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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament
Acts 15

 

 

Introduction

Verse 1

The Circumcision Difficulty, and the First Council of the Church, 1-36.

Acts 15:1. And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren. The general aspects of this famous controversy are discussed in Excursus A, at the end of the chapter. The ‘certain men’ are alluded to by St. Paul in the Galatian Epistle, Acts 2:4, in the following terms:—‘False brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage.’ They were probably, for the most part, Pharisees of an extreme sect who had embraced the gospel. Epiphanius and other early writers tell us that the leader of these men was Cerinthus, who excited the believers against Peter when he baptized the Roman centurion (see Acts 11:2-3).

Which came down from Judea. This party, which maintained that the Mosaic ceremonial was binding upon all Gentile as well as Jewish Christians, naturally had their headquarters in Jerusalem. In the ancient Hebrew capital it was difficult to separate the Church from the temple. We find most of the Christian leaders, who first taught that the Gentiles were free from the yoke of the Mosaic law, made Antioch, and later Ephesus and Alexandria, their residence.

Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. These Jewish teachers proclaimed a certain doctrine in a distinct and formal manner; they did not confine themselves to the expression of certain scruples; they asserted positively that Gentile Christians could not possibly be saved unless they submitted to the various rules and ordinances of the Mosaic law, of which circumcision was the initial ceremony, thus denying the sufficiency of faith in Christ as the condition of pardon and reconciliation. But the hearts of the Antioch teachers were deeply penetrated by the great truth that ‘we are saved not by the law but by grace.’


Verse 2

Acts 15:2. No small dissension and disputation with them. It has been suggested that not improbably these Judaizing teachers succeeded in persuading certain of the Antioch Christians to adopt at least some of their views; for, at a later period, after the Jerusalem decision by the apostles, we find the same question again agitating the Antioch believers, and even seriously affecting the policy of such men as Peter and Barnabas (see Galatians 2:11-13).

They determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem. In Galatians 2, where Paul gives his own account of this momentous journey to Jerusalem, he says he went up ‘by revelation.’ Such an intimation of the Divine will at a crisis like this, in the first days of the faith, is what we should expect. On several occasions of Paul’s life a Divine revelation was vouchsafed to him,—on the Damascus journey (Acts 9); again, when he was about to carry the gospel from Asia into Europe (Acts 16:9); in the temple of Jerusalem, when he received the commandment to preach to the Gentile world (Acts 22:18); when the ship in which he was being conveyed a prisoner to Rome was sinking in the tempest (Acts 27:23; see also 2 Corinthians 12:1-9). In the midst of the confusion excited in the Church of Antioch by the teaching of the extreme party at Jerusalem, we may well suppose that the Divine voice came to Paul, instructing him to propose the mission to Jerusalem, still the residence of several, if not of all, the surviving apostles, and for that reason, as well as for its own sacred associations, regarded with deep reverence and veneration by the other churches.


Verse 3

Acts 15:3. And being brought on their way by the church. That is, attended by some of the leading members of the Antioch congregation, as a mark of honour and respect. This notice was inserted, no doubt, to show that the majority, at least, of the Christians in Antioch were opposed to the Jewish interpretation of the law, and held with the broader teaching of such men as Barnabas and Paul. The mention of the great joy caused to the brethren of Phenice and Samaria by the recital of the Gentile conversions is also inserted by the writer of the ‘Acts,’ to show that the general sympathy was on the side of those who urged Gentile freedom.


Verse 4

Acts 15:4. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders. The word translated here ‘were received,’ implies a cordial reception on the part of the apostles and elders of the Jerusalem community, who welcomed with affection Barnabas and Paul as the great missionaries of the faith.


Verse 5

Acts 15:5. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees. Some of these Pharisees must have been the companions of Paul years ago, when he studied the law under Gamaliel, and their animosity now was doubtless strengthened against the great Gentile missionary, when they remembered what he was then,—when they called to mind how, in those old days, he promised to be their future leader in the restoration of Judaism; and after all that had happened since, when both they and he had found in Jesus the long-promised Messiah, while they were only longing to raise and spiritualize the ancient religion and rites of Israel, he, on the other hand, was giving his lifework to show that the work and office of the chosen people was a thing of the past,—was labouring to merge the Church of Israel in the Church of the world,—was using all his vast learning and powers to prove that the found and cherished Messiah belonged to the Isles of the Gentiles as much as He did to the Holy Land of Promise,—that henceforth there must be no distinction between Jew and Gentile, but that both were equally sharers in the eternal promise, whether or no they kept the sacred law of Moses.

