ACTS CHAPTER 15.
The Convention at Jerusalem. Acts 15, 1-35.
The question about circumcision: V.1. And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. V.2. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain other of them should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. V.3. And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. V.4. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. The Christian congregations of Palestine and Syria were now enjoying a season of external peace and prosperity, and therefore Satan, as a sower of discord, determined to create internal dissension, thus working a most severe form of harm. There had been some dissatisfaction among those of the circumcision in Jerusalem at the course of Peter in entering into the house of Cornelius, chap. 11, 2. 3. At that time the matter had been adjusted satisfactorily when Peter had narrated the facts pertaining to the case. But it seems that certain members of the Church had since grown restive once more, their Jewish prejudices being unable to feel satisfied concerning conditions. Some of these purposely, as it seems, made the journey down to Antioch in Syria, and not only expressed it as their opinion, but, began to teach, they made every effort to force their teaching on the brethren of the congregation, declaring that unless they received circumcision according to the usage of Moses, they could not he saved. They thus made circumcision, an Old Testament sacrament, a condition of salvation in the New Testament. Naturally the matter caused a very heated controversy and discussion, since Paul and Barnabas could not possibly keep silence at such an open attack of their work in Antioch, on Cyprus, and in Asia Minor. The Judaizing teachers, then, mere responsible for the threatening discord; they began the questioning and disputing. It is difficult to realize the distress and confusion which must have followed and racked the minds of the brethren while the controversy was in progress. With such bitter emphasis did the men from Judea insist upon their point that Paul and Barnabas did not succeed in silencing them. So the congregation finally resolved and determined that Paul and Barnabas and some other men out of their midst should make the trip up to Jerusalem to settle this question of dispute, if possible. Paul and Barnabas were thus commissioned by, they acted as delegates of, the congregation at Antioch. Among their companions was Titus, Gal. 2, 1. 3. Note: This procedure of the northern congregation was not an appeal to a higher tribunal nor even to a representative body, but simply a mission or delegation of one congregation, in itself independent and autonomous, to another of the same rank. Having been sped on their journey by their congregation, very probably in this manner, that the members accompanied them out for some distance, an action which both emphasized the solemnity of the occasion and the interest which the brethren took in the matter, the little party slowly traveled down along the coast through Phenicia, then cutting across Samaria toward the southeast. Wherever they found brethren, they narrated to them in full the conversion of the Gentiles as they had witnessed and experienced it. And in all places they found sympathetic listeners, to whom their recital of the wonderful mercy of the Lord brought great gladness. As they neared Jerusalem, they left behind them a string of congregations where the hearts were uplifted to the Lord in pure joy over the wonder of His redemption to all men. Upon their arrival at Jerusalem, Paul and his companions were received by the entire congregation, as well as by the apostles then present in the capital and by the elders of the local body, and they rendered a complete report, telling how many and how great things God had done with them as His instruments of grace, and on their behalf, in giving testimony to the Word as it was preached by them.
The demand of the former Pharisees and Peter’s answer: V.5. but there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, that it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the Law of Moses. V.6. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. V.7. And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us that the Gentiles by my mouth should heart he word of the Gospel and believe. V.8. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; v.9. and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. V.10. Now, therefore, why tempt ye God to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? V.11. But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. V.12. Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. Matters seemed to he adjusting themselves very nicely, when opposition developed. Some men that had formerly been members of the sect of the Pharisees had been overcome by the evidence of the Gospel and had accepted Jesus in true faith. But some of their former ideas concerning the necessity of keeping the Law persisted. These now arose in the meeting and stated with great emphasis their opinion, namely, that it was absolutely necessary for all the converts among the Gentiles to he circumcised and to observe the Law of Moses, that is, the ceremonial law, as it concerned the people of God in the Old Testament. It is the same false and dangerous doctrine which has cropped up in the Church at all times, namely, that the keeping of the Law is essential for meriting salvation. This was a very serious objection, a discordant note in the harmony of the meeting, so serious, in fact, that the assembly adjourned to meet once more at another time. When the convention, the apostles and elders, together with the entire congregation, vv. 12. 