The Judaizers at Antioch.
There must needs be heresies, that is, divisions and separations of opinion, in order that that which is approved may be made manifest. In conflicts of this kind, the chaff of falsehood is sifted from the genuine wheat of truth.
I. THE POSITION OF THE JUDAIZERS .
1. It was a reactionary position. It aimed at the re-establishment of circumcision as the condition of salvation. This was going back from the "spirit" to the "flesh," from the principle of an internal to that of an external religion. It was substituting works for faith, doing for being, as the condition of salvation.
2. It was a revolutionary position. Such a claim convulses the very heart of the Christian Church. Wherever it has come up, a deep mark has been left in history. This was essentially the conflict of Isaiah and other prophets against the ceremonialists of the day. The question came up again at the Reformation. Law or gospel—Moses or Christ? Behind this question lies a world. Is religion stationary and stagnant or ideal, Divine, and possessed of the power of an expansive and endless life?
II. THE IMMEDIATE EFFECT OF THE RAISING OF THE QUESTION .
1. Private dissension. Alas! often is it so. The loving missionary comrades, Paul and Barnabas, are disunited. But we must remember, "Though Plato is my friend, truth is my friend still more." Paul felt that evangelical freedom was threatened ( Galatians 2:4 ). And the gospel was dearer to him than life. Truth must not be compromised in the supposed interests of friendship. Indeed, the supposition is illusory. For if it be "a strong and habitual inclination in two persons to promote the good and happiness of each other," this cannot be at the expense of truth.
2. Public discussion. The difference between Paul and Barnabas could not be ignored. The topic must have been on the tongue of every one. See how good comes out of controversy as well as evil. Private pain is often the condition of public blessing. A cloud comes between two minds, but the truth shines presently the more brightly forth.
III. THE ACTION OF THE CHURCH . They resolved to despatch Paul and Barnabas to consult the apostles and elders at Jerusalem. Note the appropriateness of this decision.
1. As to the men sent—Paul representing the Gentiles and the missionary work, Barnabas the Church at Antioch. Besides, from Galatians 2:1 , et sqq., we see that St. Paul had a special inward direction to proceed thither.
2. The destination. Jerusalem, the mother city and the mother Church, and the seat of apostolic authority. Yet Antioch was probably not second to Jerusalem in numbers and influence. Without debating questions of Church government, the lesson may be drawn that no particular community should act for itself in important questions without consulting the general sense of the Christian Church.
IV. THE JOURNEY AND ARRIVAL AT JERUSALEM .
1. They had a conduct from the Church of Antioch as they set forth—an expression of confidence in the men, and of deer interest in the result. Said the electoral Prince of Brandenburg to his envoy, proceeding to a conference with the papists, "Bring me the little word sola , i.e." alone , faith only, back—or come not back at all.
2. They told good news on the way. They told of the conversion of the heathen, and. the news was received with great joy. Here was a great argument for Paul, gathered on the way. So does God solve our disputes in words by the irresistible logic of his facts.
3. At Jerusalem they tell the great things God has done for them. The facts of the past are prophetic of the future. Divine mercy as an historical fact is the basis of sure hope and confidence. The temper of devout recollection and thanksgiving fits the mind for the view of present duties.—J.
The first council: spiritual liberty established.
The controversy between a corrupt Judaism and the gospel of Christ certain to be brought to a crisis. The conversion of Saul, taken in connection with his special mission to the Gentiles, forced the matter on the attention of the Church. The scene of the controversy was Antioch, where Paul would have many supporters. But Jerusalem was the proper place for a settlement—not because any authority was assigned to the spot, but because there could be gathered a more really representative assembly of the whole Church. Notice—
I. THE FACTS THEMSELVES are never questioned, but gladly acknowledged. The acceptance of the Gentiles, the blessing on the ministry of Paul and Barnabas, the gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed on others than the Jewish believers.
II. THE POINT OF CONTENTION is the claim asserted by a small section of the Jewish Church, of Pharisaic spirit, to impose on the new Gentile converts the obligations of the Mosaic Law, particularly circumcision. This showed that they regarded Christ as only a Reformer of the Law, not as substituting the gospel for the Law.
