William Kelly Major Works Commentary - Acts 15:1 - 15:41

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William Kelly Major Works Commentary - Acts 15:1 - 15:41

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Acts Chapter 15

The Spirit of God next brings before us the first signal working of that judaizing which was destined to play a deep, wide, and permanent portion in the history of the church of God. 'And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, Except ye be circumcised1 after the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved' (ver. 1).

1 The critical or aoristic form as in ABCD and many cursives, is preferable. The Text. Rec. though largely supported implies continuance or habit, which does not apply here.

In every point of view this was serious. It was an error, and yet it claimed to be founded on the word of God. It proceeded from men bearing the name of Christ, and withal it struck at the foundation. Satan's habitual effort is to insinuate evil, not only under fair appearance and if possible by one part of the word made to neutralize another, but through disciples. No principle more false than to urge the reputation of advocates in defence of their doctrine, which must stand or fall according to scripture interpreted in the light of Christ and His work, for these ever call for the energies of the Holy Spirit, as they command the hearts of the faithful.

It is clear also that the truth of God is imperilled by an unwarranted addition even more than by the manifest opposition of unbelief. These men did not avowedly deny the gospel, nor teach that one could be saved by an ordinance only; but they did insist on the necessity of circumcision in order to salvation. This is to undermine Christianity, which is not merely promise but accomplishment; but mere promises leave the door open, as inspired history shows, for thereby insinuating the law, instead of sovereign grace reigning through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord. It was really ignorance of Christ risen from the dead and glorified in heaven, the proper object of the Christian. He never can thus be by faith before the soul without maintaining the efficacy of His atoning death. What has law or circumcision to do with Him Who is at the right hand of God? On this side of the cross law has its place (1Ti_1:8-11).

But these men were occupied with their prejudices and were looking back at things and persons on earth, not through the rent veil upon Christ above. Hence their pride was wounded. They could not bear to hear that the distinctive mark, the ancient glory of a Jew, was now eclipsed and gone. They had but feebly learned the teaching of the cross. They had not discerned there the sentence of death on the flesh at its best. They would no doubt have acknowledged their need of Him Who suffered once for all their sins, but they saw not their religion (and circumcision was its initiatory and characteristic badge) treated as naught, yea, utterly condemned therein. Error flows from a wholly false measure. Had Christ, the truth been before their souls, had they estimated aright His death on the cross, they had never fallen into a mistake so profound and unworthy.

But they were wrong otherwise also. The Lord had promised the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of truth, to guide into it all and to teach what they could not bear during His earthly ministry. The truth was there in His person; but yet the best taught of His disciples did not understand at all fully even fundamentals till He was risen and glorified. But now the Holy Spirit had been sent down from heaven, and Gentiles without circumcision had received Him, no less than did the circumcised believers. Was this nothing in their eyes? Is it not a solemn lesson that disciples could be so blinded by their religious habits as to overlook a fact so plain, certain and conclusive? For God had taken care that not the apostles of the uncircumcision but Peter himself should be His chosen instrument for the call of Cornelius in the presence of the six brethren of the circumcision that accompanied him from Joppa.

It is instructive also to observe, if faith is ever humble, bold though it may be, how presumptuous error is. For these men who were clamorous for the necessity of circumcision, ventured not to plead that apostolic authority had laid down any such dogma as they sought to impose. Their judgment and their dignity, we may say, proceeded from themselves, behaving in this like the Gentiles who know not God.

Insurrection against the truth was thus permitted to display itself in the face of the apostles that the Lord might give us His own distinct and ever-abiding correction. What a mercy to us, as well as to the church of God ever since, that this question was not suppressed till the apostles disappeared from the earth! We should then have had only an uninspired answer, however sound. Now we have what all Christians own to possess divine authority. That which an apostle writes is really the Lord's commandment (1Co_14:37).

The troublers came from Judea, which with the weak and ignorant would be apt to lend weight to their words. Of this Satan is ever active to take advantage. Human tradition readily creeps in, and as naturally flatters the flesh. The Holy Ghost falls back upon the word; only we must take care that we do not require the letter which kills when we can only have the spirit which gives life. Subjection to Christ alone keeps us right life in Him is always obedient and holy, and is the way of true intelligence. Human tradition is never to be trusted even among disciples. God is jealous for His word, which bears constant testimony to Christ and therefore against human pride. The men who came down from Judea were imperious nominally for God; it was really for the flesh and self. They would have cut off, if they could, not only the Gentile saints but the apostles of the uncircumcision.

'And' when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and questioning with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up unto Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question' (ver. 2). Here again let us admire the wisdom of God's ways. Paul and Barnabas themselves were unable to settle the dispute. Self-will is invincible, even for apostles. God had it in His mind to interpose in a much more impressive and efficacious manner. It might have been dangerous, however desirable in itself, to have terminated the present matter of debate at Antioch. For the evil, being inveterate as to principle in the nature of things, would surely have broken out afresh subsequently, and elsewhere, probably worst of all in Jerusalem itself. It was true wisdom, therefore, to transfer the further discussion of the question to the source from whence the mischief had come; more particularly as Paul and Barnabas would go there in order that it might not only be heard but there and then settled by all the authority given of God for the governing of His assembly on the earth. All was thus directed under the good hand of God, for the evil was judged in the quarter from whence it emanated, where presumably, not to say notoriously, was its hotbed, where lived those who knew best its promoters, and where all was rather favourable than hostile to them, with on the other hand the immense moral weight that would follow the judgment from such as God had set first in the church to govern in the Lord's name.