22. 25, assembled again, it was with the express purpose to look closely into this matter, to reach a definite conclusion with regard to the threatening dissension. The meeting did not open very auspiciously. There was a heated debate with many pointed questions, the Pharisaic party insisting upon having its opinions accepted. But after this discussion had been going on for some time, Peter arose and took the floor. In a perfectly cool and objective way he presented his views. Addressing the assembly as “men and brethren,” he reminded them that they had found out, and were therefore fully aware of the fact, that from the earliest days, almost from the founding of the Church, in fact, God had chosen that by his, Peter’s, mouth the heathen should hear the Word of the Gospel and come to faith. He referred to the demonstration given by the Lord in the case of Cornelius. At that time God, who knows the hearts and minds of all men, chap. 1,24, had borne testimony in favor of the Gentiles, by giving them the Holy Ghost, just as He had given Him to the apostles and the other Jewish disciples. God had made no distinction, no discrimination between Jews and Gentiles, hut had given to the latter the full purity of heart by faith. Though they were uncircumcised, the Spirit had been granted them, just as well as to those of the circumcision. The outward purification which attended the Jewish rite is here contrasted with the full and complete purification of the heart which follows belief in Jesus the Savior. “Therefore this faith of which the apostle speaks is not a simple knowledge of the story, but it is a strong, powerful work of the Holy Ghost which changes the hearts.” 55) Since these things were true, Peter argues, why should they tempt God, why should they put Him to the proof, why should they try out His patience and forbearance, by an intimation as though He had admitted unworthy members into His Church? Why should they want to lap upon the necks of these people, whom God had admitted without the Jewish rite, a yoke, the yoke of the ceremonial law, which neither their fathers nor they themselves had been able to bear? The detailed injunctions governing even the minutest acts of everyday life had ever proved a heavy burden to all the Jews, and it would be wrong to transmit this burden to the Gentiles. And this argument bore all the more force since they all, both Jews and Gentiles, hoped to be saved through grace, through the unmerited grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Every rule and order that emphasized merits and works on the part of man would naturally detract from the glory of the free grace of the Lord, and would make salvation itself a matter of doubt. The arguments of Peter were unanswerable and caused the opponents to become and remain silent. Moreover, the general debate was not again resumed, for now Barnabas and Paul took the floor, and the entire multitude listened to them as they narrated how many and how great signs and miracles God had performed among the heathen through them. Note that Luke here again places the name of Barnabas first. It was Paul that had spoken to the sorcerer Elymas; it was Paul that had healed the lame man, at Lystra; and it naturally fell to Barnabas to recount these facts. By confirming the Word of the Gospel among the Gentiles in this way, when Paul and Barnabas were inviting the heathen and organizing them into congregations without laying upon them the demands of Mosaic legislation, the Lord gave proof of His approbation of the work and emphasized the Gospel of free grace in Christ Jesus.
The proposal of James: V.13. And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: v.14. Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. v.15. and to this agree the words of the prophets, as it is written, v.16. After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up, v.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. V.18. Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world. V.19. Wherefore my sentence is that we trouble not them which from among the Gentiles a returned to God, v.20. but that we write unto them that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. V.21. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogs every Sabbath-day. By the time Barnabas and Paul had finished their rehearsal of the success which attended their labors, the hearers could not have had any other impression but that the conversion of the Gentiles was a work of God, and that their discipleship, even without the observance of the ceremonial law, must necessarily he acceptable to Him. No one else, therefore, having asked for the privilege of the floor, James, that is, James the Just, the brother of the Lord, one of the pillars of the congregation at Jerusalem, according to common report its head after the removal of the apostles, arose and added the evidence of prophetical prediction to that of the facts presented by the previous speakers. Requesting the audience to listen carefully, he opened his remarks with a reference to the report of Peter: Simeon has explained in what manner God at first, from the beginning, resolved to gain a people out of the Gentiles unto His name, for the glory and praise of His holy name, and called by His name, as His children. With this fact agree the words of the prophets. Although James quotes only one of the prophets, he may either have had in mind the hook of the prophets or implied that the other prophets make similar statements. He quotes the words Amos 9, 11. 