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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture
Acts 15

 

 

Verses 1-6

Acts

THE BREAKING OUT OF DISCORD

Acts 15:1 - Acts 15:6.

The question as to the conditions on which Gentiles could be received into Christian communion had already been raised by the case of Cornelius, but it became more acute after Paul’s missionary journey. The struggle between the narrower and broader views was bound to come to a head. Traces of the cleft between Palestinian and Hellenist believers had appeared as far back as the ‘murmuring’ about the unfair neglect of the Hellenist widows in the distribution of relief, and the whole drift of things since had been to widen the gap.

Whether the ‘certain men’ had a mission to the Church in Antioch or not, they had no mandate to lay down the law as they did. Luke delicately suggests this by saying that they ‘came down from Judaea,’ rather than from Jerusalem. We should be fair to these men, and remember how much they had to say in defence of their position. They did not question that Gentiles could be received into the Church, but ‘kept on teaching’ {as the word in the Greek implies} that the divinely appointed ordinance of circumcision was the ‘door’ of entrance. God had prescribed it, and through all the centuries since Moses, all who came into the fold of Israel had gone in by that gate. Where was the commandment to set it aside? Was not Paul teaching men to climb up some other way, and so blasphemously abrogating a divine law?

No wonder that honest believers in Jesus as Messiah shrank with horror from such a revolutionary procedure. The fact that they were Palestinian Jews, who had never had their exclusiveness rubbed off, as Hellenists like Paul and Barnabas had had, explains, and to some extent excuses, their position. And yet their contention struck a fatal blow at the faith, little as they meant it. Paul saw what they did not see-that if anything else than faith was brought in as necessary to knit men to Christ, and make them partakers of salvation, faith was deposed from its place, and Christianity sank back to be a religion of ‘works.’ Experience has proved that anything whatever introduced as associated with faith ejects faith from its place, and comes to be recognised as the means of salvation. It must be faith or circumcision, it cannot be faith and circumcision. The lesson is needed to-day as much as in Antioch. The controversy started then is a perennial one, and the Church of the present needs Paul’s exhortation, ‘Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.’

The obvious course of appealing to Jerusalem was taken, and it is noteworthy that in Acts 15:2 the verb ‘appointed’ has no specified subject. Plainly, however, it was the Church which acted, and so natural did that seem to Luke that he felt it unnecessary to say so. No doubt Paul concurred, but the suggestion is not said to have come from him. He and Barnabas might have asserted their authority, and declined to submit what they had done by the Spirit’s guidance to the decision of the Apostles, but they seek the things that make for peace.

No doubt the other side was represented in the deputation. Jerusalem was the centre of unity, and remained so till its fall. The Apostles and elders were the recognised leaders of the Church. Elders here appear as holding a position of authority; the only previous mention of them is in Acts 11:30, where they receive the alms sent from Antioch. It is significant that we do not hear of their first appointment. The organisation of the Church took shape as exigencies prescribed.

The deputation left Antioch, escorted lovingly for a little way by the Church, and, journeying by land, gladdened the groups of believers in ‘Phenicia and Samaria’ with the news that the Gentiles were turning to God. We note that they are not said to have spoken of the thorny question in these countries, and that it is not said that there was joy in Judaea. Perhaps the Christians in it were in sympathy with the narrower view.

The first step taken in Jerusalem was to call a meeting of the Church to welcome the deputation. It is significant that the latter did not broach the question in debate, but told the story of the success of their mission. That was the best argument for receiving Gentile converts without circumcision. God had received them; should not the Church do so? Facts are stronger than theories. It was Peter’s argument in the case of Cornelius: they ‘have received the Holy Ghost as well as we,’ ‘who was I, that I could withstand God?’ It is the argument which shatters all analogous narrowing of the conditions of Christian life. If men say, ‘Except ye be’ this or that ‘ye cannot be saved,’ it is enough to point to the fruits of Christian character, and say, ‘These show that the souls which bring them forth are saved, and you must widen your conceptions of the possibilities to include these actualities.’ It is vain to say ‘Ye cannot be’ when manifestly they are.