1 Text Rec. followed by the Authorized Version and many has 'therefore', and even Lachmann adheres to it, as AEHP and most cursives give it. But the correct particle δέ has the best support and is clearly right. The common συζητήοεως is unfounded.

In Gal_2:1-2 the apostle Paul says he went up 'according to revelation'. Here the inspired historian says that they (i.e., the brethren or the labourers generally without defining more) arranged or decided that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem about this question. There is no more contradiction here than in Act_13:2 where the Spirit called unmistakably and exclusively the same servants of the Lord to a definite missionary work, while they also enjoyed the cordial and holy fellowship of their fellow-labourers in commending them to the grace of God for that tour. They may have had the revelation direct as in Act_16:9-10, or through the prophetic intimation of others as before, what is certain is that 'according to revelation' Paul went up, and not merely as a step appointed by others. Each statement is in perfect keeping with the document where it is given, and the Holy Spirit's design in each, though men as usual have not been wanting to set them in antagonism. Titus was one of these others, and his case at least was of immediate bearing on the question as an uncircumcised Gentile endowed and honoured of God beyond most; but this again is specified only to the Galatians for its importance there, though room be amply and evidently left for it in the Acts. The rationalistic misuse of God's word is an instance of that ignorance or dishonesty, if not both, which characterizes the system. The believer ought to have no hesitation or difficulty, inasmuch as faith adheres to all scripture as divine.

'They therefore, having been set forward by the assembly, passed through both1 Phoenicia and Samaria, recounting the conversion of the Gentiles, and they caused great joy to all the brethren' (ver. 3). Is there any good reason why propemfqevnte" should not be rendered 'set forward' here as in Rom_15:24, 1Co_16:6; 3Jn_1:6? No doubt the heart of the saints was with them, not with the legalists; but there was considerate and affectionate care for their wants by the way, whether or not there was any escort, as in Act_21:5, which some conceive here. The picture is a lovely one, the joy in all created by the accounts heard of God's grace outside Israel. What a contrast with Jewish jealousy! Yet are unlettered men and women peculiarly open to superstition, prejudice, and human feeling. But divine love prevailed, in accordance with the truth. Others alas! who for the time ought to have been teachers had again need to be taught the elements of the beginning of the oracles of God and had come to need milk, not solid food (Heb_5:12). It is harder to unlearn than to learn.

1 Text. Rec. follows most in omitting τε 'both', which the more ancient authorities insert.

'And on arriving at Jerusalem they were welcomed1 by the assembly and the apostles and the elders, and reported all things that God did with them. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees, believers, saying, It is necessary to circumcise them and charge [them] to keep the law of Moses' (vers. 4, 5).

1 The critical reading is stronger than that of Text. Rec.

The heart of the church beat truly, but there were adversaries now within as well as without. It was not yet the conference, but meetings preliminary to it, where the wonderful works of God by the gospel drew out sympathy or opposition among those at Jerusalem who bore the Lord's name. Those who at this time resented the liberty of grace are expressly said to have believed. The crisis, therefore, was grace. Unity - unity not merely by-and-by in heaven, but now on earth - is the blessed privilege and the inalienable responsibility of the body of Christ, the assembly. There was no such unhappy wish as to forestall the due place by dealing with the question where Paul and Barnabas had especial and commanding influence, and then arguing on the church's unity to compel the communion of the assembly in Jerusalem and of course everywhere else. Yet Antioch might have been plausibly set forward as the only proper place to discuss and determine a question which so intimately concerned the Lord's glory among the Gentile believers. For not from Jerusalem but from Antioch were those ambassadors of Christ sent forth who had been the great pioneers in the missionary work of the Holy Spirit. Self or party could have furnished abundant reasons; but Christ held His place, which first sought His will and then made all saints dear, even those who were creating trouble by their lack of grace, lowliness, and intelligence. Thus the snare was avoided by which Satan sought even then to scatter and make a Jewish church apart from the Gentile; or, at the least, by leaving out the assembly in Jerusalem the apostles, and the elders, to begin a separate course at Antioch, which would end in division ere long, if not immediately. But grace and truth prevailed, the respect due to all those whom the Lord had honoured and, as we have seen the particular principle of dealing with evil in its root, and not merely its fruits.

It was, I presume, at this juncture that the apostle, as he tells us in Gal_2:2-10, set the gospel he preached to the Gentiles before those of reputation in private. It was then they saw that he had been entrusted with the gospel of the uncircumcision, even as Peter with that of the circumcision; and that James, Cephas, and John gave to Paul and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship according to that partition of the work which the Lord had already marked out for all that had eyes to discern. This was of the utmost moment to state in the Epistle; but it was outside the public history and independent of the council which is the Spirit's object in the chapter before us. The independence of Paul's mission and work does not enter into view here, whereas in the letter to the Galatians it was of capital moment, and the decrees of the council are not named where they could have no just place, and their mention might have wrought only mischief. How truly, in the New Testament as in the Old, to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven! Above, such distinction is uncalled for, where all is light, peace, and love, to God's glory.

