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27. And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.
28. And there they abode long time with the disciples.
1. Let us often and seriously weigh the description here given of the Deity, as the living God who made heaven and earth, and the sea and all things therein, and as the source of all our pleasures and comforts. Let us remember that in this character he is entitled to the highest reverence, and to our supreme and constant affection. When experiencing the goodness of Providence in fruitful seasons, in particular, or tasting his bounty in the plenty with which our board is covered, let us trace all these blessings to his hand, and acknowledge them as his gifts. This will make every repast an act of devotion to God, and give double relish to all our pleasures. To have prophets and instructers, is highly desirable, in order to lead us to a more perfect acquaintance with God and our duty, by explaining his nature, and pointing out the proofs of his existence and government; but these are not absolutely necessary. Lectures of theology and devotion are daily read to us by every event of our lives, by every object which we behold. If we attend not to these instructions, we are left inexcusable.
2. From the horror which these two apostles manifest at idolatry, let us learn to be careful that we do not fall into this gross error. It was no light mistake in their apprehension: it destroyed the very foundation of all genuine piety and devotion, by depriving the Deity of his essential and incommunicable perfections. They rend their clothes with grief, and manifest the greatest eagerness to dissuade the Lycaonians from so weak and impious an act; yet the Lycaonians are not the only persons who call for such expressions of sorrow. It is a lamentable truth that by far the greater part of the Christian world is, at the present day, guilty of the very idolatry which they are so ready to condemn in this people: for they ascribe divine attributes and pay divine honours to a man subject to the same frailty and mortality as themselves, and one who actually died, but whom they call God in the likeness of man, or God and man united together. With whatever specious pretences such practices may be covered, they are nothing short of gross idolatry, and would have been viewed with as much horror by the apostles as the conduct of the Lycaonians.
3. In this history we see a striking example of what little value is the favour of the multitude. Him, whom this deluded
people had once been ready to worship as a god, they afterwards treat as worse than man; they stone him with their own hands, and drag him through the streets; not allowing him the respect which was paid to the vilest malefactors, that of interment. Let us learn hence not to make popular favour the object of our pursuit, much less sacrifice to it any principle of truth and duty. It is as changeable as the wind : it may be enjoyed to-day and lost tomorrow. It is only to be acquired, frequently, by flattering the prejudices and countenancing the vices of mankind, and is often forfeited by the noblest acts of integrity and benevolence.
Disputes respecting the observance of the Mosaic law. The
apostles decide that it is not incumbent on Gentile converts.
1. And certain men which came down from Judæa, taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.
It was not upon circumcision, in itself considered, that they so strongly insisted; but upon that rite as expressive of an obligation to observe the whole law of Moses. In this light, circumcision was regarded by the Jews, and in the same light did the apostles view it; for Paul says to the Galatians, v. 3, I testify to every one of you that is circumcised that he is a debtor to do the whole law. By the phrase, “ being saved,” used in this verse, the Jews did not refer to final salvation in a future life, which was not the object of the law, but to deliverance from a heathen state, which is called salvation, and being introduced into the liberty of the people of God. To enjoy this privilege, these Jews maintained it was necessary to observe the law of Moses; but Paul and Barnabas asserted that it was sufficient for this purpose to profess faith in Christ, without conforming to the law.
2. When, therefore, Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined, that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, i.e. some of those who maintained the opposite opinion, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.
Paul, who was once as bigoted as the rest of his countrymen, tells us, that he was made acquainted with the privileges of the Gentiles by revelation, probably from Christ himself, from whom he derived the knowledge of the gospel. “Be it known unto you, that by revelation he inade known unto me the mystery,” Eph. iii.
3; but some of the converted Jews were not willing to admit his authority upon this subject, and persecuted him with great violence for this opinion : he maintained the rights of the Gentiles, however, with invariable perseverance and intrepidity, both in his discourses and writings. On the present occasion, he is willing to refer the question to the opinion of the apostles and brethren at Jerusalem.
3. And being brought on their way," being deputed," by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles, and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.
The apostles were first encouraged to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, by the conversion of Cornelius, in consequence of a divine vision to Peter ; but they do not seem to have undertaken to do it, until Paul went among them to the neighbourhood of Antioch, encouraged by the advice of Christ to him at his conversion, or, perhaps, by a particular revelation. The conversion of Gentiles, therefore, was new and unexpected intelligence to the brethren, and excited in their minds unfeigned joy.
4. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received, “ they were joyfully received," of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them, “what they and God had done,” the miracles which God had wrought, and the services which they had performed.
This was Paul's third journey to Jerusalem, seventeen years after his conversion : so long was it before much progress had been made in converting the Gentiles, and before this controversy arose respecting their conformity to the law of Moses. The words of the next verse, as they are at present translated, seem to contain an account of a party formed at Jerusalem, of the same principles with those at Antioch, who were for imposing the law upon the neck of the Gentiles: but they are, in reality, nothing more than the report of Paul and Barnabas to the church of the conduct of those at Antioch, who had been the occasion of their taking this journey.
5. “But there arose up, 66 there had risen up," i. e. in foreign parts, certain of the sect of the Pharisees who believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses."
This was the language of the believers at Antioch, who opposed Paul; they are mentioned before as men who came down from Judæa; but we here learn, what indeed we might have supposed before, that they were Pharisees, since that sect was the most zealous for the law.
6. And the apostles and elders came together, for to consider of this matter.
7. And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Brethren, ye know how that a good while ago, God made choice among us, that the Gentiles, by my mouth, should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.
8. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Spirit, even as he did unto us ;
9. And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
Peter endeavours to prove, that the Gentiles who believed were in a state of favour and privilege, as well as the Jews; and his argument for this purpose is God's having given them the Holy Spirit, or poured out upon them miraculous powers, as was the case in the instance of Cornelius, to which he himself had been witness. This was a proof of their faith in the gospel; since it was a favour that would never have been conferred, except upon a believer. This faith is said afterwards to purify the heart; this refers, not to any moral efficacy of their faith, but its cleansing them from that uncleanness which adhered to them as idolaters and unbelievers. In allusion to this, the vision said to Peter, “what God hath cleansed, that call thou not common or unclean.”
10. Now, therefore, why tempt ye God, “ why try ye God," to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear ?
Why try ye the patience of the Divine being, by treating the Gentiles in a manner so contrary to his own conduct towards them ? so contrary, likewise, to the principles of humanity, which teaches us not to lay upon another what we are unwilling or unable to bear ourselves. It was certainly true of the ancient Jews, that they were not able to bear the yoke of the law, for they were continually forsaking it to worship idols; it was also true of the modern Jews, who had so corrupted or broken their law, as to cast themselves wholly, as a people, out of the divine covenant, and to reduce themselves to the state of the Gentiles. By believing in Christ, however, they were reinstated in the divine favour, not on the ground of merit but of mercy.
11. But we believe as well as those men, Paul and Barnabas, that they, the Gentiles, are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I have given what appears to me the sense of this passage, and
what the language of the original will certainly bear. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is the favour of God in the gospel of Christ: by this favour Peter expresses his persuasion, that the Gentiles are saved. The apostle is speaking of what has actually taken place, and not of what will be in future; and he refers to the sentiments of Paul and Barnabas, and not to those of the Gentiles.
12. Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.
1. We may observe, how early a spirit of imposing doctrines and practices began in the church, and what mischief it was likely to produce. The Jews will not associate with Gentiles, nor allow them the name of brethren, unless they conform exactly to their faith and manners, unless they submit to every rite and to every ceremony which they had been taught to regard as sacred and important; thus imposing restraints upon their brethren, which it would be impossible for them to bear, and placing a bar in the way of all improvement in religion, by requiring every generation of men rigidly to adhere to the practices of their ancestors. The same spirit still prevails in the world, and has the same pernicious tendency. There are men who are for imposing their own opinions, their own feelings and language, upon others, as the only genuine standard of religion, as the ouly terms of acceptance with God. Those who cannot conform to it they will not acknowledge as brethren ; they anathematize, and condemn, and treat them with the most opprobrious language; limiting the favour of the Almighty and their own benevolence to the few who constitute their own party, and cherishing a spirit of aversion and hatred to the rest of the human race; compelling mankind, as far as they are able, to retain a system of faith erroneous in the extreme, merely because it is that in which they have been educated.
But, blessed be God, true Christianity breathes a different spirit; it lays but little stress upon ceremonies, and allows of great diversity of sentiment in articles of belief, if there be but genuine faith in Christ; it thus tends to cement into one body the various classes of mankind, instead of dividing them. This spirit let us cherish and cultivate, both in ourselves and others, with the utmost care, and discountenance every appearance of pride and bigotry,
2. We learn, from this portion of history, the utility and necessity of disputes on religious matters. They are necessary to correct the errors of the mistaken, to oppose the usurpation of the VOL. III.