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Acts 15:1-5

1. And certain which came down from Judea did teach his brethren, that unless they should be circumcised according to the manner of Moses, they could not be saved. 2. And when there arose sedition, and disputing not a little to Paul and Barnabas against them, they appointed that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to the apostles and elders to Jerusalem about this question. 3. And when they were sent by the Church, they passed through. Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles, and they brought great joy to all the brethren. 4. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the Church, and of the apostles and elders, and they showed what things soever God had done with them. 5. And there arose certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That, it was needful that they should be circumcised, and to declare that the law of Moses must be kept.

 

1. When Paul and Barnabas had endured many combats against the professed enemies of the gospel, Luke doth now begin to declare that they were tried by domestic war; so that it was meet that their doctrine and ministry should be proved by all means, to the end it might the better appear that they were furnished by God, and armed against all the assaults of the world and Satan. For that was no small confirmation for their doctrine, in that being shaken and battered with so many engines, it stood nevertheless, neither could the course thereof be broken off by so many hindrances. Therefore, to this end doth Paul boast that he suffered fights without and terrors within, (2 Corinthians 7:5.) This history is most worthy the noting; for though we do naturally abhor the cross and all manner [of] persecution, yet civil and domestic discord is more dangerous, lest haply they discourage us. 6868     “Plus tamen et intestinis dissidiis est periculi ne anlmos nostros frangant vel debilitent,” yet there is more danger in intestine dissensions, lest they weaken or dispirit us. When tyrants bend their force and run violently upon men, flesh indeed is afraid; and all those who are not endued with the spirit of fortitude do tremble with all their heart; but then their consciences are not properly touched with any temptation. For this is known to be as it were the fatal estate of the Church. But when it falleth out so that the brethren go together by the ears, and that the Church is on an uproar within itself, it cannot be but that weak minds shall be troubled and also faint; and especially when the controversy is about doctrine, which alone is the holy bond of brotherly unity. Finally, there is nothing which doth more indamage the gospel than civil discord, because it doth not only pierce and wound weak conscience, but also minister occasion to the wicked to backbite.

Wherefore, we must diligently note this history, that we may know that it is no new example, if among those who profess the same gospel there arise some wranglings and strife about doctrine, when proud men can get them a name, (whereof they are so furiously desirous,) by no other means but by bringing in their own inventions. It is certain, that as there is but one God, so there is but one truth of this God. 6969     “Certum quidem est, sicuti unus est Deus, ita unam esse ejus veritatem,” it is certain, indeed, that as God is one, so also his truth is one. Therefore, when Paul goeth about to exhort the faithful unto mutual consent, he useth this argument, “One God, one faith, one baptism,” etc., (Ephesians 4:6.) But when we see wicked men arise, who go about to divide [rend] the Church by their factions, and also either to corrupt the gospel with their false and filthy [spurious] inventions, or else to bring the same in suspicion, we ought to know the subtlety [artifice] of Satan. Therefore, Paul saith elsewhere that heresies come abroad, that those who are tried may be made manifest, (1 Corinthians 11:19.) And, assuredly, the Lord doth wonderfully make void the subtlety of Satan, in that he trieth the faith of his by such trials, and doth beautify his word with worthy and excellent victory; and causeth the truth to shine more clearly which the wicked went about to darken. But it is very convenient to weigh all the circumstances of the history which Luke noteth.

Which came down from Judea. This cloak and color was very forcible to deceive even good men then. Jerusalem was honored not without cause among all churches, because they reverenced it even as their mother. For the gospel was deducted, as it were, by pipes and conduits 7070     “Per rivos,” by streams. from that fountain. These seducers come thence; they pretend the apostles; they boast that they bring nothing but that which they learned of them. They blind and blear the eyes of the unskillful with this smoke; and those who are light and wicked do greedily snatch at the color which is offered them. The perturbation of the Church doth, like a tempest, shake those who were otherwise good and moderate, so that they are enforced to stumble. Therefore, we must note this subtlety of Satan, that he abuseth the names of holy men that he may deceive the simple, who, being won with the reverence of the men, dare not inquire after the thing itself. Luke doth not express, indeed, with what affection these knaves were moved; yet it is likely that perverse zeal was the cause which moved them to set themselves against Paul and Barnabas; for there be certain churlish natures which nothing can please but that which is their own. They had seen that circumcision and other rites of the law were observed at Jerusalem; wheresoever they become, they can abide nothing which is not agreeable thereto, as if the example of one church did bind all the rest of the churches with a certain law. And though such be carried with a preposterous zeal to procure tumults, yet are they pricked inwardly with their ambition, and with a certain kind of stubbornness. Nevertheless, Satan hath that he would; for the minds of the godly have such a mist cast before them that they can scarce know black from white.