But the logic of facts does not convince obstinate theorists, and so the Judaising party persisted in their ‘It is needful to circumcise them.’ None are so blind as those to whom religion is mainly a matter of ritual. You may display the fairest graces of Christian character before them, and you get no answer but the reiteration of ‘It is needful to circumcise you.’ But on their own ground, in Jerusalem, the spokesmen of that party enlarged their demands. In Antioch they had insisted on circumcision, in Jerusalem they added the demand for entire conformity to the Mosaic law. They were quite logical; their principle demanded that extension of the requirement, and was thereby condemned as utterly unworkable. Now that the whole battery was unmasked the issue was clear-Is Christianity to be a Jewish sect or the universal religion? Clear as it was, few in that assembly saw it. But the parting of the ways had been reached.


Verses 12-29

Acts

THE CHARTER OF GENTILE LIBERTY

Acts 15:12 - Acts 15:29.

Much was at stake in the decision of this gathering of the Church. If the Jewish party triumphed, Christianity sank to the level of a Jewish sect. The question brought up for decision was difficult, and there was much to be said for the view that the Mosaic law was binding on Gentile converts. It must have been an uprooting of deepest beliefs for a Jewish Christian to contemplate the abrogation of that law, venerable by its divine origin, by its hoary antiquity, by its national associations. We must not be hard upon men who clung to it; but we should learn from their final complete drifting away from Christianity how perilous is the position which insists on the necessity to true discipleship of any outward observance.

Our passage begins in the middle of the conference. Peter has, with characteristic vehemence, dwelt upon the divine attestation of the genuine equality of the uncircumcised converts with the Jewish, given by their possession of the same divine Spirit, and has flung fiery questions at the Judaisers, which silenced them. Then, after the impressive hush following his eager words, Barnabas and Paul tell their story once more, and clinch the nail driven by Peter by asserting that God had already by ‘signs and wonders’ given His sanction to the admission of Gentiles without circumcision. Characteristically, in Jerusalem Barnabas is restored to his place above Paul, and is named first as speaking first, and regarded by the Jerusalem Church as the superior of the missionary pair.

The next speaker is James, not an Apostle, but the bishop of the Church in Jerusalem, of whom tradition tells that he was a zealous adherent to the Mosaic law in his own person, and that his knees were as hard as a camel’s through continual prayer. It is singular that this meeting should be so often called ‘the Apostolic council,’ when, as a fact, only one Apostle said a word, and he not as an Apostle, but as the chosen instrument to preach to the Gentiles. ‘The elders,’ of whose existence we now hear for the first time in this wholly incidental manner, were associated with the Apostles [Acts 15:6], and the ‘multitude’ [Acts 15:12] is most naturally taken to be ‘the whole Church’ [Acts 15:22]. James represents the eldership, and as bishop in Jerusalem and an eager observer of legal prescriptions, fittingly speaks. His words practically determined the question. Like a wise man, he begins with facts. His use of the intensely Jewish form of the name Simeon is an interesting reminiscence of old days. So he had been accustomed to call Peter when they were all young together, and so he calls him still, though everybody else named him by his new name. What God had done by him seems to James to settle the whole question; for it was nothing else than to put the Gentile converts without circumcision on an equality with the Jewish part of the Church.

Note the significant juxtaposition of the words ‘Gentiles’ and ‘people’-the former the name for heathen, the latter the sacred designation of the chosen nation. The great paradox which, through Peter’s preaching at Caesarea, had become a fact was that the ‘people of God’ were made up of Gentiles as well as Jews-that His name was equally imparted to both. If God had made Gentiles His people, had He not thereby shown that the special observances of Israel were put aside, and that, in particular, circumcision was no longer the condition of entrance? The end of national distinction and the opening of a new way of incorporation among the people of God were clearly contained in the facts. How much Christian narrowness would be blown to atoms if its advocates would do as James did, and let God’s facts teach them the width of God’s purposes and the comprehensiveness of Christ’s Church! We do wisely when we square our theories with facts; but many of us go to work in the opposite way, and snip down facts to the dimension of our theories.

