A Triumph of Spirituality and Liberty
Acts 15:13-29
And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brothers, listen to me:…

A few lessons come to us from a study of that first Ecclesiastical Council.

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.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me:

WEB: After they were silent, James answered, "Brothers, listen to me.

The Charter of Gentile Liberty
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