confidence for the truth became him, and his inoffensiveness commended him. It was otherwise at this bout between him and Barnabas; passion and provocation transported them both so far, that it was a sharp contention. The Greek word παροξυσμὸς hath a cursed meaning in it. When a disease hath intermitted awhile, and begins its access and violence again, that is called a paroxysm of sickness; and when a babble is worse and worse louder and louder, that is a paroxysm of contention. These two, that had been fellow soldiers under Christ’s banner, in so many travails, in so many perils, in so many persecutions, they cannot bear with one another with patience; and they that were ready to die together cannot live together; they that were the strongest confederates in the world are the strongest opposites. Oh what a fickle and fallacious thing is the concord of men! Yet I must not say that the sharpness between two such sweet olive branches had any taste of the acid of reproach, or that they pierced one another with opprobrious speeches. I do not onerate them with any such accusation. Have they no regard of their common brotherhood in Christ, who are not satisfied to contend, but they must mix sharpness with it? And no small quantity. A sting is a little matter; they tear one another in pieces as with the paw of a lion. Their pen drops nothing but gall and venom, as if their quill were plucked from the wing of a cockatrice. And who is there of a candid and a clean soul that will not sooner be gained with the coolness of charity than with the heat of rage.
IV. Having acquainted you that Paul and Barnabas did disagree, and not simply so, but with some eagerness and provocation, might not a solid judgment suspect that some great offence had thrust itself in between them? You shall find it otherwise, that the contention was in no weighty cause; it touched not the life of truth, or the honour of Christ. The verse before my text will tell you all in the beginning of it, “Paul thought it not good to take Mark with him.” And our translation gives it more than is due to it, as I conceive. We say that “Paul thought it not good,” as if it were a matter of good or evil. Much better thus, as I apprehend, “Paul thought it not fit.” It was not what was good, for it was good either way, but what was more fit and meet that made the controversy. “This is fit,” says one; “‘Tis not so fit,” says his partner; a poor beginning for a sharp contention. It may be supposed, as I find it in part in a good author, that Barnabas pleaded on this wise for Mark. He had shrunk indeed from his calling, and left Paul at Pamphilia; but it was not strange in a novice to be a little daunted, when he was in jeopardy of his life. But give him his due, he had not renounced the faith, but retired home for fear of the world’s anger. Yet he defended not this fault, but repented, and bewailed it. Now he would fain begin afresh, for he felt himself by the grace of God more strong and resolute than ever. Should not indulgence be shown to his unfeigned repentance? Surely the son of so good a mother deserved some mildness and favour from the presidents of the Church. And what was more proper to Christ’s commissioners than to reconcile offenders that had gone astray? These reasons prevailing not with Paul, you may imagine with me, if you please, that his sentence was to this purpose. That they are worthy of great reproof that make excuses, and follow not Christ when He calls them. An easy pardon would flatter him in his fault; this repulse would make him know the magnitude of his sin. And why might not Paul have remitted a little of his rigour to have gratified Barnabas? And why not Barnabas have taken the denial friendly to content Paul? Sacrifice small and indifferent things to the fruition of peace. To hold fast to our conclusions in petty matters with all the strength of our will and wit is not constancy, but a worse thing.
V. This is the last point, and the saddest word of the text, this ἀποχωρησις, the departing asunder. To come even with the time I will fall presently upon the use.