James’s next step is marked equally by calm wisdom and open-mindedness. He looks to God’s word, as interpreted by God’s deeds, to throw light in turn on the deeds and to confirm the interpretation of these. Two things are to be noted in considering his quotation from Amos-its bearing on the question in hand, and its divergence from the existing Hebrew text. As to the former, there seems at first sight nothing relevant to James’s purpose in the quotation, which simply declares that the Gentiles will seek the Lord when the fallen tabernacle of David is rebuilt. That period of time has at least begun, thinks James, in the work of Jesus, in whom the decayed dominion of David is again in higher form established. The return of the Gentiles does not merely synchronise with, but is the intended issue of, Christ’s reign. Lifted from the earth, He will draw all men unto Him, and they shall ‘seek the Lord,’ and on them His name will be called.

Now the force of this quotation lies, as it seems, first in the fact that Peter’s experience at Caesarea is to be taken as an indication of how God means the prophecy to be fulfilled, namely, without circumcision; and secondly, in the argumentum a silentio, since the prophet says nothing about ritual or the like, but declares that moral and spiritual qualifications-on the one hand a true desire after God, and on the other receiving the proclamation of His name and calling themselves by it-are all that are needed to make Gentiles God’s people. Just because there is nothing in the prophecy about observing Jewish ceremonies, and something about longing and faith, James thinks that these are the essentials, and that the others may be dropped by the Church, as God had dropped them in the case of Cornelius, and as Amos had dropped them in his vision of the future kingdom. God knew what He meant to do when He spoke through the prophet, and what He has done has explained the words, as James says in Acts 15:18.

The variation from the Hebrew text requires a word of comment. The quotation is substantially from the Septuagint, with a slight alteration. Probably James quoted the version familiar to many of his hearers. It seems to have been made from a somewhat different Hebrew text in Acts 15:17, but the difference is very much slighter than an English reader would suppose. Our text has ‘Edom’ where the Septuagint has ‘men’; but the Hebrew words without vowels are identical but for the addition of one letter in the former. Our text has ‘inherit’ where the Septuagint has ‘seek after’; but there again the difference in the two Hebrew words would be one letter only, so that there may well have been a various reading as preserved in the Septuagint and Acts. James adds to the Septuagint ‘seek’ the evidently correct completion ‘the Lord.’

Now it is obvious that, even if we suppose his rendering of the whole verse to be a paraphrase of the same Hebrew text as we have, it is a correct representation of the meaning; for the ‘inheriting of Edom’ is no mere external victory, and Edom is always in the Old Testament the type of the godless man. The conquest of the Gentiles by the restorer of David’s tabernacle is really the seeking after the Lord, and the calling of His name upon the Gentiles.

The conclusion drawn by James is full of practical wisdom, and would have saved the Church from many a sad page in its history, if its spirit had been prevalent in later ‘councils.’ Note how the very designation given to the Gentile converts in Acts 15:19 carries argumentative force. ‘They turn to God from among the Gentiles’-if they have done that, surely their new separation and new attachment are enough, and make insistence on circumcision infinitely ridiculous. They have the thing signified; what does it matter about the sign, which is good for us Jews, but needless for them? If Church rulers had always been as open-eyed as this bishop in Jerusalem, and had been content if people were joined to God and parted from the world, what torrents of blood, what frowning walls of division, what scandals and partings of brethren would have been spared!

