Acts 15Observe here, 1. How very forward Satan and his instruments were to sow the seeds of discord and dissension amongst the converted Christians at Antioch: he takes the first opportunity to break the church in pieces, before it is well settled.
O the restless malice of an envious devil against the gospel and kingdom of Jesus Christ!
Certain men came down from Judea, no doubt of the devil's sending, to disquiet the brethern, and distress the church.
Observe, 2. The bone of contention thrown in by the false apostles, to disturb the disciples of Christ; and that was, the urging the necessity of circumcision, and imposing that part of the Mosaic yoke upon the neck of the converted Gentiles, excluding them from all hopes of salvation, unless they were circumcised; although circumcision was not commanded but only to the posterity of Abraham; and as to them also, had received its abolishment at the death of Christ.
Observe, 3. With what warmth of zeal the meek apostle, St. Paul, opposes this anti-Christian design of introducing circumcision into the Christian church: Paul and Barnabas had no small disputation with them; he that could become all things to all men, could not become sin to any man; he therefore enters into the lists with them, and earnestly contends for the faith of the gospel, urging, that by the death of Christ we are freed from the whole ceremonial law: and that if circumcision were retained, for the same reason all the other ceremonies ought to be restored; for the circumcised person was obliged to observe the whole ceremonial law.
Observe, 4. The prudential course which the disciples at Antioch took for the deciding of this controversy; they determined to send Paul and Barnabas up to Jerusalem, where, in a full and free synod of the apostles, the matter is debated, and finally decided.
Learn hence, That the use of synods, or general assemblies of the bishops and pastors of the church, for deciding of controversies, for determining matters of faith, and directing to matters of practice, as it has been of ancient authority in the church of Christ, so it is of singular benefit and advantage both to ministers and people. Here Paul and Barnabas go up to the first synod, or general council at Jeruaslem, to consult the apostles and elders about this question.
Here note, 1. How that great but humble apostle, St. Paul, who had learned of his Master to be meek and lowly in spirit, was willing and content to be a servant and messenger of the church to the apostles, though he was nothing inferior to the chiefest apostle: Paul and Barnabas went up to the apostles that were at Jerusalem. The more holiness a Christian has, the more humility he has. Humility is a great part of our holiness, it is an argument of our sincerity, and an ornament to our profession; it is the great design of the gospel to make us humble, and keep us humble.
Note, 1. With what great pleasure and satisfaction Paul and Barnabas make report of the success of their ministry, both at Phenice, Samaria, and Jerusalem, in the conversion of the poor Gentiles, and with what joy the report was received and entertained: They declared the conversion of the Gentiles, and it caused great joy unto all the brethren.
Thence learn, that nothing more rejoices the hearts of believers, than the hearing of souls brought home to God by converting grace, and thereby of the increasing and enlarging of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. The Gentiles' conversion was joyful news to the saints at Jerusalem.
Note, 3. With what great and due reverence and respect the church at Jerusalem received and entertained those laborious apostles, Paul and Barnabas, who were now sent unto them by the church at Antioch: When they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church; that is, received with great veneration and regard, for their indefatigable labors in order to the Gentiles' conversion.
Thence learn, That double honour and respect is certainly due and payable to such ministers of Christ as labour in the word and doctrine, and perform their duty to God and their people, with such zeal and application as becomes persons of their holy character and profession.
O how beautiful should the feet be of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things, even the joyful tidings of salvation, to the ears of a lost world.
That is, some Jews of the sect of the Pharisees, converted to Christianity, thought and taught, that circumcision, and keeping of the law of Moses, was necessary to salvation, both to Jew and Gentile Christians.
Where observe, 2. That the spirit of infallibility with which the apostles were at that time certainly endued, did not prevent the rise of controversies and disputes in the first ages of the church; nor yet silence and put an end to such disputes when risen; much less can a pretended infallible head of the church, and an unerring judge of controversies, now do it.
Observe, 3. That errors and false opinions, creeping into a church, are not a sufficient warrant to forsake the communion of that church.
