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Bible Commentaries

Joseph Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments
Acts 15

 

 

Verse 1

Acts 15:1. And certain men which came down from Judea — Probably such as had been of the Pharisees, (Acts 15:5,) or, perhaps, of those priests which were obedient to the faith, Acts 6:7. As they came from Judea, it is likely they pretended to be sent by the apostles at Jerusalem, or, at least, to be countenanced by them. Designing to spread their notions among the Gentiles, they came to Antioch, because that city abounded with Gentile converts, and was the headquarters of those that preached to the Gentiles; and if they could but make an impression there, they supposed their leaven would soon be diffused to all the churches of the Gentiles. And said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses — That is, Except ye keep the law of Moses, (see Acts 15:5; Galatians 5:3,) ye cannot be saved — Can neither enjoy God’s favour here, nor his kingdom hereafter. Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation — They strenuously opposed this doctrine; 1st, Because its direct tendency was to subvert the gospel, which they had preached, and which they knew was of itself sufficient for the salvation of men, without the works of the Mosaic law. And, 2d, Because it was a betraying of the natural rights of mankind, who, by the gospel, are left free, both to obey the good laws of the countries where they live, and enjoy whatever rights accrue to them from those laws. Whereas, by receiving the law of Moses, the Gentiles really made themselves the subjects of a foreign power; for that law included, the civil or political law of Judea; and all who received it actually put themselves under the jurisdiction of the high-priest and council at Jerusalem. Hence Paul and Barnabas, as faithful servants of Christ, could not see his truth betrayed; they knew Christ came to free men from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to take down that wall of partition between Jews and Gentiles, and unite them both in himself, and therefore would not hear of circumcising the Gentile converts, when their instructions were only to baptize them. And, as spiritual fathers to them, they would not see their liberties encroached on. There being, therefore, much contention upon this account at Antioch, where there were several converts from among the Gentiles, to whom this doctrine could not but be very disagreeable, and, doubtless, many Jewish Christians, who approved of it; and the peace of the church and the unity of its members being in danger of being broken, to prevent this, if possible, it was judged advisable to get the best satisfaction they could, in an affair which affected the liberties and consciences of many. They determined, therefore, that Paul and Barnabas, and certain others, should go to Jerusalem, about this question — This is the journey to which Paul refers, (Galatians 2:1-2,) when he says, he went up by revelation, which is very consistent with this; for the church, in sending them, might be directed by a revelation, made either immediately to Paul, or some other person, relating to so important an affair. Important indeed it was, and necessary that those Jewish impositions should be solemnly opposed in time, because multitudes of converts were still zealous for the law, and ready to contend for the observance of it. Indeed, many of the Christians at Antioch undoubtedly knew that Paul was under an extraordinary divine direction, and therefore would readily have acquiesced in his determination alone; but as others might have prejudices against him, on account of his having been so much concerned with the Gentiles, it was highly expedient to take the concurrent judgment of all the apostles on this occasion; since their authority was supreme in the church, and their decision alone could put an end to the controversy. It appears from Galatians 2:1, that Titus was one of those who accompanied Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem at this time. Him, it is probable, Paul had converted in the Lesser Asia: and, being a person of great piety and ability, he had taken him as his assistant in the room of John Mark, at Perga, and had brought him to Antioch; and he, being a Gentile, had consequently much interest in the determination of this question. See Doddridge and Macknight.


Verses 3-5

Acts 15:3-5. And being brought on their way by the church — That is, by several of its members; they passed through Phenice and Samaria — Which lay in their way; declaring — To their fellow-Christians, whom they met with in the several towns through which they passed; the conversion of the Gentiles — That is, of multitudes of them, by the blessing of God on their labours. And they caused great joy unto all the brethren — By the account they gave. And when they were come, &c., they were received — That is, solemnly welcomed by the church, and particularly by the apostles and elders who resided at Jerusalem, who all showed them every mark of respect. And they declared all things — That is, the principal things; which God had done by them — That by their ministry he had converted the Gentiles in many countries, and had bestowed upon many of them the Holy Ghost, in the plenitude of his gifts. But, they added, that at Antioch there rose up certain of the Pharisees who believed — Affirming that it was necessary to circumcise them; and that the brethren of Antioch had sent them to lay the matter before the apostles.


