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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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Acts 15


 
Verse 1
And certain men came down from Judaea and taught the brethren, saying, Except ye be circumcised after the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved.

Certain men came down ...
These were the same persons mentioned by Paul in Galatians 2:12 who came "from James." As Bruce said, "The Epistle to the Galatians enables us to fill out the brief summary here provided by Luke." F2

Ye cannot be saved ...
It appears at this point that the greatest doctrinal threat in its whole history here confronted the young faith. James was the equivalent of the "leading elder" in Jerusalem, especially influential as the brother of the Lord; and, presumably, he was supported, or at least not opposed, by the apostles. Bruce thought that these men from James exceeded their commission by thus making observance of the Mosaic law mandatory for all Christians; and James declared that "no such commandment" was given them (Acts 15:24). He seems, however, to have tolerated their views until this crisis.

In any case, if God had not corrected the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, the entire Christian religion would have been frustrated and perverted. At best, it could thenceforth have been nothing but a Jewish sect, preaching the resurrection of Christ, of course, but nevertheless relying on the law of Moses for salvation. A large company of Pharisees who had become Christians would soon have dominated and destroyed it.


 
Verse 2
And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and questioning with them, the brethren appointed that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.

No small dissension ...
Paul would never have yielded to the Judaizing teachers, even if the whole Jerusalem church had backed them up, this being true because Paul had received a direct revelation from Jesus Christ covering the whole question. Thus, what is in view here is a very sharp clash between Paul's true position and the false position of the men who had come from Jerusalem.

The brethren appointed that Paul, etc. ... should go up ...
Although it is here said that the brethren appointed Paul and company to this task, Galatians 2:2 plainly says that Paul went up "by revelation." It is no doubt true that the church did appoint them; but that is not the reason Paul went; the Lord commanded him to go.

And certain other men ...
One of these was Titus, who might have been a brother of Luke; and this would account for Titus' being nowhere mentioned in Luke's writings. This group almost certainly included the apostle Peter also; for, as Bruce said, "Peter was in residence at Antioch when the Judean emissaries arrived." F3 It was prior to their arrival however that Paul and Peter clashed over the issue so gravely threatening to disrupt Christian unity.

Should go up ... about this question ...
It should be noted that Luke carefully refrained from saying that they were to go to Jerusalem to settle the question, leaving in view the fact that, through Paul's revelation, they were going up to settle the Jerusalem church on the right side of the question. The stubborn insistence of the Judean emissaries made it clear that some in the Jerusalem church intended to control the churches everywhere, compelling them to conform to their own Judaistic bias. Thus, in order to root out the heresy, that surely being what it was, it was necessary that strong action be taken against the source of it in Jerusalem.


 
Verse 3
They therefore, being brought on their way by the church, passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.

These places were on their way from Antioch to Jerusalem, and the Gentile converts rejoiced in the strong action of the Antiochene church in pressing the evangelism of the Gentiles. It should be noted here that "the church" paid the expenses and furnished the supplies for this trip.


 
Verses 4, 5
And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church and the apostles and elders, and they rehearsed all things that God had done with them. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees who believed, saying, It is needful to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.

The Pharisees who believed ...
Here is identified the seat of the mischief. In Acts 6:7, Luke related how a great company of the priests believed, many of whom no doubt were Pharisees. Their love of the forms and ceremonies of Judaism had been brought with them into the church; and it may be assumed that for some considerable time they had been working to graft their own system into Christianity. Not only had they corrupted practically the whole of the church in Judea, but the recently established churches in Galatia had been visited and corrupted sufficiently to call forth Paul's vehement letter to the Galatians. The representatives they sent down to Antioch probably expected a quick victory there also; but instead of a victory they suddenly confronted the dauntless Paul who challenged them, defeated them, and proceeded to Jerusalem where he reversed the victory they had already won there. Aside from Christ himself, Christianity owes more to Paul than to any other.


 
Verse 6
And the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.

