We have here a council called, not by writ, but by consent, on this occasion (Acts 15:6): The apostles and presbyters came together, to consider this matter. They did not give their judgment separately, but came together to do it, that they might hear one another’s sense in this matter; for in the multitude of counsellors there is safety and satisfaction. They did not give their judgment rashly, but considered of this matter. Though they were clear concerning it in their own minds, yet they would take time to consider of it, and to hear what might be said by the adverse party. Nor did the apostles give their judgment concerning it without the elders, the inferior ministers, to whom they thus condescended, and on whom they thus put an honour. Those that are most eminent in gifts and graces, and are in the most exalted stations in the church, ought to show respect to their juniors and inferiors; for, though days should speak, yet there is a spirit in man, Job 32:7, 8. Here is a direction to the pastors of the churches, when difficulties arise, to come together in solemn meetings for mutual advice and encouragement, that they may know one another’s mind, and strengthen one another’s hands, and may act in concert. Now here we have,
I. Peter’s speech in this synod. He did not in the least pretend to any primacy or headship in this synod. He was not master of this assembly, nor so much as chairman or moderator, pro hac vice—on this occasion; for we do not find that either he spoke first, to open the synod (there having been much disputing before he rose up), nor that he spoke last, to sum up the cause and collect the suffrages; but he was a faithful, prudent zealous member of this assembly, and offered that which was very much to the purpose, and which would come better from him than from another, because he had himself been the first that preached the gospel to the Gentiles. There had been much disputing, pro and con, upon this question, and liberty of speech allowed, as ought to be in such cases; those of the sect of the Pharisees were some of them present, and allowed to say what they could in defence of those of their opinion at Antioch, which probably was answered by some of the elders; such questions ought to be fairly disputed before they are decided. When both sides had been heard, Peter rose up, and addressed himself to the assembly, Men and brethren, as did James afterwards, Acts 15:13. And here,
1. He put them in mind of the call and commission he had some time ago to preach the gospel to the Gentiles; he wondered there should be any difficulty made of a matter already settled: You know that aph hemeron archaion—from the beginning of the days of the gospel, many years ago, God made choice among us apostles of one to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, and I was the person chosen, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word, and believe, Acts 15:7. You know I was questioned about it and cleared myself to the universal satisfaction; every body rejoiced that God had granted to the Gentiles repentance unto life, and nobody said a word of circumcising them, nor was there any thought of such a thing. See Acts 11:18. “Why should the Gentiles who hear the word of the gospel by Paul’s mouth be compelled to submit to circumcision, any more than those that heard it by my mouth? Or why should the terms of their admission now be made harder than they were then?”
2. He puts them in mind how remarkably God owned him in preaching to the Gentiles, and gave testimony to their sincerity in embracing the Christian faith (Acts 15:8): “God, who knows the hearts, and therefore is able to judge infallibly of men, bore them witness that they were his indeed, by giving them the Holy Ghost; not only the graces and comforts, but the extraordinary miraculous gifts of the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us apostles.” See Acts 11:15-17. Note, The Lord knows those that are his, for he knows men’s hearts; and we are as our hearts are. Those to whom God gives the Holy Ghost, he thereby bears witness to that they are his; hence we are said to be sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise—marked for God. God had bidden the Gentiles welcome to the privilege of communion with him, without requiring them to be circumcised and to keep the law; and therefore shall not we admit them into communion with us but upon those terms? “God has put no difference between us and them (Acts 15:9); they, though Gentiles, are as welcome to the grace of Christ and the throne of grace as we Jews are; why then should we set them at a distance, as if we were holier than they?” Isa. 65:5. Note, We ought not to make any conditions of our brethren’s acceptance with us but such as God has made the conditions of their acceptance with him, Rom. 14:3. Now the Gentiles were fitted for communion with God, in having their hearts purified by faith, and that faith God’s own work in them; and therefore why should we think them unfit for communion with us, unless they will submit to the ceremonial purifying enjoined by the law to us? Note, (1.) By faith the heart is purified; we are not only justified, and conscience purified, but the work of sanctification is begun and carried on. (2.) Those that have their hearts purified by faith are therein made so nearly to resemble one another, that, whatever difference there may be between them, no account is to be made of it; for the faith of all the saints is alike precious, and has like precious effects (2 Pet. 1:1), and those that by it are united to Christ are so to look upon themselves as joined to one another as that all distinctions, even that between Jew and Gentile, are merged and swallowed up in it.
