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An Exposition Of The Acts Of The Apostles


In this Chapter we have an account of the mission of Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to consult the Apostles about grave questions mooted relative to the necessity of Jewish Ceremonies (1–3). The Council of Jerusalem—the discussion therein (6–21). Their decree on the subject in question (23–28) forwarded by St. Paul and Barnabas, Judas and Silas (v. 29). The arrival of the Delegates at Antioch, with the Council’s Decree (31–34). A dispute between Paul and Barnabas, as to their taking with them John Mark in their visitation of the cities wherein they had already preached. This ended in their separation each going in a different direction, Barnabas and John Mark proceeding to Cyprus, Paul and Silas to Syria and Cililcia, promulgating the Decrees of the Apostles.


1. “And some coming down,” &c. While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch some Jews converted to Christianity, as is clear from their consenting or wishing to have the matter in dispute referred to the Apostles (v. 2). “Coming down.” Judæa was in a higher position than the maritime districts. “Taught the brethren.” Went about teaching on their own private authority, the necessity, on the part of the converts from heathenism, of submitting to the rite of circumcision—the chief distinguishing profession of Judaism—in order to be saved. This was grand subject of discussion among the early Christians as is clear from the Epistles of St. Paul, especially that to the Galatians.

“After the manner of Moses,” in accordance with the Mosaic Ritual. Circumcision was anterior to Moses. It existed in the days of Abraham. It was sanctioned by Moses, and was a profession of Judaism, as Baptism is of Christianity.

2. “No small contest” (in Greek, “no small dissension and disputation”), signifying that Paul and Barnabas exerted all their powers to put down the false teaching of these men. They did not, however, succeed in establishing peace. Hence, “they,” “the brethren” at Antioch (v. 1) determined on referring the matter in dispute to the supreme authority of the Apostles at Jerusalem. Hence, they depute Paul and Barnabas on one side, with some others on the other.

This is not opposed to what St. Paul says of his visit (Gal. 2:2) to which the visit here spoken of refers, that “he went up according to revelation,” as the revelation and deputation from Antioch both coincided.

“And Priests” of the first order, viz., bishops and of the second order also. The bishops decided. The priests attended as advisers and counsellors (A. Lapide quoting Bellarmine). The “Apostles” present in Jerusalem were Peter, James and John (Gal. 2:9).

3. “Brought on their way,” escorted by way of honour and respect as was usual in those days.

“Phenice and Samaria” lay directly on the route to Jerusalem. The bulk of the converts in these districts were principally from paganism. Hence, the universal joy.

“Received” hospitably and kindly “by the church,” the faithful at large, and especially the chief men among them, who acknowledged them as brethren in Christ (Gal. 2:9).

“Ancients.” Bishops and priests. “Declaring,” &c. Paul and Barnabas gave a full account in presence of the assembled brethren, people and rulers of the success of their labours through God’s grace, and most likely of the cause of the present controversy which gave rise to this deputation.

5. From St. Luke’s narrative it would seem this took place at Jerusalem after Paul and Barnabas returned.

“There arose up.” Those referred to (v. 1) as having gone down to Antioch.

These converted Pharisees, “who believed,” persisted in the necessity of uniting the Mosaic rites with the Christian profession.

6. “Assembled.” Came specially together to consider the subject debated with reference to uniting Mosaic rites to Christianity.

This meeting or assembly constituted what was termed the first General Council of Jerusalem, the model of all future general councils of the church, convened, no doubt, and presided over by the Prince of the Apostles, who after due discussion spoke first as supreme judge of controversy. Some of the simple faithful, and those especially who raised the controversy were present, but only as consultors and witnesses: whereas, it was only the Apostles and ancients that, as judges, examined the matter “to consider of this matter.”

7. “Much disputing” and warm debating on both sides previous to the judgment.

“Peter,” as head of the church and supreme judge of controversy, “rising up” to define this grave subject of faith.

“In former days” has special reference to the conversion of Cornelius, the centurion (10:20).