It was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. Even Jewish opinion was divided on the question, ‘how far the law was binding upon Gentile proselytes to Judaism.’ One school, and that a very influential one, maintained that circumcision was a rite that under no circumstances might be dispensed with. These rigid and uncompromising Jews were opposed to any overtures being made to Gentiles, and generally discouraged any proselytism. The famous teacher Schammai, it is said, drove any Gentile converts who might present themselves from his house. Another and more liberal school of thought endeavoured to make the way easy for proselytes to Judaism. These striking differences in the great Jewish schools at this period are well shown in Josephus (Ant. xx. 2), when, in the story of the conversion to Judaism of Izates King of Adiabene, the king’s teacher Ananias instructed him ‘that he might become a Jew without submitting to circumcision, and that if he worshipped God he performed the really important duty of the law;’ but another strict and zealous doctor, Eleazar, the same history tells us, said to King Izates, ‘How long wilt thou continue uncircumcised? hast thou not read what the law says concerning circumcision? art thou not aware of how great impiety thou art guilty by neglecting it?’ Another well-known saying of that stern and exclusive school was, ‘that all the uncircumcised went to hell;’ and another saying asserted ‘that no uncircumcised would rise at the last day.’

Rabbi Hillel, on the other hand, threw the weight of his great influence into the counsels of the more moderate Jews. ‘Love all men,’ once said this famous rabbi, ‘and bring all men into fellowship with the law; do not do to another what thou wouldst be unwilling should be done to thee. This is the whole law; everything else is only a comment on it.’ The teaching of Philo, in another celebrated centre of Jewish thought (Alexandria), was distinctly in favour of winning the stranger Gentile to Judaism, and of relaxing in his favour the more oppressive and burthensome requirements of the law.


Verse 6

Acts 15:6. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. Some seventeen or eighteen years had passed since the ascension of Jesus. Of the twelve apostles, one we know had gone through martyrdom to his rest; others were perhaps in distant parts; and round those who still remained in the old Jerusalem home, gradually had gathered a company of presbyters or elders, who shared their responsibilities and took part in their deliberations. In this first authoritative Council of the Church, most of the more distinguished and best known teachers of early Christianity took part. Peter, the leader of the little Church of the first days; and John, the friend of Christ, who probably survived all his brother apostles, and lived to give the sanction of his vast experience to the more elaborate church organization we find firmly established in the next century; James, the so-called brother of the Lord, the chief of the ascetic party in the early Church, the honoured representative of what may be termed the Jewish-Christian section; Paul and Barnabas, the great advocates for a broad Gentile Church, liberated from all Jewish restraints, and rites, and customs; Titus, the famous pupil of Paul, and afterwards his appointed successor in the chief government of the Cretan churches; Silas, another of Paul’s trusted counsellors; and Judas,—these, we know, were present, and took part with many other men, some known, some unknown, in these first public deliberations concerning the principles which for the future were to guide the rulers of the various churches rapidly springing up in the provinces of the vast Roman empire, and even in the still more distant and partially unknown East.


Verse 7

Acts 15:7. And when there had been much disputing. ‘Questioning’ or ‘debating’ would better represent the Greek word translated ‘disputing.’ It can easily be conceived that the mixed assembly contained many earnest advocates, both of the old Jewish party, and of what may be termed the new Gentile school of Christians. These had each their arguments to urge. The older apostles, Peter and John, supported by the powerful influence of James, well known and honoured by the most rigorous Hebrew Christians, with great moderation and wisdom arranged a common platform, on which the extreme men of both parties might act in unison, and together carry on the weighty work of their Divine Master.

Peter rose up, and said unto them. Only those speeches are reported which closed the debate, and which evidently expressed the general feeling of the majority of the Council. Peter’s words, of course, were exceedingly weighty, as the deliberate expression of opinion of one who had ever stood high in the Master’s friendship and confidence, and who, from the very first, had occupied a leading position among the brethren. There is no doubt that the burning ardour of Paul, and his marked success in the work, had influenced in no small degree the warm-hearted and enthusiastic Peter. It must have been a great effort for the older apostle, bound by so many Hebrew prejudices, to have pleaded so warmly, so generously, for Gentile freedom.

The noble self-denial which Peter showed, the brave and independent position which he took no this momentous occasion, and which probably cost him much of his influence among the stricter Jewish Christians, must be reckoned among the famous apostle’s chiefest titles to honour.

A good while ago. Better rendered ‘from ancient days.’ Peter’s reminder was a grave rebuke to the extreme Pharisee party, who probably had forgotten the case of Cornelius, referred to by the apostle, which had taken place some eight or ten years before.


Verse 8

Acts 15:8. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us. The Eternal, before whom the secrets of all hearts are open, was able to judge of the sincerity of these Gentiles. He testified that these hitherto despised strangers were acceptable in His sight by giving them the Holy Ghost, just as He had done to the Jews who had turned and believed in Jesus.


Verse 9

Acts 15:9. And put no difference between us and them. He no longer made any distinction between the Pagans who were converted and believed in the Lord Jesus, and the believing Israelite, after He had once purified their hearts by faith. The words here plainly allude to the case of the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10:15): What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.’

Purifying their hearts by faith. The Jews generally, whom Peter was addressing, held that the heathen were unclean so long as they were uncircumcised; but Peter showed them that God, by bestowing His glorious blessing upon uncircumcised believing Gentiles as fully and freely as He had done upon circumcised believing Jews, had ruled that faith was the true circumcision, the only real means of purification. ‘Through faith we obtain another, a new and clean heart, and God regards us, for the sake of Christ our Mediator, as altogether righteous and holy’ (Articles of Smalcald).