III. THE WHOLE CHURCH is the body of referees. The apostles and ciders are the speakers and leaders, but the multitude is present, and to them ( Acts 15:22 ) the decision is referred.
IV. THE TESTIMONY OF THE SPIRIT in the facts rehearsed, the signs and wonders wrought, is plainly the voice of God to the apostles. Both Peter and James stand firmly on that foundation—God hath called them. Therefore we must obey his voice. The witness of the facts agrees with the witness of the word.
V. THE RESTRICTIONS which were deemed necessary were simply the dictates of brotherly love. Stumbling-blocks should not be thrown in the way of weak brethren. Let the Gentiles use their liberty, only let them respect the feelings of Jews and the moral demands of the Law.
VI. THE CONTENTIOUS PARTY must have been a mere handful of men. They are condemned by the letter sent to Antioch. The effect of the epistle was to silence them and produce a happy peace. Which representation entirely overthrows the statement of such critics as Baur, that there was a Pauline element in the Church opposed by the Petrine.
VII. THE CAUSE OF STRIFE IS BURIED in the depth of zealous labor for Christ and souls. Judas and Silas, the messengers from Jerusalem, soon forgot the trouble in much higher topics and co-operation with the Church at Antioch in their evangelistic efforts. Thus this first occasion of ecclesiastical settlement shows the Church pervaded with the spirit of brotherly love and faith. They had no conception of Church authority apart from the voice of God's Spirit. They came together in perfect equality. They reverenced age and spiritual distinction, and the mind of the brethren gathered together in conference, but their chief dependence was on the promise of the Holy Ghost and his guidance, so that they could say, "It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us. " — R.
A great dissension or, the threshold of the Gentile Church, and the apostolic management of it.
One subject knits together very firmly the contents of this paragraph. And the subject is one of the greatest importance. Its interest is all of the practical kind; and well had it been for the unconverted world had the Church through all these centuries abided by the suggested lessons that we have here. The one subject is the beginning of ecclesiastical dissension within the Church catholic itself; not on matter purely doctrinal, not on matter purely disciplinary, but on matter that may be for the time supposed to lie on the border-land between these two. For some will insist on making it mostly a question of veritable doctrine; others would stickle for it as a question at least of "decency and order" in discipline. Let us notice—
I. THE SIMPLE QUESTION ITSELF AT ISSUE . Gentiles have many great signs and wonders wrought amongst them, of which they are by no means simple beholders. They themselves are "a great part of them." They are believed in multitudes of cases to have become true converts to the new faith. The apostolic verdict and pronouncement have gone forth that "God had opened the door of faith" to them. And facts seem to speak for themselves, saying that they have received the gifts as well as the gift of the Holy Ghost. Must these Gentiles submit to the Jewish initiatory rite of circumcision?
II. THE ORIGIN OF THE GREAT DISSENSION THAT AROSE UPON THIS SIMPLE QUESTION . Certain men, evidently of the Church in Judaea, came down to Antioch, and with volunteered assiduity ( Acts 15:24 ) took upon them to teach the brethren at Antioch that circumcision was a rite necessary for them to submit to, if they would be saved. Of these men, before they are condemned as mere officious idlers or "busybodies," it shall be granted that they had a right to their own religious views, their own reading of the Law and prophets, and their own past history; that they also had a right to travel and to go and see the new Gentile converts, whose Church at Antioch must in itself have been such a sign; and that, arrived there, they were not bound to keep a perpetual silence. But from the very moment that these things are conceded to the members of any Christian society dates the solemn responsibility which rests upon them. One of the great facts of the "liberty" ( Acts 15:10 ; Galatians 5:1 ) of Christ's Church is that individual character shall be called out and strictly tried by the vast increase of individual responsibility. But the liberty cannot be had and the responsibility left. And up to this point these things may be noted—
III. THE APOSTOLIC MANAGEMENT OF THIS DISSENSION . The somewhat indefinite phraseology of the second verse, compared with the words of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 2:2 , leaves us in very little uncertainty that we are to understand that Paul and Barnabas received special intimation from the Spirit that the question should be moved to Jerusalem; that the Church at Antioch heartily fell in with the rightness of this course, and rejoiced to attend the steps of the apostles and other delegates to the last, as well as to commend them in prayer to God.