“God made choice,” &c. Hath chosen us and selected me, among all the Apostles, to bring about the conversion of the Gentiles. He specially alludes to Cornelius and his conversion.

8. God, who alone searches the hearts, and cannot be deceived as to men’s sincerity and dispositions, testified to their sincerity and the reality of their conversion, by pouring out His Spirit on them as well as on us.

9. Made no difference between them who did not conform to the Mosaic Law and “us,” thus showing they were equally as we, acceptable to Him.

“Purifying their hearts,” hitherto wallowing in the mire of infidelity, idolatry and sin. “By faith,” contradistinguished from Mosaic observances—“faith”—the foundation of the system of justification established by Him; “by faith” and not by Mosaic observances; “by faith,” accompanied with the other conditions, especially good works, required as essential.

10. “Tempt God,” in SS. Scriptures signifies to put unnecessarily to the test any of the Divine attributes. Here it means to provoke Him to wrath or anger (“tentaverunt me patris vestri, Psalm 127”) by perversely opposing His manifest will, by imposing on men, as necessary, what He exonerated them from and showed to be unmeaning—the “yoke”—the ceremonial precepts of the Mosaic Law, an oppressive burden unjustly interfering with their just liberty, requiring more than God required. This “yoke” cannot apply to the moral or natural law, binding in men at all times.

“Have been able to bear,” means great difficulty, not absolute impossibility, as God would not sanction anything impossible. But the precepts of the Mosaic Law were burthensome, especially as they did not carry with them the grace necessary for self-fulfilment. These precepts had for object to withdraw the people from idolatry. That they were not, strictly speaking, impossible is clear from the examples of Zachary and Elizabeth commended for having observed them in every point without blame (Luke 1), also Josue (Josue 11:15), David, (Acts 13:22), &c.

11. “But.” This adversative particle has reference to the negative idea, or negation contained in the foregoing interrogation. Do you expect salvation through the observance of the multiplied precepts forming an intolerable yoke of the Mosaic Law? No, it is not by the Law of Moses or circumcision we are to be saved, “but by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, we,” converted Jews, “believe we shall be saved” in the same manner as they too shall be saved who never were subjected to the rites of the Mosaic. “In the same manner.” Through the same uniform means, the grace and faith of Christ, we Jews and Gentiles shall be saved.

Some, among whom St. Augustine (Lib. 2 contra Pelagium, c. xxi.) say, the comparison instituted here is not between the converted Jews and Gentiles of the present day among themselves; but, between the converts of the day and their Fathers who went before them, so that “in like manner as they also” refers to the ancient Fathers, who were saved only through the grace and merits of Christ, since it is undoubted, that no one was ever saved, even of old, save through the retrospective merits of Christ, “the Lamb that was slain from the beginning of the world” (Apoc. 3:8). The salvation, however, of their Jewish ancestors, clearly referrible to the merits of Christ, seems to have but little connexion with the subject now under consideration, viz.: the conversion of the Pagans to Christianity and their exemption from legal ceremonies having one uniform system of justification in common with the converted Jews. Whereas, it will certainly be in point, if we understand the Apostle to refer to one uniform system of justification for all, Jews and Gentiles, viz.: the grace and faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, without regard to Jewish ceremonies.

12. “The multitude,” the entire assembly present, convened for the purpose of considering the question in dispute, “held their peace,” as a mark of respect and reverence for the chief Pastor. Neither party could gainsay. Peter’s words calmed their troubled spirits, and put an end to the controversy. No further disputing. “Petrus locutus est, causa finita est”—as is said of Rome, to which were communicated Peter’s privileges, “Roma locuta est, causa finita est.”

They listened to Barnabas and Paul narrating the wonderful miracles God had wrought in the admittance of the Gentiles into the Church without submitting to Jewish rites, thus setting on such admission and the doctrine regarding it, the seal of his approbation.