Verses 6-11

Acts 15:6-11. And the apostles, &c., came together to consider of this matter — As the apostles commonly resided at Jerusalem, the greater part of them may have come together on this occasion; and the elders likewise, men most respectable for their grace and gifts, having been chosen to the office of elders from among those on whom the Holy Ghost descended on the day of pentecost. Many of the brethren, too, of the church of Jerusalem were present in this assembly. For the decree, which was passed on the question, runs in the name of the whole church. And when there had been much disputing — Occasioned by those of the sect of the Pharisees, who maintained the necessity of circumcision. It does not appear that this debate was among the apostles themselves; but if it was, if they themselves really debated the matter first, yet might their final decision be from an unerring direction. For how really soever they were inspired, we need not suppose their inspiration was always so instantaneous and express, as to supersede any deliberation in their own minds, or any consultation with each other. Peter rose up — And put the assembly in mind, how he had been ordered by God to preach the gospel to Cornelius and the other Gentiles who were with him; and how God, who knoweth the hearts of men, bare them witness — That he accepted them without circumcision, having given them the Holy Ghost, even as to the Jews, and put no difference between them — And the Jews; purifying their hearts — Not by the rites and ceremonies of the law, but by faith. Now therefore — Said he, why do ye not acquiesce in such a determination? Why tempt ye God to put a yoke on the neck of the disciples — So grievous and burdensome, that neither our fathers nor we were able to bear it? — Why provoke ye God by making circumcision necessary to the salvation of the Gentiles, contrary to his declared will in this matter, and contrary to your own conviction. For we — Who have been educated in the Jewish religion, and especially we who are apostles, believe, that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ And not through obedience to the law of Moses, we — Jews, shall be saved even as they — The Gentiles, are to be saved; in one and the same way, namely, through the grace of Christ alone.


Verses 12-18

Acts 15:12-18. Then all the multitude kept silence — Having nothing further to object to what had been advanced; and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul — Who confirmed Peter’s reasoning, by declaring what miracles God had wrought among the Gentiles — By their ministry; of which, the chief miracle was, that he had amply conferred the gifts of the Holy Spirit on the believing Gentiles, although they were uncircumcised. After they had done speaking, James, the son of Alpheus, one of the apostles, answered those who were for subjecting the Gentiles to the law, by adding, in supplement to Peter’s reasoning, that the prophets had foretold the conversion of the Gentiles; so that it was always God’s purpose to make them his people. The passage he appeals to, quoting it according to the reading of the Seventy, is Amos 9:11-12; where see the notes. It may be thus paraphrased: After this — After the Jewish dispensation expires; I will return — To my people in mercy; and will build again the tabernacle — That is, the house, or family, of David; which is fallen down — Is in a low, degraded state: I will do this by raising from his seed the Christ, who shall erect, on the ruins of his fallen tabernacle, a spiritual and eternal kingdom; that the residue of men — And not the Jews alone; might seek after the Lord — After an acquaintance with him, and the blessings consequent thereon; and all the Gentiles upon whom my name is called — Or who shall be called by my name; who shall be my people. James adds, Known unto God are all his works — This the apostle infers from the prophecy itself, and the accomplishment of it. And this conversion of the Gentiles, being known to him from eternity, we ought not to think a new or strange thing. It is observable, he does not speak of God’s works in the natural world, (which would have been nothing to his present purposes) but of his dispensations toward the children of men. Now he could not know these, without knowing the characters and actions of particular persons, on a correspondence with which the wisdom and goodness of those dispensations are founded. For instance, he could not know how he would deal with heathen idolaters, (whom he was now calling into his church,) without knowing there would be heathen idolaters; and yet this was a thing purely contingent, a thing as dependant on the freedom of the human mind as any we can imagine. This text, therefore, among a thousand more, is an unanswerable proof that God foreknows future contingencies, though there are difficulties relating thereto which man cannot solve.