Verse 10

Acts 15:10. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples? To impose new obligations upon these Gentile churches founded by Paul and Barnabas would be nothing else than tempting or trying God by demanding new proofs of His will,—God, who in the case of the uncircumcised Cornelius had clearly signified His intention that the Gentiles who believed should be partakers with the Jews of all the blessings which, through the Redeemer, flowed into the Church. Now to determine that these Gentile believers must, before they could be admitted into the Church, submit to the burdensome Mosaic law, would be to throw a doubt upon God’s former decision, and the miraculous signs which accompanied it as the seal of Divine approval; which miraculous signs had again, in no small measure, been repeated during the Gentile mission of Barnabas and Paul.

Which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear. These words do not refer to circumcision only, but to the whole Mosaic law viewed as a condition of salvation—an insupportable burden. Peter’s words here are not a complaint against God as a severe Master, but are a touching confession of man’s weakness. His appeal here has been well paraphrased: ‘Men and brethren, speak the truth, and candidly tell me, have you kept the law?’ ‘When oxen,’ wrote Luther, ‘have long borne the yoke, and dragged heavy weights, all that they earn by their work beyond their daily food is to be struck on the head and be butchered: such is the experience of those who hope to be justified by the law. They are taken captive and burdened by a heavy yoke, and then, after they have long and painfully laboured to do the works of the law, all that they finally earn is to remain eternally poor and wretched servants.’


Verse 11

Acts 15:11. But we believe that, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we shall be saved, even as they. The believing Jew, who has tried to keep the law and failed, will be saved like the Gentile through the power of the blood of Jesus. ‘Their ground of trust is the same as ours, ours as theirs’ (Alford; and see Galatians 2:15 and following verses, where this train of thought is more fully carried out by St. Paul).


Verse 12

Acts 15:12. Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul. The weighty words of Peter produced a marked effect upon the Council; his plain, simple recital disposed even the extreme Jewish party to listen with attention, if not with favour, to the case of the Gentile apostles, who now proceeded to declare how God had blessed their work with the same miraculous signs of His favour as He had done when Peter received the centurion Cornelius into the Church of Christ.


Verse 13

Acts 15:13. And after they had held their peace, James answered. The discussion was closed by a very famous character in the early Church. James, the so-called brother of the Lord (see Galatians 1:19; Galatians 2:9), and the writer of the New Testament epistle which bears his name, who is generally supposed to have presided over this early Council, occupied a peculiar position of authority among the Jerusalem Christians. His history was a strange one. During the Lord’s earthly life, James, with the rest of ‘His brethren’ seems to have been a disbeliever in His mission. He was converted by that appearance of the Risen One specially related by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:7),—‘After that He was seen of James.’ At a comparatively early period of the Church’s history he appears to have been selected as the resident head of the Jerusalem community. He possessed two qualifications which marked him out for this peculiar distinction,—his relationship after the flesh to the risen Jesus, and his faithful observance of the Mosaic law and ordinances, to which he seems to have added a rigorous asceticism. Hegesippus (in Eusebius, H. E. ii. 23) tells us ‘he was holy from his mother’s womb; he drank no wine nor strong drink, neither did he eat flesh; no razor ever touched his head, he did not anoint himself with oil, he did not use the bath; he alone was allowed to enter into the holy place, for he wore no wool, but only fine linen; and he would enter into the temple alone, and be found there kneeling on his knees and asking forgiveness for the people.’ This traditionary account, although very ancient, must be accepted with considerable reservation. Still, his surname of the ‘just’ or ‘righteous,’ by which name he was generally known in the records of the early Church, is a witness that he was, if not the stem ascetic of the tradition above quoted, at least a rigid observer of the Mosaic ritual and law. It has been happily remarked by Dr. Schaff (History of the Apostolic Church, vol. i. book I), that ‘the influence of James was altogether necessary. He, if any, could gain the ancient chosen nation in a body. God placed such a representative of the purest form of Old Testament piety in the midst of the Jews to make their transition to the faith of the Messiah as easy as possible, even at the eleventh hour. But when they refused to hear this last messenger of peace, the Divine forbearance was exhausted, and the fearful, long-threatened judgment broke upon them. He was not to outlive the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Shortly before it (according to Hegesippus), in the year 69, after having borne powerful testimony to the Messiahship of Jesus, he was thrown down from the pinnacle of the temple and stored by the Pharisees. His last words were, “I beg of Thee, Lord God Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He was buried by the temple.’ Eusebius and also Josephus speak of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem being looked upon by many of the Jews as a punishment for what they had done to James the Just.

Saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me. In bringing the discussion to a close, James pointed out that Simon Peter had related how, years before, God had signified His good pleasure in regard to the Gentiles,—‘Out of these, too, would a people be chosen;’ and this determination of the Most High agreed with the words of the prophets—as, for instance, with the closing sayings of Amos, who wrote of the ultimate calling home of the Gentiles. As neither the ancient prophets nor the more recent declarations of the will of God—while plainly announcing this admission of many Gentiles into the pale which enclosed God’s people—said anything respecting the duty of observing the Mosaic rites and ceremonies, his view, as president of the Council, was: that these strangers ought not to be troubled with these burdens; only, for love’s sake not to offend too deeply the tender consciences of scrupulous Jews, with whom they would frequently come in contact, and at the same time to give them a general rule of life which would preserve them from the worst pollutions of the Pagan world around them, he recommended a very few general restrictive rules of life, which these Gentiles might honestly observe without breaking off or even endangering their relations with the world in which they lived and worked.


Verse 14

Acts 15:14. Simeon hath declared. James at the commencement of his speech uses this Jewish form of the name Simon, the original name of Peter. Simon seems to have been familiar to the Church of Jerusalem (see St. Luke 24:34). In this use of the Jewish term by which Peter was known, James identifies himself with the customs of the Hebrews—those many thousands of the Jews who believed and were zealous of the law (Acts 21:20). This is the last mention of Simon Peter in the Acts of the Apostles.


Verse 15

Acts 15:15. And to this agree the words of the prophets. After referring here to the work of God instanced by Peter, James now shows how completely the word of God in the writings of the prophets agreed with this work. The signs and wonders which accompanied the conversion of Cornelius, and subsequently crowned the missionary labours of Paul and Barnabas, were only the Divine seal of a great work long ago foreshadowed in the Hebrew prophecies.


Verse 16

Acts 15:16. I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down. This Amos prophecy speaks first of the fall of the Jewish Church, and the abolition of its temple service; it next conveys the promise that God will build a new church on the ruins of the old, and gather together in it all the Gentiles. It lastly sets forth that this church shall receive salvation only through the name of the Lord, which should be called upon by it, i.e. on which it would believe. Wordsworth remarks here that Amos declares in these words ‘that the true restoration of the tabernacle of David is to be found in the reception of the residue of the human family, and in the flowing in of all nations, whether Jew or Gentile, into the Church of Christ; and asks, “Is not this a Divine declaration on the true restoration of the Jews?”’


Verse 17

Acts 15:17. 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. The quotation from Amos 9:11-12, contained in Acts 15:16-17, is made freely from the Septuagint, which differs here considerably from the Hebrew text as we now possess it. The main difference is in the quotation contained in Acts 15:17, where, instead of the words, ‘that the remnant of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles upon whom my name is called,’ the Hebrew text has, ‘that they might possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the Gentiles that are called by my name.’ The LXX. here, as not unfrequently, give a paraphrase rather than a literal translation of the original, and regard ‘Edom’ (a common Rabbinical idea) as a general representative of those who were strangers to the God of Israel. No doubt the LXX. version was quoted by James on account of the many foreign Jews present at the Council; these would be familiar with the Greek Scriptures, not with the original Hebrew.

The grand words which closed the prophecy of Amos were here cited by James as foretelling the future calling of the Gentiles, and at the same time as containing no recognition of circumcision as a permanent rule, no mention of other Jewish ceremonies as binding upon these multitudes of redeemed strangers; indeed, in the various and repeated intimations by the Hebrew prophets that King Messiah should arise in coming days, and should gather into one fold Gentile as well as Jew, the Mosaic ceremonial law is completely ignored.


Verse 18

Acts 15:18. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. There are many variations of the Greek text here, but they all yield much the same meaning. On the whole, the translation of the best supported reading is—Acts 15:17, ‘Saith the Lord, who doeth these things,’ Acts 15:18, ‘which were known from the beginning of the world;’ in other words, James says, ‘What we now propose to sanction, namely, the extending the gospel summons to the heathen world without imposing upon them the hard yoke and burden of the Mosaic rites and ceremonial law,’ God has from the very beginning known. It is no unexpected event; it is simply carrying into effect an eternal decree of the ever blessed Trinity.


Verse 19

Acts 15:19. Wherefore my sentence is. Better rendered, ‘My decision,’—that is, ‘I for my part decide we ought not to burden them,’ etc. There is no authoritative judgment here on the part of James. It is simply a weighty opinion of the presiding elder; an opinion which, coinciding with the already expressed judgment of Peter in favour of the Gentile mission, was finally adopted by the majority of the Council, and taken as the basis of their official decree.

That we trouble not them, viz. by imposing upon these foreign converts burdensome rites and ceremonies, which would effectually separate them from the peoples among whom they live, and would render impossible the ordinary life either in the city or country.


Verse 20

Acts 15:20. But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, etc. On the full meaning of the famous injunctions embodied in the decree of the Council, see Excursus at the end of the chapter, where they are discussed at length.