13. “James,” the lesser, son of Alpheus, as Bishop of Jerusalem, spoke next, after Peter. “Answering” in Scripture language does not imply a question. It signifies, to begin to speak. His personal character sustained by Prophetical oracles, corroborative of Peter’s opinion, carried with it great weight. He did not dispute with Peter; but, only spoke in corroboration of Peter’s decision, quoting the ancient Scriptures, which had the greatest weight with the Jews.

14. “Simon” in Greek “Simeon” speaking to Hebrews, he calls him by his Hebrew name.

15. The statement of Peter was in accordance with the predictions of the Prophets.

“As it is written.” Take, for instance, the prophecy of Amos, among the other prophecies on the subject. “Prophets” in the plural, shows there were several other Prophecies bearing on the point, which he might quote. He refers, however, only to one (Amos 9:11, 12), or it may refer to the division of the Bible, called “Prophets.”

16, 17. The quotation in these vv. from Amos is not literally from either the Hebrew or the Septuagint. While v. 17 is literally from the Septuagint, which in the literal rendering differs from the Hebrew; v. 16 only conveys the general meaning of the Prophet, whom St. James quotes, to show that the Gentiles would be admitted to the privilege of Divine Sonship without submitting to circumcision and the Jewish ceremonial Law.

“After these things.” In Hebrew, on that day. Both, however, substantially refer to the same thing. Both phrases signify, in the Books of the Old Testament, the times of the New Testament.

“I will return,” signifying reconciliation with God, who in His anger deserted them, and now, in His mercy, revisits them. These words are found neither in the Hebrew nor the Septuagint. They contain an allusion to the destruction of the house of Israel (Amos 9:7–10), when God handed them over to their enemies, and to His return now to repair all their losses.

“Rebuild the Tabernacle of David,” viz., his palace, deserted and given over to a state of ruin and neglect during the Chaldean captivity; this he shall now restore to its former splendour and magnificence, and rebuild its ruins.

“The ruins (Hebrew, the breaches thereof).” Thus rebuilt, it shall be an emblem of the vast spiritual blessings in store for the Jewish people.

“That the residue,” &c., “and all nations may seek after Him.” In the Hebrew it is: that they (the Israelites) may possess the residue of Edom and all nations, &c. Edom is specified as an example of all the other nations and peoples foreign to Israel, who are admitted to a participation of the spiritual blessings bestowed on Israel, that is to say, on that house and restored kingdom of David, through the glorious descendant, on whom his Father promised to bestow the Gentiles as an inheritance, and the ends of the earth, as his possessions.

“May seek,” put contingently (ὁπως αν) in the Greek, should they themselves possibly desire it or co-operate, aided by God’s assistance in securing it.

“Upon whom my name,” who, after embracing the faith, shall be called, by my name, Sons of God, Christians.

“Saith the Lord,” &c., who will accomplish, without fail, His own prophecy. This cannot refer to the time of Ezechias, or return from captivity, or Machabees, or any other period prior to our Lord, since the Jews did not possess all nations. It can only refer to the restoration of David’s kingdom, in a spiritual and more exalted sense, through that blessed Seed, to whom “the Lord God will give the throne of his Father David.… and of his kingdom no end” (Luke 1:32, 33).

18. “To the Lord,” &c. These are the words of St. James, not of Amos. This vocation of the Gentiles, without conforming to Jewish ceremonies, formed a part of God’s eternal design and plan in bestowing on them all the privileges He thought fit. We should not, therefore, attach conditions to God’s unspeakable boon, which He never required, nor meant to require, in His eternal designs “from the beginning of the world.” These eternal designs we should not oppose.

19. St. James now gives his judgment. “For which cause,” on account of the Prophecies declaring that the Gentiles were to be admitted into the Church regardless of Jewish ceremonies, and on account of his experience quoted by Peter. “I judge.” “Not disquieted” by imposing on them Jewish ceremonies.