1. If, then, the intimation of the Spirit showed the way for the apostles, it may be gathered
2. When Paul and Barnabas, and certain others of the Antioch Church with them, reach Jerusalem, they are, in the first instance, courteously received by the whole Church with "the apostles and elders." The meeting was a set, ice, and a happy, holy service. All hear what God has done ( Galatians 2:4 ), and the joy is great. And, finally, the question is opened, apparently as temperately as plainly ( Galatians 2:5 ).
3. The proper council shortly come together. It consists of "the apostles and elders." But the matter appears to have been argued in the presence of the whole assembly still ( Galatians 2:7 , Galatians 2:12 , Galatians 2:13 , 22). Four leading speeches and arguments are recorded, and the order and the wisdom alike of the selection of speakers must be apparent. Who better to begin than Peter? His argument is plain, practical, and cannot be gainsaid. But the way in which he turns the tables on his brethren of the Jewish sticklers for circumcision ( Galatians 2:11 ) is most significant. There follow Barnabas and Paul with their missionary tidings. These carried volumes of conviction, and were well fitted to do so. Men listen still wonderfully in preached sermons to facts and reliable history. It is these which weigh, too, with the unsophisticated and the mass. And with what keenness of attention and almost sympathetic pride they listen to these recitals from the lips of men who had "hazarded their lives for the Name" of the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 26) 1 And after these thrilling speeches James (probably "the brother of the Lord" and the writer of the Epistle general) renews argument, corroborating it by Old Testament Scripture quotation. Nor does he sit down without making definite proposals to meet the present case.
4. In harmony with those proposals, the apostles and elders and the whole Church agree. And they agree to write and to send what they write by the honored hands of Paul and Barnabas, and two others specially delegated from their own home communion to Antioch. Verses 23-29 contain the words of a letter which, for kindly respect, for conciliatory tone toward all, for fidelity of truth (verse 24), for "honor to whom honor" is due (verse 26), for religious calling to witness of the one Ruler of the Church, "the Holy Ghost" (verse 28), and for the word of exhortation (verse 29), could not be surpassed. 5. The four peacemakers speed on their way to Antioch. They call "the multitude" ( Acts 4:32 ; Acts 6:5 ) together, deliver their letter, and congratulate the Gentiles liberated from many a fear in its "consolation." This gentle touch at the end speaks much of what had been transpiring in the minds of those Gentile converts, and helps as practical comment upon verse 10 of this chapter. The two visitors, Judas and Silas, also address the Antioch Church, the latter of whom finds such interest in place and people that he stays at Antioch, there a while assisting Paul and Barnabas in their ministry and in their pastorate of the flock.
IV. SOME GENERAL LESSONS FOR CHURCH LIFE SUGGESTED BY THIS HISTORY . We should observe:
1. The sanction here given to the patient and faithful use of strictly moral forces in the government of the Church of Christ. The case had aspects that might well, on the one hand, try the forbearance of the large-hearted, and, on the other hand, tempt to high-handed dispatch. But a world of trouble is not grudged to keep well within the spirit of the Master, and to have compassion on the weak, and to consider others in their errors and their small-mindedness, " lest they also be tempted," with whom confessedly may lie now the strength and the right and the goodness.
2. The honor done to courtesy and respect and to the observance of "duty towards equals," or those who for the time must be called so. Christianity often seems to offer us a very clear, very beautiful outline of the perfections possible to human society merely as such.
3. The kindest attention here paid to human feelings. It seems to shine out again and. again. Where a cold, despotic, hard-and-fast ecclesiasticism would have found its occasion for triumphing, the true order of Christ's Church finds a chosen occasion for reverencing feeling. For upon and in addition to all the honor shown in the transactions recorded in this chapter to respect and courtesy, there is apparent the sympathy of true and heartfelt love. Amid great dangers the least possible damage was done to the reputation of young Christianity, and the comment might still be, "See how these Christians love one another."—R.
The Jerusalem Church.