Verse 21

Acts 15:21. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him. This is no figure of speech, but a simple expression of what was actually the case at that time in the Roman empire. There were colonies of Jews in all important cities in the East and West, and in each of these, one or more synagogues existed, where every Sabbath-day the law of Moses was read. In addition, then, to the graver reasons (see the Excursus above referred to) which rendered the decrees of the Council so needful to secure a higher moral life among the followers of Jesus living among the dissolute subjects of the empire, this verse assigns another plea for their enforcement. The Jewish Christian, constantly hearing the things specified in the decree, forbidden in the Mosaic law read by them so reverently every Sabbath-day, would be bitterly offended if their fellow-believers indulged in things they were so sternly warned against. The fathers of the Council hoped that if the Gentile Christians carefully abstained from acts which the Jews regarded as causing pollution, gradually the Christian church and the Christian synagogue, both acknowledging the same Messiah, both living in the same glorious hopes, would forget the old differences of origin, and in the end would form one fold under one Shepherd, Jesus Christ.


Verse 22

Acts 15:22. Then pleased it the apostles and olden, with the whole church. Or better translated, ‘Then it seemed good to the apostles,’ etc. The Greek word ἔδοξε, rendered ‘it seemed good,’ is frequently used in classic Greek in the formal resolutions of any popular assembly, and hence the decrees of any such assembly are termed δόγματα whence our word ‘dogma.’ The decrees of this primitive Council were agreed to by the united voice of the whole Church. The decree, however, ran in the name of the apostle and elder brethren only; see the note on the reading of the older Greek MSS. in the next verse (23).

To send chosen men. There is a slight irregularity in the cases of the participles here in the original Greek (see amended translation).

Judas surnamed Barnabas. Some have supposed this envoy of the Jerusalem Church was a brother of that Joseph-Barsabas who, with Matthias, had been proposed as a candidate for the apostleship (Acts 1:23), both being presumably sons of one Sabas (bar being the Hebrew for son). Nothing, however, is definitely known concerning him, except that in the early Church he held the rank of ‘a prophet’ (see note on Acts 15:32); not necessarily merely a foreteller of future events, but one especially gifted with the power of preaching. Judas was esteemed one of the chief men among the brethren.

Silas. Well known in after years as the fellow-missionary and friend of St. Paul (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:19). It is not improbable that he was identical with that Silvanus by whom the First Epistle of St. Peter was carried to the churches of Asia. Tradition speaks of him as subsequently Bishop of Corinth.

Chief men among the brethren. They were certainly among the chief men of the Jerusalem community, and their selection indicates an especial wish on the part of the Christian governing body at Jerusalem to show honour to the Antioch Church and the increasing Gentile communions.


Verse 23

Acts 15:23. And they wrote letters by them after this manner. The word ‘letters,’ printed in the English version in italics, is superfluous; it does not appear in the original Greek. There was only one official document sent round, a faithful transcript of which St. Luke has no doubt given us.

The apostles and elders and brethren. An important variation in the text of the original Greek occurs here. The older MSS., with the exception of Codex E. (Laudianus), omit καὶ οἰ, ‘and,’ before the word ‘brethren’ the verse, then, must be read thus: ‘The apostles and the elder brethren,’ or: ‘The brethren which are elders, sent to the brethren, etc. . . . greeting.’ Upon this reading of the older MSS. Wordsworth remarks: ‘(1) Paul and Barnabas are said to go up to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem concerning this question, Acts 15:2. (2) The apostles and elders are said to have met together to consider this matter, Acts 15:6. (3) Paul is said to have gone through the cities, delivering to them to keep the decrees determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem, Acts 16:4. This triple mention of apostles and elders, without the addition of any other party, is significant. It seems to indicate that the apostles and elders constituted the Council, as far as the deliberative voice and definitive sentence were concerned; and therefore the decree was promulgated in their names.’

Unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia. This geographical notice of the peoples mentioned specially in the decree of the Council gives us some idea how widely the preaching of Paul and his companions had extended, and how great had been the harvest of the Lord already in those early days. The mention of Syria here gives us an insight into the activity of the missionary enterprise of the Antioch Christians. Successful missions had been carried on through that great and rich province, of which we have no record in the ‘Acts,’—missions, doubtless, conducted by men of the school of Paul and Barnabas; in Cilicia, too, the native country of Paul, congregations of believers in the Crucified had sprung up, and apparently were already flourishing communities.


Verse 24

Acts 15:24. Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls. These zealots for the old law and the Jewish rites came evidently from Jerusalem, the headquarters of the new faith, and had given out that they were commissioned by the leaders of the Church there. Now the assembled Council, in their authoritative decree which they sent round, openly disavowed these disturbers of the Gentile churches.

Saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law. These words are omitted in most of the older MSS. They are doubtless an interpolation by some early scribe, who desired to specify in detail the points especially selected by these Jerusalem Jews in their endeavour to unsettle the minds of these Gentile Christians. They are taken, of course, from Acts 15:5 of this chapter; their omission, however, in no way detracts from the force of the present passage.


Verse 25

Acts 15:25. To send chosen men unto you. The Greek words should be translated here as in Acts 15:22. In some of the older authorities here, the irregularity in the cases of the participles above noticed does not appear.

Our beloved Barnabas and Paul. Commentators remark here on the unusual order of the names of the two apostles, Barnabas standing first. It is an indirect testimony to the scrupulous accuracy of the writer of the Acts; Barnabas in this official letter standing before Paul, because Paul had spent but little time in Jerusalem, whilst Barnabas among the Christians there had long been a known and honoured leader.