20. “But,” in order to consult the feelings of my Jewish fellow citizens and avoid all offence, and that thus all may unite, Jews and Gentiles, in the same common Christian profession, they should be written to, to refrain from pollution of Idols or Idolothytes (1 Cor. 8:10), v. 29. These things were strictly prohibited by the Mosaic Law, and abhorred by the Jews, as savouring of Idolatry (Exod. 34:13).

“From fornication.” This, though prohibited by the natural law itself, was regarded as a matter of indifference with the Pagans. The general state of Pagan licentiousness rendered this prohibition necessary, lest the converts should regard “fornication” as a matter of indifference.

“Things strangled and blood.” Prohibited by the Mosaic Law (Levit. 3:17; 12:2–6; 27:13, 14).

These instructions, so far as the ceremonial Law was concerned, were only local and temporary, to last only for a time, as long as the motives for enacting them and the circumstances which rendered them necessary lasted—viz., the avoidance of offence to the converted Jews. But, after a time, they ceased and fell into desuetude. St. Augustine (Lib. contra Fanstum, xxxii. 18) explains the object of this Law of the Council, and informs us, that it was not observed at Hippo, and fell into desuetude in the Latin Church.

21. “For Moses”—referring to the Law of Moses—“of old time,” from a very long past period, from the time of Esdras. The meaning is that the Law of Moses was constantly read and preached every Sabbath, in every city where there was a sufficient number of Jews to have synagogues. Hence, as the Jews would be always, at that age of the Church, reminded of the Law of Moses, they could not easily forget it. It was, therefore, expedient that no offence would be given them; and that the Gentile converts would refrain from partaking of “things strangled, blood,” &c., to avoid giving them offence who always had the enactments of the Law of Moses before their minds.

It is not easy to see the connexion of this verse with the context, or the subject for which a reason is assigned, as indicated by the causal particle, “for.” Beelen professes his utter inability to see it, nor does he know of any other that has seen it. The whole context clearly shows that the words of this verse must have some connexion with St. James’ argument that, to avoid giving offence, it is expedient for the Gentile converts to abstain from the things specified. Hence “For” refers, as often happens, to something understood, and gives a reason why the foregoing “necessary things” (v. 28) are required, as the disregarding of them would cause not only private, but public scandal. For the Law of Moses has, from the remotest antiquity, its followers in every city, and its Scriptures publicly read in the synagogues every Sabbath (Bloomfield).

22. “The Apostles and the ancients,” to whom the case in dispute was referred (v. 2), “with the whole Church,” who fully approved of the decree of “the Apostles and ancients,” in whose name it was forwarded (v. 23).

“To choose” (having chosen) “men of their own company” from among themselves, “leading” prominent men of authority among them, and send them with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch to prove the authenticity of the Decree, and draw more closely together the bonds of union.

“Judas Barsabas,” said to be the brother of Joseph Barsabas, mentioned for the Apostleship (c. 1), “and Silas” Sylvanus, who accompanied St. Paul on his journeys (15:10; 1 Cor. 7–16).

23. “Writing by their hands.” Handing the document to them as its bearers. They were to explain it by word of mouth (v. 27).

The Greek of this verse is considered by some not to be in accordance with the ordinary rules of grammatical construction. By others, the contrary is asserted—Beelen, &c., who adduce several passages of similar grammatical construction from ancient classical writers.

“The Apostles and ancients brethren.” From them the Decree emanates “to the brethren of the Gentiles.” Both are thus regarded as equals. “Antioch,” the capital of Syria; “and in Syria,” the rest of Syria, where, likely, the dispute was carried on. “Cilicia,” close to Syria. Likely the dispute reached there also. In these three places it would seem the dispute had arisen. “Greeting,” wishing them the abundance of all happiness.

24. “Forasmuch,” whereas, “words,” doctrines, “subverting your souls,” creating disturbance and anxiety by their teachings, touching the Law of Moses. The Greek word means, unsettling, “no commandment,” self-sent, having no commission whatever to teach thus.

25. “Assembled together.” Acting in concert, and coming unanimously to this conclusion.