1. This is utterly against our Saviour’s rule, “Go and be reconciled to thy brother” (Matthew 5:24). A wound will never be healed but by drawing the parts together that were dissolved. Affability and sweet conversation strikes fire out of a flint. But disjunction of persons is an eclipse of friendship, till the light of one doth shine with a propitious aspect upon the other. I know that in the case of these two apostles, though they were prevented with an error, yet shortly after their unkind farewell they returned to their Christian temper, and afterwards in sundry texts of Scripture Paul did put himself in the same scale with Barnabas, as with his sworn brother, as 1 Corinthians 9:6 : “I only, and Barnabas, have not we power to forbear working?” And Galatians 2:9 : “James, Cephas, and John … gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship.” Here is another thing worthy our consideration. If Paul and Barnabas had both gone to Cilicia, Cyprus had wanted them; or if both had gone to Cyprus, Cilicia had wanted them. Now they were singled they propagated the faith of Christ both by sea and land. Barnabas sailed into Cyprus, and Paul journeyed into Cilicia. This was not like a bowstring snapped asunder; but they were two strings to one bow, and that which was division to themselves was multiplication to the gospel of Christ. Finally, they performed what they intended, to “visit their brethren in every city, where they had preached the Word of God” (verse 32). All governments, in all ages, have approved this to be the best way to conserve unity. It is impossible to avoid a multitude of corruptions in faith, and not to contract a prodigious licentiousness in discipline. Paul and Barnabas supervised the several cities where they had laid the foundation of evangelical faith; and, like careful rulers, interposed the power with which Christ had endued them, to keep their brethren dispersed far and wide in one. Though they were two upon a small disgust, yet they remembered there was but one Shepherd and one sheepfold, whose peace they studied to preserve by their pastoral vigilancy. (J. Hacket, D. D.)
The dissension between Paul and Barnabas
The two men were bound together by early associations, perhaps had been schoolmates at Tarsus. When Paul came to Jerusalem, Barnabas was the first to trust and welcome him. They were both devoted to the work among the Gentiles, and had shared the dangers and the glories of the first missionary tour. This companionship ended with the controversy about Mark. However unfortunate, it was not strange. Barnabas had reason for his confidence, Paul for his distrust. Both were right, both were wrong. They could agree only to disagree; and the second missionary tour was begun in unhappiness. Many familiar suggestions arise from this scene.
I. Very good men may have faults. These two had confessed at Lystra that they were men of like passions with us, but now each seems to have forgotten that; neither will make allowance for the other. We cannot expect always to have our own way, even when we are in the right. Were it certain that oar opponent is wholly in the wrong, we have no right to forget that, notwithstanding this error, he may be a good man. Trust his proved character. Do not lightly imperil a fellowship which has grown up in kindly helpfulness. A few hot words may undo the love of years, as a few blows of the axe cuts down the oak of a century’s growth. The Master had only faulty disciples, but He never lost one real friend. What would have become of them, of us, did He dwell upon real faults as much as upon possible virtues?
II. Personal characteristics and surroundings affect the judgment. Barnabas was Mark’s uncle; he knew him better than Paul could, and loved him better. The trusting spirit which had welcomed the newly-converted persecutor now received the repentant backslider; yet this charity of itself did not prove the young man was deserving of such a trust. Charitableness and affection become leniency, putting unfit men into responsible positions. Courage and self-denial stiffen into severity in judging weaker brethren.
III. One sin brings other sins and many sorrows. Mark’s weak shrinking shamed himself, dishonoured his Lord, and betrayed these true yoke-fellows into a pitiable strife.
IV. Christ uses imperfect labourers. He has no other. God must make the folly and wrath of man to praise Him, since folly and wrath appear even in true disciples.
V. True Christians will not remain at variance. How glad we are for that message from Paul to Timothy, “Take Mark and bring him with thee, for he is profitable to me for the ministry”; and for the commendatory mention of Barnabas ten years later, in writing to the Corinthians. (Sermons by the Monday Club.)
The quarrel of Barnabas and Saul
The fact that such a scene is recorded proves the genuineness of the men. Had it been their object to impose upon mankind, such a scene as this would have been either not mentioned at all, or would have appeared in such a form as to conceal altogether what is morally offensive. As genuine men, they reveal themselves to us in the costume of real life, with all their imperfections about them. Note here--
I. That probability is no certain guide for us in judging the future. To all who were acquainted with these apostles, nothing could have appeared more improbable than that they should ever quarrel. They were both good men, they were old friends. They had been fellow labourers for a long time. They were apostles too, acting under the inspiration and direction of Christ. Under such circumstances, could anything appear more improbable than that such men should quarrel? Yet they did. We look to the future, and say, probably such an event will happen; yet how often the future falsifies our calculations and disappoints our hopes.