Verses 19-21

Acts 15:19-21. Wherefore my sentence — My judgment in this matter; is, that we trouble not — With such observances as those now in question; them which from among the Gentiles — The ignorant and idolatrous Gentiles; are turned unto God — Are converted by divine grace to the knowledge and worship of the true God, and to obedience to his gospel. But that we write unto them, that they abstain from all things grossly scandalous, and particularly from pollutions of idols — From every species of idolatry: that they should have no manner of fellowship with idolaters in their idolatrous worship, or in the feasts they hold upon their sacrifices; see 1 Corinthians 10:14; 2 Corinthians 6:14. And from fornication — Which even the philosophers among the heathen did not account any fault. It was particularly frequent in the worship of their idols, on which account these sins are here named together. And from things strangled — That is, from whatever has been killed without pouring out the blood; and from blood — When God first permitted man to eat flesh, he commanded Noah, and in him all his posterity, whenever they killed any creature for food, to abstain from the blood thereof. It was to be poured upon the ground as water; doubtless, 1st, To be a token to mankind, in all ages, that they would have had no right to take the life of any animal for food, if God had not given them that right, who, therefore, to remind them of it, and impress it on their minds in all generations, denied them the use of blood, and required it to be spilt upon the ground. 2d, In honour of the blood of atonement, Leviticus 17:11-12. The life of the sacrifice was accepted for the life of the sinner; and blood made atonement for the soul; and therefore must not be looked upon as a common thing, but must be poured out before the Lord, (2 Samuel 23:16,) and especially in honour of that blood which was in due time to be shed for the sins of the world. Now this prohibition of eating blood, given to Noah and his posterity, and repeated to the Israelites in the law of Moses, and which was never revoked, is here confirmed and made of perpetual obligation. See the notes on Genesis 9:4. For Moses hath, &c. — The sense and connection here may be: To the Jews we need to write nothing on these heads, for they hear the law continually, and are there most solemnly and repeatedly enjoined to abstain from these things.


Verse 22-23

Acts 15:22-23. Then pleased it the apostles, &c. — This advice was very acceptable to the apostles and elders, who unanimously declared their approbation of it; with the whole church — Who therefore had a part in this business; to send chosen men — Who might attest that this was the judgment of the apostles and all the brethren. And wrote letters by them — The whole conduct of this affair plainly shows that the church, in those days, had no conception of St. Peter’s primacy, or of his being the chief judge in controversies. For the decree is drawn up, not according to his, but the Apostle James’s proposal and direction: and that in the name, not of St. Peter, but of all the apostles and elders, and of the whole church. Nay, St. Peter’s name is not mentioned at all, either in the order for sending to Jerusalem on the question, (Acts 15:2,) or in the address of the messengers concerning it, (Acts 15:4,) or in the letter which was written in answer. The apostles, elders, and brethren — These brethren, being neither apostles nor elders, were undoubtedly private Christians, whom the apostles, in their great condescension, joined with themselves on this occasion, as well knowing that their declared concurrence would strengthen the obligation upon the church at Antioch, not only to acquiesce in this decree, but to support it; and it was the more prudent to do it, as the liberty this gave to the Gentile Christians would somewhat affect the secular interests of the inhabitants of Jerusalem.


Verses 24-27

Acts 15:24-27. Forasmuch as we have heard, &c. — The simplicity, weightiness, and conciseness of this letter, are highly observable; that certain which went out from us — That is, pretending to be sent out by us; have troubled you with words — By requiring you to be circumcised and to keep the law; subverting your souls — That is, unsettling your minds; to whom we gave no such commandment — No commission to make use of our names, or teach any such doctrine. It seemed good unto us — After duly considering the matter in a general assembly, called for the purpose; to send chosen men unto you — Men of our own body; with our beloved Barnabas and Paul — Whom we greatly respect, as men that have hazarded their lives — In repeated instances, and with great courage; for the name of our Lord Jesus — Such a testimony as this to the reputation of Paul and Barnabas was by no means a mere compliment, but exceedingly prudent, as it might tend to remove the prejudices conceived against them by the Jewish converts or teachers, who, as appears from many passages of the epistles, endeavoured as much as possible to lessen the character of these apostles. It would also be an evidence of the harmony subsisting between them and those of the circumcision. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas — Men that have heard our debates, and are perfectly acquainted with our judgment and decision. This precaution of sending approved witnesses along with the copy of the decree, which was delivered to Barnabas and Paul, was intended to prevent the zealous and bigoted Judaizers from affirming that the letter did not contain a just account of what was determined by the church. For these chosen men, having assisted at the council, would not only tell the brethren of Antioch the same things by mouth, but attest that it was the unanimous opinion of the whole assembly.