The observances suggested are a portion of the precepts enjoined by Judaism on proselytes. The two former were necessary to the Christian life; the two latter were not, but were concessions to the Jewish feelings of the stricter party. The conclusion may be called a compromise, but it was one dictated by the desire for unity, and had nothing unworthy in it. There should be giving and taking on both sides. If the Jewish Christians made the, to them, immense concession of waiving the necessity of circumcision, the Gentile section might surely make the small one of abstinence from things strangled and from blood. Similarities in diet would daily assimilate the lives of the two parties, and would be a more visible and continuous token of their oneness than the single act of circumcision.

But what does the reason in Acts 15:21 mean? Why should the reading of Moses every Sabbath be a reason for these concessions? Various answers are given: but the most natural is that the constant promulgation of the law made respect for the feelings {even if mistaken} of Jewish Christians advisable, and the course suggested the most likely to win Jews who were not yet Christians. Both classes would be flung farther apart if there were not some yielding. The general principle involved is that one cannot be too tender with old and deeply rooted convictions even if they be prejudices, and that Christian charity, which is truest wisdom, will consent to limitations of Christian liberty, if thereby any little one who believes in Him shall be saved from being offended, or any unbeliever from being repelled.

The letter embodying James’s wise suggestion needs little further notice. We may observe that there was no imposing and authoritative decision of the Ecclesia, but that the whole thing was threshed out in free talk, and then the unanimous judgment of the community, ‘Apostles, elders and the whole Church,’ was embodied in the epistle. Observe the accurate rendering of Acts 15:25, ‘having come to one accord,’ which gives a lively picture of the process. Note too that James’s proposal of a letter was mended by the addition of a deputation, consisting of an unknown ‘Judas called Barsabas’ {perhaps a relative of ‘Joseph called Barsabas,’ the unsuccessful nominee for Apostleship in Acts 1:23}, and the well-known Silas or Silvanus, of whom we hear so much in Paul’s letters. That journey was the turning-point in his life, and he henceforward, attracted by the mass and magnetism of Paul’s great personality, revolved round him, and forsook Jerusalem.

Probably James drew up the document, which has the same somewhat unusual ‘greeting’ as his Epistle. The sharp reference to the Judaising teachers would be difficult for their sympathisers to swallow, but charity is not broken by plain repudiation of error and its teachers. ‘Subverting your souls’ is a heavy charge. The word is only here found in the New Testament, and means to unsettle, the image in it being that of packing up baggage for removal. The disavowal of these men is more complete if we follow the Revised Version in reading [Acts 15:24] ‘no commandment’ instead of ‘no such commandment.’

These unauthorised teachers ‘went’; but, in strong contrast with them, Judas and Silas are chosen out and sent. Another thrust at the Judaising teachers is in the affectionate eulogy of Paul and Barnabas as ‘beloved,’ whatever disparaging things had been said about them, and as having ‘hazarded their lives,’ while these others had taken very good care of themselves, and had only gone to disturb converts whom Paul and Barnabas had won at the peril of their lives.

The calm matter-of-course assertion that the decision which commended itself to ‘us’ is the decision of ‘the Holy Ghost’ was warranted by Christ’s promises, and came from the consciousness that they had observed the conditions which He had laid down. They had brought their minds to bear upon the question, with the light of facts and of Scripture, and had come to a unanimous conclusion. If they believed their Lord’s parting words, they could not doubt that His Spirit had guided them. If we lived more fully in that Spirit, we should know more of the same peaceful assurance, which is far removed from the delusion of our own infallibility, and is the simple expression of trust in the veracious promises of our Lord.

The closing words of the letter are beautifully brotherly, sinking authority, and putting in the foreground the advantage to the Gentile converts of compliance with the injunctions. ‘Ye shall do well,’ rightly and conformably with the requirements of brotherly love to weaker brethren. And thus doing well, they will ‘fare well,’ and be strong. That is not the way in which ‘lords over God’s heritage’ are accustomed to end their decrees. Brotherly affection, rather than authority imposing its will, breathes here. Would that all succeeding ‘Councils’ had imitated this as well as ‘it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us’!