It seems evident that much was done before the council. The opposition of the judaizing party had come out fully and distinctly from the time the apostles of the Gentiles had been received by the assembly, as it had wrought since the baptism of Cornelius and his household. Naturally the public recital of what God had done in Asia Minor provoked their prejudices yet more. What occurred privately is not stated here; but we know from the early verses of Gal. ii. that it was of high moment.

What is reported in Acts 15 had for its prime object the repression of Jewish feeling and the distinct recognition of the Gentiles who believed on common ground with the Jewish disciples. The decrees that were ordained by the apostles and the elders in Jerusalem had the greatest weight in that point of view. But, in writing to the Gentile assemblies, the apostle takes the high ground of grace, and proves the incompatibility of a fleshly ordinance, however venerable or instructive, with the truth of a dead and risen Saviour as a ground of justification before God. In that grand scheme, wherein God Himself has wrought for guilty and lost man in the cross and blood of His Son, circumcision made with hands wholly vanishes away. And the Gentile believers, dead in their offences and the uncircumcision of their flesh, Christ quickened together with Him, no less than the Jewish faithful, having forgiven us all the offences. The handwriting written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, He blotted out and took out of the way, nailing it to the cross (Col_2:13-15).

We can understand how truly it was of God, thus to confront and set aside all Gentile inclination for ordinances by the teaching of the truth of Christ, which had buried the question in His grave and given the Christian a new place in Him, to which the flesh never had, nor can have, a claim. The decrees had their place and season most suitably while the early Jews who believed were objects of the patience of God: but the apostolic Epistles treat the question on a deeper foundation and with higher associations, which abide for ever. But it is highly instructive to notice that the apostle was not behind others in honouring and using the decrees, which are not even mentioned in the final discussion of the case for the edification of the church in general.

'And the apostles and the elders were gathered together to see about this matter. And when there had been much questioning, Peter stood up and said to them, Brethren (lit. Men-brethren) ye know how that from early days God chose among you1 that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And the heart-knowing God bore them witness, giving [them]2 the Holy Spirit, even as to us also, and He put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why tempt ye God, that ye should put a yoke on the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe3 that through the grace of the Lord Jesus4 we shall be saved in like manner as they' (vers. 6-11). Here we have the opening of the council. None but the apostles and elders are mentioned as gathered together. It was emphatically for their decision, but assuredly not without the presence and concurrence of the assembly, as we know from verse 22, not to speak of verse 12; and this of course as a reality, not a mere form which Christianity forbids. But God would have the positive seal of the highest authority in the eyes even of the remonstrants. Hence the prominent mention throughout of the apostles and elders, while it cannot be doubted that the assembly was present and free to take part. It was a matter in which every soul had a real interest but in which the judgment of the wisest was particularly needed. And One wiser than any took His guiding part here (ver. 28), Whose personal presence we have seen to be sedulously acknowledged throughout this entire Book, as indeed it is characteristic of the church of God according to the scriptures. The Holy Ghost was there and was counted upon for guidance to the glory of Christ.

1 Most with Text. Rec. read 'us'.

2 The pronoun here is doubtful, the sense is clear.

3 The Sinaitic, et al., have the strange error of the future here.

4 'Christ' in the Text. Rec. has some authority, but neither much nor the best.

This, however, did not preclude discussion. Verse 7 lets us know that there was much debate or questioning. No doubt it was sorrowful and humiliating that there should be such disputation, even in the presence of the apostles, but the fact is plain and is calmly recorded by the Holy Spirit, which should convince not a few how far their notion of ecclesiastical order differs from primitive history. Even in apostolic days we see how liberty prevailed though flesh undoubtedly took advantage of it. To destroy the liberty because of its abuse were a remedy worse than the disease; and thus it is with Christendom bound in fetters of brass for ages, and denouncing true liberty as licence. Human rules have rendered the scriptural state of things just as impossible against good as against evil. But faith, when directed to God's revelation in this, can never rest satisfied short of subjection to scripture, and the rather as the Holy Spirit was promised to abide with us for ever.

The apostles, it is evident, bore patiently with the difficulties and even disputes of their less discerning and more prejudiced brethren. They were strong in the grace that is in Christ. They had His glory livingly before their souls. They sought not lordship over the faith of their brethren, but that others should stand by faith even as they stood. As the grace and truth of Christ faded in men's hearts, ecclesiastical authority became an idol or self-importance a snare. Such was, such is, no small part of the present ruined state of the church: no one contends that there was perfection even in apostolic days, still less can one look for perfection now even within the most circumscribed sphere. But every faithful soul is bound to stand for the Lord's honour according to the written word, and to eschew whatever is opposed to God's order as well as to doctrinal truth and personal holiness. The denial of such a responsibility is in substance not only a sin but antinomian in principle, no matter whose be the names or what the fair-spoken pleas to excuse the unfaithfulness. It is easy to point out grievous shortcoming even where a truthful stand is made. But those who point it out with complacency fail in this very matter to exhibit the Spirit of Christ, and will never be able to justify human methods in God's church, even if they succeeded in carrying them out ever so successfully. How much more worthy to do better according to the word what they blame for being done so feebly! Is it uncharitable to say that to act themselves according to the word is far from their purpose, which is simply to discredit those who do seek it?