Verse 28-29

Acts 15:28-29. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and, consequently, to us — This may include the decision which the Holy Spirit had given by his descent on Cornelius and his friends, but seems more directly to express the consciousness which this assembly had of being guided by his influences on their minds in the present determination. It cannot, however, be extended to any ecclesiastical councils that have not inspired apostles to preside, as this here had. To lay upon you no greater burden — They allude to the yoke spoken of Acts 15:10. So far were they from delighting to impose on the churches any mere human and unnecessary institutions, that they dreaded enjoining any thing which God had not required, and was not calculated to promote the faith and holiness of the new converts; than these necessary things — Some of the things here mentioned are of perpetual obligation upon Christians of all nations and ages, and they were all necessary for the peace of the church at that time, namely, to avoid giving offence to the converted Jews, and to promote brotherly love between them and the converted Gentiles. The first of them, however, was not necessary long, and the direction concerning it was therefore afterward repealed by the same Spirit, as we read in the former epistle to the Corinthians. With regard to abstaining from blood, concerning which there has been much controversy among divines, we may further observe here, that the eating of it was never permitted the children of God, from the beginning of the world. For, 1st, From Adam to Noah no man ate flesh at all; consequently, no man then ate blood. 2d, When God allowed Noah and his posterity to eat flesh, he absolutely forbade them to eat blood; and accordingly this, with the other six precepts of Noah, was delivered down from Noah to Moses. 3d, God renewed this prohibition by Moses, which was not repealed from the time of Moses till Christ came. 4th, Neither after his coming did any presume to repeal this decree of the Holy Ghost, till it seemed good to the bishop of Rome so to do, about the middle of the eighth century. 5th, From that time, those churches which acknowledged his authority held the eating of blood to be an indifferent thing. But, 6th, In all those churches which never did acknowledge the bishop of Rome’s authority, it never was allowed to eat blood, nor is it allowed at this day. This is the plain fact; let men reason as plausibly as they please, on one side or the other. From which keeping yourselves, ye will do well — That is, ye will find a blessing. This gentle manner of concluding was worthy the apostolical wisdom and goodness. But how soon did succeeding counsels, of inferior authority, change it into the style of anathemas! Forms which have proved an occasion of consecrating some of the most devilish passions under the most sacred names; and, like some ill-adjusted weapons of war, are most likely to hurt the hand from which they are thrown. The reader that wishes for further information on the subject of the prohibition of eating blood will find ample satisfaction in an excellent work of Dr. Delaney, entitled, Revelation examined with Candour; a work of great merit, although but little known. See vol. 2. p. 18, &c.


