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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible

Acts 15

 

 

Introduction

CHAP. XV.

Great dissension ariseth touching circumcision. The apostles consult about it; and send their determination by letters to the churches. Paul and Barnabas, thinking to visit the brethren together, fall at strife and depart asunder.

Anno Domini 51.


Verse 1

Acts 15:1. And certain men, &c.— A circumstance now occurred, which was the occasion of very considerable consequences in the Christian church: for some persons who came from Antioch to Judea, full of Jewish prejudices,—among whom it was a common maxim, that all uncircumcised personsgo to hell; taught the Christians in their public and private discourses, that, except they were circumcised, according to the manner prescribed in the law of Moses, and became obedient to all the whole system of his precepts, they could not possibly be saved by the gospel; which, they urged, was intended to make all that were converted to it Jews, and that they could not otherwise be true and genuine Christians;—objections, which it was of the greatest consequence entirely to remove.


Verse 2

Acts 15:2. They determined that Paul and Barnabas, &c.— It is generally allowed, that this is the journey to which St. Paul refers, Galatians 2:1-2 when he says, that he went up by revelation; which is very consistent with this; for the church in sending them might be directed by a revelation, made either immediately to St. Paul, or to some other person, relating to this important affair. Important indeed it was, and necessary thatthese Jewish impositions should be solemnly opposed in time; because great numbers of converts, who were zealous for the law, would eagerly fall in with such a notion, and be ready to contend for the observance of it. Many of the Christians at Antioch, undoubtedly knew that St. Paul was under an extraordinary divine direction, and therefore would readily have acquiesced in his determination alone: but as others might have prejudices against him, on account of his having been so much concerned with the Gentiles, it was highly expedient to take the concurrent sense and judgment of the apostles to the circumcision upon this occasion.


Verse 3

Acts 15:3. And, being brought on their way Being brought forward on their journey. This is plainly the sense of the word προπεμφθεντες ; which is constantly used to express the regard shewn to those who travelled anywhere to preach the gospel, or to take care of the affairs of the church. Compare ch. Acts 20:38, Acts 21:5. Romans 15:24. 1 Corinthians 6:11. 2 Corinthians 1:16. Titus 3:13 and 3 John, Acts 15:6.


Verse 5

Acts 15:5. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees Some considerable commentators have thought this verse a circumstance which St. Paul adds to his history; though the connexion evidently shews, that they are the words of the historian; informing us that these messengers found some at Jerusalem, who had the same unhappy principles, which had so much disturbed the peace of the church at Antioch.


Verse 7

Acts 15:7. And when there had been much disputing, The debate which arose in this assembly, may indeed prove that there were some in thechurch at Jerusalem who had not a due regard to the authority of the apostles; but it cannot afford any just argument against their inspiration; for this dispute does not appear to have been among the apostles themselves; and if they really had debated the case a while, their decision at last might have been under an unerring direction. There seems no reason to conclude, that their inspiration was always so instantaneous and express, as to supersede any deliberation in their own minds, or any consultation with each o


Verse 10

Acts 15:10. To put a yoke upon the neck, &c.— "A grievous and heavy burden, which neither our fathers nor we have been able cheerfully and regularly to bear, without being exposed to great inconveniences, and many transgressions in consequence of it." The rabbinical writers apply this phrase to any practical doctrine or precept. See Jeremiah 28:14. Matthew 23:4. The force of the argument is, "Why tempt ye God, distrusting and disbelieving him, by imposing this yoke upon the Gentile converts, after he has declared his acceptance of them, by pouring forth the gift of the Holy Spirit upon them without their being circumcised?"


Verse 11

Acts 15:11. Saved even as they. After the same manner as they.


Verse 12

Acts 15:12. Then all the multitude kept silence, St. Peter's speech silenced all the multitude, and the zealots had nothing to reply to such clear and convincing arguments. The whole body of the assembly, therefore, were then disposed patiently to attend to what Paul and Barnabas thoughtfit to communicate to them, concerning the wonders and miracles which God had enabled them to do among the Gentiles; which was a plain confirmation that God had sent them, and approved of their attempt to convert such persons, though they were not circumcised, nor subject to the burden of the Mosaic law.