Peter then reminds all of his mission to Joppa, where the Gentiles received the gospel through him as God's first and apostolic instrument. Most powerfully does he urge God's dealings with them, 'the heart-knowing God' bearing witness to them in the gift of the Holy Spirit, uncircumcised as they were, nay, further, that He put no distinction between the Jewish and the Gentile believers, seeing that His purification is of the heart by faith. For this a rite avails nothing. 'Now, therefore, why tempt ye God'? Their prejudice, in itself, and specially if maintained, was a real disbelief of God's word and acts. It was putting a yoke of law upon the neck of the disciples, which none in the past or present could bear: a circumcised man was debtor to do the whole law. For, introduced in glory as it was, it is a ministry of death and condemnation. The gospel believed is salvation through the grace of the Lord Jesus, Who bore our penalty and blotted out our sins in His blood. This is grace indeed, where all the guilt was ours and all that availed for our forgiveness and deliverance was His, to the vindication of that God, His God and Father, Whom we had rebelled against or lived without. In reality we knew Him not as He is, believing the lie of Satan rather than the truth of God. We did our own will and gave Him no credit for love, though He so loved the world as to give His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth should not perish but have everlasting life. But now we have seen the Son and believed in Him. His grace in suffering for our sins, the Just for the unjust, has made us both ashamed of ourselves and acquainted with God; and He is love. 'Hereby know we love, because He laid down His life for us' (1Jn_3:16).

Formed by that grace, it is remarkable that Peter says here, 'we believe that we Jews shall be saved in like manner as they (Gentiles)'. The natural phrase for a Jew would have been, 'They in like manner as we'; but grace reigns and Peter says, 'We, in like manner as they'. How worthy of the gospel! This was not Simon Bar-Jonah left to himself, but it was Peter - a true rock-man. Flesh and blood had not prompted the thought or word but the Father Who is in heaven.

Peter had made an admirable introduction and his argument was the reflection of the grace of the Lord Jesus. It was well and worthy that the apostle of the circumcision should so speak not merely from personal experience but from the sovereign choice of God. We can understand the effect: 'And all the multitude kept silence.' None could doubt the strong Jewish prejudice of Peter, no more could they question now his assertion of liberty from the law for the Gentiles. But there was another reason for keeping silence. 'And they hearkened unto Barnabas and Paul rehearsing what signs and wonders God wrought among the Gentiles by them' (ver. 12). Here there ought not to be a hesitation that 'all the multitude' must take in not merely the apostles and the elders but the assembly. This seems certain from verse 22, whatever may be our judgment of the true reading in verse 23. It is interesting to note that the signs and wonders are said to have been wrought of God by Barnabas and Paul, whereas in verse 4 the more general work of the Lord is said to have been all that God wrought with them. The signs and wonders were more external and they are viewed as mere instruments. 'With them,' implies more of fellowship and divine association than exercise of mere power. Such a statement must have had the most powerful effect on Jewish minds. God graciously gave in abundance what they would expect peculiarly in so novel a work among the Gentiles. His grace had fully provided for all emergencies beforehand.

'And after they had held their peace, James answered saying, Brethren [Men-brethren] hearken to me; Simeon has rehearsed how God first visited the Gentiles to take out of [them] a people for His name' (vers. 13, 14). This is a most important proposition in its way; it gives a separate character to the present work of God. It in no way denies that God had a line of saints in Israel, and before Israel, and what is more, outside Israel; but it asserts a special gathering 'gut' at this present time, and it leaves no room for the vain thought, that even one nation, as a whole, shall be brought by the gospel to confess the Lord, still less that all nations shall be so changed. The truth is that God only proposes while Jesus is at His right hand to take out of all a people for His name. This is the church of God and it is as distinct from the ways of God before the cross as from those which are to follow the Lord's appearing and reign by-and-by.

'And to this agree the words of the prophets, as it is written; After these things I will return and will build again the tabernacle of David which is fallen, and will build again its ruins and will set it up; so that the residue of men may seek out the Lord and all the nations upon whom My name is called, saith [the] Lord, Who maketh [all] these things known from the beginning of the world' (vers. 15-18).

It is an error to suppose that these last words allude to the mystery of forming the believing Gentiles with the faithful Jews into one body, the church. Rom_16:25-26 and Eph_3:5-6 do refer to that mystery, but not our text which simply speaks of God's gracious recognition of those of the nations that believe as His own, though Gentiles still, whether under the gospel now or in the future kingdom. Union with Christ and the Head as His body goes much farther, though said of Gentiles now as of believing Jews, but no Old Testament prophet reveals it. The prophetic writings of Rom. 16 and the prophets of Eph. 3 are New Testament exclusively.

It will be observed that the prophets are referred to generally, though none but Amos is quoted, and the object is general. James draws from their testimony, proved expressly by the one cited, the principle of Gentiles as such having the Lord's name called upon them. So far were they of the nations from having to accept circumcision that the prophet speaks of all the Gentiles. This will be in the days of the kingdom as no Jew could deny. They will not become Jews any more than the Jews will become Gentiles, both will be blessed of the Lord in their respective positions when the Messiah reigns. It was absurd therefore to object to God's grace toward the Gentiles now, under the gospel, and in the church where is neither Jew nor Gentile, but Christ is all and in all.

