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Bible Commentaries

L. M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible
Acts 15

 

 

Verses 1-41

However, here at Antioch a matter arose of deeply serious significance, and it was clearly God's wisdom to have Paul and Barnabas there at the time. Men from Judea, professing the knowledge of Christ, came to Antioch, teaching the Gentile saints that they must be circumcised in order to be saved. Of course, such mixing of Judaism with Christianity would corrupt the whole character of the gospel of the grace of God, and Paul and Barnabas, discerning this, withstood this effort of the enemy.

Since the men came from Judea, then Jerusalem was the place that this matter should be faced, and the brethren purposed that Paul and Barnabas and others with them should go there to consult with the apostles and elders as to this question. Paul was not merely sent by the brethren, however. In Galations 2:1-2 he speaks of his going up "by revelation." This was God's clear leading, though on a later occasion God warned him by the Spirit not to go to Jerusalem (Chapter 21:4).

On their way they passed through Phenice and Samaria, reporting to the assemblies the work of God in the conversion of Gentiles, which caused great joy to the brethren. Would they want such joy as this dampened by the introduction of Jewish ritual?

Though Paul was known only by report in Judea (Galations 1:22-23), the assembly in Jerusalem received him and Barnabas as did the apostles and elders. Here they reported also the working of God among the Gentiles, but no great joy in this is recorded on the part of some believing Pharisees. They, in common with the others who had gone to Antioch, demanded that the Gentile converts should be circumcised and commanded to keep the law of Moses.

The apostles and elders (not all the assembly) came together to consider this serious matter of whether Gentile believers should be circumcised and commanded to keep the law of Moses. It will be observed here that Paul did not take a prominent part, though in Galations 2:1-5 he makes it clear that he would not in the least give in to these Judaizing teachers. But the matter must be settled by those in Jerusalem, since the protested doctrine had issued from there.

At first there was much disputing, for men's reasoning minds like to take the platform. Then Peter speaks, and the perspective of the meeting is turned in the right direction when he reminds them (not that men's preferences had anything to do with it, but) that some time before God who knew men's hearts, had given Gentiles (Cornelius and others with him--Ch.10:44) the Holy Spirit. This in fact was altogether without their being circumcised, and even before they were baptized.

God Himself had wrought in such a way as to eliminate the difference between Jewish and Gentile believers, purifying their hearts by faith (not by ordinances). Could they dare to ignore the immense significance of this? If so, this was tempting God, opposing what He Himself had done, and putting a yoke on the neck of Gentile believers which Israel had not been able to bear, either in the past or in the time then present. The yoke of law was intolerable, altogether contrary to the yoke of the Lord Jesus which is easy, and His burden light (Matthew 11:30).

Peter goes further still in verse 11, for the attitude of these Judaisers indicated that they were not clear as the principles of their own salvation. He tells them, "But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved even as they." Jewish believers therefore would be saved in the same way as Gentiles, exclusively through the grace of the Lord Jesus, not by the addition of circumcision or of law-keeping. This being true, certainly Gentiles could not be expected to conform to Old Testament laws and ordinances.

Peter's words quietened the audience, so that the way was opened for Barnabas and Paul to declare the marvels of God's work among the Gentiles through them. Notice that Barnabas is mentioned first in this case. Paul, though fully capable of taking the foremost part, did not do so. They do not take up the doctrinal questions, to refute the arguments of the judaizing party, but leave that to Peter and James, who were resident at Jerusalem. Still, the Jews must not be allowed to treat lightly the reality of God's work in Gentiles, so that they rightly emphasize this.

The disputing now being silenced, James is given grace to speak authoritatively for God. His epistle makes it clear that he had no lax, careless character, and he was evidently highly respected by the Jews of Jerusalem. He refers back to the words of Simeon (Simon Peter) in rehearsing the facts of God's intervention in visiting the Gentiles to take from among them a people for His name. Then he brings scripture (the Old Testament) to bear in this matter, quoting from Amos 9:11-12, which shows that Gentiles would be blessed in having God's name called upon them, in connection with the rebuilding of the tabernacle of David. Of course, Christ is the true Prince of the house of David, and in Christ alone Gentiles as well as Jews find blessing.

This scripture will have its complete fulfilment in the age to come, the millennium, yet God's dealing now with Gentiles is perfectly consistent with this great prospect, so that the Spirit of God moves James in this consistent use of the prophecy.

Verse 18 is used in a pointed way to back up the significance of all this, "Known unto God are all His works from eternity." God was not taken by surprise, but had ordered these matters in this way in eternity past. Of course, mankind did not know anything of this until God revealed it, but when He sees fit to change His dispensational dealings, people should be gladly willing to submit to this.