Verse 13

Acts 15:13. And after they had held their peace, The silence being renewed, the apostle James made a speech, in which he summed up the debate, and formed the question, to which they all unanimously agreed. Hence it is plain, that the matter was not determined by virtue of any superior authority in St. Peter; and it seems very providential that St. James should have made sucha speech on this occasion; and that he should have used the expression κρινω, I determine, Acts 15:19 which, had it been found in St. Peter's speech, would have been a much more plausible argument in favor of his weakly boasted supremacy, than the whole scripture now affords.


Verse 16-17

Acts 15:16-17. After this I will return, &c.— These words are quoted from Amos 9:11-12 according to the reading of the LXX. Bishop Chandler seems very justly to argue, that the Jews understood and admitted the words in the sense that St. James quotes them; or they would not have submitted to his interpretation, considering how strongly they were prejudiced against the consequence that he drew from them. Instead of the residue of men, it is in the Hebrew, the remnant of Edom; one of the nations which were the bitterest enemies to Israel, and a remnant of the most abandoned and profligate idolaters; and if they were to be received into the visible church, the Jews might consequently expect that the other Gentiles would be much more reconciled to Christianity. The Gentiles, upon whom the name of the Lord is called, is a most proper description of those who are converted to the true religion. See the note on Amos 9:11.


Verse 18

Acts 15:18. Known unto God are all his works The apostle plainly speaks here, not of God's works in the natural world, but of his dispensations towards the children of men: now he could not know those, without knowing the actions and characters of particular persons, on a correspondence to which, the wisdom and goodness of those dispensations is founded. Thus, for instance, he must have knownthat there would be Gentile idolaters, (a thing as dependant on the freedom of the human mind, as any thing that we can imagine,) or he could not have known that he would call them into his church. This text, therefore, must remain an unanswerable proof, amongst a thousand more from the word of God, that he certainly foreknows future contingencies. Dr. Clarke's paraphrase of the text is, "The method of his universal government, through the whole system, both of the natural and moral world, is according to certain uniform rules eternally established by unerring wisdom."


Verses 19-21

Acts 15:19-21. Wherefore my sentence is, &c.— This passage, on which the critics have so much differed in sentiment, and written so much, may, I think, be thus paraphrased: "Wherefore I cannot but determine in my ownmind, and I doubt not but you will readily concur with me, that we ought not to disquiet those who from among the Gentiles are converted by divine grace to the knowledge and worship of the true God, and to obedience to the gospel, with such observances as those now in question; but only to write to them, that they abstain from things grossly scandalous, and such as would give the greatest offence to their brethren of the circumcision; particularly from the abominable pollutions of things sacrificed to idols, and fornication, and from eating that which is strangled, and from blood. And though the latter of these have no moral and universal evil in them, yet it is necessary to join the prohibition of them to that of the former; for we know that Moses hath had from ancient generations, and still continues to have, those who preach him and his institutions in everycity, being read in all the Jewish synagogues every sabbath-day; and these things are so expressly forbidden in his law, that while the Gentile Christians indulge themselves in any of them, it will be impossible there should be that communion and harmony between them and the Jewish converts, which the honour and edification of the church require." In short, though neither things sacrificed to idols, nor the flesh of strangled animals, nor blood, have, or can have, any moral evil in them, which should make the eating of them absolutely and universally unlawful; (compare 1 Corinthians 1:8-9. Romans 14:14; Romans 14:23. 1 Timothy 4:4. Matthew 15:11.) yet they were here forbidden to the Gentile converts, because the Jews had such an aversion to them, that they could not converse freely with any that used them. This is plainly the reason which St. James assigns in Acts 15:21 and it is abundantly sufficient. And were weinlikecircumstanceswiththoseconvertedGentiles,Christiancharitywouldsurely require us to lay ourselves under the same restraints. As to fornication, as the infamy of it was not so great among the Gentiles, as the nature of the crime deserved, it has been generally thought, that the church at Jerusalem chose to add this prohibition, though it might be a kind of digression from the immediate design of their lett