Verse 37-38

Acts

A GOOD MAN’S FAULTS

Acts 15:37 - Acts 15:38.

Scripture narratives are remarkable for the frankness with which they tell the faults of the best men. It has nothing in common with the cynical spirit in historians, of which this age has seen eminent examples, which fastens upon the weak places in the noblest natures, like a wasp on bruises in the ripest fruit, and delights in showing how all goodness is imperfect, that it may suggest that none is genuine. Nor has it anything in common with that dreary melancholy which also has its representatives among us, that sees everywhere only failures and fragments of men, and has no hope of ever attaining anything beyond the common average of excellence. But Scripture frankly confesses that all its noblest characters have fallen short of unstained purity, and with boldness of hope as great as its frankness teaches the weakest to aspire, and the most sinful to expect perfect likeness to a perfect Lord, It is a plane mirror, giving back all images without distortion.

We recall how emphatically and absolutely it eulogised Barnabas as ‘a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and of faith’-and now we have to notice how this man, thus full of the seminal principle of all goodness, derived into his soul by deep and constant communion through faith, and showing in his life practical righteousness and holiness, yet goes sadly astray, tarnishes his character, and mars his whole future.

The two specific faults recorded of him are his over-indulgence in the case of Mark, and his want of firmness in opposition to the Judaising teachers who came down to Antioch. They were neither of them grave faults, but they were real. In the one he was too facile in overlooking a defect which showed unfitness for the work, and seems to have yielded to family affection and to have sacrificed the efficiency of a mission to it. Not only was he wrong in proposing to condone Mark’s desertion, but he was still more wrong in his reception of the opposition to his proposal. With the firmness which weak characters so often display at the wrong time, he was resolved, come what would, to have his own way. Temper rather than principle made him obstinate where he should have been yielding, as it had made him in Antioch yielding, where he should have been firm. Paul’s remonstrances have no effect. He will rather have his own way than the companionship of his old friend, and so there come alienation and separation. The Church at Antioch takes Paul’s view-all the brethren are unanimous in disapproval. But Barnabas will not move. He sets up his own feeling in opposition to them all. The sympathy of his brethren, the work of his life, the extension of Christ’s kingdom, are all tossed aside. His own foolish purpose is more to him in that moment of irritation than all these. So he snaps the tie, abandons his work, and goes away without a kindly word, without a blessing, without the Church’s prayers-but with his nephew for whom he had given up all these. Paul sails away to do God’s work, and the Church ‘recommends him to the grace of God,’ but Barnabas steals away home to Cyprus, and his name is no more heard in the story of the planting of the kingdom of Christ.

One hopes that his work did not stop thus, but his recorded work does, and in the band of friends who surrounded the great Apostle, the name of his earliest friend appears no more. Other companions and associates in labour take his place; he, as it appears, is gone for ever. One reference [1 Corinthians 9:6] at a later date seems most naturally to suggest that he still continued in the work of an evangelist, and still practised the principle to which he and Paul had adhered when together, of supporting himself by manual labour. The tone of the reference implies that there were relations of mutual respect. But the most we can believe is that probably the two men still thought kindly of each other and honoured each other for their work’s sake, but found it better to labour apart, and not to seek to renew the old companionship which had been so violently torn asunder.

The other instance of weakness was in some respects of a still graver kind. The cause of it was the old controversy about the obligations of Jewish law on Gentile Christians. Paul, Peter, and Barnabas all concurred in neglecting the restrictions imposed by Judaism, and in living on terms of equality and association in eating and drinking with the heathen converts at Antioch. A principle was involved, to which Barnabas had bean the first to give in his adhesion, in the frank recognition of the Antioch Church. But as soon as emissaries from the other party came down, Peter and he abandoned their association with Gentile converts, not changing their convictions but suppressing the action to which their convictions should have led. They pretended to be of the same mind with these narrow Jews from Jerusalem. They insulted their brethren, they deserted Paul, they belied their convictions, they imperilled the cause of Christian liberty, they flew in the face of what Peter had said that God Himself had showed him, they did their utmost to degrade Christianity into a form of Judaism-all for the sake of keeping on good terms with the narrow bigotry of these Judaising teachers.