3. He sharply reproves those teachers (some of whom, it is likely, were present) who went about to bring the Gentiles under the obligation of the law of Moses, Acts 15:10. The thing is so plain that he cannot forbear speaking of it with some warmth: “Now therefore, since God has owned them for his, why tempt you God to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, of the believing Gentiles and their children” (for circumcision was a yoke upon their infant seed, who are here reckoned among the disciples), “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” Here he shows that in this attempt, (1.) They offered a very great affront to God: “You tempt him, by calling that in question which he has already settled and determined by no less an indication than that of the gift of the Holy Ghost; you do, in effect, ask, ‘Did he know what he did? Or was he in earnest in it? Or will he abide by his own act?’ Will you try whether God, who designed the ceremonial law for the people of the Jews only, will now, in its last ages, bring the Gentiles too under the obligation of it, to gratify you?” Those tempt God who prescribe to him, and say that people cannot be saved but upon such and such terms, which God never appointed; as if the God of salvation must come into their measures. (2.) They offered a very great wrong to the disciples: Christ came to proclaim liberty to the captives, and they go about to enslave those whom he has made free. See Neh. 5:8. The ceremonial law was a heavy yoke; they and their fathers found it difficult to be borne, so numerous, so various, so pompous, were the institutions of it. The distinction of meats was a heavy yoke, not only as it rendered conversation less pleasant, but as it embarrassed conscience with endless scruples. The ado that was made about even unavoidable touch of a grave or a dead body, the pollution contracted by it, and the many rules about purifying from that pollution, were a heavy burden. This yoke Christ came to ease us of, and called those that were weary and heavy laden under it to come and take his yoke upon them, his easy yoke. Now for these teachers to go about to lay that yoke upon the neck of the Gentiles from which he came to free even the Jews was the greatest injury imaginable to them.
4. Whereas the Jewish teachers had urged that circumcision was necessary to salvation, Peter shows it was so far from being so that both Jews and Gentiles were to be saved purely through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in no other way (Acts 15:11): We believe to be saved through that grace only; pisteuomen sothenai—We hope to be saved; or, We believe unto salvation in the same manner as they—kath hontropon kakeinoi. “We that are circumcised believe to salvation, and so do those that are uncircumcised; and, as our circumcision will be no advantage to us, so their uncircumcision will be no disadvantage to them; for we must depend upon the grace of Christ for salvation, and must apply that grace by faith, as well as they. There is not one way of salvation for the Jews and another for the Gentiles; neither circumcision avails any thing nor uncircumcision (that is neither here nor there), but faith which works by love, Gal. 5:6. Why should we burden them with the law of Moses, as necessary to their salvation, when it is not that, but the gospel of Christ, that is necessary both to our salvation and theirs?”
II. An account of what Barnabas and Paul said in this synod, which did not need to be related, for they only gave in a narrative of what was recorded in the foregoing chapters, what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them, Acts 15:12. This they had given in to the church at Antioch (Acts 14:27), to their brethren by the way (Acts 15:3), and now again to the synod; and it was very proper to be given in here. That which was contended for was that the Gentiles ought to submit to the law of Moses; now, in opposition to this, Paul and Barnabas undertake to show, by a plain relation of matters of fact, that God owned the preaching of the pure gospel to them without the law, and therefore to press the law upon them now was to undo what God had done. Observe, 1. What account they gave; they declared, or opened in order, and with all the magnifying and affecting circumstances, what glorious miracles, what signs and wonders, God had wrought among the Gentiles by them, what confirmation he had given to their preaching by miracles wrought in the kingdom of nature, and what success he had given to it by miracles wrought in the kingdom of grace. Thus God had honoured these apostles whom Jewish teachers condemned, and had thus honoured the Gentiles whom they contemned. What need had they of any other advocate when God himself pleaded their cause? The conversion of the Gentiles was itself a wonder, all things considered, no less than a miracle. Now if they received the Holy Ghost by the hearing of faith, why should they be embarrassed with the works of the law? See Gal. 3:2. 2. What attention was given to them: All the multitude (who, though they had not voted, yet came together to hear what was said) kept silence, and gave audience to Paul and Barnabas; it should seem they took more notice of their narrative than they did of all the arguments that were offered. As in natural philosophy and medicine nothing is so satisfactory as experiments, and in law nothing is so satisfactory as cases adjudged, so in the things of God the best explication of the word of grace is the accounts given of the operations of the Spirit of grace; to these the multitude will with silence give audience. Those that fear God will most readily hear those that can tell them what God has done for their souls, or by their means, Ps. 66:16.
III. The speech which James made to the synod. He did not interrupt Paul and Barnabas, though, it is likely, he had before heard their narrative, but let them go on with it, for the edification of the company, and that they might have it from the first and best hand; but, after they had held their peace, then James stood up. You may all prophesy one by one, 1 Cor. 14:31. God is the God of order. He let Paul and Barnabas say what they had to say, and then he made the application of it. The hearing of variety of ministers may be of use when one truth does not drive out, but clench, another.
1. He addresses himself respectfully to those present: “Men and brethren, hearken unto me. You are men, and therefore, it is to be hoped, will hear reason; you are my brethren, and therefore will hear me with candour. We are all brethren, and equally concerned in this cause that nothing be done to the dishonour of Christ and the uneasiness of Christians.”
