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Chapter 15 contains the account of this. Certain persons come from
Jerusalem, where all was still going on in connection with the requirements
of the law; and they seek to impose these requirements on the Gentiles in
this new centre and starting-point of the work which was formed at Antioch.
It was the will of God that this matter should be settled, not by the
apostolic authority of Paul, or by the action of His Spirit at Antioch
only, which might have divided the church, but by means of conference at
Jerusalem, so as to maintain union, whatever might be the prejudices of the
Jews. The ways of Godin this respect are remarkable, shewing the way in
which He has maintained sovereign care in grace over the church. In reading
the Epistle to the Galatians, we see that in reality things were in
question that touched Christianity to the quick, that affected its very
foundations, the deep principles of grace, of the rights of God, of the
sinful condition of man-principles on which the whole edifice of man's
eternal relations with God is founded. If any one was circumcised, he was
under the law; he had given up grace, he had fallen away from Christ.
Nevertheless Paul the apostle, Paul full of faith, of energy, of burning
zeal, is obliged to go up to Jerusalem, whither he had not desired to go,
in order to arrange this matter. Paul had laboured at Antioch; but the work
in that city was not his work. He was not the apostle at Antioch as he was
that of Iconium, of Lystra, and afterwards of Macedonia and of Greece. He
went out from Antioch, from the bosom of the church already formed there.
The question was to be settled for the church, apart from the apostolic
authority of Paul. The apostle must yield before God and His ways.
Paul disputes with the men from Judea, but the end is not gained. It is
determined to send some members of the church to Jerusalem, but with them
Paul and Barnabas, so deeply interested in this question. Moreover Paul had
a revelation that he should go up. God directed his steps. It is good
however to be obliged to submit sometimes, although ever so right or so
full of spiritual energy.
The question then is entered upon at Jerusalem. It was already a great
thing that the subjecting of the Gentiles to the law should be resisted at
Jerusalem, and still more that they should there decide not to do it. We
see the wisdom of God in so ordering it, that such a resolution should have
its origin at Jerusalem. Had there been no bigotry there, the question
would not have been necessary; but alas! good has to be done in despite of
all the weakness and all the traditions of men. A resolution made at
Antioch would have been a very different thing from a resolution made at
Jerusalem. The Jewish church would not have acknowledged the truth, the
apostolic authority of the twelve would not have given its sanction to it.
The course at Antioch and of the Gentiles would have been a course apart;
and a continual struggle would have commenced, having (at least in
appearance) the authority of the primitive and apostolic church on the one
side, and the energy and liberty of the Spirit with Paul for its
representative on the other. The Judaizing tendency of human nature is ever
ready to abandon the high energy of the Spirit, and return into the ways
and thoughts of the flesh. This tendency, nourished by the traditions of an
ancient faith, had already given sorrow and difficulty enough to him who
was specially labouring among the Gentiles according to the liberty of the
Spirit, without the additional strength of having the course of the
apostles and of the church at Jerusalem to countenance it.
After much discussion at Jerusalem, full liberty for which was given,
Peter, taking the lead, relates the case of Cornelius. Afterwards Paul and
Barnabas declare the wonderful manifestation of God through the power of
the Holy Ghost which had taken place among the Gentiles. James then sums up
the judgment of the assembly, which is assented to by all, that the
Gentiles shall not be obliged to be circumcised, or to obey the law; but
only to abstain from blood, from things strangled, from fornication, and
from meat offered to idols. We shall do well to consider the nature and
stipulations of this decree.
It is a direction which teaches, not that which is abstractedly good or
evil, but that which was suitable to the case presented. It was
"necessary," not "righteous before God," to avoid certain things. The
things might be really evil, but they are not here looked at in that way.
There were certain things to which the Gentiles were accustomed, which it
was proper they should renounce, in order that the assembly might walk as
it ought before God in peace. To the other ordinances of the law they were
not to be subjected. Moses had those who preached him. That sufficed,
without compelling the Gentiles to submit to his laws, when they joined
themselves, not to the Jews, but to the Lord.