II. That little things are often more trying to the temper than great. These men for years had been in the most trying circumstances together. They had contended together with the bigoted Jew and the idolatrous Gentile. They had just returned from Jerusalem, where they had engaged in a most exciting debate, and seem to have gone through the whole of these things with unbroken equanimity. But now the mere question as to whether John should accompany them produces great irritation. Now this seems to us a small matter compared with other things that engaged their united attention; and yet it was this that broke the harmony of their friendship. It is often so. Call men together to discuss small questions, and they will quarrel; call them to work out a great object, and they will be cordial and unanimous. The best way to promote Church union is to engage in great works. Flies irritate the noble steed more than the roll of the chariot wheel.
III. That Christianity allows scope for discretionary action. These apostles took upon themselves to decide as to whether John should accompany them or not. No principle was involved in it--it was a mere question of expediency. We are allowed no discretionary action either as to moral principles or cardinal truths. But there is much in connection with the methods of extending Christianity that is left entirely with our judgment. Hence the discussion at Jerusalem was under the direction of the Holy Spirit. But here there was no special direction. Many such questions are left for such treatment--Church government, etc.
IV. That the best of men are not absolutely infallible. When the apostles spoke and acted under the inspiration of the Spirit, they were infallible. But they did not always thus speak and act, as the event we are discussing shows. There is but one perfect example, and thank God there is One; and He is to be followed through evil as well as good report.
V. That under the gracious rule of heaven evil is made subservient to the progress of good.
1. An increased area of usefulness. Instead of one district for both, which was contemplated, there was one for each. It led Paul into Europe.
2. An increased power of usefulness. Instead of two men there were four.
VI. That earnest work will inevitably rectify our tempers. They had not been parted long, I presume, before every particle of animosity went out. We find Paul referring kindly to Mark (Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 1:24), and also to Barnabas (1 Corinthians 9:6). (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The quarrel about John Mark
As a general rule there is nothing more miserable than to dwell upon others’ short comings. I call attention to the faults of three disciples to see that the old Adam is not utterly killed in the best of men.
I. The sharp quarrel between Paul and Barnabas. Mark, fired perhaps by the zeal of Paul, or impelled by the roving fancy of youth, had gone with the two to Antioch. They then took him on a missionary tour, but just when most needed he deserted. By and by, when another tour was in contemplation, Barnabas proposes to try him again. Paul refuses, and the contention was sharp. The only wise thing about the whole matter was the separation. It is far better for men who cannot work comfortably together to separate. If the contention had been patched up neither could have gone to the work with wholeheartedness. There were faults on both sides, but it would be difficult to say on whom the lesser blame rested. On the one hand there was the brave consistency which felt that a weak and irresolute man was not to be trusted with such a perilous mission; on the other there was the honest conviction that Mark was worth another trial.
1. The most godly men are still liable to sudden falls. A man never becomes so advanced in holiness as to get beyond the danger of old faults of temper. Let us seek the grace that makes a man the conqueror of his own spirit.
2. Those who are engaged in the same work may have antagonistic views on matters of prudence. It is no use trying all to see with one eye. Meanwhile we must have the spirit of charity, and bear with schemes which seem stupid and court failure.
II. The different stages of Mark’s life which these verses reveal. The unpromising youth often surprises us by superior development. Soldiers who have quailed before the first fire have afterwards distinguished themselves as brave men. So with Mark. Barnabas’ encouragement, combined with the sharp tonic administered by Paul, made a man of him. Both are needed today.
III. The honourable confession of Paul that Mark had turned out better than he had expected. (E. H. Higgins.)
Paul and Barnabas, their contention and separation
I. The apostles were not going forth as the delegates of a supreme central legislative assembly.
1. There was union between the Churches, but that was purely spiritual.
2. The visit was perfectly natural.
3. Being a second visit, it was calculated to show that they were not ashamed of their principles, nor afraid of their opponents.