We find here, that in the most primitive and purest churches, even whilst the apostles themselves were upon the spot, dangerous errors crept into the church, and proved of such fatal and pernicious consequence, that the apostle wishes they were even cut off that thus troubled them. Gal 4:12
Separation from a church, is not warrantable upon any other grounds, than that which makes a separation between God and that church, which is either the apostasy of that church into gross idolatry, or in point of doctrine into damnable heresy.
In Rev 2:1-7 we read of Christ's walking among the seven golden candlesticks: and although some of them were sufficiently besmeared, yet were they favoured with Christ's gracious presence.
Observe lastly, The regular and prudential means used by the apostles for the suppressing of this error which endangered the church's purity, and for quenching of this spark of dissension, which threatened the church's peace: They gathered together at Jerusalem to consider of the matter; that is, to consult about it, and debate upon it.
Where note, 1. That though the apostles were inspired by the Holy Ghost, yet they made use of their own reason and judgment for the decision of this controversy. God's inspiration did not make the apostles' consultation needless, either for satisfying themselves or silencing gainsayers.
Observe here, 1. The council assembled, the first and most famous council of councils. In other councils were holy bishops; in this, inspired apostles, who could not err in matters of faith.
Observe, 2. The grand debate, or matter in controversy; namely, whether faith in Christ were not sufficient to justification, unless circumcision, and an observation of the ceremonial law, were joined with it?
Observe, 3. The persons managing this debate: the three great apostles, St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. James. The first that speaks in the council is St. Peter; from whence the Papists would infer, that he, as head of the church, spake first; and consequently that the Pope, whom they will have to be St. Peter's successor, ought to have the first and chief voice in all general councils. But all this is but presumption: for we shall find at ver 13, St. James who was then bishop of Jerusalem, says, Hearken unto me; and at ver. 19, gives the definitive sentence, saying, My sentence is; or thus I judge and determine. Had St. Peter said this, it had been a better part of his pre-emminency, and made a louder noise, than Pasce Oves.
Observe, 4. St. Peter's argument to prove that the believing Gentiles might be justified and saved without circumcision, and the observation of the ceremonial law. The argument runs thus: "The way of justifucation for all men, both Jew and Gentile, is one and the same: but Cornelius, a Gentile, with his whole family, by the blessing of God upon my ministry, was converted and justified, without being circumcised; therefore circumcision, and the observation of the ceremonial law, ought not to be imposed as necessary to justification and salvation."
Observe, 5. How St. Peter strengthens his argument, by declaring that what was done to Cornelius and his family, was by the special command of God; that God gave testimony of his approbation of Cornelius, as the first-fruits of the Gentiles, by sending down the Holy Ghost upon him and his, as well as upon us and ours, by purifying their hearts by faith.
Where note, 1. That purifying begins at the heart. The head may be purified from false principles, the hands from false practices, and yet the heart remain unpurified, and continue a sink of pollution and uncleanness; therefore we must purify our hearts, as well as cleanse our hands; yea, first, begin with our hearts: Having purified their hearts by faith.
Note, 2. That as purifying begins at the heart, but must not end there; so faith is the instrumental cause of our purification. The blood of Christ cleanses from all sin meritoriously, the Spirit of Christ efficiently; but faith is the instrument in the hand of the Spirit, which apprehends and applies the merit of that blood for pardon and purification.
Observe, 6. The character given by St. Peter of the ceremonial law; he calls it a yoke, an intolerable yoke, too heavy to be borne by the Jews themselves, much more the Gentiles, whose neck God never designed this yoke for, but for the seed of Abraham only.
Now the law of ceremonies, imposed upon the Jews might well be called a yoke, if we consider,
1. Their number and variety: there were a multitude of legal observations.
2. Their burden and difficulty; the ceremonial law was a most laborious adminstration of a very painful service.
3. They were very costly and chargeable; so many bullocks, rams, and lambs for sacrifice, that the misers of this age would think themselves undone with the expense.
4. Their insufficiency: they were only shadows of good things to come, and could not make the observers of them perfect.
Thus was the ceremonial law in itself a yoke and a burden; and the imposing of it upon the Gentiles is called a tempting of God; that is, a dangerous provoking of him, because it never belonged to them, but to the Jews only, which yet were never able to bear it; that is, so to observe it, as to be justified and saved by it.