Verse 22

Acts 15:22. Judeas surnamed Barsabas, Some have thought that this is the same with Joseph called Barsabas, (ch. Acts 1:23.) candidate with Matthias for the apostleship, the son of Alpheus or Cleophas, and brother to at least two of the apostles, James now present, and Jude; than whom there was not any one person, not an apostle, of greater note in the church at this time. Others, however, suppose that he was the brother of this person. Silas, the other, seems to have been the person elsewhere called Sylvanus, the most intimate friend and beloved companion of St. Paul, and, as it appears also, a citizen of Rome. See ch. Acts 16:37.


Verse 24

Acts 15:24. Subverting your souls, Unsettling your minds, The word ανασκευαζοντες is primarily and properly applied to the removing a vessel from one place to another. In a secondary sense, it implies the moving of the mind from one object to another, or unsettling it. When the apostles positively declare that they gave no such commandment to the persons who had troubled the converts, this was directly fixing the lie upon them, if they had pretended to use the apostles' name in imposing their tenets; and, as the matter of fact was known, would be a proper means of weakening their credit, and so render them less capable of doing mischief.


Verse 26

Acts 15:26. Men that have hazarded their lives Such a testimony to the reputation of Paul and Barnabas, was far from being a mere compliment, but exceedingly prudent, as it might be the means of removing the prejudices conceived against them by the Jewish converts or teachers; several of whom, as it appears from many passages of the epistles, endeavoured as much as possible to lessen the character of these apostles. It would also be an useful expression of the harmony between them and those of the circumcision.


Verse 28

Acts 15:28. It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, Though this may include the decision which the Spirit had givenby his descent upon Cornelius and his friends, yet it seems more directly to express the consciousness which this assembly had, of beingguidedbyhisinfluencesontheir minds in their present determination. When the apostles call these things necessary, they mean, by a common mode of speaking, necessary for those times and circumstances. They were undoubtedly necessary, in order to promote a free converse between the Jewish and Gentile Christians, and especially to secure communion at the table of the Lord; where we cannot imagine that Jews would have eaten and drunk with persons whom they thought in so polluted a state as those who indulged themselves in the things here prohibited. On the other hand, it seems that the Jews on these conditions gave up any further debate about other forbidden meats, as well as circumcision, &c.


Verse 29

Acts 15:29. From which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. That is, "You may hope it will end well." This gentle manner of concluding was worthy the apostolical wisdom and goodness. Too soon did succeeding councils of inferiorauthority change it for the stile of anathemas; forms, which have doubtless proved an occasion of consecrating some of the worst passions of the human mind under sacred names; and which, like some ill-adjusted weapons of war, are most likely to hurt the hand from which they are thrown.


Verse 32

Acts 15:32. Being prophets See on 1 Corinthians 12:28.


Verse 39

Acts 15:39. The contention Παροξυσμος, a paroxysm, is a medical term, and signifies here a sharp fit of anger.—And there was a sharp contention,—so that, &c. However, we find not only that Paul and Barnabas were afterwards thoroughly reconciled, (compare 1 Corinthians 9:6. Galatians 2:9.) but also that St. Mark was taken into St. Paul's favour again, and admitted by him as a companion in his labour. Compare Colossians 4:10. Philemon 1:24. 2 Timothy 4:11. Some have thought that, notwithstanding this contention, these two excellent men parted in as friendly a manner as Abraham and Lot did after their contention, Genesis 13:7; Genesis 13:18. But, suppose they parted with dislike and resentment, there is nothing wonderful in it; for though they were inspired with the whole scheme of the Christian doctrine, and so far under the guidance of an unerringSpirit;yetno Christian supposes they were inspired in their ordinary conduct, or diverted of all human infirmities; and it would be ridiculous to make such things any objection to the truth of the Christian religion. On the contrary, it ought to be looked upon as a proof of the great fairness and impartiality in the sacred writers, that they franklyowned, and without reserve published, the foibles and imperfections of their fellow-Christians, and even of the apostles and first planters of the glorious gospel. But whatever human infirmity there was in this contention, God, in his good providence, made this separation of the two apostles turn to the greater and more extensive welfare of mankind; Christianity by this means being more generally and widely spread.