This decree therefore does not pronounce upon the nature of the things
forbidden, but upon the opportuneness-the Gentiles having in fact been in
the habit of doing all these things. We must observe that they were not
things forbidden by the law only. It was that which was contrary to the
order established by God as Creator, or to a prohibition given to Noah when
he was told to eat flesh. Woman was only to be connected with man in the
sanctity of marriage, and this is a very great blessing. Life belonged to
God. All fellowship with idols was an outrage against the authority of the
true God. Let Moses teach his own laws; these things were contrary to the
intelligent knowledge of the true God. It is not therefore a new law
imposed by Christianity, nor an accommodation to the prejudices of the
Jews. It has not the same kind of validity as a moral ordinance that is
obligatory in itself. It is the expression to christian intelligence of the
terms of man's true relations with God in the things of nature, given by
the goodness of God, through the leaders at Jerusalem, to ignorant
Christians, setting them free from the law, and enlightening them with
regard to the relations between God and man, and to that which was proper
to man-things of which, as idolatrous Gentiles, they had been ignorant. I
have said, addressed to christian intelligence: accordingly there is
nothing inconsistent in eating anything that is sold at the shambles; for I
acknowledge God who gave it, and not an idol. But if the act implies
communion with the idol, even to the conscience of another, it would be
provoking God to jealousy; I sin against Him or against my neighbour. I do
not know whether an animal is strangled or not, but if people act so as to
imply that it is indifferent whether life belongs to God or not, I sin
again; I am not defiled by the thing, but I fail in christian intelligence
with regard to the rights of God as Creator. With regard to fornication,
this enters into the category of christian purity, besides being contrary
to the order of the Creator; so that it is a direct question of good and
evil, and not only of the rights of God revealed to our intelligence. This
was important as a general principle, more than in the detail of the things
In sum the principles established are these: purity by marriage according
to God's original institution; that life belongs to God; and the unity of
God as one only true God-Godhead, life, and God's original ordinance for
man. The same thing is true of the foundations laid by the assembly at the
basis of their decree, "It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us."
The Holy Ghost had manifested Himself in the case of Cornelius and of the
conversion of the Gentiles, of which Peter and Paul and Barnabas had given
the account. On the other hand the apostles were the depositaries of the
authority of Christ, those to whom the government of the assembly as
founded in connection with the true Jewish faith had been committed. They
represented the authority of Christ ascended on high, even as the power and
will of the Holy Ghost had been shewn in the cases I have just mentioned.
The authority was exercised in connection with that which, in a certain
sense, was the continuation of a Judaism enlarged by fresh revelations, and
which had its centre at Jerusalem, acknowledging as Messiah the ascended
Jesus rejected by the people. Christ had committed to them the authority
necessary to govern the assembly. They had also been sealed on the day of
Pentecost in order to perform it.
The spirit of grace and wisdom is truly seen in their way of acting. They
give their full sanction to Paul and Barnabas, and they send with them
persons of note in the assembly at Jerusalem, who could not be suspected of
bringing an answer in support of their own pretensions, as might have been
supposed in the case of Paul and Barnabas.
The apostles and elders assemble for deliberation; but the whole flock acts
in concert with them.
Thus Jerusalem has decided that the law was not binding on the Gentiles.
These, sincere in their desire of walking with Christ, rejoice greatly at
their freedom from this yoke. Judas and Silas, being prophets, exhort and
confirm them, and afterwards are dismissed in peace. But Silas thinks it
good to remain on his own account, influenced by the Spirit. He prefers the
work among the Gentiles to Jerusalem. Judas returns from it to Jerusalem.
The work continues at Antioch by means of Paul and Barnabas and others. At
Antioch we again see the full liberty of the Holy Ghost.
Paul proposes to Barnabas that they should go and visit the assemblies
already formed by their means in Asia Minor. Barnabas consents, but he
determines to take John who had formerly forsaken them. Paul wishes for
some one who had not drawn back from the work, nor abandoned for his own
home the place of a stranger for the work's sake. Barnabas insists; and
these two precious servants of God separate. Barnabas takes Mark and goes
to Cyprus. Now Mark was his kinsman, and Cyprus his own country. Paul takes
Silas, who had preferred the work to Jerusalem instead of Jerusalem to the
work and departs. From his name we may believe that Silas was a Hellenist.
It is happy to find that, after this, Paul speaks of Barnabas with entire
affection, and desires that Mark should come to him, having found him
profitable for the ministry.
Moreover Paul is commended by the brethren to the grace of God in his work.
The title given to Paul and Barnabas by the apostles shews the difference
between the apostolic authority, established by Christ in person, and that
which was constituted such by the power of the Holy Ghost-sent by Christ
Himself, no doubt, but in point of fact going forth by the direction of the
Holy Ghost, and their mission warranted by His power. With the apostles,
Paul and Barnabas have no title except their work-"men that have hazarded
their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." They are that which the
Holy Ghost has made them. The apostles are the twelve.
The liberty and the power of the Spirit characterise Paul He is that which
the Spirit makes him. If Jesus had appeared to him, although Ananias can
testify it, he must in reality prove it by the power of his ministry. The
effects of this ministry are related as well as its character in chapters
16-20. The action and the liberty of the Holy Ghost are there displayed in
a remarkable manner.