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Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible
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CHAPTER 15

Ac 15:1-35. Council at Jerusalem to Decide on the Necessity of Circumcision for the Gentile Converts.

1, 2. certain men—See the description of them in Ga 2:4.

2. Paul and Barnabas—now the recognized heads of the Church at Antioch.

had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined—that is, the church did.

that Paul and Barnabas, and certain others of them—Titus was one (Ga 2:1); probably as an uncircumcised Gentile convert endowed with the gifts of the Spirit. He is not mentioned in the Acts, but only in Second Corinthians, Galatians, Second Timothy, and the Epistle addressed to him [Alford].

should go up to Jerusalem … about this question—That such a deputation should be formally despatched by the Church of Antioch was natural, as it might be called the mother church of Gentile Christianity.

3-6. being brought on their way by the church—a kind of official escort.

they passed through Phenice—(See on Ac 11:19).

and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles, and they caused great joy to the brethren—As the converts in those parts were Jewish (Ac 11:19), their spirit contrasts favorably with that of others of their nation.

4. And when they were come to Jerusalem—This was Paul's Third Visit to Jerusalem after his conversion, and on this occasion took place what is related in Ga 2:1-10. (See there).

were received of the church, and the apostles and elders—evidently at a meeting formally convened for this purpose: the deputation being one so influential, and from a church of such note.

they declared all things that God had done with them—(See on Ac 14:14-27).

6. the apostles and elders came together to consider of this—but in presence, as would seem, of the people (Ac 15:12, 22, 23).

7. Peter, &c.—This is the last mention of him in the Acts, and one worthy of his standing, as formally pronouncing, from the divine decision of the matter already in his own case, in favor of the views which all of Paul's labors were devoted to establishing.

a good while ago—probably about fifteen years before this.

made choice … that the Gentiles by my mouth—(See on Ac 11:21).

8. God, which knoweth the hearts—implying that the real question for admission to full standing in the visible Church is the state of the heart. Hence, though that cannot be known by men, no principle of admission to church privileges which reverses this can be sound.

9. put no difference between us and them: purifying their hearts by faith—"Purification" here refers to "sprinkling (of the conscience by the blood of Jesus) from dead works to serve the living God." (See on 1Co 6:11). How rich is this brief description of the inward revolution wrought upon the genuine disciples of the Lord Jesus!

10. why tempt—"try," "provoke"

ye God—by standing in the way of His declared purpose.

to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, &c.—He that was circumcised became thereby bound to keep the whole law. (See Ga 5:1-6). It was not then the mere yoke of burdensome ceremonies, but of an obligation which the more earnest and spiritual men became, the more impossible they felt it to fulfil. (See Ro 3:5; Ga 2:4, &c.).

11. through the grace of the Lord Jesus—that is, by that only.

we shall be saved, even as they—circumcision in our case being no advantage, and in their case uncircumcision no loss; but grace doing all for both, and the same for each.

12. Then all … gave audience to Barnabas and Paul—On this order of the names here, see on Ac 15:25.

declaring what miracles and signs God wrought among the Gentiles by them—This detail of facts, immediately following up those which Peter had recalled to mind, would lead all who waited only for divine teaching to see that God had Himself pronounced the Gentile converts to be disciples in as full standing as the Jews, without circumcision; and the attesting miracles to which Paul here refers would tend, in such an assembly to silence opposition.

13. James answered, saying, &c.—Whoever this James was (see on Ga 1:19), he was the acknowledged head of the church at Jerusalem, and here, as president of the assembly, speaks last, winding up the debate. His decision, though given as his own judgment only, could not be of great weight with the opposing party, from his conservative reverence for all Jewish usages within the circle of Israelitish Christianity.

14-17. Simeon—a Hebrew variation of Simon, as in 2Pe 1:1; (Greek), the Jewish and family name of Peter.

hath declared how God at the first—answering to Peter's own expression "a good while ago" (Ac 15:7).

did visit the Gentiles to take out of them—in the exercise of His adorable sovereignty.

a people for his name—the honor of his name, or for His glory.

15. to this agree the words of the prophets—generally; but those of Amos (Am 9:11) are specified (nearly as in the Septuagint version). The point of the passage lies in the predicted purpose of God, under the new economy, that "the heathen" or "Gentiles" should be "called by His name," or have "His name called upon them." By the "building again of the fallen tabernacle of David," or restoring its decayed splendor, is meant that only and glorious recovery which it was to experience under David's "son and Lord."