Verse 40

Acts 15:40. Being recommended by the brethren St. Luke designing here to drop the history of Barnabas, and pursue that of St. Paul alone, says nothing of the former's being recommended to the grace of God; but there can be no doubt that as the church of Antioch wished them both success, so they recommended both of them, together with their assistants, unto God for his blessing, before they set out upon so great an undertaking.


Verse 41

Acts 15:41. Confirming the churches. Mr. Cradock and many others think, that St. Paul sailed from Cilicia to Crete at this time, and, returning to the Asiatic continent quickly after, left Titus to perfect the settlement of the church there, Titus 1:5.

Inferences.—How early did the spirit of bigotry and imposition begin to work in the Christian church!—that fatal humour of imposing a yoke on the neck of Christ's disciples, by making indifferent things necessary!—that unmanly and antichristian disposition, which has almost ever since been rending the church to pieces, and clamorously throwing the blame on those, who have been desirous, on principles truly evangelical, to stand fast in the liberty with which Christ, their divine Master, hath made them free! How foolish and how mischievous the error, of making terms of communion which Christ never made! and how presumptuous the arrogance of invading his throne, to pronounce from thence damnatory sentences on those who will not, who dare not, submit to our uncommissioned and usurped authority!

Prudent, undoubtedly, was the part which the Antiochian Christians acted upon this occasion, in sending messengers to the apostles for their determination; and it will be our prudence, now we can no longer in person consult those ambassadors of Christ, to make their writings our counsellors, and the standard both of our faith and worship; appealing to the tribunal of Christ, our Master, and our Judge, from those uncharitable censures which we may sometimes incur, even from his faithful, though mistaken servants, for retaining the simplicity of that religion, which these authorized interpreters of his will taught.

Great joy was occasioned to the churches through which Paul and Barnabas passed, when they recounted the conversion of the Heathen. And may such joy also be renewed to us, by the success of all, who, with a truly apostolical self-denial and zeal, go forth at any time to the vast multitudes of the Gentiles, who yet remain on this uncultivated earth of ours, so great a part of which is yet, in a spiritual sense, a wilderness! Whatever success they may have in one part of our Lord's vineyard, or we in another, let us all remember that it is in consequence of what God does by us, and by them; and let the ministers of the gospel adore the riches of divine grace, to which they owe it that they are called to carry the knowledge and power of his gospel to others.

May our hearts be purified by a vital, and not merely enlightened by a notional faith! May that God, who knoweth all hearts, bear witness to us, by giving us his Holy Spirit; that so being, under the influence of this Sacred Agent, animated to adorn in the most amiable manner our profession, when we have done all, we may humbly repose ourselves upon the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; as knowing that it is only by the rich and unmerited display of it, that, after all our labour, obedience, and care, we can expect salvation!

With what gratitude should we adore the infinite condescension of God, in looking with pity upon the Gentiles. We are a part of those Gentiles. Let it then be our concern, that as his name is named upon us, we render it becoming honours, and remember what an obligation it lays upon us to depart from iniquity: and may the fallen tabernacle of David also be raised up, and all its ruins repaired; that so, when God's antient people are called to embrace the gospel, the residue of men may seek after the Lord under our high dispensation, and the fulness of the Gentiles may be brought in. The God of infinite love will accomplish this also: and, in the mean time, we ought gratefully to acknowledge what he has already done.

While we are peculiarly thankful that we are freed from the burdens of the Mosaic institution, and called to a law of liberty, let us take due heed not to abuse it to licentiousness: Galatians 5:13. From the tenor of this apostolic decree we may learn tenderly to regard even the prejudices of our Christian brethren, and to be careful that we do nothing violently; but rather, that so far as conscience will allow, we become all things to all men, and be willing, in some respects, to deny ourselves, that we may not give unnecessary offence to others.