The reading in verse 18 is somewhat doubtful, and even the version, which may mean 'Who doeth these things known from the beginning of the world.' The general sense is plain enough. Accordingly James gives his judgment: 'Wherefore my judgment is that we trouble not those who from the Gentiles turn to God, but write to them that they may abstain from pollutions of idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from generations of old hath in every city those who preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath' (vers. 19-21).

'The pollution of idols' were meats offered to idols, as in verse 29. Cf. Dan_1:8, Mal_1:7, not to speak of Ecclus. xl. Bentley's conjecture of χοιρείας ('pork') for πορνείας is an instance of the great scholar's audacity and erudite ignorance (perhaps suggested by Bellonius' Observat. iii. 10 whom he cites in ver. 29). We may think it strange to see unclean sin classed with idolatrous sanction; but the Jew felt differently, and to the Gentile they were equally indifferent.

Thus it was going up rather to God's ways with Noah, than enforcing the law of Moses. Noah being a sort of head of mankind generally after the flood, Gentile liberty was thus secured, idolatry was intolerable, and so was fornication, however universal both among the nations. Abstinence from things strangled and blood brought in the recognition of God's taking account of man as fallen. God forbade both: the use of the creature was not forbidden to man, but God prohibited meddling with the special signs of death; life belongs to God, and it was forfeited through sin. As for the law, there was no reason why the church should busy itself in that direction: from generations of old Moses had in every city those that preach him. The synagogues at any rate had the law read there every sabbath. The Gentiles henceforth might well rejoice in the gospel.

It may be noticed by the way that no vote was taken, nor any equivalent measure. For it was no question of the will of man but of God. Who wrought by the Spirit to give holy wisdom and general concurrence.

'Then it seemed good to the apostles and elders with the whole assembly having chosen1 from among them to send men with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch, Judas called2 Barsabbas and Silas, leading men among the brethren, having written by their hand, The apostles and the elder brethren3 to the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting. Whereas we heard that some who went out from us troubled you with words, upsetting your souls4; to whom we gave no commandment, it seemed good to us, having been of one accord5 to choose6 and send men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men that have given up their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, themselves also announcing by word the same things. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these necessary things: to abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and blood, and things strangled, and fornication; from which if ye keep yourselves ye shall do well. Farewell' (vers. 22-29).

1 'Chosen', verses 22 and 25, in the Authorized and other Versions is ungrammatical. G. Wakefield is half right, half wrong.

2 Text. Rec. with some authority gives 'surnamed', as in Authorized Version.

3 The common text follows EHLP, et al., as opposed to ABCD et al., and probably was framed to suit verse 22; it was a mere clerical error.

4 Text. Rec. with many MSS. adds 'saying that ye must be circumcised and keep the law'. The most ancient authorities omit.

5 The Authorized Version renders this in a way of no bearing here.

6 'Chosen', verses 22 and 25, in the Authorized Version and others is ungrammatical. G. Wakefield is half right, half wrong.

It will be observed that the most ancient authorities open with a reading which is now accepted by almost all critics. This yields a sense rather more remote from ecclesiastical tradition than the ordinary text, where 'the elders' are distinguished sharply from 'the brethren' immediately following. The 'elder brethren', however, is a formula which exactly agrees with the state of things which was obtaining at Jerusalem. No doubt they were 'the elders' there, as we find them called in Act_11:30, as well as in Act_15:2; Act_15:6. They were the local authorities; but they appear not to have been chosen formally, as the elders undoubtedly were in the Gentile assemblies, by apostolic authority, direct or indirect; they seem rather to have acted simply from their experience and moral weight, as was usual among the Jews. This falls in remarkably with the peculiar expression employed here, 'the elder brethren', and harmonizes with the tone of Peter's address in 1Pe_5:1-4.

But there is another remark to make of still more immediate and important application practically. Judas Barsabbas and Silas were sent with Paul and Barnabas, characterized as 'leading men among the brethren'. They were neither apostles on the one hand, nor were they elders or elder brethren on the other, but were for their fitness chosen by the council to visit Antioch. It is the same expression which we find three times (vers. 7, 17, 24) in Heb. 13. The Revised Version, like the Authorized translates it 'chiefs in Act_15:22; but 'those that had (or, 'have') the rule' in Hebrews: 'had' for the departed chiefs, 'have' for such as still lived and laboured. They are not spoken of as elders, but seem to have been identified with the ministration of the word (ver. 7), rather than with oversight or presiding like the elders. This fact gives us clear insight, when duly recognized into the far greater liberty as well as variety of gift exercised in the apostolic church as compared with the straitness of modern Christendom I do not speak of sign-gifts, such as miracles and tongues, but of spiritual endowments given of Christ for the perfecting of the saints. Denominational arrangements on the worldly system of a salary, with the claims of an exclusive position, directly interferes with the Lord's wild in this respect and destroys the beautiful liberty of the Spirit to the famishing (not the edification) of the body of Christ.