Verses 30-35

Acts 15:30-35. So when they — Paul, Barnabas, Judas, and Silas; came to Antioch, they gathered the multitude — The private Christians, as well as the elders, and other official members of the church; for as they had all been concerned in sending them they had all a right to be informed of the result of their mission; and delivered the epistle — Containing the apostolic decree; which when they had read, they rejoiced — Namely, to find that so venerable an assembly as that which had been held at Jerusalem, had concurred with Paul and Barnabas, in vindicating the liberty of the Gentile converts from the yoke of the Mosaic ceremonies. It must be observed, the church at Antioch consisted chiefly of converted proselytes; and their joy would be in proportion to the anxiety and suspense with which they had waited for the apostles’ determination. And Judas and Silas — The special messengers from Jerusalem thither; being prophets also themselves — That is, preachers of the gospel, or teachers in the church; exhorted the brethren with many words — Did not only deliver the particular message with which they were charged, but, on the occasion of such a numerous and solemn auditory, each of them discoursed largely on the truths and duties of Christianity, exhorting them to adhere to the gospel they had embraced, and to adorn it by a corresponding conduct; and confirmed them — Not only in the belief of their freedom from the law of Moses, as a term of salvation, but in every branch of Christian faith and practice. And after they had continued there a space — A competent time; they were let go in peace — Were dismissed, doubtless, with earnest prayers for the divine blessing upon them and their labours, and with all possible expressions of kindness and respect unto the apostles, from whom they came. Notwithstanding, it pleased Silas — Who, it seems, had formed an intimate friendship with Paul; to abide there still — To continue a while longer than his companion Judas, who had come with him from Jerusalem. Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch — It is probable that it was during this time Peter came to Antioch; and, after having conversed for some time freely with the Gentile Christians, separated himself from them, on the arrival of some Jewish zealots from Jerusalem, according to the account given Galatians 2:11, &c., where see the notes.


Verse 36

Acts 15:36. And some days after — After they had continued a considerable number of days at Antioch; Paul — Whose active spirit was ever forming some new scheme for the advancement of Christianity; said to Barnabas — His former associate; Let us go again and visit our brethren — The churches we have planted; in every city — Wherever we have preached the word of the Lord; let us go and water the seed sown. Those who have preached the gospel should visit those to whom they have preached it; that they may see what effect their ministry has had, and whether any real and lasting fruit has been produced by it. And see how they do — How their souls prosper; how they grow in faith, hope, love; and what is the state of religion among them. And what else ought to be the grand and constant inquiry in every ecclesiastical visitation? As the apostle could not but be sensible of the great danger in which the Gentile converts, in distant countries, were of being perverted by the Jews, and as his zeal for the purity of the gospel would lead him to consider by what means they might most probably be confirmed in the truth, it is likely that another end which he had in view in proposing this journey was, to make these Gentiles acquainted with the decrees which had been ordained by the apostles, elders, and brethren in Judea. For no expedient could appear to him more proper than this, to preserve them from being misled. Accordingly, as we find chap. Acts 16:4, he and his fellow-traveller delivered these decrees to them as they went through the cities.


Verses 37-41

Acts 15:37-41. And Barnabas determined — Greek, εβουλευσατο, counselled, or advised; to take with them — As their minister; John — His nephew, who had set out with them before. But Paul thought not good — Thought it not proper; to take him who departed, &c. — Who had shown such cowardice or fickleness as to desert them in Pamphylia; who had shrunk from the labour and danger of converting those whom they were now going to confirm. And the contention was so sharp — Greek, εγενετο παρο, ξυσμος, there was a paroxysm. It is a medical term, signifying a fit of a fever; and here means, a sharp fit of anger; but nothing in the text implies that the sharpness was on both sides. It is far more probable that it was not; that Paul, who had had the right on his side, maintained it with love. The strife, however, between these good men, which certainly was to be lamented, was made the occasion of a more extensive spread of the gospel. For Barnabas sailed with Mark into Cyprus, to visit the churches which he and Paul had planted there in their former journey: and Paul, choosing Silas, who was himself a prophet, and a chief man among the brethren, departed to pursue the course which he had intended; being recommended by the brethren to the grace of God — Which recommendation we do not find that Barnabas waited for. And he went through Syria and Cilicia — Which was his native country, (as Cyprus was that of Barnabas,) confirming the churches — Which had been planted in those parts, in their adherence to the Christian faith. These churches in Cilicia had been formed before the council held in Jerusalem, and probably by Paul. It appears, not only that Paul and Barnabas were afterward thoroughly reconciled, (1 Corinthians 9:6; Galatians 2:9,) but also that John was again admitted by Paul as a companion in his labours, Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24; 2 Timothy 4:11.

 


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Bibliography Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Acts 15:4". Joseph Benson's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/rbc/acts-15.html. 1857.

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