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Bible Commentaries

Ironside's Notes on Selected Books
Acts 15

 

 

Verses 1-41

One of the hardest things for these poor minds of ours to grasp is the freeness of God’s salvation. In other words, it is so difficult for us to abide in a sense of grace, to realize that the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is justified by faith, justified on the ground of the finished work of Christ, plus nothing else! Absolutely nothing is to be added to the propitiatory work of the Lord Jesus Christ as the ground of our salvation. This is the gospel proclaimed in the beginning and preached by God’s faithful servants down through the centuries. But always there have been found those who, because of their legalistic minds, thought it too good to be true that men could be saved by grace alone and attempted to add something else to the gospel.

One comes along and says, “Yes, you are saved by faith- but you must be baptized to get to Heaven.” We practice baptism, but not as a means of salvation. Another says, “Grace saves us- but it is mediated through the sacraments, and you must partake of the Lord’s supper to have divine life.” We observe the Lord’s supper, but not as a means of salvation. Others will say, “Yes, we are saved by grace- but God saves men through the church, and you must join the church if you are to be saved at last.” We believe in the church, but the church does not save and does not have anything to do with the forgiveness of sin.

Law and Grace (Acts 15:1-35)

In the beginning, as the apostles labored among the Gentiles, they were preaching salvation by grace alone. This troubled certain men who came down from Judea to Antioch where Paul and Barnabas were ministering that time, having returned from their first missionary journey. These men said, “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” This was an attempt to add something to the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. It created so much division that a showdown was necessary and “they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.” They would go to the city where the first church had been established and find out if the gospel they were preaching was in accordance with the gospel that was being preached in Jerusalem.

When they reached Jerusalem they did not launch immediately into a discussion of the subject of law and grace. The church had a welcome meeting for Paul and his companions and they took the opportunity to give-what we call today-missionary addresses. “They declared all things that God had done with them.”

It must have been most interesting to sit in that group and listen to those veteran missionaries as they reviewed the years they had served the Lord and told about some of the marvelous miracles of grace wrought among the Gentiles. One might have supposed that this alone would have answered the question whether people need anything other than grace in order to be saved. But seated there were brethren who before their conversion had been Pharisees and they had brought their Phariseeism into the church. These were, after all, honest men. It is hard for us to realize when religious conflicts arise, that a godly man may believe something altogether contrary to what we believe. Yet if we are honest before God, we need to recognize that usually he is honest too and is seeking, according to the light God has given him, to stand for what he believes to be the truth.

These men had the Old Testament--remember they did not yet have the New Testament. In the prophecies of the Old Testament Israel was recognized as God’s chosen people separated from the rest of the nations. There it was made clear that as others came to a knowledge of the true and living God they came to Israel and through circumcision were admitted into the congregation of the Lord. The prophets declared men would be saved, but it was always in subjection to Israel. “The Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” (Isaiah 60:3), and “It shall come to pass, that there shall come people, and the inhabitants of many cities…saying, We will go with you; for we have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:20-23). These are but samples of many Old Testament passages that declare Israel to be the vehicle through which God would save the nations.

As the legal-minded Pharisees read these Scriptures they said, “We can thank God for the conversion of the Gentiles, but they must come to God through Israel; they must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses.” So we read in Acts 15:5, “There rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed [do not forget that they were sincere believers and yet they differed with others as to salvation by grace alone], saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” After a good deal of disputation it was decided the apostles and elders should come together and consider this matter, instead of the whole church going into session about it.

It seemed eminently fitting that Peter should be the chief spokesman on this occasion. He was recognized as the one to whom the Lord Jesus Christ had given a very special commission, “Feed my lambs.. .feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). He was the one chosen of God to go down to Cornelius and preach the gospel to him and his household. So after the brethren had been gathered together to consider this matter and had a great deal of discussion, Peter rose up. He said, as it were, “Now, brethren, let me speak.” (And they were willing to listen to him.) “You know how by my mouth the Gentiles heard the gospel and believed.” Then he related, as he had told them before, what had occurred when he had preached the gospel to the Gentiles.