12 according to the Greek translation. There the Lord had promised to return after this, at the time fixed by Him in the future. He would then build anew, erect once more, the tent of David which had been destroyed, laid low. He does not speak of the Old Testament Church as the house of David, as in other places, but as a tent, a booth, a hut that had decayed and fallen into ruins. But this hut which was lying on the ground as though struck down by a storm the Lord wanted to build anew and to set upright again as the tabernacle of the New Testament. This rebuilding of the ruins took place in and through Jesus Christ, in order that those that remained of the people should seek the Lord most diligently, that the rest of men, that is, all the heathen, without respect of persons and of works, all upon whom His name is pronounced in the preaching of the Gospel, should strive to possess the blessings of the Lord. It was this Lord that was doing all these things, whose manner of performing them could not be gainsaid. For He was not in the habit of performing any of His works in a haphazard manner, but had worked according to definite plans from the beginning of the world. And He had made these facts known of old, from the beginning of the world. On the basis of this clear prophetical statement, whose fulfillment no one could deny after hearing the reports made to the assembly, James now ventured an opinion, not necessarily as the president of the meeting, but as a speaker that presents the result of his deliberations in the form of a resolution. He offered the motion that they should not trouble or molest in any way those people among the Gentiles that were turning to God, and had been accepted by Him in faith. But he suggested that letters be sent to them warning them against the contamination of idol worship, against committing fornication, against partaking of meat of strangled animals, and against eating blood, in the worship of idols was included idolatrous feasts, where meat was served that had been sacrificed to false gods. To some extent, also, the sins against the Sixth Commandment were practiced in connection with the temples of the idols, though these sins were prevalent otherwise as well, nameless breaches of the Christian law of purity taking place as a matter of fact. That is the will of God to the Christians of all times, that they avoid fornication and all uncleanness, and that they remain unspotted from the world and its lusts, including the unclean, idolatrous joys and delights of the world. But that James wanted to add the prohibition concerning the eating of animals that had been stunned or strangled without the loss of blood, and that of blood itself, Lev. 17, 13; Deut. 12, 16. 23; 15, 23, was done for another reason. These practices had been forbidden in the Old Testament and were considered especially disgusting by the Jews, an abomination before the Lord. And the Jewish Christians had not yet been able to throw off this feeling of loathing and disgust, in the opinion of James, therefore, the Gentile Christians might well be asked to have some consideration for their Jewish brethren in this case. Christian charity demanded as much, especially where meals were eaten in common. James added, in concluding his speech, that Moses from ancient times had men in all cities that proclaimed him in the synagogs, since he was read in the services on every Sabbath, that is, his books were read and explained in the services. The chances were, therefore, that these Mosaic customs would be well known everywhere, and their non-observance might cause offense, as though the way of salvation in the New Testament were different from that of the Old. Then, also, there was danger that the intercourse between Jewish and Gentile Christians would cease entirely unless the latter would be willing, for charity’s sake, to observe a decree which would make brotherly communion possible. And finally, those that still clung to the outward observance of the Mosaic customs need not be apprehensive, since Moses was at this time still being read. James knew very well that this would change in time, but did not propose to force the issue by tactless haste. Note: The draught which James proposed was not a Compromise resolution, as has been stated. It was not his opinion that the heathen Christians should indeed not be burdened with the entire Law of Moses, but only with certain ordinances. Even the smallest particle of the Mosaic Law, laid upon them as a condition of salvation, would have taken away the faith of the Christians in the free grace and mercy of the Savior. His suggestion was merely a proposal for the sake of Christian order, not to burden believing hearts, but to simplify the problem of uniting two races in the same congregations without the danger of continual friction. These directions did not concern the way of salvation, for this the Gentile Christians had learned from the Gospel.