Most prudently did the apostles determine the controversy, under the influence of the Divine Spirit; and therefore whatever hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to them, let us treat with all becoming reverence and regard. The messengers from Antioch by whom they returned the decree, thought themselves, no doubt, exceedingly happy in the success of this negociation, as also in the society of those pious brethren of the circumcision, who accompanied them on their return with this letter. May the blessed time come, when the ministers of Christ, of all denominations, laying aside their mutual animosities, shall agree to study the things which make for peace, and wherewith one may edify another! Romans 14:19. Then will liberty and truth have a more easy and universal triumph; while love melts and cements those souls, whom rigorous severity has only served to harden, to disunite, and to alienate.

How happy an office had these good men, to go about from one place to another, comforting and confirming the souls of their brethren, wherever they came! They had their present reward in the pleasure of it, and are now also reaping, in the heavenly world, the fruits of their labour of love. Deliver us, O Father of mercies, from lording it over thine heritage, and overbearing the consciences and liberties of our brethren, with whatever secular advantages it might be attended; and give us to taste something at least of the generous pleasure of these faithful messengers, though it should be with all their labours and persecutions!

While we endeavour to comfort, may we be also ready to exhort and quicken one another. Christians should animate each other at every opportunity, in the work and warfare to which they are called; and ministers should especially remember, how great a part of their work consists in practical addresses, to which, like Judas and Silas in the instance recorded, Acts 15:32 they should choose to digress, rather than entirely omit them.

Who can wonder that Paul and Barnabas were desirous to visit the churches which they had planted? It is natural for those who have been spiritual fathers, to have a peculiar affection for their offspring: it is equally natural for the children which God hath given them, to honour and love those, who, as the apostle expresses it, have begotten them in Christ Jesus. 1 Corinthians 4:15. Happy is it indeed when the visits of ministers are animated by such a spirit, are improved to the blessed purposes of advancing the work which divine grace has already begun, and of addressing cautions as well as encouragements, with such affection, wisdom, and zeal, that it may finally appear they have not run in vain, nor laboured in vain.

It is with sensible regret that we read of any difference, much more of a sharp contention, arising between Paul and Barnabas, so clear as they were to each other in the bonds of human and Christian friendship. But, so frail is man, that we see it arose to some degree of severity, in consequence of a remainder of imperfection in the temper of the one or the other. They therefore separated; but it plainly appears that they did not become enemies. They preached the same gospel, though in different companies, each taking his proper circuit: and thus the work of the Lord was performed with greater dispatch, and perhaps with greater success; while Mark (who afterwards appears, as well as Barnabas, to have been restored to the intimate friendship of Paul,) was on the one hand endeavouring to shew that Barnabas had not chosen an unworthy associate; and, on the other hand, Silas, the fellow-labourer and fellow-sufferer of St. Paul, would take care to behave in such a manner, that this great apostle might have no reason to repent of the preference which had been given to him.

To conclude. We see that both Paul and Barnabas go to their native country, Acts 15:39-41. Some peculiar affection to it, when it is not injurious to the general good of mankind, is natural and allowable: and it is certain that we cannot shew our love to it in any nobler and more important instance, than by endeavouring to promote the progress and success of the gospel in it.

REFLECTIONS.—1st, The peace of that happy society at Antioch, which was the envy of the devil, begins to be interrupted by some, who sowed the seeds of controversy, the bane of the Christian church.

1. Certain men came down from Judea, not sent by the apostles, but instigated by their own pride and prejudices, and taught the Gentile brethren, saying, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved; as if their faith in Christ and adherence to the gospel was insufficient, unless they also submitted to this distinguishing ordinance. The Jewish Christians, it seems, themselves were zealous for the law, (Acts 21:20; Acts 21:40.) and were permitted to observe the Jewish ritual as a thing in its nature indifferent, and from which, after the destruction of the temple, and the dissolution of the Jewish polity, they would be entirely emancipated: but not satisfied with being themselves indulged in this practice, they wanted to enslave the consciences of the Gentile converts under the same yoke, and that on peril of their damnation if they rejected it. Note; Men are strangely disposed to make their own opinions and practice the standard for others, and to enforce their fancies and inventions as of essential consequence, liberally denouncing their anathemas, and consigning to the pit of destruction all who will not conform to their mode of thinking and worship, and submit their consciences to their yoke: but when we are making God's word our rule, and, according to our best light, following his will, we need little regard these rash denunciations.