We remember that when he went and preached the gospel to the household of Cornelius he did not add works, he did not say anything about clean or unclean foods, or Jewish practices such as circumcision. He told them about the Lord Jesus Christ who lived and died and was raised again, and as he preached the gospel, “God which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us.”

When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost upon that great multitude of converted Israelites, He came in power and there were outward signs of His presence. In the same way when these Gentiles heard the Word and believed, immediately the same blessed Holy Spirit fell on them and baptized them into the body of Christ. They received the same outward signs He had given the Israelites in Jerusalem-thus demonstrating to a certainty that God accepted Gentiles on the ground of pure grace, altogether apart from the works of the law. There was no difference!

How we need to stress that no difference doctrine today. Paul said in his Epistle to the Romans, “There is no difference; For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (3:22-23). It does not make any difference what religious standing you may have-no difference as to what part of the world you were born (whether among Christians or among the heathen)-or maybe you are a Jew-there is no difference! For all have sinned. The Greek word for sin literally means “to miss the mark,” and all men have missed the mark. Not one man has ever lived in this world without failure and sin-except of course the Lord Jesus Christ. Another Scripture says, “There is no difference.. .for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him” (Romans 10:12). There is no difference-the same Savior is for everybody, and by putting their trust in Him, all men may be justified. So Peter said God “put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.”

That is what happens when people believe the gospel; it is not merely that they are justified before God-but there is new life; their hearts are purified by faith. Whereas they once loved sin, they now love holiness: whereas they once loved impurity, they now love purity. There is a complete change and reversal of attitude when people are born of God. This had taken place in these Gentiles. Who could doubt that God did the work?

Perhaps some of you have heard evangelist A. H. Stewart tell how, when greatly concerned about his soul, he was told to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and trust Him as Savior. But he thought that way was far too easy. He went about it his own way-he joined a church, sang in the choir, and became quite a worker. He hoped in all these things to obtain peace with God, but there was no peace! One day, while he was reading in his Bible the parable of the sower, he came to the words, “Then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12). Stewart threw down his Bible and said, “Will you look at that! Even the devil knows a man will be saved if he will believe!” And that day he settled it and turned to Christ and trusted Him as Savior. Yes, God saves men when they believe; He saves all sinners, no matter what their situation or condition, when they trust His Son.

So Peter said, “Why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts 15:10) They were in bondage all the years they were in Judaism and they had to be delivered from this and brought into the liberty of grace. Why bring the Gentiles into the same bondage out of which they had been saved?

The breadth of Peter’s vision comes out here magnificently. “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.” We would not have expected him to say that. We would rather have expected him to say, “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, they shall be saved, even as we.” But grace had done its work in Peter’s heart so he turned it right around. In other words he said, “Do you not see, God is saving Gentiles by grace and thank God He saves Jews by grace too! He delivers the heathen from the corruption of idolatry, He delivers the Jews from the bondage of legalism.”

The Christian Pharisees did not know what to say, but deep in their hearts they were probably thinking, “The Bible says these Gentiles are to come to God through Israel, and Israel is marked as separate through circumcision; therefore they must abide by the law.” However, we read, “Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them” (12). They did not get up and try to argue the question. Very rightfully. They were visitors and did not want to be too prominent. But after Peter made this thing clear, Paul and Barnabas said in essence, “We will give you some examples how He has been changing wicked men into holy men through grace.” So they gave example after example, just as returned missionaries have done through the years, telling of corrupt men changed by grace to godly men. So Paul and Barnabas gave testimony; and this helped clear the minds of the Pharisaic Christians.

After Paul and Barnabas had finished, the last man you might have expected spoke on their side: “And after they had held their peace, James answered.” Who was James? The brother of the Lord. He is often called the first Bishop of Jerusalem. He was a legalist of the legalists before his conversion, which did not take place until after the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was the leader of the Jewish party in the church, and was careful not to depart from the old ways until a fuller revelation had come. But God gave to James the special light that was needed for the moment.

“Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.” These Pharisaic brethren had the Old Testament and there they read of the day when the Gentiles were going to turn to God and be blessed through Israel in the kingdom reign of the Messiah. James explained that this, however, is not what is happening now. God is now taking out from among the Gentiles a people to His name and He used Peter first to go to the Gentiles. That is the work going on at the present time. In other words, God is not converting the world today. What is He doing? He is taking out an elect people from the world and bringing them to a saving knowledge of His blessed Son.

James said in effect, “I understand. You brethren are perfectly right, but God is working out His own plan. The day is coming when God will bless the Gentile world through Israel and they too are going to enjoy the kingdom reign of Messiah and will all be united together as one holy, happy people; but that is not what God is doing now! God is now taking out a people, Jew and Gentile, to constitute the church of God. When He completes this work, the Lord is coming back the second time. That will be the time of blessing for the whole world. He will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down. He will then bring Israel as a nation into blessing again. Then all the remnant of the Gentiles will return to God-that is, in the millennial reign of the Lord Jesus Christ. Wars will cease. The Lord Jesus Christ will reign in righteousness over all the earth, and Jew and Gentile will be one happy, redeemed people, glorifying God together.”

In light of this fact, James said,

Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them [knowing the intense feeling of the Jewish brethren toward certain things tolerated by the Gentiles], that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication [from which every Christian should abstain], and from things strangled [which in the Jewish mind were very unclean], and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day (19-21).

To this they agreed, and the first council of the church ended in happy unison. What a wonderful thing it was that the Spirit of God should have so overruled, where men held such different views, as to bring them all at last to see that salvation is by grace alone through faith! How we can rejoice today that that precious truth has been preserved through the centuries and that, believing in Him, we can be a part of that great company of the redeemed some day to be revealed as the glorified church of our Lord!

Meantime, as we wait for His return from Heaven, we are to seek to get the gospel of His grace out to all men everywhere, that all may have an opportunity to know of the Savior and to find in Him life and peace, through faith, altogether apart from meritorious works of any kind.

Paul’s Second Journey Begins (Acts 15:36-41)

We have already considered the many momentous events that took place in connection with his first journey. We have seen how he and Barnabas eventually returned to Antioch in Syria, from which city they had set out on their gospel tour. Then, after remaining for some time, “teaching and preaching the word of the Lord,” it came into the heart of Paul to go on another journey.

We do not have in connection with this second missionary journey the same evidences of direct divine guidance as on the first. In that instance, we are told that the Holy Ghost said very definitely, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.” In this case, we are told, “Some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do.” It seems to have been a voluntary thing on Paul’s part rather than the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit as on the previous occasion. And, strikingly enough, from the very start things seemed to go wrong and you find the missionaries perplexed on several occasions as to just what their task should be.

Barnabas wanted to take his young cousin John Mark along. He had taken him to Cyprus when they went on their first journey, but when they returned to the mainland Mark left the apostles. He returned to Jerusalem, evidently preferring the company of his mother Mary and the comforts of home to an itinerant missionary life. “But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.” I take it Paul considered the work of the Lord so serious he could not think of linking up again with a man who had shown so little sense of the importance of service for the Lord. These mission trips were no Sunday school picnic! They were times of severe testing, hard work, and service for the glory of God. Paul did not wish to take anyone who was not divinely guided nor ready to endure hardship. Barnabas evidently felt differently.

“The contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder.” It is rather pitiable to read such a statement about these two devoted apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ, but the Bible never tries to hide the faults of God’s servants. In that aspect the Bible is so different from many secular biographies. One would think their heroes perfect in almost everything. But the Word of God turns the light on and gives the record of their failures just as truly as of their successes and victories. This is both for our warning and our encouragement.

So these two venerable brethren could not agree in regard to this companion for their travels. They separated and for years did not labor together again. We are told in Proverbs, “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city” (18:19). Many of us know that the beginning of strife is as one little drop of water, which, after the break in the dike has begun, soon grows into a torrent of water that is practically impossible to stem. However in this instance, as the years went on, a kindly, considerate feeling prevailed, and in his old age Paul spoke affectionately of both Barnabas and Mark. As he wrote from his prison cell to Timothy we read, “Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry.”

