Ir is stated that Paul and Barnabas now abode for a long time at Antioch with the disciples. This “long time” has been variously computed from five to eight years, during which we have no particular account of their proceedings, and which would seem, at the first view, to measure the period of their stay at Antioch. It is, however, certain that Paul made several journeys of which we have no direct narrative in the New Testament, and it is possible that some of these journeys may be assigned to this interval. Thus, in his epistle to the Romans (Rom_15:19), he states that he had preached the gospel as far as Illyricum; and in 2Co_11:22-27 there is a long list of trials and persecutions, respecting many of which there is no distinct record, and which may possibly have occurred during these years.
Towards the close of this period, whatever its duration, began that contest with the Judaists by which Paul was afterwards so largely occupied. It commenced by the arrival at Antioch of certain christianized Pharisees from the church at Jerusalem. These persons expressed their astonishment and horror at the fact, that the initiatory rite of Judaism had not been imposed upon the Gentile converts, nor the observance of the ritual law exacted from them. They insisted that the observance of the Mosaic law was essential to justification before God, and assured the converts that without it they could not be saved. It might be supposed that the converts would have been strongly enough built up in the more liberal and more spiritual doctrine which they had received from Paul and Barnabas, to perceive the danger and fallacy of such views, and to refuse the proposed bondage with indignation. No doubt many or most of them did so; but it is clear that the minds of not a few were shaken, and cast into a state of uncertainty and doubt. We can well imagine the arguments they might use; and that they were plausible and seemingly strong, may be inferred from the fact, that at a later date Peter, and even Barnabas himself, gave way for a time to their views. They would argue, that seeing the laws of Moses were certainly from God, they must be in their nature unchangeable. They would maintain, that the religion of the Messiah was only a perfecting completion of Judaism, and was designed to carry out its principles according to the promises, and not to alter or destroy aught that had been divinely instituted; and that, therefore, the laxity in this respect, which Paul and Barnabas had sanctioned, was not only unauthorized but dangerous. The controversy which thus arose, on these matters, in the church at Antioch, produced such painful dissension, that it was at length deemed advisable that Paul and Barnabas, accompanied by some leading men in that church, should proceed to Jerusalem in order to obtain a settlement of the matter from the apostles. Paul himself tells us, in a memorable passage of his Epistle to the Galatians, that he went “by revelation,”—which seems to mean, that it had been divinely impressed upon him or communicated to him, that an authoritative determination of the question in this way had become essential to the well-being of the church. It remains, however, doubtful, whether he had objected to this course until this intimation was given, or that the proposal originated with him in consequence of this “revelation.” The latter appears the most probable.
In their way, the party from Antioch seem to have been attended and conducted from one place on to the next, by some of the Christian brethren of the towns to which they came, and by whom the tidings of the conversion of the Gentiles was received with “great joy.”
Thus passing through Phoenicia and Samaria, they at length reached Jerusalem. James, Peter, and John were there; but whether they are named as being the only apostles then left in the city, or as the most prominent of the whole, is not clear. But the statement that these three “seemed to be pillars,” might appear somewhat in favor of the latter interpretation, were it not altogether unlikely that the bulk of the apostles, charged as they were with a mission to preach the Gospel through the world, had remained for so long a period together at Jerusalem.
The apostles and brethren from Antioch were received with much Christian friendliness at Jerusalem, and the tidings they brought gave general satisfaction. When, however, the matter in dispute came to be explained, signs of division appeared. There were many still in Jerusalem, of the same class and the same mind with those who had raised so much disturbance at Antioch—and these, as the others had done, persisted that it was indeed needful to circumcise the converts, and to command them to keep the whole law of Moses.
This was the very matter in dispute; and the delegates were thus reminded that they had come to Jerusalem to have it decided. Therefore “the apostles and elders came together to consider of this matter.” This assembly is usually described in ecclesiastical history as the First “Council” of the Christian Church, held at Jerusalem in the year 52 A.D.
After some time had been passed in inquiry and debate, Peter arose to address the assembly. He spoke entirely in accordance with the views of Paul; and was heard with profound attention, as he appealed to the results of his own experience in the matter of Cornelius. Hence he solemnly recognized the purifying of the heathen by faith, confirmed by the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, and he declared that he regarded it as a doubting of God’s acts, and indeed a tempting of God, to impose upon them, as a condition of salvation, the yoke of the Mosaic law. As no one attempted to reply to the weighty words of Peter, Barnabas and Paul, in their turn, arose, and reported the results of their own important experience to the same effect, appealing with great force to the miracles with which God had been pleased to aid and sanction their labors. James then arose; and the members of the assembly most opposed to concession, probably hung with special interest upon his words, in the expectation that, from his position and manner of life, his views would be in accordance with their own. But it was far otherwise. He was not disposed to disregard the evidence which had been produced. He acknowledged that the admission of the Gentiles into the blessings and honors of the Messiah’s kingdom, was in accordance with the purposes of God as declared by the prophets; and as it behoved them to be careful how they offered any obstruction to a great work which God had so visibly favored, it did not seem to him expedient that they should impose upon “those who among the Gentiles had turned to God,” the obligations of the Mosaic covenant. It would, in his judgment, suffice to enjoin upon them nothing further than to abstain from “pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.” All these were practices abominable to the Jews, and would oppose an insurmountable barrier to any social approximation between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. We are not here to look for any summary of Christian duty and obligation. We hear not of the worship of one God in Christ; of self-denial, of crucifying the flesh with the affections and lusts; but simply such practices, besides known sins, are specified as would prevent the Jews from coalescing with the uncircumcised Gentiles so as to form one church with them. Thus, the proposals of one so highly respected by the Jews as James was, under the influence of that higher Spirit by which the apostolic counsels were, according to their Lord’s promise, animated, were at once accepted by the assembly, and embodied in a decree drawn up in its name, and addressed to “the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch, and Syria, and Cilicia.” This remarkable and interesting document seems to bear the mark of James’ own hand in the form of salutation, “greeting” (
), which occurs nowhere else but here, and in the salutation of his own epistle—Jas_1:1.
Another important matter was also brought to a decision. In order that the converted heathen might have a practical proof of their right to have their sanctification recognized without coming under the ceremonial observances, Paul had taken with him to Jerusalem a Gentile convert named Titus who had never been circumcised. The step was crowned with success; the Judaizing teachers at Jerusalem, by strongly insisting that Titus ought to be circumcised, brought the matter under the consideration of the apostles, and compelled them to some distinct decision on the matter. They declined to sanction such an imposition, and, evidently after due deliberation, freed Titus from all obligation to be circumcised.