18, 19. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning—He who announced these things so long before, and He who had now brought them to pass, were one and the same; so that they were no novelty.

19. Wherefore, my sentence—or "judgment."

is, that we trouble not—with Jewish obligations.

them which from among the Gentiles are turned to God—rather, "are turning." The work is regarded as in progress, and indeed was rapidly advancing.

20. But … that they abstain from pollutions of idols—that is, things polluted by having been offered in sacrifice to idols. The heathen were accustomed to give away or sell portions of such animals. From such food James would enjoin the Gentile converts to abstain, lest it should seem to the Jews that they were not entirely weaned from idolatry.

and from fornication—The characteristic sin of heathendom, unblushingly practiced by all ranks and classes, and the indulgence of which on the part of the Gentile converts would to Jews, whose Scriptures branded it as an abomination of the heathen, proclaim them to be yet joined to their old idols.

and from things strangled—which had the blood in them.

and from blood—in every form, as peremptorily forbidden to the Jews, and the eating of which, therefore, on the part of the Gentile converts, would shock their prejudices. See on Ac 15:28.

21. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him … every sabbath day—thus keeping alive in every Jew those feelings which such practices would shock, and which, therefore, the Gentile converts must carefully respect if the oneness of both classes in Christ was to be practically preserved. The wisdom of these suggestions commended itself to all present.

22, 23. Judas surnamed Barsabas—therefore not the apostle "Judas the brother of James" (Ac 1:13), surnamed "Thaddeus" (Mt 10:3); nor can it be shown that he was a brother of "Joseph called Barsabas" (Ac 1:23). But nothing is known of him beyond what is here said.

and Silas—the same as "Silvanus" in the Epistles. He became Paul's companion on his second missionary journey (Ac 15:40).

chief men among the brethren—selected purposely as such, to express the honor in which they held the church at Antioch, and the deputies they had sent to the council, and, as the matter affected all Gentile converts, to give weight to the written decision of this important assembly. They were "prophets," Ac 15:32 (and see on Ac 11:27), and as such doubtless their eminence in the church at Jerusalem had been obtained.

23. And they wrote … by them—This is the first mention in the New Testament history of writing as an element in its development. And the combination here of written and oral transmission of an important decision reminds us of the first occasion of writing mentioned in the Old Testament, where a similar combination occurs (Ex 17:14). But whereas there it is the deep difference between Israel and the Gentiles which is proclaimed, here it is the obliteration of that difference through faith in the Lord Jesus [Baumgarten].

greeting—The only other place in the New Testament where this word occurs (except in the letter of Lysias, Ac 23:26) is Jas 1:1, which seems to show that both letters were drawn up by the same hand [Bengel].

the Gentiles in Antioch, and Syria, and Cilicia—showing that churches then existed in Cilicia as well as Syria, which owed their existence, in all likelihood, to Paul's labors during the interval between his return to Tarsus (Ac 9:30) and his departure in company with Barnabas for Antioch (see on Ac 11:25).

24-27. Forasmuch as we have heard that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words—without authority or even knowledge of the church at Jerusalem, though they belonged to it, and probably pretended to represent its views.

subverting your souls—Such strong language is evidently designed to express indignation at this attempt, by an unauthorized party, to bring the whole Christian Church under judicial and legal bondage.

25. our beloved Barnabas and Paul—Barnabas is put first here, and in Ac 15:12, on account of his former superior position in the church at Jerusalem (see Ac 9:27; 11:22)—an evidence this that we have the document precisely as written, as also of the credibility of this precious history.

26. Men that have hazarded—literally, "rendered up," as in will they did.

their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—Noble testimony to those beloved men! It was doubtless prompted more immediately by the narrative they had just listened to from their own lips (Ac 15:12), and judiciously inserted in this letter, to give them the highest weight as the bearers of it, along with their own deputies.

Judas and Silas … shall tell you the same … by mouth—Mark here how considerate and tender it was to send men who would be able to say of Barnabas and Paul what could not be expected to come from themselves.