I am sure most of us are thankful that Barnabas gave Mark another chance. There is many a young Christian who has failed in the beginning, but gone on later to become a valuable worker in the vineyard of the Lord Jesus Christ. We who are older need to be careful of our condemnation of the younger. Barnabas gave a helping hand to Mark, however it is very evident the brethren sided with Paul and thought he was right. But Mark brought forth good fruit later on.

So we read here, “Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus”- the same field in which they had labored before and found conditions so congenial. But Paul chose Silas, who is called a prophet- the one who went down to Antioch to convey the decree of the Jerusalem council. He proved himself to be an able man, as well as a prophet. We read that they “went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.” These were the two areas where Paul and Barnabas had labored before.

Chapter VI, The First Church Council; The Parenthesis Recognized By The Apostles

Acts 15 is the great dispensational chapter of that book. It occupies a unique place in the New Testament, and is a very distinct help in the understanding of God’s present work of grace and His future plans for Israel and the world.

When Paul returned to Antioch at the conclusion of his first missionary journey, we are told that the whole Church was gathered together, to whom he and Barnabas “rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). For some time afterwards they continued in that same city, teaching and enjoying the fellowship of the saints, but soon a discordant note was introduced, destroying the spiritual harmony which up to that time had prevailed.

We are told in the first verse of chapter 15: “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” It is evident that these men maintained they acted under apostolic authority and were the official representatives of the Church at Jerusalem. They were evidently rigid Jews of the Pharisaic type who had professed conversion to Christ and had been identified with the churches in Judaea. Having only the Old Testament, they based all their conclusions upon it. We need to remember, in order not to judge them too harshly, that so far as we have definite information, not one book of the New Testament had yet been written. There is a bare possibility that Matthew or Mark or perhaps both might be exceptions to this, but of that we have no proof. When these brethren or others referred to the Scriptures, it was necessarily the Old Testament which they had in mind. From the Old Testament they learned that God had made a covenant of grace with Abraham, had promised that all nations would be blessed through his Seed, and had given the ordinance of circumcision as the outward sign that was to separate the covenant people from the rest of the world.

Of course, from the beginning the apostles had taught, as Peter did, the setting aside of the nation of Israel because of their rejection of Messiah, and called upon those who trusted Him to separate themselves by baptism from the apostate part of the nation, and thus save themselves from that untoward generation and the judgment soon to fall upon it; but we can well understand that many Jewish believers might not have grasped the full implication of this, nor have recognized the fact that God was doing an altogether new thing not predicted in Old Testament times.

There is, therefore, no reason to question the sincerity of these Judaean emissaries who doubtless thought that Paul and Barnabas were playing fast and loose with the divine order in not insisting that the Gentile believers accept the sign of the Abrahamic covenant and thus identify themselves with the remnant of the chosen people.

There was evidently considerable discussion in the Antiochian Church regarding the whole matter, as a result of which Paul and Barnabas were asked to go with some others directly to Jerusalem and confer there with the apostles and elders about this question. As they made their way toward their appointed destination, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring whenever they came in contact with Christian assemblies how God had wrought in power in converting the heathen from among the Gentiles. The news of this brought great joy, we are told, unto all the brethren. It is evident that the questions raised by the men from Judaea had not come before these churches as they made no mention of bringing such demands to bear upon the young converts, but simply rejoiced in what God had done for them.

In verse 4 we are told that “when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.” This was evidently in a large open meeting where a great number of the Jerusalem Christians gathered together to receive them and to welcome them in their midst. In this meeting no doctrinal matters or questions of ceremonial observances were discussed until after Paul and Barnabas had given their testimony to the way in which God had wrought through their ministry to the Gentiles. After this we are told: “There rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” These men, like the others who had appeared at Antioch, felt sure of their ground for they could appeal directly to Old Testament Scripture, and they took it for granted that God was now doing what He had promised to do through the prophets, that is, to give the knowledge of His salvation to the Gentiles, but that they would receive blessing through Israel and would be united to them as children of the covenant by taking upon them the outward sign to which they referred. See Isaiah 56:6; Isa_60:3-5; Zechariah 8:23, to which many other passages might be added.

