When they had finished speaking, James declared, "Brothers, listen to me!
I. THAT MEN OF DIVERGENT THOUGHT SHOULD STRIVE TO MEET ONE ANOTHER'S VIEWS IN CHRISTIAN COUNCIL. Probably it would be hard to find two good men of any age or country who have taken more divergent views of the gospel of Christ than did James and Paul. Their Epistles show us how they viewed the one truth from separate and even distant standpoints. Had they come to this Church meeting intent on magnifying their own distinctive points, there would have ensued bitter conflict and fatal rupture. But they strove to meet one another, and the end was peace and the furtherance of redeeming truth.
II. THAT AN EQUITABLE COMPROMISE MAY BE THE MOST HONORABLE SETTLEMENT. (Vers. 19-21.) In concession to the Gentile party, it was not required that they should submit to the distinctive rite; in concession to the Jewish party, it was required that certain statutes should be observed by them. Occasions will very frequently occur when each side owes it to the other to make concession. The spirit that strives only for victory is not the spirit of Christ. We should, as his disciples, count it an honor and a joy to concede, when we conscientiously can do so, to Christian brethren who differ from us.
III. THAT WE MAY LEAVE UNIMPORTANT MATTERS TO THE SETTLEMENT OF TIME. The particular precepts which James and those who thought with him desired to have enforced have long since disappeared. Their observance at the time was expedient, for Moses had in every city them that preached him, etc. (ver. 21). But when the special reasons for conformity were removed, then they fell through. Where the peace of a Church or a large Christian community is at stake, we do well to accept small matters which are unessential; time is on our side.
IV. THAT CHRISTIANITY HAS PURIFIED AND PROPORTIONED PUBLIC MORALS. It surprises and shocks us to read of abstinence from meat which had been offered to idols, and from things strangled, being placed side by side with abstinence from the sin of fornication, as if, in morals, these things stood on the same level. We feel that the latter is a thing so utterly and inherently bad that the former is not at all comparable with it in heinousness of offence. The fact is that we think thus because our holy religion has purified our thoughts, and taught us to see ceremonial and moral offences in true perspective. But wherever Christianity has been corrupted, where the traditions of men have overlaid its simplicity with their ceremonialism, we find this defective view prevailing. It was necessary, at that time and in the then condition of the world, formally and expressly to disallow a custom which we now shudder at and shrink from as a shameful sin.
V. THAT DECISIONS, WHEN ONCE ATTAINED, SHOULD BE COURTEOUSLY AND CAREFULLY CARRIED OUT. (Vers. 22-33.) The Church at Jerusalem, though on the main point it had yielded to the Church at Antioch, did not give way sulkily or grudgingly. It did not dismiss the deputation with a cold and formal resolution. It sent able and influential men, with letters, to accompany Paul and Barnabas, and these greeted the Syrian Church and laid the matter fully before them. So that, in the end, the two communities understood one another and rejoiced in one another the more. What is done in Christ's name and cause should be done with utmost courtesy and with perfect thoroughness.
VI. THAT WE MAY REST HAPPY IN THE ALL-SEEING WISDOM AND ALL-EMBRACING LOVE OF GOD. (Vers. 14-15.) James intimated that what was then happening was only the fulfillment of the Divine intention. God knew from the beginning what he should accomplish, and he purposed the recovery and redemption of the whole Gentile world,
1. When we are baffled by the perplexities of the way, let us remember that all things are in the hands of the omniscient One.
2. When we are distressed by the disappointments and difficulties of our work, let us be consoled by thinking that God means to restore mankind; his wisdom and his love will prevail, though we see not our way and though our fears abound. - C.
And after they had held their peace, James answered.
I. THE PLACE OF HUMAN THOUGHT AND INDEPENDENCE IN THE CONSIDERATION OF CHRISTIAN PROBLEMS. No man was hooted down on either side. In modern Christian controversy we have all seen lamentable spectacles. It makes one ashamed of the Christian cause when orthodox men employ a heterodox tone for the purpose of putting down an opponent. Take care how you maintain a good cause. I have seen an infidel display a nobler spirit than has been shown by his nominally Christian antagonist. Here the discussion was full, impartial and thorough; due deference was paid to the apostles and elders; all things were done decently and in order.
II. THE BEGINNING OF CHRISTIAN LIBERTY. A wrong step here, and Christian liberty would have been lost. Paul was raised up at the very moment of time. He who made havoc of the Church now kept it together. Under the illumination of Paul the horizon of James widened. Sometimes the Church needs inspiration more than information. When the grate is full of fuel, what is wanting is a light. James began to see that Christian liberty was founded on prophecy. How did James become so great a man all of a sudden? Because he had touched the Pauline spirit. Great men make great men. We do not need a new Bible; we need new readers. It was actually found that in the Old Testament this very question had been settled. In every synagogue Moses was read, and nobody understood him.
III. THE SIGHT WAY OF TREATING NEW CONVERTS. They were to begin by not doing things. The trouble with our new converts is that they are converted on Monday, and on Tuesday promoted to places of eminence. The apostles said, "Brethren, you will do well to begin by not doing certain things." That is where we ought to begin.