Verse 26

Acts 15:26. Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is well said by Wordsworth, that ‘the first Christians were not wont to praise each other in public, but that on the present occasion such a witness, especially to St. Paul, was seasonable and appropriate. It was a reply to the charges of the judges against him; it was a public declaration on the part of the other apostles at Jerusalem, that St. Paul’s claims to Divine revelations and to an apostolic mission were true, and that there was no difference of opinion or disparity in dignity between him and the Twelve who had seen the Lord on earth.’ These noble men were martyrs in will though their lives had not yet been laid down; they were well carrying out the command, which has been well and tersely expressed, ‘Die at the post of duty, but gain souls for the Lamb.’


Verse 27

Acts 15:27. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas. These two well-known men, held in high honour by the Church, were to testify to the genuineness of the letter; by this means the Antioch Christians would have oral as well as written testimony. ‘These notable envoys,’ Stier says, ‘would certify that the letter had actually proceeded from a unanimous resolve of the Church at Jerusalem, and that Barnabas and Saul were thus honoured and beloved there; they would give fuller information respecting the decrees, and answer every inquiry that might be made, as living epistles confirmed by the letter, and confirming it in return; and thus by their word they should restore again the harmony which those unsent members of their Church had disturbed.’


Verse 28

Acts 15:28. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us. To us inspired by the Holy Ghost, to us His ministers and organs for declaring the truth—a mode of expression not uncommon in the Old Testament, where we read: ‘The people believed the Lord and His servant Moses,’ Exodus 14:31; ‘The sword of the Lord and of Gideon,’ 7:18-20; ‘The people feared the Lord and Samuel,’ 1 Samuel 12:18. This expression, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us,’ is ‘an apostolic statement of the true doctrine of inspiration. The apostles were inspired by God, but they did not lose their personal identity. The human element was not absorbed into the Divine, but it was spiritualized and transfigured by it’ (Wordsworth).

‘The decrees of the Council of Jerusalem were not, as the canons of other ecclesiastical assemblies, human, but very divine ordinances; for which cause the churches were far and wide commanded everywhere to see them kept no otherwise than if Christ Himself had personally on earth been the author of them.

‘The cause why that Council was of so great authority and credit above all others which have been held since then, is expressed in those words, “Unto the Holy Ghost and to us it hath seemed good.” . . . Wherefore, inasmuch as the Council of Jerusalem did chance to consist of men so enlightened, it had authority greater than were meet for any other council besides to challenge, wherein no such persons are’ (Hooker, Ecc. Polity, Book viii. chap. vi.).


Verse 29

Acts 15:29. That ye abstain from meats offered to idols. The articles in the letter of the Council are identical with the points mentioned by James in his speech. They are discussed in the Excursus.

Fare ye well The Greek word rendered ‘fare ye well’ is equivalent to the Latin ‘valete.’ It was the customary conclusion to letters among the Greeks. See the epistle of Claudius Lysias to Festus, Acts 23:30.


Verse 30

Acts 15:30. So when they were dismissed. These words probably imply a formal and solemn leave- taking on the part of the Jerusalem Church, accompanied with certain religious services.


Verse 31

Acts 15:31. Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation. The consolation over which they rejoiced was not merely that a dispute which threatened such grave consequences was so happily terminated, but because the Church in council had ruled that the Gentiles, if they accepted Christianity, were not to be subjected to the painful yoke of the Mosaic ritual and ordinances. To those far-sighted men who hoped for a world-wide Church, the decree removed a bar which must effectually have hindered any advance on the part of the Church of Christ beyond the lines of Judaism.


Verse 32

Acts 15:32. Judas and Silas being prophets. In the Church of the first days existed a certain number of men known as ‘prophets.’ We hear of them, by chance it seems, but still frequently, in the varied writings of the New Testament. It seems in that age, when the foundation-stones of the mighty temple of Christianity were being laid in so many lands, that hundreds, it may possibly have been thousands of inspired men were helping forward the Master’s work, and yet of most of these all record has disappeared. ‘Their voices smote the air, and did their work, and died away, and we catch but the faintest echoes of them. Their words were written on the sand, and the advancing waves of time have washed away all or nearly all the traces of what was once as awful as the handwriting on the wall’ (Plumptre).

