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Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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arbitrarily connected with faith. It is not the reward of faith but the
possession of what comes through faith, and cannot come in any other
way. Our 'hearts' are 'purified by faith,' because faith admits into
our hearts the life, and instals as dominant in them the powers, the
motives, the Spirit, which purify. We are 'saved by faith,' for faith
brings into our spirits the Christ who saves His people from their
sins, when He abides in them and they abide in Him through their faith.


'And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and
said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be
saved. 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. 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. 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. 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. 6. And
the apostles and elders came together 'for to consider of this
matter.' - ACTS xv. 1-6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


'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. 13. And after they had held their peace, James
answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: 14. Simeon hath
declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of
them a people for His name. 15. And to this agree the words of the
prophets; as it is written, 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: 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. 18.
Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world. 19.
Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among
the Gentiles are turned to God: 20. But that we write unto them, that
they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from
things strangled, and from blood. 21. For Moses of old time hath in
every city them that preach Him, being read in the synagogues every
sabbath day. 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: 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:
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: 25.
It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen
men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26. Men that have
hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27. We have
sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things
by mouth. 28. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay
upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; 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.' - ACTS xv. 12-29.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


'And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was
Mark. 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.' - ACTS
xv. 37, 38.

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

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

The two specific faults recorded of him are his over-indulgence in the
case of Mark, and his want of firmness in opposition to the Judaising

Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 35 of 57)