And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brothers, and said, Except you be circumcised after the manner of Moses…
1. Previous apostolic speeches were for the most part statements or vindications of the gospel. The only one which prepares us for the present discussion is that of Peter in explanation of his conduct towards Cornelius, which for a time silenced the murmurers. But the question was not dead; it only slept awhile, and awoke with energy when the gospel was openly carried to the Gentiles in Syria and Asia Minor.
2. The "apostles and elders" were seated in order, as constituting a Christian Sanhedrim On the earlier occasion we read of "the apostles and the brethren." In the interval, presbyters had been appointed. There is no mention of an institution of this order, as there is of that of deacons; and for this reason — that the latter was a new order; but the Jews had always had elders, and, as a matter of course, continued that order in the new Christian fellowship. Along with their acknowledged leaders were assembled many of the private Christians.
3. As battles have often begun with the skirmishing of light troops, that could decide nothing, but could search and clear the ground for the onset of the battalions that were to decide the fortune of the day, so in this assembly there was much informal discussion before the leaders spoke. At last it was evident that the "much questioning" was not moving the subject any nearer to solution, and so —
I. "PETER ROSE UP." It had always been his way to take the initiative; and the illustrious part he had played on and since the day of Pentecost entitled him to much honour and deference. He saw no need for lengthened discussion. He was guided to his conclusion by the knowledge of facts. The matter was in his view virtually settled by the case of Cornelius. It was not the bent of this apostle's mind to plough his way through a deep or careful argument; but he knew how to grasp relevant facts, and make them tell. Why should the objectors "tempt God" by assuming that He would not save Gentiles elsewhere as He had saved them in the house of Cornelius? And for what end did they seek thus to restrict the mercy of God, and limit the range of the Christian Church? Was it to impose on the Gentiles a yoke which even Jews had been unable to bear? One thing was quite certain, that salvation for all men was "through the grace of the Lord Jesus"; and no ceremonial or traditional restriction on that grace could be allowed. We can imagine the satisfaction with which St. Paul, who understood the question better than anyone, listened to this clear evangelical statement. He remembered it, and was obliged to remind St. Peter of it on a future occasion at Antioch, when that apostle acted in a manner inconsistent with his speech. St. Peter always spoke with effect, and the whole assembly felt the force of his unanswerable words and "kept silence." So far truth and charity had gained the day.
II. The silence was broken by THE MISSIONARIES, perhaps by pre-arrangement with the leading apostles, perhaps on the happy inspiration of the moment. Barnabas seems to have spoken first — a judicious arrangement, because he had a stronger hold on the confidence of the Church at Jerusalem. Neither were likely to surrender any just claim of Judaism without good cause. Barnabas was a Levite, and Paul a carefully educated Pharisee, who even in youth had been a Sanhedrist. They did not so much argue as narrate what God had wrought, the logical deduction from which was that if God has not refused those Gentile converts on account of their uncircumcision, why should the Church refuse them? And if God gave to them His Holy Spirit, why should men hesitate to give them baptism?
III. ST. JAMES THEN MOVED THE JUDGMENT OF THE COURT. This fell naturally to him on account of his position as president. His character gave great weight to his opinion, and he was not implicated in any personal intercourse with Gentiles, as Peter was. This is the only speech of St. James which has been preserved. It consists of four sentences: —
1. He recognised the importance and relevancy of the case referred to by his colleague, whom he characteristically styled in the Hebrew form "Symeon."
2. He went to the Old Testament to find prophetic sanction. A mind like his craved some ground of Scripture, as well as of observation and reason. He found it in Amos (Amos 9:11,12; LXX.)The prophet had foretold that the fallen tabernacle of David would be rebuilt, and that a blessing would fall on the Gentiles. The erection of the Church of Christ, the Son of David, was a restoration of the tabernacle of David; and there came into prominent view those words which intimated that the Lord's name would be "called" on by the Gentiles. Was not this being fulfilled in the conversion to Christ of a people whom God was now calling out of the heathen world for His name? And, if so, it certainly was not necessary for them to conform to the separate rites of the Jews.
3. In pursuance of this view, he proposed a decision of the case. The Gentile converts should not be harassed by the Jewish law. Enough that they should conform to certain rules of abstention which could not be called irksome, and which might in some degree conciliate those who were apt to regard all Gentiles alike as unclean.
4. In his last sentence he touched with soothing hand the susceptibilities of the more keen Jewish partisans, and his counsel became the unanimous resolution of the whole conclave. The Gentile liberty was secured, and, at the same time, the peace of the whole Church was promoted.Conclusion: The whole discussion suggests —
1. The advantage of holding Christian assemblies for the adjustment of difficulties. The narrative is fatal to the Popish system of Church government; for there was open discussion, and the decision went out with concurrence of the whole Church. It is also incompatible with a bare system of independency, which leaves every local church to steer its own course. It is easy to point the finger at councils which have been bigoted and superstitious; but these were not constituted like this. Give us a council of the elders of the Church, as the trusted leaders, deliberating in presence of their brethren, and you furnish the best possible instrument for adjusting difficulties, allaying jealousies, maintaining truth and peace.
2. The debt of gratitude due to those men who settled what are now to us dead controversies. The questions that tormented early Christianity are nothing now but matters of remote history. Thanks to the men who refuted these heresies, and above all to the Spirit of Truth who enabled them to maintain sound doctrine l The question of circumcision which troubled the infancy of the Church so much is now quite dead. But we should remember that our liberty in Christ was won only by a hard struggle, and should honour the men, who broke down the claims of an arrogant Judaism, But oven this decision did not settle the question. St. Paul had still to fight it out in almost every Church. Thanks to him most of all, and then to other Jewish brethren who championed our freedom from a Jewish yoke!
(D. Fraser, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.