IV. THE HAPPIER ASPECTS OF CONTROVERSY. But for this controversy, who knows when Paul and James might have been brought together? And after the controversy was over, the bishop writes: "Our beloved Barnabas and Paul." James looked at the question partly from the characters of the men, and he called them "men that have hazarded their lives for our Lord Jesus Christ." So judge in every controversy, This proof of devotion must go for something in the exciting controversy. It is not enough to be clever; we must be true. What have we done for the Lord Jesus?
(J. Parker, D. D.)
Wherefore my judgment is, that ye trouble not them which from among the Gentiles turn to God.
I. We see in this conference the true way of settling difficulties, both between churches and between individuals — IT IS BY CONFERRING TOGETHER. That does not mean by writing letters, or making assertions at arm's length, but by getting near to one another so that the persons distrusted may be seen and understood. If that letter had been sent from the Church at Antioch to the Church at Jerusalem, and Paul and Barnabas had not been seen — a living spirit can never be put into cold words — the judgment of the council might have been different; and St. Paul would have continued on his way, and there would have been a breach between those who ought to have been united. I have come to feel that letters almost always make more difficulties than they mend. Let those who misunderstand one another come together, take each other by the hand; while one says to the other, "Now, perhaps, I do not understand you; you explain your meaning; let me explain mine." Few enmities could withstand that process. Only an egotist of the first water ever believes that he has all the truth. The life in nature has one manifestation in a flower; another in a tree; another in an animal, another in a man; none conflict; they are only varying manifestations of the one energy which pulsates from the sun. We have one name for the sum of life and all the manifestations of energy, and that is, the universe. The universe of matter and life is too vast for any individual to comprehend — how much more incomprehensible is the spiritual universe! Differences of opinion on doctrine and ritual will arise. There is but one right way to adjust such differences between individuals or in churches, and that is for those who feel themselves growing apart to take the first opportunity to look into each other's eyes and clasp each other's hands as brothers, and then bring all the things which separate into light.
II. The Council at Jerusalem makes very clear THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN LIBERTY AND AUTHORITY IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE. Christians recognise only one authority, and that is God. Just so fast and so far as the will of God concerning them can be learned, they are under obligation to obey. We are at liberty to believe everything that is true, and to do whatever is right and expedient; all encroachments on this liberty are to be resisted; and in the last analysis we ourselves must decide what is true, wise and right. How easy it would be if someone else could decide for us! Men are made strong by the exercise of their faculties. Those representatives of the venerable Church in Jerusalem came to Antioch with their "Thus saith the law," and there the law was written in cold black letters as it was supposed to have been written by Moses himself, and they said: "Can you get away from that?" If the letter was to decide, the case was already closed. But St. Paul believed that there had been another revelation; that while law had been best for one time, it was not for all times; that he had a commission from Christ to preach His gospel wherever there were souls to be saved; and so, turning away from the letter, he boldly and confidently followed the spirit. But while we emphasise liberty and individual responsibility, we cannot fail also to see that, if we really desire to know what is true and right, we must be very careful about going contrary to what is generally believed to be truth and right by those who we have reason to believe are Christians. If, for instance, in this Church of nearly seven hundred and fifty members, seven hundred believe that one course of conduct is wrong, and one believes that it is right, that one ought to be very sure that he has not been influenced by prejudice, conceit, or some evil motive before he concludes that he is right and all the others are wrong. This Council at Jerusalem illustrates the proper relation of liberty and authority. When the Jewish party asked to have Titus circumcised, and so indicate that the law was still binding, Paul indignantly refused. When the meddlers came from Jerusalem and stirred up a misunderstanding, he said: "Well, let us confer together"; in other words, "I am willing to find all the truth that there is anywhere; the only authority is in truth and right — that is in the revealed will of God — and all men are free from all other obligation except the obligation to obey the true and the right." To learn that, he was willing to go to Jerusalem. So should we be, or to go anywhere else.
III. THIS CONTEST IN THE EARLY CHURCH MAKES PLAIN THE CONTRAST BETWEEN SPIRITUALITY AND FORMALITY IN RELIGION. Men are everlastingly inclined to put emphasis on things of no importance. The Pharisees who tithed mint, anise, and cumin are not yet all dead. Formality says: "If you observe certain rites, you are doing all that is required of you." Spirituality says: "Have the mind of Christ; wherever you can do good, do it; pray without ceasing; no one place alone is holy, but all places are equally holy because God is everywhere; live the life of love, and open your hearts in the day and in the night so that the Spirit of Truth may lead you at all times." Why do we have so many denominations? What is it that separates Christians but this everlasting tendency to put emphasis upon form rather than life? Life can always be trusted; it will make its own form. All we need to be anxious about is to make sure that our poor weak human hearts are open to the Divine life. No ceremony is of any value except so far as it contributes to growth in the spiritual life. The apostle violated all the traditions by which he was surrounded, but in doing so he tore a rift in the world's darkness, and made it possible for the sunlight of the grace of God to flood a struggling race. But the question presses, If we are to trust the Spirit rather than forms, how are we to know whether a man has the Spirit? Well, first, what difference does it make whether we know or not? Who made us judges? "To his own master he standeth or falleth." But we may know whether men have the Spirit. "By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one toward another."
(A. H. Bradford, D. D.)
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