James then pronounces the decision that the Jewish saints must not trouble Gentiles who have turned to God, by introducing Jewish religion. Though James pronounces this, it is manifestly God's decision, not the decision of James, nor even of the gathered brethren. Certainly there was to be unity among Jewish and Gentile believers, but Gentiles were not to be made Jews, no more than Jews were made Gentiles: they were united on a basis far above that of human relationships.

In pronouncing his sentence that Gentile believers are not to be put under Jewish law in any way, James does, however, suggest that the brethren write to Gentiles of three things connected with God's creatorial rights that were too commonly abused among the Gentile nations. They would ask them, first, to abstain from pollutions of idols. To recognize an idol in any way was a direct insult to God, for the idol usurps God's place. Secondly, fornication must be avoided, for this is a serious violation of those relationships God has established for the blessing of mankind. Thirdly, they must not eat things strangled, nor blood, for God requires that the blood of an animal must be shed before the flesh may be eaten. The blood is the life, and we must show this respect for God's rights as the life-giver. Disregard of this is despising God. These things were not merely Jewish laws but were basic in creation from the beginning.

If some were envious for Moses' sake, James adds that there were those who preached Moses in every city (In Israel at least, and many among the Gentiles), so there was no lack of the law being proclaimed. But how much higher is Christ than Moses.' Let Christians devote themselves fully to Christ, not to the law. This is the only effective way of producing real fruit in people's lives for God's glory.

How thankful may we all be for a clear decision being made at this time on the part of the apostles and elders, together with the whole assembly, to send chosen men to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, bearing a plainly worded letter that would fully relieve the saints in reference to the false teachings of the men who had previously come from Judea. Of course, it is likely that some individuals were not happy about the outcome of the meeting, but these had been silenced by the power of the Spirit of God, and the decision was a true assembly decision, directed of God.

The letter was addressed to the brethren who were of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia, who had been troubled by those who had come from Judea, teaching that the Gentiles must be circumcised and keep the law. The letter adds, "to whom we gave no such commandment." In view of this, it seemed good to them, being gathered with one accord, to send chosen men with Barnabas and Paul. Notice, it can be rightly said "with one accord," even though some had opposed; for their opposition had been shown to be against God, and the unity of the brethren was maintained in the face of this, the opposition silenced. Their appreciation of Barnabas and Paul is good to witness, as they speak of them as men who have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. They express their confidence also in Judas and Silas to tell them the same things by word of mouth.

Verse 28 considers the matter as being of greatest importance in that it seemed good to the Holy Spirit (first), then "and to us." No slightest question can remain as to the definite leading of the Spirit of God in this matter, and that the apostles and elders were acquiescent in this leading. No greater burden was to be laid on the Gentiles than things that were necessary, which we have seen are an acknowledgment of God's creatorial rights.

Coming to Antioch, these brethren gather the assembly together to hear the reading of the letter sent to them, which is such a consolation as to make them rejoice. Judas and Silas also became of great encouragement to them, in contrast to others who had before come from Judea, for they confirmed the message of grace sent in the letter, while exhorting and strengthening the disciples by the ministry of the Word.

After remaining there for a time, however, Judas and Silas were let go from the brethren back to the apostles in Jerusalem. Verse 34 in the KJV is said to be not included in the most reliable Greek manuscripts. It may have been added by copyists who thought this was the way to account for the presence of Silas at Antioch in verse 40. But is it not easily possible that after his returning to Jerusalem he had decided to come back to Antioch? This would be specially understandable if his contact with Gentile believers had awakened a vital concern within him for the blessing of Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas remained some time in Antioch, teaching and preaching along with many others, for the large interest awakened among Gentiles required establishing teaching.

After some time in Antioch, Paul proposed to Barnabas another visit to the brethren in the cities where they had previously preached the Word. Barnabas expressed himself as determined to take John Mark with them again. However, Paul considered this not good in view of Mark's having before drawn back, leaving the work soon after starting Out. Perhaps Barnabas felt that his nephew might be strengthened if he came on this second occasion, but evidently Paul did not think that he was ready at this time. Later Paul speaks of Mark as being profitable to him for the ministry (2 Timothy 4:11), but at this time he had a different opinion. Barnabas was not willing to accede to Paul's exercise in this, and so decidedly disagreed with Paul that he refused to go with him, but took Mark and left for Cyprus, his own previous home (Acts 4:36). It is sad that we read no more of his history following this, though we do read of Mark. Paul, choosing Silas to accompany him, was recommended by the brethren to the grace of God. This is not said concerning Barnabas, who apparently did not go, as Paul did, to revisit the assemblies they had established in Syria and Cilicia.

 


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Bibliography Information
Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Acts 15:4". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/lmg/acts-15.html. 1897-1910.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, November 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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