To consider ...
This is different from "to decide," there being no evidence whatever that this so-called council "decided" anything except that they would "trouble not" the Gentiles who had turned to God (Acts 15:19).


 
Verse 7
And when there had been much questioning, Peter rose up and said unto them, Brethren, ye know that a good while ago God made choice among you, that by mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.

Peter here has reference to the events related in Acts 10, where is recorded the conversion of Cornelius. Peter at that time had acted in good faith, baptizing Cornelius and his household without any thought of circumcision and law-keeping; but it is evident that the cunning Pharisees, in efforts to bring them all to their viewpoint, began by stressing the social issue of eating with the uncircumcised, but moving quickly afterward to the hard position of demanding full obligations to Moses' law as a condition of salvation. True, Peter had eaten with Cornelius; but, through social pressure, the Pharisee-Christians were able to compromise him by causing his dissimulation. When all were gathered together in Jerusalem, and after many discussions, Peter's basic understanding of God's will, fortified by his rugged character, enabled him to rise up, as he did here, and pull the rug out from under the whole Pharisaical conspiracy.


 
Verses 8, 9
And God who knoweth the heart, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Spirit, even as he did unto us; and he made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.

Faith ...
here means "the Christian faith" as distinguished from the law of Moses and does not mean "faith" as distinguished from repentance and baptism. This is a frequent New Testament usage of the word.

No distinction between us and them ...
This is one of the cornerstone doctrines of Christianity. God has only one plan, one system of human salvation, there being no partiality, no special favors, no special devices favoring any man, race or nation. Jews and Gentiles alike confront the same message in Christ. The whole book of Romans was written to develop the theme of God's intrinsic righteousness in treating all men and nations alike. "There is no distinction!" (Romans 3:22). The words Peter spoke here obviously made a deep impression upon the great apostle to the Gentiles.


 
Verses 10, 11
Now therefore why make ye trial of God, that ye should put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in like manner as they.

What a profound difference between Peter's teaching here and the hesitancy and dissimulation so shortly before this in Antioch! The circumstances of such a dramatic change most surely included Paul's withering denunciation of Peter at Antioch (Galatians 2:11ff). Peter "the Rock" was certainly out of character as this great issue boiled to a climax in Antioch; but in this scene he "came to himself." Paul's key part in bringing Peter to his senses was, in context, an act of God himself. A rooster did it the night Jesus was betrayed; but it took Paul to do it here.

Why make ye trial ... put a yoke ...
The antecedent of the pronoun "ye" in this passage is "the apostles and elders" (Acts 15:6), indicating the near-unanimous victory the Pharisee-Christians had accomplished in Jerusalem. However, by the time they came down to the formal part of the council, the victory had already been won. Peter had already been won over to a complete endorsement of Paul's preaching in its totality. That approval and endorsement he courageously announced to all, declaring strongly that their refusal of Paul's viewpoint would "tempt God."

Next came a strong presentation by Paul and Barnabas.


 
Verse 12
And all the multitude kept silence; and they hearkened unto Barnabas and Paul rehearsing what signs and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles through them.

Kept silence ...
This thunderbolt just delivered by Peter completely silenced the Pharisaical Christian party, leaving the vast body of the Jerusalem church, assembled for the occasion, silent and ready to give full attention to the report of Barnabas and Paul. In this Jerusalem situation, Luke returned to the old order of these names. That report included all that Luke recorded in the last two chapters preceding this, and possibly a great deal more, proving beyond every question of doubt that the hand of the Lord was with Paul and Barnabas on that journey, and, by implication, proving the Pauline teaching to be God's truth.


 
Verses 13-18
And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath rehearsed how first God visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After these things I will return, And I will built again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen; And I will build again the ruins thereof, And I will set it up: That the residue of men may seek after the Lord, And all the Gentiles upon whom my name is called, Saith the Lord, who maketh these things known from of old.

JAMES' SUMMARY

James ...
This was James the Lord's brother who at that time had come to occupy a very influential place among the Christians in Jerusalem.