Christianity started out from Jerusalem. The disciples fulfilled their Lord's command, and "began at Jerusalem." The gospel was first preached at Jerusalem. The Holy Ghost endowed the Christian teachers, and scaled the Christian believers, first at Jerusalem. The Church first took form at Jerusalem. Its officers were first appointed at Jerusalem. And the records intimate that, when the other disciples were scattered abroad, the older and prominent apostles remained behind in the holy city, and exercised a kind of supervision over the work of the various Christian teachers. The constitution of the Jerusalem Church cannot be certainly known; but it is clear that St. Peter had no exclusive authority, and that if disputes and controversies were submitted to an apostolic council, their decision took the form of recommendation and not of Command. As the subject will be treated from several points of view, according to the bias of the preacher, we give only the general outline of the topics that may be usefully considered.
I. JERUSALEM , THE CHRISTIAN STARTING - POINT . The first teachers were Jews; and Christianity is not only the proper outcome and perfection of Judaism, but it bears the Jewish stamp. It links on to the fundamental ideas of God, sin, redemption, which were revealed to the Jews. If it were wholly new, it could not be true.
II. JERUSALEM , THE APOSTOLIC CENTER . A kind of mother Church. Observe how its council of apostles and elders was sought when difficulties of doctrine or practice arose; and how the Gentile Churches sent their charitable gifts to the poor saints at the mother Church.
III. JERUSALEM , THE MODEL CHURCH . How far any Church could present a model may be disputed. Any model would be efficient by reason of its illustrating working principles, not by virtue of its mere form.
IV. JERUSALEM , THE SOURCE OF AUTHORITY . How far apostles claimed authority on the ground of their knowledge of Christ, inspiration, miraculous gifts, and power to give or bring the Holy Ghost, needs to be carefully considered.—R.T.
And when for when therefore, A.V.; questioning for disputation, A.V.; the brethren (in italics) appointed for they determined, A.V. Certain other of them . One of these would be Titus ( Galatians 2:1 ). The circumstance that, on this occasion, St. Paul did go up to those who were apostles before him, to consult with them on a matter of doctrine, shows at once why he refers so pointedly to this visit in Galatians 2:1 , etc., and is almost conclusive evidence that this visit is the one there referred to. The companionship of Barnabas; the agreement of the expression, "I went up by revelation," with the fact that he was sent by the Church, doubtless in obedience to some voice of the Spirit, like that mentioned in Acts 13:2 ; the occasion, a dispute about the circumcision of Gentile converts; the line taken by Paul and Barnabas in declaring the conversion of the Gentiles ( Acts 15:4 , Acts 15:12 ; Galatians 2:1-21 :27), and the result ( Acts 15:19 ; Galatians 2:5 , Galatians 2:7 , Galatians 2:9 ), are all strong, not to say conclusive, marks of the identity of the two visits. The apostles and elders . This phrase marks the constitution of the governing part of the Church of Jerusalem. The addition in Acts 13:22 and Acts 13:23 of "the whole Church," and (according to the T.R.) of "the brethren," shows the part the body of the believers had in approving and sanctioning the decisions of the elders. The transaction marks the position of the Church of Jerusalem as the metropolitan Church of Christendom.