Therefore, we must beware first of this plague, that some prescribe not a law to other some after their manner, that the example of one church be not a prejudice 7171     “Communis regulae praejudicium,” be not prejudged as a common rule. of a common rule. Also, we must use another caution, that the persons of men do not hinder or darken the examination of the matter or cause. For if Satan transfigure himself into an angel of light, (2 Corinthians 11:14,) and if, by sacrilegious boldness, he usurp the holy name of God, what marvel is it if he do like wickedly deceive men under the names of holy men? The end shall at length declare that the apostles meant nothing less than 7272     “Apostolis nihil minus esse in animo,” that the very last thing the apostles meant was. to lay the yoke of the law upon the neck of the Gentiles; and yet Satan meant under this shift to get in. So it falleth out oftentimes that those who contrary [oppose] the doctrine of Christ, creep in under the title of his servants. Therefore, there is one only remedy, to come to search out the matter 7373     “Ad rem ipsam quaerendam accedere,” to enter upon the investigation. with sound judgments; also it behoveth us to prevent an offense, lest we think that the faithful servants of God do therefore strive among themselves, because Satan doth falsely abuse their names, that he may set certain shadows by the ears together to terrify the simple.

2. When there was sedition arisen. This was no small trial, in that Paul and Barnabas are haled into a troublesome tumult. There was mischief enough already in the matter [dissension] itself; but it is a more cruel mischief when the contention waxeth so hot, that they are enforced to fight with their brethren as with enemies. Add, moreover, the infamy wherewith they saw themselves burdened among the simple and unskillful, as if they would trouble the peace of the Church with their stubbornness. For it falleth out oftentimes so, that the faithful servants of Christ are envied alone, and bear all the blame, after that they have been unjustly troubled, and have faithfully employed themselves in defense of a good cause. Therefore, they must be endued with invincible courage to despise all false reports which are carried about concerning them. Therefore, Paul boasteth in another place that he went through the midst of seditions, (2 Corinthians 6:5.) But the servants of God must observe such moderation, that they abhor so much as they can all discord; if at any time Satan raise tumults and contentions, let them endeavor to appease them, and, finally, let them do all that they can to foster and cherish unity. But again, on the other side, when the truth of God is assailed, let them refuse no combat for defense thereof; nor let them fear to oppose themselves valiantly, though heaven and earth go together.

And let us, being admonished by this example, learn, so often as there ariseth any tumult in the Church, wisely to weigh through whose fault it came, lest we rashly condemn the faithful ministers of Christ, whose gravity is rather to be praised, because they can abide so valiantly such violent assaults of Satan. Secondly, let us call to mind that Satan was bridled by the wonderful providence of God, that he might not put the doctrine of Paul to the foil. For if he had been suffered to do hurt at his pleasure, so soon as the faith of the Gentiles had been pulled down and overthrown, the gospel preached by Paul should have fallen to the ground, and the gate should have [been] shut against the calling of the Gentiles. Thirdly, let us learn that we must in time prevent dissension, of what sort soever it be, lest it break out into the flame of contention; because Satan seeketh nothing else by the fans of dissension but to kindle so many fires. But again, seeing we see the primitive Church on an uproar, and the best servants of Christ exercised with sedition, if the same thing befall us now, let us not fear as in some new and unwonted matter; but, craving at the Lord’s hands such an end as he now made, let us pass through tumults with the same tenor of faith.

Unless ye be circumcised. Luke setteth [defineth] down briefly in these words the state of the question, to wit, that these seducers went about to bind men’s consciences with necessity of keeping the law. Circumcision is indeed mentioned alone in this place; but it appeareth by the text that they moved the question about the keeping of the whole Law. And, because circumcision was, as it were, a solemn entrance and admission into other rites of the law, therefore, by synecdoche, the whole law is comprehended under one part. These enemies of Paul did not deny that Christ was the Messiah; but though they gave him their names, they retained therewithal the old ceremonies of the law.

The error might have seemed tolerable at the first glimpse. Why doth not Paul then dissemble, at least, for some short time, lest he shake the Church with conflict? for the disputation was concerning external matters, concerning which Paul himself forbiddeth elsewhere to stand and strive too much. But there were three weighty causes which enforced him to gainstand. For, if the keeping of the law be necessary, man’s salvation is tied to works, which must be grounded in the grace of Christ alone, that the faith may be settled and quiet. Therefore, when Paul saw the worship of the law set against the free righteousness of faith, it was unlawful for him to hold his peace, unless he would betray Christ. For, seeing the adversaries did deny that any should be saved, save he which did observe the law of Moses, by this means they did translate unto works the glory of salvation, which they took from Christ, and having shaken assurance, they did vex miserable souls with unquietness. Again, it was no small thing, neither of any small importance, to spoil and rob faithful souls of the liberty gotten by Christ’s blood. Though the inward liberty of the Spirit were common to the fathers as well as to us, yet we know what Paul saith, that they were shut up under the childish ward and custody of the law, so that they did not much differ from servants; but we are loose from the schoolmastership of the law after that Christ was revealed, (Galatians 3:24,) and we have more liberty, the time of our nonage being, as it were, ended. The third vice of this doctrine was, because it darkened the light of the Church, 7474     “Evangelli,” gospel. or at least did put in, as it were, certain clouds, that Christ the Sun of righteousness might not give perfect light. In sum, Christianity should shortly have come to nothing if Paul should have yielded to such beginnings. Therefore, he entereth the combat, not for the external uncircumcision of the flesh, but for the free salvation of men. Secondly, that he may acquit and set free godly consciences from the curse of the law, and the guilt of eternal death. Last of all, that after all hindrances are driven away, the brightness of the grace of Christ may shine as in a pleasant and clear heaven. Moreover, these knaves did great injury to the law when they did wickedly corrupt the right use thereof. This was the natural and right office of the law, to lead men by the hand, like a schoolmaster, unto Christ; therefore, it could not be worse corrupt than when, under color of it, the power and grace of Christ were diminished.

After this sort must we look into the fountains of all questions, lest by our silence we betray the truth of God, so often as we see Satan, by his subtlety, aim right at it; neither let our minds be changed and wax faint through any perils, or reproaches and slanders, because we must constantly defend pure religion, though heaven and earth must [should] go together. The servants of Christ must be no fighters, (2 Timothy 2:24;)therefore, if there be any contention risen, they must rather study to appease and pacify the same by their moderation, than by and by to blow to the assault. 7575     “Quam ut classicum protinus caniant,” than forthwith to blow the trumpet. Secondly, they must take good heed of superfluous and vain conflicts; neither shall they handle controversies of any small weight; but when they see Satan wax so proud, that religion cannot any longer continue safe and sound unless he be prevented, they must needs take a good heart to them, and rise to resist; neither let them fear to enter even most hateful combats. The name of peace is indeed plausible and sweet, but cursed is that peace which is purchased with so great loss, that we suffer the doctrine of Christ to perish, by which alone we grow together into godly and holy unity.

The Papists cause us at this day to be sore hated, as if we had been the causers of deadly tumults, wherewith the world is shaken; but we can well defend ourselves, because the blasphemies which we endeavored to reprove were more cruel 7676     “Atrociores,” more atrocious. than that it was lawful for us to hold our peace; there we are not to be blamed, because we have taken upon us to enter combats in defense of that cause, for which we were to fight even with the very angels. Let them cry till their throats be sore; Paul’s example is sufficient for us, that we must not be either cold or slack in defending the doctrine of godliness when the ministers of Satan seek to overthrow it with might and main; for their brainsick distemperature ought not to pass 7777     “Superare,” overcome. the constancy of the servants of God. When Paul did zealously set himself against the false apostles, sedition began at length 7878     “Exarsit,” blazed forth. by reason of the conflict; and yet the Spirit of God doth not therefore reprove him; but doth rather with due praises commend that fortitude which he had given that holy man.

They determined, etc. The Spirit of God put them in mind of this remedy to appease the tumult, which might otherwise have gone farther with doing much hurt, whereby we be also taught, that we must always seek such means as be fit 7979     “Aptas et commodas,” fit and convenient. for ending discord; because God doth so highly commend peace, let the faithful show 8080     “Re ipsa,” in reality. that they do what they can to nourish the peace of the Church. The truth must always be first in order with them, in defense whereof they must be afraid of no tumults; yet they must so temper their heat that they refuse no means of godly agreement; yea, let them of their own accord invent what ways soever they can, and let them be witty in seeking them out. Therefore, we must observe this mean, lest being carried away through immoderate vehemency of zeal we be carried beyond the just bounds; for we must be courageous in defense of true doctrine, not stubborn, nor rash; therefore, let us learn to join together these two virtues which the Spirit of God commandeth in Paul. When he is drawn into the field by the wicked, he is not afraid boldly to offer himself; but when he doth meekly admit the remedy which was offered, he declareth plainly what small desire he had to fight, for otherwise he might have boasted that he did not pass for the apostles, 8181     “Nihil se morari apostolos,” that he cared not for the apostles. and so have stood stoutly in that; but the desire of peace did not suffer him to refuse their judgment. Moreover, ignorant and weak men should have conceived a sinister opinion, if they should have seen two men only separated from all the servants of Christ; and godly teachers must in no case neglect this way to cherish faith, that they may show that they agree with the Church.

Paul, indeed, did not depend upon the beck of the apostles, that he would change his opinion if he should have found them contrary to him, who would not have given place even to the very angels, as he boasteth in first chapter to the Galatians, (Galatians 1:8;) but lest the wicked should slanderously report that he was a man that stood too much in his own conceit, and which was too proud, and which did please himself with an unseemly contempt of all men, he offered to give an account of his doctrine, as it became him, and as it was profitable for the Church; secondly, he presented himself before the apostles with sure hope of victory, because he knew full well what would be their judgment, seeing they were guided by the same Spirit wherewith he was governed. Notwithstanding, it may be demanded for what purpose the men of Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas unto the rest of the apostles; for if they did so greatly reverence them, that they stood in doubt until they had given judgment on this side or that, their faith was hitherto vain and altogether none? But the answer is easy, seeing they knew that all the apostles were sent 8282     “Pariter,” in like manner. by Christ alone with the same commandments, and that they had the same Spirit given them, they were fully persuaded of the end and success, and, undoubtedly, this counsel proceeded from honest and stout men, who were not ignorant that the knaves did falsely pretend the names of James and Peter. Wherefore, they sought nothing else but that the apostles might further a good matter with their consent. 8383     “Suffragio,” suffrage.

To the same end were all holy synods assembled since the beginning, that grave men, and such as were well exercised in the word of God, might decide controversies, not after their own pleasure, but according to the authority of God. This is worth the noting, lest the Papists pierce any man with their loud outcries, 8484     “Ventosis suis clamoribus,” with their vain clamor. who, to the end they may overthrow Christ and his gospel, and put out all the light of godliness, thrust upon us Councils, as if every definition and determination of men were to be counted an heavenly oracle; but if the holy Fathers had their sitting at this day, they would cry with one mouth, that there was nothing more unlawful for them, neither did they mean any thing less than to set down or deliver any thing without having the word of Christ for their guide, who was their only teacher, [master,] even as he is ours. I omit this, that the Papists lean only unto untimely 8585     “Abortivis,” abortive. Councils, which breathe out nothing but gross ignorance and barbarism; but even the best and most choice must be reckoned in that number, that they may be subject to the word of God. There is a grievous complaint of Gregory Nazianzene extant, that there was never any Council which had a good end. What excellency soever did flourish and was in force in the Church, it cannot be denied but that it began to decay an hundred years after; therefore, if that holy man were now living, how stoutly would he reject the toys of the Papists, who, without all shame, most impudently bring in the jugglings of visors instead of lawful Councils, and that to that end, that the Word of God may pack, 8686     “Facessat,” may be dismissed. so soon as a few bald and foolish men have set down whatsoever pleased them?

3. Being brought on the way by the Church. Whereas, by the common consent of the Church, there were joined to Paul and Barnabas companions, who might, for duty’s sake, conduct them, we may thereby gather, that all the godly were on their side; and that they did never otherwise think but that the cause was theirs as well as the apostles. Wherefore they determined the journey of Paul and Barnabas with like minds as they took it in hand; to wit, that they might tame and put to silence those troublesome spirits who did falsely make boast of the apostles. Whereas he saith shortly after, that they certified the brethren in their voyage of the wonderful conversion of the Gentiles, it is a testimony and token that they came not to Jerusalem fraught with fear; but that they did even without fear stoutly profess that which they had taught before. Therefore, they come not to plead their cause before their judges; but that they may, with common consent and judgment, on both sides, approve that which was commanded by God touching the abolishing of ceremonies. For though they did not despise the judgment of the apostles, yet because they knew that it was not lawful for them, neither for the apostles, to decree otherwise concerning the cause, it did not become them to stand as men whose matter is handled at the bar. 8787     “Reos,” as men accused, defenders. Thence cometh the boldness of rejoicing; to this end 8888     “Huc accedit,” to this is added. tendeth the joy of the godly, whereby they subscribe both to the doctrine of Paul and also the calling of the Gentiles.

4. They were received of the Church. By this word Church he meaneth the multitude itself and the whole body; that done, he assigneth a peculiar place to the apostles and elders, by whom Paul and Barnabas were specially received. Furthermore, because the apostles had no certain place of abode at Jerusalem, but went ever now and then sometimes to one place and sometimes to another, whithersoever occasion did call them, that church had elders to whom the ordinary government of the Church was committed; and what the one function differeth from the other we have before declared, (Acts 14:23.) And hereby it appeareth what brotherly courtesy there was in the apostles and elders, because they do not only courteously receive Paul and Barnabas, but so soon as they hear what success they had with their pains they took, they magnify the grace of God. Luke repeateth again that form of speech which we had before in the chapter next going before, when he saith, that they declared whatsoever things God had done with them. Wherein we must remember that which I said before, that God is not made a fellow-laborer, but all the whole praise of the work is ascribed to him. Therefore it is said, that he did that with Paul and Barnabas which he did by them, as he is said to deal mercifully with us when he helpeth our miseries.

5. Certain of the sect of the Pharisees. It is not without cause that Luke expresseth what kind of men they were which went about to trouble or hinder Paul, even at Jerusalem also. And it is to be thought that the evil flowed from that fountain; and that Luke doth now more plainly express, that there brake out now also fans [disturbers] out of that very same sect, from whence the authors of that wicked dissension came. For though they had given Christ their names, yet there remained relics of their former nature. We know how proud the Pharisees were, how haughty, how lofty their looks were; 8989     “Quanta confidentia, quale supercilium,” how confident, how supercilious. all which they would have forgotten if they had truly put on Christ. Like as there remained no Phariseeism in Paul, but a great part had gotten the habit of stubbornness by long custom, which they could not shake off so easily by and by. Forasmuch as there reigned most of all among them hypocrisy, they were too much addicted to external rites, which are coverings for vices. They were likewise puffed up with pride, so that they did tyrannously covet to make all other men subject to their decrees. It is well-known how sore sick the monks are of both diseases. Whereby it cometh to pass, that nothing is more cruel than they to oppress the Church, nothing is more wicked or forward than they to despise the Word of God. Moreover, we see many of them which came out of those dens which have cast from them their cowl, and yet can they never forget those conditions which they learned there. 9090     “Quos illic imbiberunt mores,” the habits which they contracted there.


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