The resolutions of the assembly: V.22. Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole Church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas, surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren; v.23. and they wrote letters by them after this manner: the apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia. V.24. Forasmuch as we have heard that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the Law, to whom we gave no such commandment, v.25. it seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, v.26. men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. V.27. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. V.28. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: v.29. that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication; from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. The speech of James ended the discussion. The opposition could not hold out against this clear presentation. The manner employed by this assembly serves as an example to this day. If there are differences of opinion in a congregation or in a church-body, especially such as concern some Christian doctrine, it is a matter for the Christians to discuss and settle in meetings, in congregational or synodical assemblies. And the Word of God decides all questions. When a point of doctrine has been plainly set forth from Scriptures, then all good Christians will gladly consent to the truth and repudiate error. The matter being settled so far as Jerusalem was concerned, the apostles and elders, together with the entire congregation, decided to choose men out of their own midst and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas: The election resulted in the choice of two men that were prominent among the brethren, namely, Judas Barsabas and Silas (the latter being identical either with the Silvanus of 2 Cor. l, 19 or with Tertius, Rom. 16, 22). These representatives, or delegates, of the congregation were furnished with proper credentials, or letters of identification, addressed not only to the congregation at Antioch, but also to those throughout Syria and Cilicia, the provinces where the controversy was probably known by this time. The apostles and elders and brethren disclaimed, first of all, any and all responsibility for the words of those men that, claiming to come from the congregation at Jerusalem, had disquieted and unsettled the brethren with their teaching and disturbed their souls by the unauthorized statements concerning the necessity of circumcision and the need of keeping the Law. These false teachers had acted without authority and commandment of the mother congregation, altogether in an arbitrary fashion. Therefore the assembly at Jerusalem, represented by the senders of the letter, having come to one opinion and being now of the same mind, had decided to elect men and to send them to Antioch with their own delegates, Paul and Barnabas. The two latter men are distinguished highly and praised as men that hare offered up their souls, risked their lives, for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the persecutions which had come upon them these men had, to all intents and purposes: been martyrs, though the Lord had spared their lives. Such men are needed in the Church to this day, missionaries that are willing to offer themselves, all their gifts, abilities, and powers, to the service of the Lord. Judas and Silas were the delegates from Jerusalem in this matter, and they were well qualified to explain, without the suspicion of prejudice, whatever in the written document might appear obscure to any one. And then the resolution is given. It had seemed the right and proper thing to the Holy Ghost and to the entire congregation, through whom the Holy Ghost had made known His will. The Holy Spirit, speaking though the Word, was really the Author of the decree, but the congregation, in voicing His pleasure, showed that they were altogether willing to accept the decision, although they themselves belonged to the Jewish race. No extra burden was to be placed upon the Gentile Christians; they were not to be made subject to the Law of Moses, but they should feel themselves obliged to yield to this necessary rule, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from the eating of blood, from the flesh of strangled animals, and from fornication, from sexual vice in any form. The resolution was thus given practically as proposed by James. In accepting this charge, the Gentile Christians would in part be carrying out the will of the Lord as contained in the Moral Law and in part the demands of brotherly love. In any event, it would be well with them, because the peace and concord which would thereby be established in the various Christian communities would be to their own interest. The letter closed with the customary farewell greeting. Note: The so-called Council of Jerusalem was in no sense a general council, and offers no basis for hierarchical claims. “The so-called Council of Jerusalem in no way resembled the general councils of the Church either in its history, its constitution, or its object. It was not a convention of ordained delegates, but a meeting of the entire church of Jerusalem to receive a deputation from the church at Antioch.” 56) The resolution of the meeting is most significant in its clear statement concerning evangelical freedom and the rejection of works. “This point mark well, for herein everything is included. The resolution… is this: The Law of Moses should not be imposed upon the disciples from the Gentiles, but they should be taught to be saved by faith, without the Law of Moses. Here observe whether they place doctrines of men above the Word of God or elevate themselves above it; yea, be careful, for they do not set up anything but the true chief part of Christian doctrine, namely, faith and Christian liberty, and they watch with great earnestness, lest a greater burden be placed upon the disciples. But they should be permitted to stay in the faith, as Christ teaches and had confirmed from heaven through the Holy Spirit.” 57)
The delegates in Antioch: V.30. So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch; and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle; v.31. which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation. V.32. And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words and confirmed them. V.33. And after they had tarried there a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles. V.34. Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still. V.35. Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the Word of the Lord, with many others also. The delegates of the congregation at Jerusalem having received their credentials, they were sent away, together with Paul and Barnabas, in a spirit of brotherly love, and probably after a special farewell service; for the apostles and elders were well aware of the importance of their mission. The whole company went down to Antioch, traveling the entire distance by land. There they called a meeting of the multitude, of the entire congregation, and formally delivered the letter. And when the brethren that had been disturbed so seriously by the Judaizing teachers had read the communication, they rejoiced greatly over the consolation which it brought them. The entire congregation, being liberated from the sense of oppression which had weighed them down during the last weeks, hailed the relief of the letter with joy. This impression was further strengthened also by Judas and Silas, who, being themselves prophets, and thus endowed by God with extraordinary gifts of applying the comfort of the Gospel, personally encouraged the brethren with many a word of counsel and led them back to firm trust in the Lord’s Word and work. As a result of this mission it was clearly shown that the Lord, out of Jews and Gentiles, had made one body, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints. Having spent some time in the midst of the congregation at Antioch, the delegates from Jerusalem were dismissed in peace, in perfect harmony, by the brethren, to return to those that had delegated them. Thus the unity of spirit found its proper expression in the fine fraternal relationship that obtained between these two congregations, which knew themselves to be one in the Lord. Opportunities for mission-work were by no means exhausted in Antioch, a fact which induced Paul and Barnabas to remain in Antioch, to spend some time there in earnest work, teaching privately whenever catechumens were found, and preaching the Gospel publicly. And in this work they were not alone, but found able assistants in others who were also constrained by the love of Christ to witness in His interest, to proclaim His Word. In this way, peace was fully restored, and the congregation soon returned to its former state of quiet growth. By the grace of God, periods of disturbance in a congregation will make the Christians more fervent in prayer, more zealous for the cause of the Lord, and more firmly established in the Word of Grace.