2. Paul and Barnabas boldly withstood these Judaizing teachers, and disputed against them as the corrupters of genuine Christianity; and when a growing dissention seemed to threaten this flourishing church, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question, that the matter being discussed in a full assembly of all the chief ministers of the church, the pretensions of these corrupters might be confounded, and the liberty of the Gentiles confirmed.

3. The two great apostles of the Gentiles hereupon departed, being respectfully attended part of the way by some chief brethren of the church; and, as they passed through Phenice and Samaria, they caused great joy unto all the brethren, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles; for to genuine believers nothing is matter of more pure unfeigned delight, than to hear that others are made partakers of the same grace which they themselves have tasted.

4. The church of Jerusalem, and the apostles Cephas, James, and John, and the elders, received these distinguished messengers with high respect, and expressed their full approbation of their conduct, when they heard what they had done, and their success among the Gentiles: but certain of the sect of the Pharisees, which believed in Jesus as the Messiah, and made profession of faith in him, still retained many of their former tenets, and were bigoted to the ceremonial law; they rose up therefore, insisting, that it was needful for them not only to believe in Jesus, but also to be circumcised, and keep the law, in order to obtain acceptance with God; thus most highly derogating from the free grace of God, and the great doctrine of justification by faith alone.

2nd, The first general council that had yet sat to decide on the unhappy disputes which were beginning to arise in the church, is now with great seriousness assembled, to hear, consider, and determine. After much disputation on the subject, we have,

1. St. Peter's speech on the occasion. He had heard what had been said on both sides of the argument, and therefore, as one of the most respectable personages in that assembly, rises to deliver his opinion.

He reminds them how God had sent him, several years before, to preach the gospel to Cornelius and the Gentiles who were with him, and had thereby led them by faith to Jesus Christ for life and salvation. The same gifts had been bestowed on them as on the Jewish converts, and God had himself herein testified his acceptance and approbation of them; making no difference between them, purifying their hearts by faith; as justified and sanctified by the blood and grace of Jesus, without the least need of circumcision and the ceremonial observances. Since therefore God had so evidently decided the matter, it was the highest presumption, and no better than tempting God, arraigning his wisdom and authority, to pretend a right to counteract what he had done, and repeal what he had determined: and it was a great injury to the Gentile brethren, to put that yoke of ceremonial institutions upon their neck, which had been so burdensome to themselves and their fathers, and which was now absolutely useless, since the salvation by Jesus Christ was alike free to Jew and Gentile, and both were to be saved by grace through faith, without the least respect to circumcision, or any legal institutions: We therefore, says St. Peter, expect to be saved even as they, and they as freely as we. Note; (1.) They who have the real faith of the gospel, will certainly evidence its purifying efficacy upon their hearts. (2.) All, who hold the head Christ, and walk in holiness as Christ also walked, however in some sentiments they may differ from us, are cordially to be embraced by us as brethren.

2. Paul and Barnabas, instead of ten thousand arguments, related simply the miracles and wonders which God had wrought among the Gentiles by them, whilst all the multitude kept a profound silence, listening attentively to so wonderful and pleasing a narrative; wherein it evidently appeared, both by the miracles which God enabled them to work, and by the success which he gave them in the conversion of the Gentiles, that he approved their labours, and bore testimony to the acceptance of these Gentile converts. What need then could there be, that they should be burdened with the works of the law, who had received the Holy Ghost by the hearing of faith? See Galatians 3:2.

3. On their closing their discourse, the apostle James, the last speaker in this council, sums up the debate, and delivers his opinion.

[1.] After a respectful address to them, as men of reason and consideration, and brethren in the Lord, he reminds them of what Peter had said, by whose preaching first God did visit the Gentiles with the knowledge of his gospel and the gifts of his grace, to take out of them a people for his name, to be to the praise of his glory, even all who would perseveringly believe in the Son of his love.