Learn thence, That it was never the intent or design of God, that his people should be justified by their obedience to the ceremonial law: but that, being pressed with the weight, and pinched with the uneasiness of the yoke, they should seek unto Christ for righteousness and life, who alone was the fulfiller of it.
There was this difference between the ceremonial and moral law: the ceremonial law was therefore good because God commanded it; the moral law was therefore commanded, because good. Christ, by his death, abrogated the former, but, by the obedience of his life, fulfilled the latter.
The second speech made in this council, was that of Barnabas and Paul, who declared what miracles God had enabled them to work among the Gentiles, which was an evidence of God's approbation of the Gentiles, though uncircumcised, and that he was pleased with their adminstration among them.
Hence they conclude very well, that the miracles wrought among the Gentiles, and the Holy Ghost descending upon the Gentiles, was God's approving testimony, in the case that the believing Gentiles, without circumcision, should find no less acceptance with God than the believing Jews, who were of the circumcision.
Observe here, 1. The excellent order in which this grand debate was managed by the apostles; they do not break in upon one another like proud magisterial talkers, so full of themselves that they could not hear one another speak; but while one speaks, all the rest silently and attentively hear, no one stopping another by rude and uncivil interruption: After they had held their peace, James answered.
Observe, 2. The third and last speech uttered at this council at Jerusalem, was by St. James, the bishop, and residentiary apostle of the place; James said, Hearken unto me.
Where note, 1. He puts the council in mind of the special favour and grace of God in sending the gospel among the Gentiles, which he calls his visiting of them; and the design of God in that gracious visitation, namely, to take out of the Gentile world a people for his name.
Hence learn, 1. That when God gives his gospel to a people, he gives that people a merciful and gracious visitation.
2. That God's design in visiting a nation with and by the gospel, is to take out of them, and from amongst them, a people for his name; that is, a people to call upon his name, a people to be called by his name, and a people to honour and glorify, to advance and magnify, his holy name.
Note, 2. With what wisdom and caution St. James, the president of the council, proceeds in the final deciding of this controversy: he proposes a mean betwixt the two extremes, between those that would have all the Mosaic rites imposed, and those that would have none at all: designing by this medium that neither the Jews should be too much offended, nor the Gentiles too heavily burdened; but brotherly love between both be maintained and preserved.
Note, 3. How St. James, in deciding of this controversy, appeals to scripture, ver. 15. to this agree the words of the prophets, as it is written. Not to the authority of the council: the holy canon of the scriptures ought to overrule all debates; this is the infallible judge, which all the councils are to appeal to, and none must presume to appeal from.
Note, lastly, That the sum of the council's determination came to this, "That circumcision should not be imposed upon the Gentiles; that the Gentiles nevertheless should so far judaize, or comply with the Jews, as to abstain from meats offered to idols, from things strangled, and from blood, and from fornication." All which are called indifferent things, because the three first were made so by the death of Christ, (after which there was to be no more distinction, either of meats or nations,) and the fourth, namely, fornication, is reckoned amongst the indifferent things; because the Gentiles, though falsely, did think and speak it to be so; Non est flagitium adolescentem scortari.
To prevent therefore giving offence to the Jews, the Gentiles are required to abstain from these things, till time and fuller acquaintance with the gospel did better inform them concerning their Christian liberty.
From this example learn, That whatever differences do arise in a church about tolerable matters, and indifferent things, the nearest course to unity, and a charitable compliance, is for both parties to step towards, and meet one another; and what may be left at liberty without apparent prejudice to purity, to be left for peace sake.
Observe here, 1. That though the apostles were the infallible deciders, yet the elders, and the whole church, were unanimous consenters; for no contradiction to the determination of this controversy did rise from any hand, but there was a happy acquiescence in this apostolical decision: It pleased the elders, and the whole church.
Observe, 2. The decrees of this synod, and the determination of this council at Jerusalem, are committed to writing, and despatched by unprejudiced messengers of their own to the church of the Gentiles, which was at Antioch.
In which decretal epistle, 1. The false apostles who started this controversy are sharply reproved.
2. Paul and Barnabas, for their courage, and constancy, are highly commended.
3. Judas and Silas are mentioned to testify that these decrees were not forced nor counterfeited.
4. That it would conduce much to their advantage to have these decrees duly observed.
Observe, 3. The divine authority of these decrees: they were dictated and directed by the Holy Ghost: It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us.