28, 29. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, &c.—The One, inwardly guiding to and setting His seal on the decision come to: the other, the external ecclesiastical authority devoutly embracing, expressing, and conveying to the churches that decision:—a great principle this for the Church in all time.

to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things … from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well—The whole language of these prohibitions, and of Ac 15:20, 21, implies that they were designed as concessions to Jewish feelings on the part of the Gentile converts, and not as things which were all of unchanging obligation. The only cause for hesitation arises from "fornication" being mixed up with the other three things; which has led many to regard the whole as permanently prohibited. But the remarks on Ac 15:20 may clear this (see on Ac 15:20). The then state of heathen society in respect of all the four things seems the reason for so mixing them up.

31-33. they rejoiced for the consolation—As the same word is in Ac 15:31 properly rendered "exhorted," the meaning probably is "rejoiced for the exhortation" (Margin), or advice; so wise in itself and so contrary to the imposition attempted to be practiced upon them by the Judaizers.

32. Judas and Silas, being prophets themselves—that is, inspired teachers.

exhorted the brethren with many words—"much discourse."

and confirmed them—opening up, no doubt, the great principle involved in the controversy now settled, of gratuitous salvation, or the purification of the heart by faith alone (as expressed by Peter, Ac 15:9, 11), and dwelling on the necessity of harmony in principle and affection between the Gentile disciples and their Jewish brethren.

33. were let go in peace—with peace, as the customary parting salutation.

34, 35. it pleased Silas—Silas determined.

to abide there still—(The authorities against the insertion of this verse are strong. It may have been afterwards added to explain Ac 15:40). Doubtless the attraction to Antioch for Silas was Paul's presence there, to whom he seems to have now formed that permanent attachment which the sequel of this book and Paul's Epistles show to have existed.

35. Paul … and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching—to the disciples.

and preaching—to those without.

the word of the Lord, with many others—other laborers.

also—How rich must Antioch at this time have been in the ministrations of the Gospel! (For a painful scene on this occasion between Paul and Peter, see Ga 2:11-14).

Ac 15:36-46. Dissension between Paul and BarnabasThey Part Company to Prosecute Separate Missionary Tours.

36. And some days after—How long is a matter of conjecture.

Paul said to Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren—the true reading is, "the brethren."

in every city where we have preached … and see how they do—whether they were advancing or declining, &c.: a pattern for churches and successful missionaries in every age. ("Reader, how stands it with thee?") [Bengel]. "Paul felt that he was not called to spend a peaceful, though laborious life at Antioch, but that his true work was far off among the Gentiles." We notice here, for the first time, a trace of that tender solicitude for his converts, that earnest longing to see their faces, which appears in the letters which he wrote afterwards, as one of the most remarkable and attractive features of his character. He thought, doubtless, of the Pisidians and Lycaonians, as he thought afterwards at Athens and Corinth of the Thessalonians, from whom he had been lately "taken in presence, not in heart, night and day praying exceedingly that he might see their face and perfect that which was lacking in their faith" [Howson].

37. Barnabas determined to take with them John … Mark—his nephew (Col 4:10).

38. But Paul thought not good to take him with them who departed from them—that is, who had departed; but the word is stronger than this—"who stood aloof" or "turned away" from them.

from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work—the work yet before them. The allusion is to what is recorded in Ac 13:13 (see on Ac 13:13).