Now if we take these two facts together, and set them side by side with the eulogy pronounced on Barnabas as ‘a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and of faith,’ we have brought before us in a striking form some important considerations.

I. The imperfect goodness of good men.

A good man does not mean a faultless man. Of course the power which works on a believing soul is always tending to produce goodness and only goodness. But its operation is not such that we are always equally, uniformly, perfectly under its influence. Power in germ is one thing, in actual operation another. There may be but a little ragged patch of green in the garden, and yet it may be on its way to become a flower-bed. A king may not have established dominion over all his land. The actual operation of that transforming Spirit at any given moment is limited, and we can withdraw ourselves from it. It does not begin by leavening all our nature.

So we have to note-

The root of goodness.

The main direction of a life.

The progressive character of goodness.

The highest style of Christian life is a struggle. So we draw practical inferences as to the conduct of life.

This thought of imperfection does not diminish the criminality of individual acts.

It does not weaken aspiration and effort towards higher life.

It does alleviate our doubts and fears when we find evil in ourselves.

II. The possible evil lurking in our best qualities.

In Barnabas, his amiability and openness of nature, the very characteristics that had made him strong, now make him weak and wrong.

How clearly then there is brought out here the danger that lurks even in our good! I need not remind you how every virtue may be run to an extreme and become a vice. Liberality is exaggerated into prodigality; firmness, into obstinacy; mercy, into weakness; gravity, into severity; tolerance, into feeble conviction; humility, into abjectness.

And these extremes are reached when these graces are developed at the expense of the symmetry of the character.

We are not simple but complex, and what we need to aim at is a character, not an excrescence. Some people’s goodness is like a wart or a wen. Their virtues are cases of what medical technicality calls hypertrophy. But our goodness should be like harmonious Indian patterns, where all colours blend in a balanced whole.

Such considerations enforce the necessity for rigid self-control. And that in two directions.

The special form of error into which Barnabas fell is worth notice. It was over-indulgence, tolerance of evil in a person; feebleness of grasp, a deficiency of boldness in carrying out his witness to a disputed truth. In this day liberality, catholicity, are pushed so far that there is danger of our losing the firmness of our grasp of principles, and indulgence for faults goes so far that we are apt to lose the habit of unsparing, though unangry, condemnation of unworthy characters. This generation is like Barnabas; very quick in sympathy, generous in action, ready to recognise goodness where-ever it is beheld. But Barnabas may be a beacon, warning us of the possible evils that dog these excellences like their shadows.

III. The grave issues of small faults.

Comparatively trivial as was Barnabas’s error, it seems to have wrecked his life, at least to have marred it for long years, and to have broken his sweet companionship with Paul. I think we may go further and say, that most good men are in more danger from trivial faults than from great ones. No man reaches the superlative degree of wickedness all at once. Few men spring from the height to the abyss, they usually slip down. The erosive action of the sand of the desert is said to be gradually cutting off the Sphinx’s head. The small faults are most numerous. We are least on our guard against them. There is a microscopic weed that chokes canals. Snow-flakes make the sky as dark as an eclipse does. White ants eat a carcase quicker than a lion does.

So we urge the necessity for bringing ordinary deeds and small actions to be ruled and guided by God’s Spirit.

How the contemplation of the imperfection, which is the law of life, should lead us to hope for that heaven where perfection is.

How the contemplation of the limits of all human goodness should lead us to exclusive faith in, and imitation of, the one perfect Lord. He stands stainless among the stained. In Him alone is no sin, from Him alone like goodness may be ours.

 


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Acts 15:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/acts-15.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 14th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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