[2.] He observes, that God herein exactly fulfilled his own word in the mouth of his prophets, which had so long ago foretold this great event, as it is written, (Amos 9:11.) After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down, in and by the divine Messiah, who, when the house of David was reduced to the lowest state of want and contempt, should arise to set up that spiritual and everlasting kingdom, of which David's house and kingdom were the figures: and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up, great and glorious, that the residue of men, on the bringing in of the fulness of the Gentiles in the latter days, might seek after the Lord, submitting to the Messiah's sceptre, and becoming obedient to the gospel-word; and all the Gentiles, whether proselytes or idolaters, who have been or will be converted to the faith of Christ, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord who doeth all these things, whose word is faithful, whose power alone could effect this wondrous conversion in the heathen world, and who, in so doing, testified his acceptance of the Gentile converts.

[3.] He resolves the matter: this the Lord foretold by his infinite prescience; for, known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world; the past, present, and what is to come, even the most perfect contingencies, have ever lain open before him; and they might be fully assured, all his counsels were holy, just, and good, and therefore to be acquiesced in by them without a moment's hesitation.

[4.] He delivers his opinion concerning what he judges proper to be done on the present occasion. My sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God, by the imposition of the unnecessary yoke of legal observances on their consciences; but that, to avoid all offence to the believing brethren among the Jews, and to remove whatever would prevent their communion with the Gentile converts, we write unto them, that they abstain from the pollutions of idols; from eating or drinking any thing offered to idols; and from fornication, condemned in other parts of scripture, in the clearest terms, as perfectly immoral; and from things strangled, and from blood; for as fornication, though so common and allowed among the Gentiles, must be abstained from as a moral evil; other things, though indifferent in themselves, were then needful to be observed, in order to promote mutual love and communion between the Jewish and Gentile brethren. For as the writings of Moses, in which these things are forbidden, had been of old read every sabbath-day, and the Jewish converts still retained a high veneration for the law, they owed them this indulgence to their long-received usage in these indifferent matters. Note; Great allowances are to be made for the prejudices of education; and therefore in indifferent matters we should show to each other a spirit of mutual charity and forbearance, desiring to please every man his neighbour for his good to edification.

3rdly, The matter being now brought to a conclusion, and the assembly concurring in their approbation of the opinion which St. James had delivered, we have,

1. The choice of two persons from the brethren at Jerusalem, eminent for their gifts and graces, Barsabas and Silas, to accompany Paul and Barnabas to Antioch, with letters containing the decree of the council, both as a testimony of respect towards their Gentile fellow-Christians, and that they might be helpers to establish the work begun among them.

2. The letters themselves contained,

[1.] A most respectful address. The apostles, and elders, and brethren, send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch, and Syria, and Cilicia: they assume no authoritative stile, nor sounding titles; but stretch out the hand of fellowship, giving them the result of their consultations.

[2.] They recite the cause on which their council was held, marking with just disapprobation the disturbers of the church's peace. We have heard, that certain which went out from us, have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised and keep the law; to whom we gave no such commandment: they pretended that they acted under the apostolic commission and authority; but this is here utterly disclaimed. Note; (1.) Nothing more fatally subverts the soul, than the insisting upon any thing as necessary to our acceptance and justification before God, besides faith alone. (2.) Many pretend a mission from God and his church, whose pretensions, when examined, are found utterly false and delusive.

[3.] They make honourable mention of the bearers of their epistle, whom they with one accord agreed to send. It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you, with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, for whom they expressed their highest regard, and of whose conduct they testified the most entire approbation; men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; a noble evidence of their approved fidelity. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who, lest any cavil should be raised about the meaning or intention of the contents of our letters, shall also tell you the same things by mouth.

[4.] They plainly determine concerning the disputed point. It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, according to his word in the prophets, and the intimations of his will in the conversions already wrought among the Gentiles by his power; and to us, assembled in his name, and under his influence, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication. The avoiding of fornication is necessary for us at all times; the other things were not of moral and perpetual obligation, but were necessary in order to prevent offence, and remove all cause of disunion between them and their Jewish brethren.