The apprehension of truth, full, pure, and unmixed with error, should be the desire of all good men. And it is a great help towards attaining truth when we are able to love it and to seek it absolutely for its own sake, without reference to its consequences, without regard to the wishes of others or undue submission to their opinions. It is also necessary for a man in pursuit of truth to divest himself of prejudices, and the influence of false opinions which he has adopted from habit, and without due consideration. The mind should approach the consideration of truth unwarped and uncolored by any subjective influences except the love of God and innocency of character. Divested of prejudices and of passions, and possessed of adequate knowledge, the mind would receive moral and religious truth with nearly as much certainty as it does mathematical problems. The object of controversy should be to clear away all prejudice, all ignorance, all passion, every groundless opinion and prepossession, which stand in the way of the acceptance of truth. And controversialists should be ready to admit the probalility that those who differ most widely from them may, for that very reason, see some side of truth which is hidden from their own eyes, and therefore should be ready to give a candid consideration to their arguments. The controversy which is described in its origin, progress, and settlement, in the passage before us, is an instructive one. We see on the side of the Judaizing party the types of the hindrances constantly existing to the reception of new truths. There was at first a blind and indiscriminate attachment to old opinions. They had been brought up in the belief that the Mosaic institutions were unchangeable. The very suggestion of a modification of them was treason against Moses and against God. They had been brought up in the belief that they were exclusively the people of God. All the pride and selfishness of their hearts rebelled against the idea of others being admitted to an equality of privileges with themselves. They had cherished a contempt and hatred for all other nations of the earth: how could they believe that those nations were as much objects of the love of God as they themselves were? Again, they had fattened in the opinion of their own righteousness, of their own moral superiority over other people: how could they be willing to accept a gospel which taught them that they could only be justified by grace, and that they must seek that grace on a level with all other sinners, through the merits of Jesus Christ? Again, their reverence for their rabbis and great men, and for their sayings and teaching, which they were accustomed to lean upon with a certain superstitious awe, and to quote with a proud fondness, was another hindrance to the reception of the gospel in its integrity by them. And all these influences, good and bad, concurred to close the eyes of their reason against all opposing evidence. They would, indeed, admit a Christianity which left the Law of Moses intact, and obliged all Christians to become Jews, so to speak. That exalted their nation, flattered their pride, increased their self-importance, left the prejudices of their childhood undisturbed. But the gospel as preached by Paul they could not and would not accept. The controversy on the other side was waged with fairness and firmness combined. St. Paul's large experience, both of the prejudices of his opponents, which he had once felt himself in their full power, and of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, which had been manifested to him in so remarkable a manner, gave him an unrivalled command of the argument. He had as much reverence for Moses, as full a conviction of the Divine origin of the Law, of the inspiration of the prophets, and of the infallible authority of Holy Scripture, as his opponents had. But he had a deep insight into the doctrines of grace, borne witness to by the Law and the prophets, which they had not. He saw the harmony between the Old and New Testaments; how the Law was a schoolmaster to bring men to Christ; how Christ was the end of the Law for righteousness to every one that believes; and how in the gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ the Law was not destroyed, but fulfilled, tie had, therefore, a full certainty as to the main points of the controversy which others had not. And yet he was tender and considerate toward his opponents ( Galatians 4:19 ), and brought, not abuse, but argument to bear against their errors; as in the two wonderful Epistles, to the Galatians and to the Romans. And in a similar spirit we find him here willing to refer the matters in dispute to the Church at Jerusalem, presided over as it was by James, who had the credit of leaning to the side of his antagonists. But combined with this gentleness we have to mark his unflinching firmness and boldness. It required no small courage and strength of conviction to withstand a person of such weight and authority as Peter, and to reprove him before the Church. It required no little heroism to go into the very stronghold of Judaism, and there, before James, and Peter, and the Pharisees, and the most Judaizing members of the Churches of Judaea, to proclaim the gospel of the free grace of God ( Galatians 2:2 ; Acts 15:12 ), and the free admission of the Gentiles into the Church of Christ. And let us mark the result. All the true-hearted men were won by Paul's way. Peter recovered from his weakness and openly sided with Paul; James threw his great weight unequivocally into the same scale; Barnabas shook off his momentary hesitation; the whole assembly gave a unanimous vote in favor of Paul's view; and the Church was saved from disruption. In an age when the peace of the Church is so much disturbed by controversy, and when such violence, both of language and of action, is indulged in by those who wish to enforce their own views, it is important to study carefully the history of this first great and trying controversy, which threatened at one time to split the Church to its very foundations, but which was brought to such a happy issue, under the blessing of God, by the wisdom, charity, and firmness of the apostle to the Gentiles. God grant, of his tender mercy, a like spirit to the leaders of party in our own days, and a no less happy settlement of the questions which separate brother from brother, and impede the progress of Christian truth.
A grave crisis in the kingdom of God: more lessons.