After they had held their peace ...
suggests that the report of Paul and Barnabas had received an overwhelming ovation, this referring to the end of the applause. It may also have the meaning that all arguments had been answered and that the Pharisee-Christians were speechless.

Simeon ...
James here reverted to Peter's original name. It might have been a little embarrassing to the apostle, under the circumstances, to have called him The Rock (Peter)! James, Cephas and John had probably met with Paul earlier, before the formal assembly, and formed a solid agreement on the course of the meeting. Dummelow suggested that:

Before the conference a complete settlement was reached. The Twelve acknowledged Paul's teaching as orthodox, recognized him as the apostle to the Gentiles, conceded his demand that the Gentiles should be free from the observance of the Law, and gave him the right hand of fellowship. After this the result of the Council was a foregone conclusion. F4

It is evident that Dummelow is correct in this, which means that the decisive part of the confrontation in Jerusalem took place before the formal gathering, that it was dominated and controlled, not by the Pharisee party in Jerusalem, but by the apostle Paul. James' great message here appealed to Scripture as an effective means of achieving the unity of all.

To take out of them a people for his name ...

This was the usual Old Testament word designating Israel as the true people of God. The Gentiles were now included in this people. The "rebuilding of the tabernacle of David" must therefore refer to the salvation of the Jewish remnant, "the Israel within Israel" (Romans 9:8; 11:1-5). F5

All of the Old Testament promises to Israel are fulfilled in Christ and the church. Christians are the "seed of Abraham" (Galatians 3:7,29). He is a Jew who is one inwardly (Romans 2:28,29), etc.

Gentiles upon whom my name is called ...
The Scripture to which James appealed in this is a free rendition of Amos 9:11, his purpose being to show that the Gentiles were prophetically included in the people of God.

Saith the Lord, who maketh these things known from of old ...
All of the stirring events of that great day were known from of old by the Father and revealed unto men in the holy prophets. This is only one of a great many such prophecies that James might have quoted, but this alone was sufficient.


 
Verses 19, 20
Wherefore my judgment is that we trouble not them that from among the Gentiles turn to God; but that we write unto them that they abstain from the pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from what is strangled, and from blood.

My judgment ...
James here did not announce the findings of the council but his own judgment, also refraining from issuing any such thing as a command or an order regarding the proposed restrictions, the latter resting upon the authority of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28), not upon any legislative authority of the council. That James' judgment was inspired is proved by Acts 15:28.

Despite the fact of the Greek language having many verbs of commanding, F. J. A. Hort pointed out that none of them is used here:

The independence of the Ecclesia of Antioch had to be respected, and yet in such a way as not to encourage disregard either of the Mother Ecclesia, or of the Lord's own apostles, or of the unity of the whole Christian body. F6

The four prohibitions here are that the Christians should refrain from: (1) pollutions of idols, (2) fornication, (3) things strangled, and (4) blood. The binding nature of these restrictions was pointed out by Root, thus:

Not only the apostles and elders and brethren, but also the Holy Spirit concurred in the message (Acts 15:28), making this an inspired message, not merely a ruling of the church or its leaders. F7

These prohibitions do not imply that other sins of dishonesty and immorality were permitted, probably referring to sins "which were so common among the Gentiles that they were not even recognized as wrong until Christian teaching denounced them." F8

The principal barrier to social and religious unity among the Jewish and Gentile Christians was the low standard of behavior so common among the latter. Idol feasts were shameful debaucheries, marked by the most vulgar and immoral behavior, the prohibitions against pollution of idols and fornication being almost, in fact, one prohibition. In fact, it is possible that all four of these restrictions relate to idol worship. There is a wider concept, however, in which they have been honored by the historical church (see below). Clement said:

The things which pollute both the soul and the body are these: to partake of the table of demons, that is, to taste things sacrificed, or blood, or a carcase which is strangled. F9

Although from the Pseudo-Clementine writings, the above quotation states rather clearly that the eating of blood and things strangled was also connected with idolatrous feasts.