26. “Given their lives,” which they have not hesitated to expose; “the name,” the cause (see c. 14). This testimony was calculated to increase their influence with the churches. It showed they were identified with the body of the Apostles.

27. The bearers of the letters were hereby authorized to explain, by word of mouth if necessary, more explicitly the contents of the written message, and clear up any obscure points.

28. “To the Holy Ghost and to us,” who are enlightened and directed by him in this Decree. The Holy Ghost is the principal cause; the Apostles and bishops, heads of the Church, who act under his impulse, guidance, and superintendence, the Ministerial cause. Both are here united. Holy Ghost and us. This is the unchangeable Dogmatic Decree which is of Divine authority. That regarding Idolothytes, &c., an Ecclesiastical Decree, could be, and really was, abrogated.

“No farther burden,” no further restrictions, “than these necessary things,” necessary not of themselves. Fornication was always to be necessarily avoided as a breach of the moral law, but “necessary” for a time, in the cause of charity, union, and the avoidance of scandal. “Necessary” to conciliate the Jews, “necessary” as long as the circumstances that called for them existed. It was but a temporary prohibition, and long since done away with, especially in the Western Church.

“Do well,” will please God, and advance the cause of peace and religion and secure your own happiness.

31. “Rejoiced,” &c. These heathen converts at Antioch were filled with consolation at the cheering message that they were not to be subjected to the Mosaic Law, nor disturbed in the possession of their Christian liberty.

32. “Prophets.” This word does not simply designate men endowed with the faculty of predicting future events, though some were (11:27). It also designates teachers sent by God, to instruct the people in the duties of religion. It also designates those endowed with the gift of explaining the truths of faith in an extraordinary manner, as the result of sudden inspiration (see 1 Cor. 11:5, Commentary on).

Judas and Silas had been manifestly preachers of the Gospel before going to Antioch.

“Confirmed.” Strengthened them in the faith by their teachings.

33. “With peace.” With affectionate good wishes “to them that sent them.” The Apostles at Jerusalem. Hence, in the common Greek reading it is “unto the Apostles.” The Vulgate is the reading of the chief MSS.—αποστειλαντες αυτους.

34. This verse is wanting in many MSS., and rejected by some able critics, who maintain it was introduced and inserted to complete the sense.

35. It is thought, it was during this time Paul rebuked Peter at Antioch (Gal. 2 &c.).

36. “To see how they do.” Both in regard to faith and purity of morals. This visitation was a work of great zeal.

37. John Mark was a kinsman of Barnabas, cousin-german (Col. 4:10). He wished to accompany them on their mission.

38. Paul, it seems, having no confidence in John Marks’ perseverance in the work of the ministry and bearing its attendant privations, labours and dangers, which may have been his reason for leaving them, while in Pamphylia (13:13), thought it fit not to receive him. Whatever the cause of his leaving was, Paul did not think the explanation satisfactory; and hence, he regarded him as unfit to be associated with them.

39. “Dissension.” The Greek word “Paroxysm,” denotes any mental excitement, great bitterness of mind, sometimes, taken in a good sense (Heb. 10:24). The result was a separation for a time. They were afterwards reconciled (1 Cor. 9:6). St. Paul speaks of John Mark in terms of commendation (2 Tim. 4:2; Col. 4:10).

“Sailed to Cyprus,” his native place. This separation served the propagation of the Gospel. This is the last time Barnabas is spoken of in the history of the Acts.

40. “Delivered by the brethren.” By the assembled Church, commended to the Divine favor with prayer and hearty good wishes for their success, in their new field of labour. This being omitted in the the case of Barnabas and John Mark, would show the Church of Antioch sided, in the controversy, with Paul.

41. “Through Syria and Cilicia,” which lay close to each other. They were already visited by Paul and Barnabas.

“Commanding them to keep,” &c. These words are wanting in several MSS. and versions. No doubt, Paul and Silas did what is here recorded of them—viz., impressing upon all the obligation of attending to and observing the precepts lately enacted in the council of Jerusalem.

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