What now do we know of this strange gift of prophecy, so soon taken away from men? It was no mere power of foretelling future events; the chief characteristic feature of these prophets of early Christianity was that the prophets possessed a strange, winning power of words, which had a weighty effect on their hearers. They were, then, earnest, impassioned preachers, who possessed a supernatural insight into the hearts of men; they seemed to know what was in their minds, they read their most secret thoughts (1 Corinthians 14:24-25). With these mighty gifts they also were endowed in many cases with a power of foretelling future events (see Acts 11:27-30; Acts 21:4; Acts 21:10-11; Acts 20:23); but from the general tenor of the New Testament writings, this prophetic gift was apparently little exercised by these servants of the Lord. Among the influences at work in those first years of care and anxiety, when Christianity, struggling against the opposition of the whole world, still advanced and ever advanced with strange, resistless power, unaided by any human help, must be reckoned the Divine gift of prophecy in this extended sense; but few details of this power have been preserved, hardly any record of its use. Scattered notices only remain to tell us how numerous in the first days were those gifted men known as ‘prophets in the Church,’ and how constantly they made use of the ‘talent’ entrusted to them; but for us it is in fact a lost page in the history of the Apostolic Church. (For a more elaborate discussion on this interesting question, see Professor Plumptre’s essay, in his Biblical Studies, on the prophets of the New Testament; and on the whole question of prophesying, Dean Stanley, Lectures XIX. XX., On the Jewish Church.)


Verse 33

Acts 15:33. They were let go in peace. Better rendered, ‘They were dismissed with peace;’ that is, once more, in a solemn meeting, the Antioch brethren took leave of the Jerusalem envoys with prayer and ‘with peace,’ the formula customary at parting (see Mark 5:34; Luke 7:50; Luke 8:48; Acts 16:36). Judas and Silas both returned to Jerusalem to give account of their mission at Antioch, and Silas returned soon to Antioch to be with Paul; won over, no doubt, to a deep admiration of the single-hearted apostle by his earnestness and fervour, this prophet of the old mother Church attached himself henceforth to the fortunes of Paul.


Verse 34

Acts 15:34. Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still. This verse is wanting in the older MSS., and in many of the chief versions. It is evidently a marginal gloss, originally inserted to explain how Silas, notwithstanding the statement of Acts 15:33, was at hand (Acts 15:40) conveniently for Paul to choose him as companion in travel.


Verse 35

Acts 15:35. Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord. During this residence of Paul in the Syrian metropolis the dispute took place between Paul and Peter related in the Galatian letter, Galatians 2:11-16. This is not told here. The writer of the ‘Acts’ did not omit this episode because he wished to pass over in silence this grave difference of opinion between the two great Christian leaders; the purpose of this early church history was not to record the principal events in the lives of either Peter or Paul, but simply to tell the story of the foundation of the Christian Church, and how in the first thirty years the doctrines of Jesus were carried by the first missionary preachers from Jerusalem to Antioch, and from Antioch to Rome. The dispute in question was followed by no important consequences. The sorrowful incident is thus graphically related (in the Life of Paul, Conybeare and Howson, chap. 7): ‘At this time certain Jewish brethren came “from James,” who presided over the Church at Jerusalem. Whether they were really sent on some mission by the Apostle James, or we are merely to understand that they came from Jerusalem, they brought with them their old Hebrew repugnance against social intercourse with the uncircumcised; and Peter in their society began to vacillate. In weak compliance with their prejudices, he “withdrew and separated himself” from those whom he had lately treated as brethren and equals in Christ. Just as in an earlier part of his life he had first asserted his readiness to follow his Master to death, and then denied Him through fear of a maid-servant; so now, after publicly protesting against the notion of making any difference between the Jew and the Gentile, and against laying on the neck of the latter a yoke which the former had never been able to bear, we find him contradicting his own principles, and, through fear of those who were of the circumcision, giving all the sanction of his example to the introduction of caste into the Church of Christ. . . . Other Jewish Christians, as was naturally to be expected, were led away by his example; and even Barnabas, the chosen companion of the Apostle of the Gentiles, who had been a witness and an actor in all the great transactions in Cyprus, in Pisidia, and Lycaonia,—even Barnabas the missionary was “carried away” with the dissimulation of the rest. When St. Paul was a spectator of such inconsistency, and perceived both the motive in which it originated and the results to which it was leading, he would have been a traitor to his Master’s cause if he had hesitated (to use his own emphatic words) to rebuke Peter “before all,” and to “withstand him to the face.”‘

How long the division between Peter and Paul continued we know not, but it is ‘very pleasant to turn to a passage at the conclusion of one of St. Peter’s letters, where, in speaking of the long- suffering of our Lord, and of the prospect of sinless happiness in the world to come, he alludes in touching words to the epistles of our beloved brother Paul. We see how entirely past differences are forgotten, how all earthly misunderstandings are absorbed and lost in the contemplation of Christ and the eternal life.’ Respecting St. Peter’s visit to and connection with Antioch, there is an ancient and well-known tradition which represents St. Peter as having held the see of Antioch for seven years before that of Rome. The tradition, however, cannot be said to be supported by what we know of the history of the apostle.


Verse 37

The Separation of Barnabas and PaulThe Second Missionary Journey of St. Paul—Asia Minor, Acts 15:37 to Acts 16:8.

Acts 15:37. And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. Barnabas seems at once to have fallen in with the wishes of Paul, and to have consented to visit again with him those Gentile congregations they had gathered together in their first missionary journey; but Barnabas advised that they should take with them Mark again, as their trusted friend and companion. There is no doubt that Barnabas was influenced by the relationship of Mark to him; still, the conduct of Barnabas on this occasion is strictly in accordance with the rest of the acts of his life, so far as we are acquainted with them. The old kindness of heart which prompted him in old days to seek out Saul, the former persecutor of the followers of Jesus, and to plead his cause with the Jewish Christian leaders at Jerusalem, now induced him to forget Mark’s former faint-heartedness, and to welcome him again as a fellow-labourer in the Master’s cause.