Yet it will be found by the attentive reader not only of the Acts of the Apostles but of their Epistles, that the principle and the practice of this free ministration in the assemblies is easily vouched for apart from local authority or official rank throughout the New Testament. Rom_12:4-8 is plain. 'Teaching' and 'exhorting', and 'ruling', or 'leading', are spoken of as 'gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us' distinct from 'prophecy', as well as one from another. In the church or assembly according to God's word there was and ought to be room for them all. It were the sheerest unbelief to assume that they are now extinct. Woe be to the adversaries of the Holy Ghost who affirm such a falsehood to justify their system!

The reader can compare also 1 Cor. 12 and 1 Cor. 14 throughout, as well as 1Co_15:1-21, Gal_6:6, Eph_4:7-16, Php_1:14, Col_2:19, 1Th_5:12-13, 2Ti_2:2; 1Pe_4:10-11; 3Jn_1:7-8, which prove in the clearest manner the full opening in the assembly as well as towards the world for those suitably gifted which scripture maintains, and only persons like Diotrephes, as far as God's word speaks, dare to oppose and neutralize.

It is in vain to plead, as unbelief blindly does, that such largeness and liberty were only suited to the apostolic day. For this really gives the highest sanction to such free action of the Holy Ghost. If inspired men, if the highest gifts that God ever set in the church, did not hinder but help on every form of gracious ministry, how can men in avowedly inferior position nowadays justify their opposition? None but the most prejudiced will contend that the ordinary gifts of edification fail. None but enthusiasts will deny that the sign-gifts, which ushered in the present economy, are extinct. Not so those, thank God, that are given by the ascended Christ unto the work of ministering, save such as were for laying the foundation (Eph_2:20) which once laid was laid for ever.

We may remark in the letter of the council that the order is 'Barnabas and Paul' (ver. 25) as in verse 12, whereas earlier in the chapter as in verse 2, and later as in verse 35, and subsequently, it is 'Paul and Barnabas'. The feeling of the saints in Jerusalem expressed itself in the former way, as was the feeling elsewhere in the early days of the great apostle's testimony. Compare Act_11:30; Act_12:25; Act_13:2; Act_13:7. But Act_13:13, marks a great change, as we see in verses 43, 46, 50 (but not Act_14:14). The reader of the Old Testament may find a similar principle in Exo_6:13; Exo_6:20; Exo_6:26-27. In the order of nature it is 'Aaron and Moses'; in sovereign grace it becomes 'Moses and Aaron'. The author of the Old and the New is the same, and can only be God Himself working in man through His unerring Spirit.

This was the only council which was entitled to say, 'It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us.' If others have imitated the language, it is but profanity. Yet it was not an ecumenical assembly at all, but simply the assembly at Jerusalem where the apostles and local elders met together to consider the matter. The decision was most rightly taken there, whence the evil had sprung, and where the apostles were, Paul and Barnabas going up for the purpose. It was they with the whole assembly at Jerusalem who decided for the liberty of the Gentile converts. How different and disastrous it must have been had it been a council at Antioch, even though the decision had been the same! It is of all consequence that the way as well as the end be of the Holy Spirit and in accordance with the word of God. So it was with this council, and we hear no more of the 'much' discussion or questioning which had agitated the brethren before the council. Judas and Silas were sent as the most unequivocal witnesses of the decision at Jerusalem that Barnabas and Paul might thence have a support above all question. The power of divine grace had thus wrought in truth and righteousness for the name of Jesus; and there was a great calm.

There was no such portentous error as a portion of the assembly (though in Jerusalem exceedingly numerous) deciding for itself alone then, the other portions following suit and lastly, all who objected to the fraud and force of the transaction jostled and declared outside in the city, with the like course pursued throughout the country. No wonder that breaches must be created by so gross a departure from the word, even if the object had not been partiality to a favourite preceded by unrighteous oppression. At the council in Jerusalem, as love wrought for Christ's glory so righteousness was the result, and unity throughout was maintained. Nobody thought of another judgment of the question, either in other parts of Jerusalem or anywhere else. God honoured His own principles in His word, grace triumphed, and the saints at large, however previously alienated, owned and rejoiced in the blessing, where appearances had threatened a storm of evil omen to all who valued the gospel.

But the ecumenical councils anathematized individuals and forced divisions far and wide. In this they succeeded; for nothing is so easy as to scatter the saints. To allay fleshly violence, to conciliate the alienated, to repress party, needs grace and truth wielded by the Lord: what was so rare at these councils (as the patience of Christ)? Will and passion reigned more humblingly and bitterly than in the political sphere.

Even the first and most important of these 'general councils' was convened by the Emperor Constantine, though an unbaptized man! to be held at Nicea. The number of western delegates was ridiculously small, as indeed it ever was at all the councils in the East. Later, when the popes exercised the power of the emperors, the eastern bishops were wholly absent. Thus the claim to be 'ecumenical' was a nullity, and most evidently after the West quarrelled with the East, for thenceforward only the Latin party attended. Thus God took care that, as the departure became complete and evil was enforced by man's will, unity should be manifestly at an end, though none were so loud and arrogant in their claim of it as those who in their blind zeal had done most to destroy the testimony to it.