In addition to that possible connection, however, the prohibition of eating blood (including things strangled) was announced by God in the covenant with Noah, thus:

But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat (Genesis 9:4).

This makes it clear that the denial of blood as food to man antedates the Mosaic law. Thus, they are wrong who see these restrictions as a symbolical binding of the Law on Christians. The authority they have for Christians of all ages derives neither from Moses' law nor from the commandment of Noah, but from the authority of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28).

These very things were the principal barrier to fellowship in the primitive church; and this reason alone was more than sufficient for the prohibitions.


 
Verse 21
For Moses from generations of old hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogue every sabbath.

Many Jewish Christians were still attending the synagogues every sabbath, hearing the law and the prophets being read; and, as they would continue to observe such restrictions, those given here were the minimal prohibitions consistent with any true fellowship between such diverse elements as the Jews and Gentiles contained within the fold of the pristine church. It is a marvel of wisdom, forbearance and understanding that such a formidable threat to unity could have been so gloriously resolved as was done here.


 
Verse 22
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men out of their company, and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren.

The wise precaution observed here was that of providing a dual witness with representatives of both sides, in order to forestall any recurrence of disunity. Silas, the same as Silvanus, may have been met here for the first time by Paul, marking the beginning of a relationship that was to continue on the mission field. Silas would prove an invaluable ally for Paul; because, coming from Jerusalem, he would be able to verify the recognition of Paul's apostleship by the whole church.


 
Verse 23
And they wrote thus by them, The apostles and the elders, brethren, unto the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting.

The churches of south Galatia were included under Antioch, as having been established from that church.


 
Verses 24, 25
Forasmuch as we have heard that certain who went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls; to whom we gave no commandment; it seemed good unto us, having come to one accord, to choose out men and send them unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The words chosen for this communication were warm, sincere and complimentary, recognizing the marvelous, unselfish devotion of the missionaries who had preached to the Gentiles.


 
Verses 26, 27
We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who themselves also shall tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that ye abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, it shall be well with you. Fare ye well.

It is of interest that the Greek New Testament omits the preposition before the middle two of these four prohibitions, thus:

Abstain from idol sacrifices and blood and things strangled and from fornication. F10

Again, this points to a possible identification of the first three of these as elements of a single prohibition.


 
Verses 28, 29
So they, when they were dismissed, came down to Antioch; and having gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle. And when they had read it, they rejoiced for the consolation.

It was indeed an occasion worthy of great rejoicing and celebration. The Holy Spirit had prevailed over one of the most serious threats ever encountered by the apostolic church.


 
Verses 31, 32
And Judas and Silas, being themselves also prophets, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them.

For comments on the meaning of "confirmed," see under Acts 14:22.

This gives additional information regarding Judas and Silas, namely, that they were also prophets.


 
Verses 33, 34
And after they had spent some time there, they were dismissed in peace from the brethren unto those that had sent them forth. But Paul and Barnabas tarried in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.

Acts 15:34, omitted by the English Revised Version (1885), reads thus: "But it seemed good unto Silas to abide there."


 
Verses 35, 36
And after some days Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us now return and visit the brethren in every city wherein we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they fare.

A NEW PARTNER FOR PAUL

Paul was very diligent to keep on teaching the taught in order to prevent discouragement and defection. It would appear that he had every intention of making the excursion with Barnabas until Barnabas insisted on taking his nephew, John Mark.


 
Verse 37
And Barnabas was minded to take with them John also, who was called Mark.

It will be remembered that this was the young man who had defected from the first journey at Perga in Pamphylia (Acts 13:13).


 
Verses 38, 39
But Paul thought not good to take with them him who withdrew from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work. And there arose a sharp contention, so that they parted asunder one from the other, and Barnabas took Mark with him, and sailed away unto Cyprus.

For extended comment on John Mark, see in my Commentary on Mark, pp. 1-2.