II. Stability of character was necessary to usefulness in such a mission.
1. Friendship is no reason in itself why a man should be promoted to office.
2. Fickle men are not to be trusted in the service of truth when there is difficulty in the way.
III. Differences of opinion should not lead to the abandonment of principle.
1. Some wreak their vengeance on the cause of truth.
2. When two men cannot agree to toil in the same corner of the vineyard, let them honestly divide, and betake them to other departments.
3. The holiest men may have ruffled tempers sometimes.
4. The apostle afterwards received Mark into fellowship. “To err is human--to forgive, Divine.” (J. Parker, D. D.)
The separation of Paul and Barnabas
We are now out in the open air again (verse 35). For some days we have been in a stifling atmosphere, listening to great men debating the vexed question of circumcision. We feel our need of rest, after the passionate excitement through which we have gone. We will now live amongst friends, and be quiet and trustful, and grow in our apprehension of Divine purposes. Yet this is not to be. We come out of one contention into another. This is life all through and through--namely, a series of conflicts. Observe--
I. Paul’s love of work--“Let us go again.” Paul was bitten again with mission hunger. He himself was earnest; therefore he could not tolerate insincerity. There was no breach in his all but infinite integrity, and therefore a flaw in other men was not an accident but a crime. In his criticism of Mark, Paul gave a criticism of himself. Paul meant his work to be solid and enduring. This was the very purpose he had in view--namely, to consolidate young believers and immature thinkers and students; and to take with him, on such a mission, a man who himself had turned back from the plough, was an irony which vexed his soul. His purpose was to “confirm the Churches,” to make them stronger and stronger; and to be working with an instrument which had already broken in his hands was a moral irony, from which his very spirit recoiled. Everything depends upon the kind of work you are going to do. There is a place in the Church for everyone, and that is the problem which the Papacy has solved. The Papacy can use all sorts of men; Protestantism can use only one or two kinds. We must learn to employ men in proper departments who do not come up to the Pauline standard of excellence. Do not throw away any man for the sake of one fault, or even two. There may be a great deal of soundness in the apple that has upon it one patch of rottenness.
II. Barnabas’ charity. He is willing to give a man another chance in life. By so much he was a great man. From the point of righteous discipline, there can be no doubt of the grandeur of Paul; but a man who would give a youth another chance seems to me to have in him the true spirit of the Cross. Take heed how you administer discipline. Thank God for the few men here and there who are willing to try us again! We owe them our lives: we ought to live for them. We have hitherto considered Barnabas only a well-disposed, loving man, who would sit down or stand up, go or come, just as some superior nature might suggest or require. Such are often amongst the sternest men. Barnabas said to Paul, “No!” and even Paul could not change that No into a Yes. Afterwards the judgment of Barnabas was vindicated. Barnabas was in this respect a further-sighted man than Paul. There is only one infallible Person in the Church, and he is its Lord. Paul was but a man at the best; he himself said so. “Who then is Paul and who is Apollos?” In this respect Barnabas was a greater man than Paul. He is the true intellectual reader who says about a young man, “He has the Spirit of God in him, and the indestructible seed of the kingdom.” And he who, twenty years after, simply gives in to facts is not a man of penetration at all. Young man, live in the warm sunshine of those who hope the best about you. You owe nothing to the men who affirm your excellence when they cannot deny it.
III. There are mitigating circumstances in this controversy.
1. Both men were honest. It is something to have to deal with honest men, even when they oppose you.
2. The contention was not about the Master. Paul and Barnabas did not take two different views of Christ. They are not going to found separate theological sects.
3. The work was not abandoned, but was doubled. The destinations they selected were revelations of the spirit of the men. Barnabas goes into obscurity, Paul rises like a sun into a broader firmament.