That is, it seemed good unto us, being directed and assisted by the Holy Ghost, whose inspiration and conduct we have followed, not to impose unnecessary things upon you.
Where note, That the Holy Ghost is against imposing unnecessary things as necessary, and making them the terms of church-communion.
Here are four things imposed; namely, abstaining from meats offered to idols, from blood, from fornication, and from things strangled: but they are called necessary things. Two of them, to wit, abstaining from fornication and from things offered to idols, were of a simple and absolute necessity; the other two, namely, abstaining from things strangled, and from blood, were of an accidental, and temporary necessity, for the present time, and to avoid giving scandal to the weak Jews, till they should be better informed, and better understand their liberty in Christ; for afterwards St. Paul showeth that no creature of God is unclean, but that unto the pure all things are pure. 1Tim 4:4; Titus 1:15
Observe here, 1. With what fidelity and care Paul and Barnabas, and Judas and Silas, delivered this decretal epistle to the church at Antioch; that is, to the whole body of Christians, believing Jews and Gentiles, then and there assembled: When they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle; that is, they called the whole church together, and presented the epistle to them.
Observe, 2. How this decree was received; namely, with universal joy and satisfaction: When they had read, they rejoiced. Every one in this Christian council was a star devoted by his office to lead men to Christ; but now being gathered together, and condensed into a council, they become a most bright and glorious constellation, every way prepared, by the emanations of heavenly light, to guide the church in this obscure affair; and accordingly, their authority being so illustrious and commanding, and the decrees so pious and prudential, their determination was received with universal satisfaction: They delivered the epistle: which when they had read, they rejoiced.
Observe, 3. What was the subject matter of their joy, and the special occasion of their rejoicing: They rejoiced for the consolation; that is, for the great consolation which they had, in being freed from the burden of the legal ceremonies, though originally of divine institution, and appointed by God himself.
From whence we learn, That liberty from toilsome ceremonies, though originally of divine institution, much more a freedom from superstitious ceremonies has the church of Rome imposed upon her blind votaries! When in their worship they would be thought truly zealous, they are really ridiculous. They please themselves perhaps, but cannot please their Maker: all the acceptance they will find with God will be signified to them in that chiding question, "Who hath required these things at your hands?"
Judas and Silas being prophets; that is, persons extraordinarily inspired, and endued with eminent gifts for teaching and interpreting the holy scriptures; they employed themselves at Antioch, confirming and building up their brethren in the faith of Christ. And after they had stayed at Antioch some time, they were with all kindness dismissed of the church there; and Judas returned to Jerusalem, to acquaint the apostles with the reception which their letter had met with, and what obedience was readily given to their decrees.
Observe here, The pious and prudential care which St. Paul, who had planted churches, takes to visit and inspect them; that he might see and understand how they did thrive and grow in the knowledge of Christ, and in their sincere obedience to him. This great apostle had been sowing the good seed of the word of God: his next care is, to examine and enquire whether the envious ones had not sowed tares in his absence.
A minister's work, and a husbandman's business, are never at an end, but run round in a circle: Redit labor actus in orbem; after ploughing and sowing, there must be weeding and watering, before reaping and ingathering.
Accordingly St. Paul resolves upon the visitation here mentioned; Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do.
Here note, 1. The visitors, Paul and Barnabas.
2. The visited, our brethren, both the elders and members of the church.
3. The action performed, visiting; the word imports a strict view, a most diligent and solicitous scrutiny, lest some errors in their absence might be crept into the doctrine and conversation of these new-planted churches.
4. The place where the visitation is to be held: In every city where they have preached the word of the Lord.
Where they had planted, they were obliged to water; and where they had begotten any to the Christian faith, they thought it their duty to nurture and nourish them: and therefore, though there were presbyters no doubt in every city, yet Paul and Barnabas challenged to themselves a power of visitation, where they had personally preached. The apostles who first converted them, had a peculiar right to inspect and govern them. Converted souls, and planted churches, mist be farther visited, observed, and watered.
5. The end and design of the visitation: To see how they do, and what they do; to take an account of their faith and practice.
From the whole observe, 1. A disease which the churches of the apostles' own planting were supposed to be liable and obnoxious to: the purest of churches and best of men in this militant and mortal state, are apt to fall into distempers: witness this chapter. Where we find the Jews nauseating the bread of life, and making it their choice to pick and eat the rubbish off the partition-wall which Christ had demolished; I mean circumcision, and the legal ceremonies, which, though expired at the death of Christ, and by this time had an honourable burial, yet they attempt to pull out of their graves, and give a resurrection to them. Such distempers will be in the purest churches, if we consider the hereditary corruption which is in all by nature; the remains of it in those who are renewed by grace, and the endeavours of Satan to solicit these remains, and invite them forth into act and exercise.
Observe, 2. The remedy resolved upon for preventing and healing of this disease; namely, apostolical visitation, and episcopal inspection, as the word signifies. The constitution of the church is such, that it cannot continue long in repair, without inspection and government: for though the universal church is secure, being built upon a rock, yet particular churches are liable to dilapidations: and accordingly it is the duty of the governors of the church frequently to inspect the authority of those who preach, to examine their doctrines, to enquire into their lives, to give rules for preserving order, and to censure those who neglect those rules, and disturb that order.
In fine, we see the church of Christ must be governed; in that government there must be a superiority in some, and subordination in others: superiors must frequently visit, and narrowly inspect the doctrine, the lives, and manners, both of the ministers and members of the church, according to the practice and example of these two great apostles, Paul and Barnabas; who said, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word, and see how they do.
St. Paul having made a motion to Barnabas, in the foregoing verses, to visit and inspect the new-planted churches, Barnabas very readily compiled with the motion; but desired that he might take his nephew John Mark along with him. This St. Paul consented not unto; because he left them at Pamphylia, and did not accompany them constantly in preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. St. Paul was in the right; Mark's cowardice in leaving them when they undertook a tedious and hazardous journey to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, was a considerable objection against his present going with them, and weighed more than his consanguinity, or nearness of blood to Barnabas.
Accordingly, St. Paul insisted upon it, that he should not go now along with them: but this occasioned a very sharp and unhappy contention between them: insomuch, that these two great and good men parted asunder, Barnabas going to Cyprus, and St. Paul to Cilicia; but God overruled this evil for good, causing their separation to tend to the publication and farther spreading of the gospel.
Hence learn, 1. How industrious, yea, ambitious, the devil is to sow the seeds of discord and dissension amongst the members, but especially amongst the ministers, of Jesus Christ; and how ready he is to take all occasions to divide them. These holy men of God, these great apostles, whose hearts were united in the work of God, and went hand in hand together to plant and propagate the everlasting gospel, divide among themselves, and are parted by Satan's policy and their own passions.
Learn, 2. That the holiest and wisest of men are but men; men of like passions with other men; and, whilst, on this side of heaven, not wholly free from passionate infirmities. These two great apostles verified here by their actions, what they affirmed before in their words, We are men of like passions unto you. Acts 14:15
Learn, 3. That natural affections are apt to oversway the wisest and best of men. Barnabas's great love to his kinsman here prevailed contrary to his judgment.
Learn, 4. That such is the wisdom, power, and goodness of God, that he knows how to bring good out of the greatest evil, and to overrule sin itself, and make it subservient to his own glory and his church's good.
The Lord was pleased to overrule these divisions and dissensions betwixt Paul and Barnabas, for enlarging the kingdom of Christ, and for spreading the gospel farther into several nations.
Observe, lastly, How this reflection upon John Mark's faint-heartedness in declining the hardships and the hazards of the ministry, made him for the future more vigilant and valiant in the cause of the gospel, which occasioned that kind salutation which St. Paul gives him, Col 4:10. Though sin be only evil, absolutely evil, absolutely evil, and infinitely evil, yet the wisdom and goodness of God sanctifies the miscarriages of his saints, rendering them more humble for the time passed, and more watchful and vigilant for time to come.
Thus it was with Mark here: he was humbled for his sin, and afterwards became profitable to St. Paul for the ministry, was his fellow-labourer, and the apostle gives a special charge to the Colossians to entertain him kindly whenever he should come unto them, Marcus, sister's son to Barnabas, when he comes unto you, receive him. Col 4:10
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