Meditations on Acts 15

Acts 15; Genesis 9:4
But the Jews-those at least who made a profession of Christianity with Satan as their instrument—sought to place the Gentiles under the yoke of Judaism, and destroy the work of God within, if they could not hinder it without the church. They went down from Judea to Antioch, teaching the brethren that they must be circumcised, and observe the law of Moses, in order to be saved. The moment was a critical one. It was necessary, according to them, that the Gentiles should submit to the law of Moses, and become Jews, or that two separate assemblies should be formed. Paul and Barnabas, however, oppose themselves to these exactions. But God did not permit the question to be settled at Antioch.
It will readily be understood, that, had the cause of the Gentiles been vindicated by a decision given at Antioch, and, in spite of the Jews, they had preserved their liberty, the danger would have been imminent of two assemblies being formed, and of unity being lost. All the spiritual and apostolical power of Paul therefore was insufficient to overcome the opposing spirit at Antioch, and decide the question. It was God’s will that it should be decided at Jerusalem, and that the Christian Jews themselves, the apostles, the elders, and the whole assembly, should pronounce the freedom of the Gentiles; and that thus holy liberty and unity should be secured. It is decided, therefore, that Barnabas and Paul shall go to Jerusalem concerning this matter. We learn from Galatians 2:22And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain. (Galatians 2:2) that Paul went thither in obedience to direct revelation.
God permitted that these Jews, without mission, zealous without God for the law, the authority of which over the conscience had been terminated by the cross, should raise this question, so that it might be definitively settled. The apostles and elders, therefore, meet together. It seems that all the believers may have been present, since verse 12 speaks of the multitude; however it is the apostles and elders who meet together. Paul and Barnabas relate what has happened in their journey—the conversion of the Gentiles—and the brethren rejoice with great joy. Here the most simple hearts enjoy with simplicity the grace of God. But at Jerusalem they met with greater difficulty. Nothing could be more opposed to grace than the doctrine of the Pharisees, which asserted that righteousness must be obtained by works, and by the administration of ordinances.
Arrived at Jerusalem, they declare there also all things that God has done with them. But here God in His grace manifests the question as having been produced by the hardness of the heart; that is, that some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed demanded that the Gentiles should be circumcised. I do not believe, however, that it is Paul or Barnabas who relates this fact, which had happened at Jerusalem. The apostles and elders then meet together. After much disputing (for the principals, led doubtless by the Holy Spirit, were wise enough to allow all who thought themselves capable to give their opinion; and in order that after the thoughts of men the voice of God might be heard) Peter reminds the assembly how God had chosen him first to bear the gospel to the Gentiles, and that the Spirit had been given to Cornelius without his being circumcised; that God Himself had borne witness to them by the Holy Spirit just in the same way as to the believing Jews; that He had made no difference between them, purifying their hearts by faith. He acknowledges the yoke of the ordinances, and warns them not to tempt God by putting it on the neck of the Gentiles. For did not they themselves believe that they had been saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, and not by ordinances?
Then all the multitude kept silence, and Paul and Barnabas declared what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. (Here, at Jerusalem, Barnabas is always mentioned first; it is probable that he spoke more than Paul, relating what had been done. Paul had labored more than any other; but at Jerusalem it was natural that Barnabas should be more forward than Paul.)
Then James, who held the first place at Jerusalem (see Acts 12:17; 21:1817But he, beckoning unto them with the hand to hold their peace, declared unto them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, Go show these things unto James, and to the brethren. And he departed, and went into another place. (Acts 12:17)
18And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present. (Acts 21:18)
; Gal. 2:1212For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. (Galatians 2:12)), gives a summary of the judgment of the assembly, which no one opposes, and, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, a definite form to the thought of God, expressing His will respecting the Gentiles. The work of the Holy Spirit is here in the first place remarkable; and also His full liberty, so that all the thoughts of men are brought to light, and given utterance to. In the next place, what God proposed to reveal by Peter in the case of Cornelius; and then the wonders that had been wrought by the hands of Barnabas and Paul among the Gentiles. Such is what seemed good to the Holy Spirit, who was given to Cornelius, and who wrought also among the Gentiles with signs and wonders by the hands of those who were sent out from Him.
Then James (who, as we have seen, represented the Judaic spirit, and in whose mind the feelings of the assembly at Jerusalem concurred, but who was fully under the influence of the Holy Spirit) expresses the thought of that assembly, and of the eleven apostles of Jerusalem, whom we may call Judaic, the judgment of God on the vital question under consideration; namely, that the Gentiles should not be subject to the law of Moses. The word of the prophets supported this sentence, for they had declared that there should be Gentiles on whom the name of the Lord should be called. It is with this intention that he cites the past.
Thus the Gentiles were free. The things they had to observe were duties before the publication of the law. The worship of one God, and the purity of man, were always obligatory. Noah had been prohibited from eating blood, in testimony that the life belonged to God. These great principles are established by this decision—the abstaining from idols—that life belongs to God alone, purity of life in man. They were principles necessary for the Gentiles, and corrected their evil habits; principles recognized by the law, but which had not been distinctly laid down by it.
The assembly did not vote. All consented, under the influence of the Holy Spirit to what had been expressed. All agreed, apostles, elders, and the whole assembly, to send men chosen from among them to confirm by word of mouth the account of Barnabas and Paul, and the written decision which they took with them from Jerusalem. The apostles and elders assembled together to examine the question, but all the brethren joined with them in the letter sent to the Gentiles. Thus it was not the Gentiles who maintained their rights in spite of the assembly at Jerusalem, but by the wisdom and grace of God, the assembly at Jerusalem which acknowledges the liberty of the Gentiles as to the law; and unity is thus preserved.