The crisis of the kingdom will be found in the life of the Divine Leader of the faith. In those hours when all that was human in him shrank from the sufferings and sorrows which were before him, or from the agony which was upon him, or from the darkness which enshrouded him, then was "the crisis of the world" and of the kingdom of God on earth. But this also was a crisis, grave and serious. If the Church at Antioch had yielded to these "false brethren" ( Galatians 2:4 ), when they came to invade its liberty; or if—a much greater peril—the Church at Jerusalem had decided in favor of the Judaizers, and had passed a sentence that circumcision was necessary to salvation; and if Christian truth had thus been narrowed to the small dimensions of a mere adjunct to Judaism, where would Christianity have been to-day? From the incident here related we draw the lessons—
I. WHAT HARM ZEALOTRY MAY TRY TO DO . These men "who came down from Judaea" ( Acts 15:1 ) were members of the Pharisaic party "which believed " ( Acts 15:5 ); they were formal adherents of the Christian faith; they spake reverently of Christ, and believed themselves to be acting in the interests of his kingdom. Yet we know that they were taking a course which, if they had carried their point, would hove simply extinguished the faith in a few years. Often, since then, has blind zealotry done its best to bring about a condition which would have proved fatal to the cause of God and of redeemed humanity.
II. IN WHAT UNINVITING LABORS FIDELITY MAY INVOLVE US . How different from evangelizing risks and toils, and from the fraternal intercourse which followed these, how much beneath both the one and the other, how much more uninviting this controversy with false brethren, narrow-minded, mistaking a rite whose significance was exhausted for an essential of salvation! How uncongenial, to the spirit of the apostle this "dissension and disputation" ( Acts 15:2 )! But it was necessary; it was as much a part of their bounden duty and their loyal obedience to their Lord as the preaching of the gospel or the indicting of an Epistle. The Christian workman cannot always choose his work. He must sometimes give up the congenial for the unpleasant, the inviting for the repellent.
III. HOW WELL TO ENCOURAGE THE FAITHFUL IN THE HOUR OF THEIR ANXIETY . Those who constituted the deputation were "brought on their way by the Church" ( Acts 15:3 ). In the profound anxiety which must have filled the sagacious and earnest mind of Paul at this critical juncture, such gracious attention on the part of the Church must have been exceedingly refreshing. No "moral support' of tried and anxious leaders, in times of supreme solicitude, is thrown away; it is well-spent time and trouble.
IV. THAT IT IS SOMETIMES OUR DUTY TO TAKE INTO CONSULTATION OUR BRETHREN IN A HIGHER POSITION . The Church at Antioch was not obliged to consult that at Jerusalem; the latter had no jurisdiction entitling it to decide the disputes of the former. But it was becoming and it was wise, and therefore it was right, to refer the matter in dispute to "the Church [of Jerusalem] and the apostles and the elders" ( Acts 15:4 , Acts 15:6 ). Often when no written constitution obliges us to refer to authorities, it is a matter of practical wisdom, and therefore of rectitude, to go outside our own "body" and submit our case to those in high repute. We may gain far more than we lose thereby.
V. THE TEACHING OF GOD 'S PROVIDENCE . ( Acts 15:7-9 .) Peter would not have taken the side he took now had not his eyes been opened by the event in which he had borne so large and so honorable a share ( Acts 10:1-48 .). We should grow more charitable and more large-minded as we grow in years.
VI. THE FREEDOM OF THE GOSPEL FROM ALL BURDENSOME IMPOSTS . ( Acts 15:10 .) Why tempt God by putting on the neck of the disciples an intolerable yoke? Why invite defeat? Why multiply difficulty and ensure disappointment by requiring of the whole Gentile world a conformity which they will not render and which God does not demand? Why make burdensome the yoke which the Master himself made easy ( Matthew 11:30 )? The gospel of his grace was meant to be a source of blessedness and deliverance; how insensate the folly of tying to it any institutes which would make it become an insufferable vexation!
VII. THE ESSENCE OF THE ORDINANCE . Circumcision was but the outward sign of admission to the privilege and obligation of the Law. The Law was but the schoolmaster to bring men to Christ. Those, then, who were saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ ( Acts 15:11 ) had the very essence and substance of which the old Jewish rite Was but the sign and symbol ( Philippians 3:3 ; Romans 2:28 , Romans 2:29 ).—C.