39. And the contention was so sharp between them—such was the "irritation," or "exacerbation."

that they departed asunder one from the other—Said they not truly to the Lystrians that they were "men of like passions with them"; (Ac 14:15). But who was to blame? (1) That John Mark had either tired of the work or shrunk from the dangers and fatigues that yet lay before them, was undeniable; and Paul concluded that what he had done he might, and probably would, do again. Was he wrong in this? (See Pr 25:19). But (2) To this Barnabas might reply that no rule was without exception; that one failure, in a young Christian, was not enough to condemn him for life; that if near relationship might be thought to warp his judgment, it also gave him opportunities of knowing the man better than others; and that as he was himself anxious to be allowed another trial (and the result makes this next to certain), in order that he might wipe out the effect of his former failure and show what "hardness he could now endure as a good soldier of Jesus Christ," his petition ought not to be rejected. Now, since John Mark did retrieve his character in these respects, and a reconciliation took place between Paul and him, so cordial that the apostle expresses more than once the confidence he had in him and the value he set upon his services (Col 4:10, 11; 2Ti 4:11), it may seem that events showed Barnabas to be in the right, and Paul too harsh and hasty in his judgment. But, in behalf of Paul, it may well be answered, that not being able to see into the future he had only the unfavorable past to judge by; that the gentleness of Barnabas (Ac 4:36; 11:24) had already laid him open to imposition (see on Ga 2:13), to which near relationship would in this case make him more liable; and that in refusing to take John Mark on this missionary journey he was not judging his Christian character nor pronouncing on his fitness for future service, but merely providing in the meantime against being again put to serious inconvenience and having their hands weakened by a possible second desertion. On the whole, then, it seems clear that each of these great servants of—Christ had something to say for himself, in defense of the position which they respectively took up; that while Barnabas was quite able to appreciate the grounds on which Paul proceeded, Paul was not so competent to judge of the considerations which Barnabas probably urged; that while Paul had but one object in view, to see that the companion of their arduous work was one of thoroughly congenial spirit and sufficient nerve, Barnabas, over and above the same desire, might not unreasonably be afraid for the soul of his nephew, lest the refusal to allow him to accompany them on their journey might injure his Christian character and deprive the Church of a true servant of Jesus Christ; and that while both sought only the glory of their common Master, each looked at the question at issue, to some extent, through the medium of his own temperament, which grace sanctifies and refines, but does not destroy—Paul, through the medium of absolute devotion to the cause and kingdom of Christ, which, warm and womanly as his affections were, gave a tinge of lofty sternness to his resolves where that seemed to be affected; Barnabas, through the medium of the same singleness of heart in Christ's service, though probably not in equal strength (Ga 2:13), but also of a certain natural gentleness which, where a Christian relative was concerned, led him to attach more weight to what seemed for his spiritual good than Paul could be supposed to do. In these circumstances, it seems quite possible that they might have amicably "agreed to differ," each taking his own companion, as they actually did. But the "paroxysm" (as the word is), the "exacerbation" which is expressly given as the cause of their parting, shows but too plainly, that human infirmity amidst the great labors of the Church at Antioch at length sundered those who had sweetly and lovingly borne together the heat and burden of the day during a protracted tour in the service of Christ. "Therefore let no man glory in men" (1Co 3:21). As for John Mark, although through his uncle's warm advocacy of his cause he was put in a condition to dissipate the cloud that hung over him, how bitter to him must have ever afterwards been the reflection that it was his culpable conduct which gave occasion to whatever was sinful in the strife between Paul and Barnabas, and to a separation in action, though no doubt with a mutual Christian regard, between those who had till then wrought nobly together! How watchful does all this teach Christians, and especially Christian ministers and missionaries, to be against giving way to rash judgment and hot temper towards each other, especially where on both sides the glory of Christ is the ground of difference! How possible is it that in such cases both parties may, on the question at issue, be more or less in the right! How difficult is it even for the most faithful and devoted servants of Christ, differing as they do in their natural temperament even under the commanding influence of grace, to see even important questions precisely in the same light! And if, with every disposition to yield what is unimportant, they still feel it a duty each to stand to his own point, how careful should they be to do it lovingly, each pursuing his own course without disparagement of his Christian brother! And how affectingly does the Lord overrule such difference of judgment and such manifestations of human infirmity, by making them "turn out rather unto the furtherance of the Gospel"; as in this case is eminently seen in the two missionary parties instead of one, not travelling over the same ground and carrying their dispute over all the regions of their former loving labors, but dividing the field between them!

and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus; and Paul chose Silas—(See on Ac 15:34)—going two and two, as the Twelve and the Seventy (Mr 6:7; Lu 10:1).

40. and departed, being recommended … to the grace of God—(No doubt by some solemn service; see Ac 13:3), as in Ac 14:26. It does not follow from the historian's silence that Barnabas was not so recommended, too; for this is the last mention of Barnabas in the history, whose sole object now is to relate the proceedings of Paul. Nor does it seem quite fair (with De Wette, Meyer, Howson, Alford, Hacket, Webster and Wilkinson, &c.) to conclude from this that the Church at Antioch took that marked way of showing their sympathy with Paul in opposition to Barnabas.

41. and he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches—"It is very likely that Paul and Barnabas 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. If Barnabas visited Salamis and Paphos, and if Paul (travelling westward), after passing through Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium, went as far as Antioch in Pisidia, the whole circuit of the proposed visitation was actually accomplished, for it does not appear that any converts had been made at Perga and Attalia" [Howson]. "This second missionary tour appears to have proceeded at first solely from the desire of visiting the churches already planted. In the end, however, it took a much wider sweep, for it brought the apostle to Europe" [Olshausen].

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