We may add that it was not a general, or other assembly, for it was the assembly at Jerusalem, and the apostles and elders of that city, who met together, with a few from Antioch on the part of the Gentiles, to consider the question. The Councils, for many centuries called “general,” were convoked by the emperors to settle the disputes of the bishops: first in the east, on which occasions there were never more than six bishops present from the west; and afterward when the Greek church separated from the Latin church, when there was no emperor from the west, councils being assembled by the popes without a single bishop from the east being present. These popes, without one bishop from the east, and profiting by the need of the emperor of the east who was menaced by the Turks, sought to unite the east to the west in the fifteenth century at Florence, but the attempt failed.
What we have here is that the apostle and the Judaic assembly, by which God had begun the work, set the Gentiles free from the law; and unity is preserved. We learn, too, how the Holy Spirit gives unity of thought concerning the questions which had arisen, since the gathering was waiting on the Lord. Thus is the liberty of the Holy Spirit preserved to the Gentiles, and, by the goodness of God the unity of the whole assembly maintained. It is declared that no commission had been given to those who had disturbed the Gentiles, subverting their souls. Subsequently, after much long-suffering on the part of God the Jews are called, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, to give up Judaism. The law and Christianity cannot be united.
Paul and Barnabas, then, taking leave of Jerusalem, come to Antioch, assemble the multitude, and give them the letter. The brethren, having read it, rejoice for the consolation. Thus was the state of the whole assembly settled, and also the relationship between the Jews and Gentiles. The necessary rule for them is established. They are to walk well, avoiding certain things. Judas and Silas remain for a time with the disciples at Antioch, exhorting them, and rejoicing in this new fellowship of the love of the assembly at Jerusalem for the brethren among the Gentiles. Then Judas leaves them, but Silas, drawn towards these new brethren, remains at Antioch. Paul and Barnabas also remain there, teaching the brethren; and many others likewise interest themselves on their behalf; for the power of the Holy Spirit was working in their midst. Life was fresh in those days.
After some time Paul, active and full of love, his work accomplished for the moment at Antioch, turns towards the gatherings he had founded, desiring to know how it fared with them. But now Barnabas, like Peter before him, disappears from the scene. Not that he no longer worked for the Lord, but he did not maintain himself at the same level of service of Paul. Eclipsed in the work when with him, now he disappears altogether. A good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, he was yet not detached from everything as was Paul, for whom, according to his call on the way to Damascus, Christ glorified and His own was all in all.
This remarkable servant of God knew no longer anything after the flesh—a consecration necessary to the founder of the church of God. He had given up Judaism that he might become a minister of the economy of the church. (See 1 Cor. 3:1010According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. (1 Corinthians 3:10); Eph. 3:1-21For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, 2If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: (Ephesians 3:1‑2); Col. 1:23-2523If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister; 24Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church: 25Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; (Colossians 1:23‑25).) This economy had always existed in the counsels of God, but after the delay granted by His patience till the preceding mission of Paul from Antioch, which mission was then only put into execution, it is put on its true footing, on account of the attachment of Barnabas to things which were only objects of natural affection. John Mark was the son of the sister of Barnabas, and the island of Cyprus his native country (Col. 4:1010Aristarchus my fellowprisoner saluteth you, and Marcus, sister's son to Barnabas, (touching whom ye received commandments: if he come unto you, receive him;) (Colossians 4:10); Acts 4:3636And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, (Acts 4:36)).
Barnabas was quite disposed to accompany Paul in his journey, but he wished to take Mark with him; this, however, was displeasing to Paul, for Mark had left them in the preceding journey at Perga. He had not courage sufficient to confront the difficulties of the work outside of Cyprus. Paul only thought of God, Mark of the circumstances; but it is not thus that difficulties are to be overcome. It is possible that the flesh may have manifested itself in Paul; but at all events he could not boast of being in the right. Paul did not think of the economy entrusted to him, but of what according to faith suited the work—the principle of life and heart necessary to accomplish it. He did not know the results, but what was necessary to produce them. Separation was necessary, and that God had wrought out in him. Still acerbity was unnecessary. At the bottom Paul was right, and the hand of God was with him. Even where the purpose of the heart is just, the flesh may very soon manifest itself.
Barnabas separates himself, and sets out for Cyprus, his country, taking Mark, his nephew, for the work of the Lord, but no longer the companion of Paul in the work to which God had called him. We do not forget the real worth of Barnabas, a true servant of Jesus, to whom the Holy Spirit Himself has borne witness; only he was not suited to that work. We learn ourselves that a heart consecrated to the Lord, without other attachment, separated from everything, is alone suited to represent Christ in a ministry such as that of Paul, and indeed in every true ministry.
Affection is good, but it is not consecration. Woe to us if we have not natural affection—it is a sign of the last times (2 Tim. 3:88Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith. (2 Timothy 3:8)); but these are not suited to such a work, a work which demands that one should not know anything after the flesh. Natural affection is not the “new creation,” though fully recognized by God in Christ Himself, when He was not in the work; neither is natural affection the power of the Holy Spirit, which alone produces the effects of grace in the work of God.
Barnabas then goes his way; such was his will. Paul chooses Silas, and is recommended by the brethren to the grace of God—a second ordination if it were a question of that, but it is quite another thing. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches. Remark here that many had been formed where the apostle had not before been, as he found the first time he passed through the island of Cyprus.