4. The parties afterwards become reconciled. We have already said good-bye to Peter; so now we must say good-bye to Barnabas and Mark. At this point they both retire from the Acts of the Apostles. The withdrawment is in a kind of thunderstorm. Surely this cannot be all. Such lifelong friends cannot part in this way! We must know more about this. In 1 Corinthians 9:6 we hear again about Barnabas, and in 1 Peter 5:13; Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24; 2 Timothy 4:11 we hear again about Mark. Well done, Mark! Well done, Paul! Few men have moral courage to correct themselves openly, to repair wrongs which, however unconsciously, they once inflicted. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Unity in disunion
I. St. Paul’s proposal (verse 36) to revisit the congregations was a proof of his sense of the precariousness of the Christian life. Throughout his Epistles we have the expression of the same spirit. He has scarcely left a place, when his anxiety about the well-being of his converts becomes too painful for him to bear. He sends back his only companion, and consents to be entirely solitary in a strange city, if he may but gain the desired tidings as to the stability of those whom he has left behind. It was so already at this early point in his ministry. It is a good thing to form new plans, originate new machineries, and carry the ministrations of the Church into homes and haunts which they have not yet penetrated. But in all this we must take heed lest we be chargeable with not well following up a work which has been well begun. When an impression is by God’s grace secured, still it may fade and flag and at last disappear if it be not vigorously and earnestly and constantly renewed. Oh, how precarious is the work of grace in the most promising of us all! What snares does Satan lay for the young, the newly confirmed, the just awakened, the recently reformed! So soon is the ground once cleared again overgrown; so soon is the impulse once communicated checked and impeded; so soon is the seed once sown snatched away, or scorched in its first budding, or choked finally in its growth; that there is need to say in the words here before us, “Let us go again,” etc.
II. The result of the proposal. Barnabas shared St. Paul’s feeling. But in settling the details of the enterprise a grave difference presented itself.
1. The subject of this dissension was a Christian subject. They were at variance as to the best way of prosecuting Christ’s work. It was not a quarrel arising out of this, that one of the two had gained, what both could not have, of the riches or honours or pleasures of the world. It was not that one had disparaged the ability or the probity or the spirituality of the other, and that this must awaken in the natural mind a resentment to be shown in retort or cherished in malice. Happy should we be, if our faults were only those of an excess of zeal and tenacity in reference to the work of Christ and the interests of souls!
2. That infirmity was redressed in the wisest and best of ways. It was with the dissension of two apostles, as with the dispute of Abram and Lot, Where no Divine law compels coexistence, separation is oftentimes the best cure for discord. “Live and let live.” If two of God’s servants cannot see things alike, let them agree to see them differently. If they cannot act together, they can at least believe together, and hope together, and together love. If each has Christ’s work and glory at heart, they will all be reconciled by the great reconciler: death, which is the gate of heaven, will make the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.
3. Separation was in this case followed--we know it--by concord.
III. The various aspects of the history.
1. The Holy Scriptures are no flattering tale. There is no screening, no palliating, of the infirmities of holy men. If men will make mischief of this they must. If men will say either, Because a saint did this, therefore it cannot be sin; or else, Because such a man did this, therefore he cannot be a saint: they are left to do so. The business of the Holy Scriptures, in these respects, is with facts, not with inferences. That Book which paints not men as either demons or heroes; that Book which tells me just what is true, and teaches me how to rise out of this which is truly the natural man into this which is as truly the Christian man; how to mourn over myself without despairing, and how to deal justly with others and yet not condemn; that I call a true Book: I see there man as he is, and God as He is: I see there a light to my steps, because it describes truly the wilderness which I traverse, and because it shows me how and by what guidance I can traverse it in safety. And if I see that the Book describes all else truly, because according to my daily experience of man and of man’s world, then I can believe it when I see that there is one Person, just one, and one only, whom it paints as indeed without sin; perfect Man, as much in the blamelessness of His life, as in the completeness of His nature.
2. This passage sets before us an all-working and all-ruling and all-restoring Providence of God. Out of evil comes forth good. Out of human infirmity there grows Divine strength. The unity of the work is broken, but out of the one divided there has sprung a two-fold completeness. (Dean Vaughan.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Acts 15". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent