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The Question of Circumcision
Summary —The Judaizing Teachers at Antioch. Opposed by Paul and Barnabas. The Question Referred to Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas Report to the Apostles and Elders Their Work Among the Gentiles. Pharisees Insist That These Gentiles Must Be Circumcised. Peter's Address. Paul and Barnabas Show How God Was with Them. The Judgment of James the Lord's Brother. His Views Accepted by All. The Apostolic Letter to the Gentile Christians. The Joy at Antioch When the Letter Is Read. Judas and Silas.
1. Certain men which came from Judea. This chapter records the first intimation of the great controversy that agitated the apostolic church, and of which we find traces in many of Paul's letters, the question whether Christianity was merely a development and a sort of culmination of Judaism, or was a New Dispensation that had supplanted the Old and taken its place. At first the Christians of Jerusalem and Judea remained strict Jews, still keeping the ordinances of Moses. The Samaritans converted by Philip were a circumcised people. The idea of the apostles, at first, seems to have been that Gentiles might become Christians, but must first be circumcised. It was a matter of astonishment to Peter and the brethren that he was required to baptize the Gentile Cornelius and his friends without circumcision. Then came the formation of the Gentile church at Antioch and the successful labors of Paul and Barnabas in western Asia. The influx of the Gentiles to the church, and their acceptance on the same terms as the old covenanted people of Jehovah, stirred those Jewish brethren of the more bigoted type to bitter opposition, and they began to send their teachers abroad with the declaration, Except ye be circumcised.… ye cannot be saved. Thus they came to Antioch; thus, at a later period, they disturbed the churches of Galatia and called out the Galatian letter. In order to destroy their influence, it was needful at once to settle whether they spoke the sentiment of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem, and hence Paul and Barnabas were sent to lay this question before the great mother church. This caused the conference 481described in this chapter, spoken of in church history as The Council of Jerusalem. The reader should form some idea of the importance of this question. It was none other than whether Christendom should be Jewish Christian, or delivered from the bondage of the Jewish law into the liberty of the children of God. Paul (Gal. 2:4) calls these “certain men” “false brethren.”
2. No small dissension. These men were opposed by Paul and Barnabas, but the fact that they were from Jerusalem, and probably contended that they had the authority of the apostles, gave them an influence.
3, 4. Being brought on their way by the church. A special escort of church members attended them on their journey. It was mark of honor. See 20:38 and 21:5. Passed through Phenice. Phoenicia. They went by the land route, visiting the churches of Phoenicia and Samaria, causing great joy by their account of so great success among the Gentiles. Were received of the church. Had a cordial reception, a warm greeting.
5. There rose up certain of the Pharisees. Men of that sect who, like Paul, had become Christians, but unlike him had retained their Jewish bigotry. Perhaps some of them were Paul's old friends. They seem to have sprung the controversy when the missionaries gave account of their work (verse 4).
6. The apostles and elders came together. A meeting of the apostles and the elders of Jerusalem was called. It was in the year a.d. 51, about twenty years after the ascension of Christ. One apostle had suffered martyrdom; eleven, including Matthias, remained, though some might have been in distant parts. James, the “brother of the Lord,” though not one of the Twelve, was a chief man now in the Jerusalem church, and is often spoken of by historians as its pastor, or bishop. Though his sentiment decided the question this day, he has been regarded as a leader of the Judaizing Christians. See Gal. 2:12.
7–11. When there had been much disputing. One side insisted that the Gentiles must keep the law of Moses, the other that they were not under the Mosaic covenant at all. Peter rose up. Probably 482silent until this time. He arose to rehearse his own experiences which had given him new light. A good while ago. Nine or ten years before. For the account of Peter's conversion of the Gentiles, see chapters 10 and 11. Put no difference between us and them. Accepted them just as he accepted us, and gave the Holy Spirit as a proof to us that he had accepted them. Purifying their hearts by faith. The Jews held that Gentiles were unclean, but Peter declared that faith, the true circumcision, that of the heart, not of the body, purified them into fitness for the ordinances of Christ. Observe Peter's doctrine: not circumcision of the flesh, but the faith that leads to obedience cleanses from uncleanness. To put a yoke. To impose Jewish obligations on Gentile Christians. The law of Moses was a yoke that neither our fathers nor we were able to bear. So strict in its requirements that none could keep it perfectly. Through the grace of the Lord. This is the hope of both Jew and Gentile, not obedience to the ceremonials of Moses.
12. All the multitude kept silence. After Peter's reminder of his work among the Gentiles, Paul and Barnabas were probably called on to show whether their work, like Peter's, showed that God was with them. They therefore gave some account of the miracles that God had wrought by their hands, thereby attesting the Divine favor.
13–21. James answered, saying. For other references to James see 1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:19 and 2:9, and the Epistle of James. He is also mentioned several times in the Gospels, and seems, before the death of Jesus, to have been an unbeliever. It is probable that the speech of Peter, followed by the account given by Paul and Barnabas, convinced him, and led to the views he now expresses. Simeon. 483Simon Peter. To this agree the … prophets. The quotation he gives is from Amos 9:11, 12. Build again the tabernacle of David. Restore the splendors of his family in the reign of the Messiah, “the Son of David.” That the residue of men. The Gentile world. This grand prophecy of the calling of the Gentiles makes no mention of circumcision. Known unto God are all his works. The meaning is, that this calling of the Gentiles is a part of the Divine plan known to God from the beginning. Wherefore. Since it is evidently God's will, “My sentence is, that we do not trouble them.” Sentence. Decision. That they abstain from the pollutions of idols. Four items are mentioned, which are all embraced in the apostolic letter as things forbidden. They were four common customs of the Gentile world, and matters on which there should be a clear understanding. The first does not mean only to refrain from worshiping idols, or eating meat offered in idol sacrifice, but from all the pollutions of the system of idolatry. Licentiousness and drunkenness received a sanction from religion. See Lecky's European Morals, chap. V., and Conybeare and Howson's Paul, chap. IV. Fornication. Chastity was the exception instead of the rule among Gentiles at this period. From things strangled. Because in strangling the blood was retained in the flesh. The use of blood was prohibited by the Mosaic law, and for wise reasons this prohibition was extended to Gentiles. The Roman epicures were wont to drown fowls in wine and then use the flesh. It was a common thing to drink wine mingled with blood. The only way to strike at these savage practices was to prohibit its use. For Moses … hath. There are synagogues in every city. The use of blood would shock the Jews who have membership in these.
22–29. Then pleased … with the whole church. All acquiesced in the judgment of James. The church is not before mentioned as taking part. The decisions seem to have been submitted 484to its voice. To send chosen men. As the messengers of the church at Jerusalem. Judas. Little is known of him to save that he was a prophet (verse 32). Silas. Well known after this as the companion of Paul. See Acts 16; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:19. They wrote letters. A letter. Luke gives it, I suppose, verbatim. Send greeting. Observe that the greeting is not only from the apostles and elders, but from the church. It seemed good unto us. It seemed good to them to send men, but the decision made “seemed good to the Holy Spirit” (verse 28). Men that have hazarded their lives. This high praise is given to Paul and Barnabas. It is the tribute of the church at Jerusalem to the two men sent from the church at Antioch. Seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us. The decision was inspired. That ye abstain from meats. See note on verse 20.
30–35. They rejoiced for the consolation. When they returned and the letter was read to the church at Antioch, it caused great joy. Judas and Silas, being prophets. Inspired speakers. Such speakers were necessary to the church until it had the New Testament for a guide. They were let go in peace. They were dismissed for Jerusalem with benedictions of peace. It pleased Silas to abide there still. This verse is not found in the Revision, nor in the oldest MSS. Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch. Probably for the greater part of a year, preaching, and assisted by many other laborers.
36–41. Paul said unto Barnabas. This is a proposal to start on a second missionary journey, in 485order to visit and strengthen the churches already planted, as well as to extend the work. Barnabas determined to take with them John. He had abandoned them on the first tour (13:13), and his reasons did not satisfy Paul; hence he declined to take him. The contention was so sharp. Neither would yield, so they determined to work separately. Barnabas, with Mark, went to visit the churches of Cyprus, while Paul chose Silas as his fellow laborer. He seems to have returned from Jerusalem. Being recommended … to the grace of God. Evidently a meeting of the church was held to commend them to God. Went through Syria and Cilicia. We have no account of the founding of these churches, but we know that Paul had before this labored in these parts. See Gal. 1:21. 485
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