The Beginning of Paul’s Second Missionary Journey. Acts 15, 36-41.
V.36. And some days after, Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the Word of the Lord, and see how they do. V.37. And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. V.38. But Paul thought not good to take him with them who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work. V.39. And the contention was so sharp between them that they departed asunder one from the other; and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus; v.40. and Paul chose Silas and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God. V.41. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches. After some days, after some time had elapsed, Paul suggested to Barnabas that they return, that they reenter the road over which they had traveled, and visit the brethren in every city in which they had proclaimed the Word of the Lord, to see how they were getting along. A true missionary is not satisfied with merely organizing mission-stations and congregations, but is interested also in their establishment and growth in spiritual knowledge. The suggestion seems to have appealed to Barnabas, but when they were talking over their plans as to companions, he strongly advised taking his nephew John Mark along, and practically insisted upon it. But as even the best of friends map differ on questions of expediency and of personal preference, so it happened here. Paul believed that it was not fair to themselves and to their work to take the younger man along, whose defection at Perga, chap. 13, 13, had probably seriously inconvenienced them. Paul may have thought that Mark still did not possess the necessary maturity and strength of character for such difficult work. The difference of opinion proceeded to a point where there was a serious outbreak of anger, causing them to part company. “There is little doubt that severe words were spoken on the occasion. It is unwise to be overanxious to dilute the words of Scripture, and to exempt even apostles from blame…. We cannot, however, suppose that Paul and Barnabas parted, like enemies, in anger and hatred. It is very likely that they made a deliberate and amicable arrangement to divide the region of their first mission between them, Paul taking the continental and Barnabas the insular part of the proposed visitation. Of this at least we are certain, that the quarrel was overruled by Divine Providence to a good result. One stream of missionary labor had been divided, and the regions blessed by the waters of life were proportionally multiplied.” 58) That the estrangement was not permanent appears from the fact that Paul refers to Barnabas as a fellow-worker unto the kingdom of God, Col 4,11; 1 Cor. 9, 6, and that he speaks of Mark as profitable to him for the ministry, 2 Tim. 4, 11. But the brethren in Antioch evidently believed Paul to be in the right, for when Barnabas took Nark and sailed for Cyprus, there was no special leave-taking, whereas when Paul chose Silas, the prophet from Jerusalem, as his companion, he was commended by the brethren to, the grace of the Lord. Very likely there was a meeting of the congregation and a farewell service as when Paul left on his first journey. So Paul left Antioch with his companion, traveling by land, in order to visit the congregations of Syria and Cilicia which had been founded either by some of the scattered brethren after the execution of Stephen or by Paul himself at a time concerning which we have no further data, Gal. 1, 21. Wherever the two missionaries came, they confirmed the congregations, they made them firm in faith and trust by proper instruction and exhortation. Visitations of this kind are bound to result in blessings for the congregations thus visited.
Summary. On account of threatening dissension caused by Judaizing brethren, Paul and Barnabas are delegated to the congregation at Jerusalem for advice; an assembly is held, and the results sent to the brethren at Antioch in a letter delivered by Judas and Silas; Paul chooses Silas as his companion on his second journey after an altercation with Barnabas.