[5.] They bid them a kind farewel, wishing them all prosperity in body and soul, and recommending them to submit to their decisions; not with proud anathemas if they disobeyed, but with the more apostolic language of kind entreaty and affectionate persuasion: If ye keep yourselves from these things, ye shall do well; it will be to the glory of God, the peace of the church, and the furtherance of the gospel.

3. The bearers no sooner arrived than they assembled the multitude, and delivered the epistle to them, who read with pleasure the determination of the controversy so much to the satisfaction of the Gentile brethren: and Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, endued with eminent gifts of wisdom and knowledge, exhorted the brethren with many words to persevere in the faith and obedience of the gospel, and confirmed them in the doctrines of truth which they had embraced. Where the gospel is truly and powerfully preached, the assistance of new ministers is highly advantageous, and serves to help forward the work of God.

4. After some considerable stay, the messengers from the apostles were let go in peace, with the thanks of the church for all their kind and useful labours; and had the satisfaction to see peace perfectly re-established, which could not but be glad news to the brethren at Jerusalem. Silas however chose still to continue at Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas, and many others, with great success, taught and preached the word of the Lord. Note; Where God opens a great door of usefulness, there a double obligation lies upon his ministers to improve the opportunity, and to labour more abundantly in the blessed work.

4thly, The best of men are but men at the best, and liable to the same passions as others. The sacred historians generously record their own faults, that we should not think of them more highly than we ought to think.

1. The zealous Paul proposes to his faithful associate Barnabas, a second expedition among the Gentiles; particularly with a view to visit their brethren in all the places where they had preached the word, to see how they stood, to communicate a second blessing to them, and to exhort, encourage, rebuke, and quicken them according to their several needs. Note; Those lie specially near a minister's heart, to whom, under God, he has been a spiritual father: and if Providence removes him for a while from them, he cannot but be anxiously concerned for their welfare, and long for their establishment.

2. A disagreement unhappily arose between Paul and Barnabas on this occasion. Barnabas readily consented to the proposal, but determined to take his nephew John Mark, partial probably to him on account of his relationship. Paul warmly opposed it, and would by no means consent, thinking him unworthy of that honour, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work, intimidated by the danger, or weary of the fatigue, or diverted by some worldly or improper motive from the service of the gospel. They who have proved themselves unfaithful, should be tried, ere they are again trusted.

3. The issue of the contention was so sharp, that they parted. Both were heated with the dispute, and whichever was in the right on the subject of the contention, both were perhaps wrong in the hasty unyielding spirit with which it was managed. Note; (1.) Though we may see good men upon a time unhappily betrayed into a temporary fit of passion, which must for the present bring guilt upon their own souls, we must beware not to make their evil a plea in our own excuse. (2.) Truly wise and good men may differ in some opinions, sentiments, and views; and, if they do not sufficiently watch unto prayer, contend too warmly for their own. Let us not be offended thereat; it is the infirmity of this mortal state. It is reserved for the felicity of the heavenly state, and perhaps of the great millennium, to be entirely of one mind.

4. Though they disputed about a circumstance of little importance perhaps, (and such has often bred the sharpest contentions,) yet both heartily persisted in their former gracious purpose; and even their separation was over-ruled for the furtherance of the gospel. Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus; and Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God; which perhaps may intimate, that they thought Paul in the right in refusing Mark, and favoured him with a particular mark of their approbation. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches, and establishing them in the faith and practice of the gospel.

Whatever just cause of displeasure St. Paul might now have against Mark, we find with pleasure, that afterwards he shewed him the most cordial regard, and professed the highest opinion of him, (2 Timothy 4:11. Colossians 4:10.) We should learn therefore to judge with much temper and candour, even of those who may have taken a wrong step, lest their future conduct should make us grieve for the severity with which we treated them: and though they have justly deserved sharp rebuke—when they again approve their fidelity, and testify their genuine repentance, we should entirely forgive all that is past, and give them the right hand of fellowship.

 


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Bibliography Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Acts 15:4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/tcc/acts-15.html. 1801-1803.

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