In the all-seeing wisdom of God, the stern severity of Paul and the gentle love of Barnabas, on the one side seem to have deeply humbled, and on the other to have preserved from despondency, the hitherto weak and vacillating spirit of the young disciple, who became, under the tutelage of Barnabas, subsequently one of the brave Christian leaders of the first days.


Verse 38

Acts 15:38. But Paul thought not good to take him with them. ‘We may well believe that Paul’s own mouth gave originally the character to this sentence’ (Alford).

Who departed from them from Pamphylia. See Acts 13:13, where this backsliding of Mark is briefly mentioned. Some have tried to excuse the desertion of Mark by supposing it was on account of illness or weak health, but Paul would never have censured him so severely had this really been the cause of his leaving them. No doubt the young man shrank from the toils and dangers of the work, and such conduct one like Paul could never bear or even find excuses for. It has been suggested with some reason that the dispute between Peter and Paul, in which Barnabas even was carried away by the party opposing Paul, had left behind a coolness between the two former friends; and on this account Paul was less likely to condone any former offence or weakness shown by Barnabas’ nephew. The strict and truthful accuracy of the writer of these ‘Acts’ is shown by his faithful record of the parting between the two friends Barnabas and Paul. It was necessary for his history of the first beginnings of Christianity to show how the founders of the Gentile missions first separated and chose independent fields of labour; therefore, in his work, the writer does not shrink from telling the story of this sorrowful dispute. Both those noble men seemed to have erred—the one perhaps too harsh, the other too forgiving; neither chose to yield his opinion, and so they parted. The New Testament writers, faithful and true, tell us but of One Teacher whose love and charity never failed.


Verse 39

Acts 15:39. And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other. Neither would yield; they separated for ever. This is the last mention of the generous-hearted Barnabas in the ‘Acts.’ However, if the two old friends and devoted servants of God parted in anger, they soon forgot all bitterness; for, in the first Corinthian letter, Paul speaks in high terms of Barnabas as of one busy in the Master’s service, while in later days he writes even of Mark as his fellow-labourer, as of one who was profitable to the ministry, and one of the causes of his (Paul’s) comfort (Philemon 1:24; 2 Timothy 4:11; Colossians 4:10-11).

And so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus. ‘If, as the shores of Asia lessened upon his sight, the spirit of prophecy had entered into the heart of the weak disciple, who had turned back when his hand was on the plough, and who had been judged, by the chiefest of Christ’s captains, unworthy thenceforward to go forth with him to the work, how wonderful would he have thought it that by the lion symbol in future ages he was to be represented among men! How woeful, that the war-cry of his name should so often reanimate the rage of the soldier on those very plains where he himself had failed in the courage of the Christian, and so often dye with fruitless blood that very Cypriot Sea over whose waves, in repentance and shame, he was following the Son of Consolation!’ (Ruskin, Stones of Venice, ‘The Sea Stories,’ chap. 4).

In later times, we know Mark became once more the loved and trusted companion of Paul (see above for New Test. ref.). We find him with Peter at Babylon (1 Peter 5:13). In the closing days of Paul’s life, he seems to have been with Timothy at Ephesus (2 Timothy 4:11). That he was long the trusted friend and secretary of Peter was the undisputed tradition of the early Church. Papias, writing very early in the second century, records how John the elder said: ‘Mark, being the interpreter of Peter, wrote down exactly whatever things he remembered, but yet not in the order in which Christ either spoke or did them, for he was neither a hearer nor a follower of the Lord’s, but he was afterwards, as I (Papias) said, a follower of Peter.’ Another record speaks of Mark as Peter’s companion at Rome. Subsequently, church historians relate how Mark founded (probably organized) the Church of Alexandria, and became its bishop, and there endured a martyr’s death.


Verse 40

Acts 15:40. And Paul chose Silas. Silas was one of the deputies chosen to accompany Paul and Barnabas by the Jerusalem Council. He was eminently fitted for the work to which Paul appointed him. A leader in the Jerusalem Church, and one who stood high in the opinion of the apostles and elders of the mother Church, he was able, from his own personal knowledge, to bear his testimony to the perfect accord which reigned between Paul and the older apostles.

Being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God. The feeling of the majority of the Antioch Christians in the matter of the dispute between Paul and Barnabas was evidently with the former; for, when Paul had selected his companion, and was ready to start on his great work, he was especially commended by the brethren to the grace of God, thus receiving a solemn official sanction to his mission.


Verse 41

Acts 15:41. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches. Nothing in detail is known of the foundation and early history of these congregations. Their existence, however, at this early period, testifies to the marvellous and rapid spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ during the first years which followed the Ascension.

 


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Bibliography Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Acts 15:4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/scn/acts-15.html. 1879-90.

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