The scene now changes to Antioch, whither the chosen envoys repair with Paul and Barnabas.

'They then having been let go, went down unto Antioch, and having gathered the multitude delivered the letter. And when they had read it they rejoiced at the consolation. And Judas and Silas, being themselves also prophets, exhorted the brethren with much discourse and strengthened [them]. And having continued a time, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto those that sent them' (vers. 30-33).

At Antioch was the assembly where the Holy Ghost had exercised His sovereign rights in making good the glory of Christ by calling and separating His servants. It was there that Satan had sought to judaize by legal influence derived from Jerusalem. And now that the assembly in Jerusalem had repudiated and cast out that leaven of Pharisaism, Antioch is the first Gentile assembly to hear that grace had triumphed in the very circle whence the evil had spread. The multitude assembled, the letter was delivered, and, when it was read, 'they rejoiced at the consolation'.

Alas! it has been rare in ecclesiastical history when such is the fruit of 'decrees'; for they are in general a dreary record of anathemas, and, like Ezekiel's roll, lamentation and mourning and woe are written there. Here the gracious power of the Spirit was at work, whatever the adversaries; and edification resulted, not destruction. There was no selfish design, still less a purpose to scatter. The word of God was proved to tally with the ways of His mercy, and the Holy Spirit bound all together, great or small, in giving emphasis and freedom to the gospel in its widest range. Those whose prejudice would have fettered and really corrupted its character, stood abashed and silent, however obstreperous they might have been before. Those who simply desired to hold fast grace, 'rejoiced at the consolation', which was the sweeter because the material of it came from Jerusalem.

'And Judas and Silas, being themselves also prophets, exhorted the brethren with much discourse and confirmed them.' We cannot but see the blessed liberty of ministry even where apostles were present. Clerical rights, and personal jealousies? had no place yet. The brethren accordingly confirmed all, as might be looked for, through these ample witnesses, whose one desire for all was growth through the truth. It was the same principle at work here? which was developed years afterwards in 1 Cor. 12, 14, as indeed the New Testament knows none other according to God. After some time Judas and Silas were dismissed in peace 'unto those that had sent them'? not merely 'unto the apostles?, as in the later copies and some early versions? the more important of which join the ancient in omitting verse 34 of the Text. Rec. as reflected in the Authorized Version. It was probably an insertion due to an inference from verse 40? which is as easy to account for as it is hard to conceive? the best leaving it out if genuine. Silas may have returned, instead of abiding, which last does not well agree with verse 33.

'But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch teaching and evangelizing, with many others also, the word of the Lord' (ver. 35). Here again we have a plain scripture fully confirming the large and active ministry of the word which characterized these early days. If it be answered that such simplicity was suited to days of testimony before Christianity became an institution established here below, the reply is that the mischief lies there exactly. Christianity ought never to be other than a pilgrimage of faith, and never to have become a thing settled in the earth like judaism. Communion with Christ and separation from the world are the necessary conditions of fidelity. Our only right establishment will be the holy city Jerusalem? coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, in the day of Christ's appearing. Till then neither ease nor honour nor peace nor power in the world, but, as the apostle says, boasting in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom the world is crucified to each, and each of us to the world. Hence ministry is in scripture no question of worldly rank or emolument (though the labourer is worthy of his hire) but of devoted and loving service according to the gift of Christ.

Here we cannot do better than introduce an incident of the liveliest but withal painful interest, the collision between the great apostle of the circumcision and the younger but still greater apostle of the Gentiles (Gal_2:11 et seq.). There seems no real reason to doubt that it occurred at Antioch about this very time after the council of Jerusalem and before the departure of Barnabas, and so it is understood by Ussher (Works, xi. 51), as by others of the greatest weight of old as now. Yet as a fact never was a plain matter so distressingly perverted than by respectable ancients, never greater anxiety to alter its time among recent writers, some of whom prefer an earlier, others a later, date. The real moral is the reluctance of men to bow to the truth, which is all the more impressive if we give due weight to the time when it happened. Certainly man is not exalted thereby, but God Who does not fail of raising up an adequate testimony to His own glory.

No less a man than the chief of the twelve, after all that grace had done failed to walk straightforwardly according to the truth of the gospel; and having sinned publicly, he was publicly reproved for a compromise so dangerous, and for an inconsistency in his case most glaring. 'But when Cephas came unto Antioch, I resisted him face to face, because he was condemned. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he drew back and separated himself fearing those of the circumcision; and the rest of the Jews also dissembled with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw them not walking straightforwardly according to the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before all, If thou being a Jew livest Gentile-wise and not Jew-wise, how dost thou compel the Gentiles to judaize? We, Jews by nature and not sinners from among Gentiles, yet knowing that a man is not justified by works of law but only through faith of Jesus Christ, even we believed in Christ Jesus . . .' (Gal_2:11-16).

One can see on the one hand what a handle was given to enemies not only by the circumcision itself but yet more by the indelible page of inspiration; as on the other hand we may be sure the Holy Spirit would never have thus recorded it for ever unless it were due to God's glory and a most needed lesson for the highest of the Lord's servants through all time. And so we learn how Porphyry chuckled over both (Hieron. vii. 371) and Marcion turned it to his Gnostic account (Tertull. Adv. Marcionem, etc.) as the author of the Clementines to his malignant aspersion of the apostle Paul.