A sharp contention ...
Strong men with minds strongly made up often find disagreement between them; and the one redeeming note in this otherwise unhappy and regrettable episode is that neither party to the dispute permitted it to hinder the work of God. Rather there was a beneficial result in that there were then two teams of missionaries on the field in the place of only one.

Unto Cyprus ...
It was but natural that Barnabas would prefer the journey to his native Cyprus. However, in the providence of God, no record has come down to us, the evangelist Luke following, not the labors of Barnabas, but those of Paul. However, it must be presumed that much good was also done by Barnabas and Mark.


 
Verses 40, 41
But Paul chose Silas, and went forth, being commended by the brethren and the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.

THE SECOND MISSIONARY TOUR

Both Syria and Cilicia lay between Antioch (which was in Syria) and the south Galatian churches toward which Paul headed; but he worked diligently confirming churches in those provinces also.

The existence of those churches in Syria and Cilicia is proved by reference to them in Acts 15:23; and the fact of Paul's having been their founder, intimated in the proposal in Acts 15:36, is confirmed by Paul's own words in Galatians 1:21-23. For reasons that will appear in the next chapter, Luke gave the most attention to events in the south Galatian district.


Footnotes for Acts 15
1: James Macknight, On the Epistles (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House), Vol. III, p. 84.
2: F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, Publishers, 1954), p. 303.
3: Ibid.
4: J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 838.
5: Everett F. Harrison, Wycliffe Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 435.
6: F. J. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia (London, 1914), p. 82.
7: Orin Root, Acts (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1966), p. 117.
8: Ibid.
9: Clement, Recognitions of (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, Publishers, 1951), Vol. VIII, p. 143.
10: The Nestle Greek Text with a Literal English Translation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), p. 535.
11: Robert Milligan, Analysis of the New Testament (Cincinnati, Ohio: Bosworth, Chase and Hall), p. 365.
12: Sir William M. Ramsay, op. cit., p. 129.
13: F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, Publishers, 1954), p. 288.
14: E. H. Plumptre, in Elliott's Commentary on the Holy Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), p. 59.
15: E. M. Blaiklock, op. cit., p. 31.
16: F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 291.
17: H. Leo Boles, op. cit., p. 223.
18: E. H. Plumptre, op. cit., p. 90.
19: E. M. Blaiklock, op. cit., p. 32.
20: Alexander Campbell, Acts of Apostles (Austin, Texas: Firm Foundation), p. 98.
21: W. R. Walker, op. cit., p. 16.
22: H. Leo Boles, op. cit., p. 226.
23: J. W. McGarvey, Commentary on Acts (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1892), p. 44.
24: E. H. Trenchard, A New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969), p. 316.
25: H. Leo Boles, op. cit., p. 227.
26: The New Bible Dictionary, op. cit., p. 306.
27: G. H. C. MacGreggor, op. cit., p. 191.
28: E. M. Blaiklock, op. cit., p. 30.
29: E. H. Plumpire, op. cit., p. 92.
30: G. H. C. MacGreggor, op. cit., p. 192.
31: Ibid., p. 193.
32: H. Leo Boles, op. cit., p. 229.
33: E. H. Trenchard, op. cit., p. 317.
34: Sir William M. Ramsay, op. cit., p. 133.
35: Robert Milligan, op. cit., p. 367.
36: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 2, p. 149.
37: A. C. Hervey, op. cit., p. 359.
38: Jack P. Lewis, Historical Backgrounds of Bible History (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 144.
39: Ibid.
40: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 5, p. 781.
41: Jack P. Lewis, op. cit., p. 144.
42: A. C. Hervey, op. cit., p. 360.
43: E. H. Plumptre, op. cit., p. 53.
44: A. C. Hervey, op. cit., p. 162.
45: John Peter Lange, op. cit., p. 101.
46: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 825.
47: John William Russell, op. cit. p. 295.
48: Alexander Campbell, op. cit., p. 18.
49: As quoted by Campbell, ibid.
50: E. H. Plumptre, The Acts of Apostles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), p. 15.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Acts 15". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=ac&chapter=015>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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