Apparently the leaders decided not to debate the question at that time nor to attempt to handle it in a large open meeting, for in verse 6 we read: “The apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.” This would be much wiser, of course, than putting the question up to the entire body of believers, many of whom would have a very imperfect understanding of the Gospel itself and a very slight knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. The apostles appointed by the Lord Jesus to carry the message into all the world and those who had be selected as elders to guide the affairs of the local churches met in council with Paul and Barnabas and the associates to go into the matter dispassionately and carefully.

We can see, as we read on, that even these brethren were of one mind, for we are told that there was “much disputing.” How long this went on we do not know, that eventually the Apostle Peter took the floor and reminded them how God had in a very clear and definite way sent him to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius, but that there had then been no commandment to circumcise the believers or to put them under the yoke of the law of Moses. I quote Peter’s address in full so far as we have it here. Doubtless verses 7 to 11 give us but an abbreviation of what he presented to the assembled company:

“Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they” (Acts 15:7-11).

Observe how carefully the Apostle Peter presented his case. It was God who had chosen him to go to the Gentiles, that through his lips they should hear the word of the Gospel and put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. As he was preaching, Cornelius and his household believed the message, and immediately God, who reads the hearts, recognized their faith and gave them the Holy Spirit in the same way in which He gave it to the one hundred and twenty of Israel on the day of Pentecost. The fact that these were uncircumcised Gentiles and that those were circumcised Jews made no difference whatever to God. It was the state of the heart upon which He looked, and so Peter insists that He did not distinguish between the two groups, but purified their hearts by faith, that is, regenerated them when they believed the Gospel. If this satisfied God, why should it not satisfy the Jewish Christians? Were they not tempting God when they sought now to put the yoke of the law upon the neck of these young believers from among the Gentiles, a yoke which they themselves, as Jews, had always found burdensome?

Then Peter closes in a remarkable way. He says: “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.” We might well expect that he would have turned it completely around. He might have said: “We believe that they shall be saved even as we”; but he does not do that. He declares that the Jews, despite all their privileges, are to be saved on the same basis of pure grace as idolatrous or philosophical Gentiles who put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

This was evidently so convincing that the legalists were nonplused and for the moment knew not how to reply. Taking advantage of the silence, Barnabas and Paul, one after the other, addressed the audience. Note that Barnabas came first in this case as he was well known to the Jerusalem Christians and was highly esteemed for his godliness and righteous life. Paul, who was doubtless more or less under suspicion on the part of some, followed. Both gave the same marvelous testimony to the mighty wonder-working power of God as He wrought among the Gentiles. In this they corroborated the testimony given by Peter.

We can imagine the rigid Pharisaic Christian Jews silenced but unconvinced. In their own minds they would be saying, “But we have the Word of God on our side. Regardless of the remarkable experiences Peter and Barnabas and Paul can relate, it is very definitely stated in Scripture that those whom God recognizes as His covenant people are to be marked out from the rest of the world by the covenant sign. Moreover, who has been authorized to set aside the commands of the Law, a Law given by God Himself when He appeared to Moses on Sinai?” They knew, of course, that there were many promises in the Old Testament of blessing for the Gentiles. They knew that the day was yet to come when all the nations of the world would recognize in the Lord Jesus Christ God’s King, but when that day came, Israel was to have the pre-eminent place. There was no proof that God’s attitude would be changed in regard to the matters in question. The presumption was that all the Gentiles would in a certain sense become as Jews when together they should all enjoy the blessings of Messiah’s reign. Yet these brethren must have been puzzled to explain the way in which God was now working among the Gentiles and His apparent indifference regarding what to them seemed so important.

James, however, had the key to the entire situation. We have a brief outline of his speech given in verses 13 to 21:

“Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: that the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: but that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day” (Acts 15:13-21).

He refers to what Peter had already told them, but he uses an expression which is of great interest to us, and was indeed the explanation to the present work of grace. “God,” he says, “at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.” Now this is not the conversion of the Gentiles as predicted in the Old Testament. The taking out of a people, instead of the conversion of the nations as such, was something very different from that revealed by the prophets. This spoke of a special election from among the Gentiles and that doubtless for a particular purpose. This is the work that God is doing now. While the messengers of the Gospel are to carry it to all nations, God’s present object is not the conversion of the nations through this testimony but that all men may have an opportunity to come to Christ if they will, but He who knows the end from the beginning has foreseen the fact that only a small number comparatively would actually receive the message in faith, and trust the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour. This company is designated throughout the book of Acts as the Church of God, and of the Church of God as such we hear nothing in the Old Testament prophecies.