But there is incomparably more to humble a serious Christian in the way the truth was evaded save by very few. Clemens Alex. is mentioned by Eusebius H.E. i. 12 as authority for the notion that the Cephas in question was not Peter but one of the seventy (!) a notion which spread of old and has not quite disappeared from modern times. Far more weighty are those who condescended to the still baser idea of Origen that the dispute was a mere feint promoted knowingly by both Paul and Peter in which the latter plays the errorist in order to be crushed the more effectually by the former! The greatest preacher of Constantinople, Chrysostom, more than once advocates this monstrous figment; as did Jerome with his usual keenness. With such a representation Augustine dealt worthily, arguing that to accept inspired men's acting a falsehood was to shake the entire authority of scripture. The correspondence is characteristic of each, and may be seen in the Epistolary portion of their works. Jerome was neither humble nor magnanimous enough to sing the palinode to which Augustine had at first invited him, but his authorities, real or assumed, as well as his threats of crushing his adversary under the weight of his own blows, did not deter the Bishop of Hippo from an overwhelming overthrow of the case alleged and a faithful vindication of the plain bearing of God's word, which in fact ought never to be called into question for one moment.

Thenceforward Peter vanishes from inspired history. This is the last of his acts noticed, though both his Epistles appeared much later. It is affecting and solemn that so it should be; but so it was. People think it strange after being so used and honoured - after Pentecost, Caesarea, and the council in Jerusalem quite recently. But the fear of man was ever a snare to Peter; nor was it the first time that he was rebuked for shrinking from the practical consequences of the truth in this world.

'But after certain days Paul said to Barnabas, Let us return now and see after the brethren in every city wherein we announced the word of the Lord, how they fare. And Barnabas was minded to take with [them] John also that was called Mark; but Paul thought good not to take with [them] him that withdrew from them from Pamphylia and went not with them unto the work. And there arose a sharp feeling, so that they parted one from another; and Barnabas taking Mark sailed away unto Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and departed, commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. And he passed through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the assemblies' (vers. 36-41).

Alas! further sorrow was not far off; and the ardent desire of the apostle Paul to visit the young assemblies in Asia Minor gave occasion to it. For Barnabas, already damaged by the influence of Peter, set his heart on taking with them John Mark, his cousin. Paul had not forgotten his formerly forsaking the work, its toils and its disagreeables, its shame and the self-abnegation it entails, hence he set his face against such a companion, till grace had wrought complete restoration in self-judgment and devotedness without stint. Good a man as was Barnabas and attached to his honoured companion, this proved too much for his present state which resented Paul's estimate as severe and beyond measure. But honey, however sweet in itself, was an element forbidden in an offering to the Lord (Lev_2:11), and Barnabas should have remembered that his natural tie was not favourable to a righteous judgment in the point of difference. Certain it is that there arose a sharp feeling between those blessed servants of the Lord 'so that they parted one from another', never more to join in common labours. It is not that there ceased on Barnabas' side earnestness in the work or the blessing of the Lord; and the apostle Paul speaks of him with nothing but warm affection and respect in subsequent allusions. Further, it is the joy of grace to hear of Mark owned in the Lord's service, put forward by the apostle where the lack of such a recognition might have stood in his way, and this with peculiar appreciation in the latest Epistle he ever wrote (2Ti_4:11). Lastly, it was this very Mark who, I doubt not, purchased to himself a good degree and signal honour in being the inspired witness of our Lord's ministry. Who could enter so deeply as Mark into the wonders of a gospel service where glory shone out of the clouds of unequalled humiliation without one shade of failure, where grace reigned unwaveringly in the midst of sore trial and continual provocation with not a single comfort save from above?

So 'Barnabas taking Mark sailed away unto Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.' It seems plain that Barnabas, beloved as he was, failed at this moment to carry the conscience of his brethren with him. Paul on the other hand was once more accorded, and Silas with him, that mark of united recommendation to the grace of the Lord, which he and Barnabas enjoyed on their first mission to the Gentiles from Antioch (Act_13:2-3; Act_14:26). It is almost needless to remark how unfounded is the assumption that 'ordination' is in question here: the renewed mention shows how little they understand the mind of the Lord who are in quest of such perverted efforts to sanction old wives' fables, and overlook the grace which identified the brethren that tarried by the stuff with the mightier champions that went down to the battle.

Another feature of interest to note is that, while ministry is of individual faith, this does not hinder one of superior discernment choosing another as companion in work; as the Lord had Himself sent out His servants, both twelve and seventy, two and two before His face. Such a choice is scriptural; election of a minister in the word by an assembly is wholly unknown to the word.

We are meant to observe too that not a word more is said historically of Barnabas, who with his kinsman sailed off to his native isle. Of Paul it is written that 'he passed through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the assemblies' (ver. 41). The 'rite' of confirmation has no real source in God's word; but His servants were diligent in strengthening the faith of the saints. They rightly felt that the truth is best learnt within, where practice illustrates and develops principle. Church action where living and true is the ready comment on scripture, and continual teaching draws attention to details as well as to the truth as a whole in the person of Christ. Thus are the assemblies confirmed according to God.