But now observe how James harmonizes the present work of God in taking an elect people out from among the nations and the prophecies of the conversion of all the nations in some future day. He refers his hearers to the prophecy of Amos as recorded in chapter 9, verses 11 and 12: “After this I will return.” This is not exactly the way Amos wrote it, but James is quoting from the Septuagint, and he recognizes the correctness of the expression. “After this,” that is, after the present work of God in taking a people out from among the nations is concluded, Messiah will return again. Then when He comes back He will build once more the Tabernacle of David which has been for so long set aside. He will raise up the throne of David again and fulfill the prophecies made to that man after His own heart. It will be in that day that the residue will seek after the Lord and all the Gentiles upon whom His Name will then be called.

This made everything clear. James, you see, recognized and explained the Great Parenthesis in God’s dealings with Israel. He showed that the Church of God had been called out and was bearing its witness in that parenthetic period. When it shall come to a close, the Lord will return again and fulfill all the prophecies connected with Israel’s restoration and the salvation of the nations of the world. And so he exclaims, “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.” God is working according to a plan, and that plan was partly unfolded in Old Testament times, but now has been fully made known. In the light of the revelation thus given, James suggested that no further pressure should be brought upon the Gentiles to make them conform to Jewish rites or ceremonies, but that they should be called upon simply to abstain from the evils connected with idolatry, from the immorality that was so common among the nations, and from unclean foods which to their Jewish brethren were abhorrent. If any of the Gentile believers wished to know more of the teachings of the Law, they could easily find enlightenment, for in virtually every city there were synagogues in which the Law of Moses was read and taught, and any who desired could go in to hear.

This settled the matter at least for the present, and a letter was drawn up and sent out to the Gentiles to put their minds at rest regarding the teaching of the legalists who were seeking to turn them away from their liberty in Christ. We have the letter given in verses 23 to 29:

“And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: it seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well” (Acts 15:23-29).

It must have been with great joy and light hearts that Barnabas and Paul and their companions left Jerusalem and returned to Antioch. The truth for which they had been contending for so long was now acknowledged by the brethren at Jerusalem, and they could go on preaching with the full assurance that their testimony was endorsed by those who had been in Christ before them. They immediately gathered the Church together, to whom the letter was read, and all rejoiced for the consolation that it brought. It is true that later on further trouble developed, because legalism is a form of leaven, and it is in the nature of leaven to work; and so we have the Epistle to the Galatians, written to Gentile believers some years later in order to counteract the contentious propaganda of certain Jews who still insisted on pressing upon the Gentiles the necessity of conforming to the Law of Moses. That letter is in itself the very best answer to legality of every description.

The pitiable thing is that in the centuries that have elapsed since, the Judaizing of the Church has gone on in an amazing way until in many places the Gospel of the grace of God is looked upon as though it were a strange new heresy, whereas the effort of men to procure justification by human merit and sanctification by attention to religious rites and ceremonies is accepted as the ortho- dox position. It only shows how hard it is for these poor hearts of ours to abide in the truth of the grace of God. We so readily seek some other ground of approach to God and fitness for His presence than that of pure, unadulterated grace as set forth in the work of our Lord Jesus Christ and the purifying power of the Holy Spirit. One great reason for this is that so many fail to differentiate between the covenant of works given at Sinai and the grace of God as revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ. We read in John 1, verse 17: “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” That Law, Paul tells us in the Galatian letter, was a child-leader designed to guide the steps of the people of God in the days of their nonage until Christ Himself should come. Now that He has come there is no further need of the child-leader, but all that is required both for justification and sanctification is found in the risen Christ, who, of God “is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

 


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Bibliography Information
Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Acts 15:4". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/isn/acts-15.html. 1914.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, November 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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