2. He refers to what Peter had said concerning the conversion of the Gentiles (Acts 15:14): “Simeon” (that is, Simon Peter) “hath declared, and opened the matter to you—how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, in Cornelius and his friends, who were the first-fruits of the Gentiles—how, when the gospel began first to spread, presently the Gentiles were invited to come and take the benefit of it;” and James observes here, (1.) That the grace of God was the origin of it; it was God that visited the Gentiles; and it was a kind visit. Had they been left to themselves, they would never have visited him, but the acquaintance began on his part; he not only visited and redeemed his people, but visited and redeemed those that were lo ammi—not a people. (2.) that the glory of God was the end of it: it was to take out of them a people for his name, who should glorify him, and in whom he would be glorified. As of old he took the Jews, so now the Gentiles, to be to him for a name, and for a praise, and for a glory, Jer. 13:11. Let all the people of God remember that therefore they are thus dignified in God, that God may be glorified in them.
3. He confirms this with a quotation out of the Old Testament: he could not prove the calling of the Gentiles by a vision, as Peter could, nor by miracles wrought by his hand, as Paul and Barnabas could, but he would prove that it was foretold in the Old Testament, and therefore it must be fulfilled, Acts 15:15. To this agree the words of the prophets; most of the Old-Testament prophets spoke more or less of the calling in of the Gentiles, even Moses himself, Rom. 10:19. It was the general expectation of the pious Jews that the Messiah should be a light to enlighten the Gentiles (Luke 2:32): but James waives the more illustrious prophecies of this, and pitches upon one that seemed more obscure: It is written, Amos 9:11, 12, where is foretold, (1.) The setting up of the kingdom of the Messiah (Acts 15:16): I will raise up the tabernacle of David, that is fallen. The covenant was made with David and his seed; but the house and family of David are here called his tabernacle, because David in his beginning was a shepherd, and dwelt in tents, and his house, that had been as a stately palace, had become a mean and despicable tabernacle, reduced in a manner to its small beginning. This tabernacle was ruined and fallen down; there had not been for many ages a king of the house of David; the sceptre had departed from Judah, the royal family was sunk and buried in obscurity, and, as it should seem, not enquired after. But God will return, and will build it again, raise it out of its ruins, a phoenix out of its ashes; and this was now lately fulfilled, when our Lord Jesus was raised out of that family, had the throne of his father David given him, with a promise that he should reign over the house of Jacob for ever, Luke 1:32, 33. And, when the tabernacle of David was thus rebuilt in Christ, all the rest of it was, not many years after, wholly extirpated and cut off, as was also the nation of the Jews itself, and all their genealogies were lost. The church of Christ may be called the tabernacle of David. This may sometimes be brought very low, and may seem to be in ruins, but it shall be built again, its withering interests shall revive; it is cast down, but not destroyed: even dry bones are made to live. (2.) The bringing in of the Gentiles as the effect and consequence of this (Acts 15:17): That the residue of men might seek after the Lord; not the Jews only, who thought they had the monopoly of the tabernacle of David, but the residue of men, such as had hitherto been left out of the pale of the visible church; they must now, upon this re-edifying of the tabernacle of David, be brought to seek after the Lord, and to enquire how they may obtain his favour. When David’s tabernacle is set up, they shall seek the Lord their God, and David their king, Hos. 3:5; Jer. 30:9. Then Israel shall possess the remnant of Edom (so it is in the Hebrew); but the Jews called all the Gentiles Edomites, and therefore the Septuagint leave out the particular mention of Edom, and read it just as it is here, that the residue of men might seek (James here adds, after the Lord), and all the Gentiles, or heathen, upon whom my name is called. The Jews were for many ages so peculiarly favoured that the residue of men seemed neglected; but now God will have an eye to them, and his name shall be called upon by the Gentiles; his name shall be declared and published among them, and they shall be brought both to know his name and to call upon it: they shall call themselves the people of God, and he shall call them so; and thus, by consent of both parties, his name is called upon them. This promise we may depend upon the fulfilling of in its season; and now it begins to be fulfilled, for it is added, saith the Lord, who doeth this; who doeth all these things (so the Seventy); and the apostle here: he saith it who doeth it, who therefore said it because he was determined to do it; and who therefore does it because he hath said it; for though with us saying and doing are two things they are not so with God. The uniting of Jews and Gentiles in one body, and all those things that were done in order to it, which were here foretold, were, [1.] What God did: This was the Lord’s doing, whatever instruments were employed in it: and, [2.] It was what God delighted in, and was well pleased with; for he is the God of the Gentiles, as well as the Jews, and it is his honour to be rich in mercy to all that call upon him.
4. He resolves it into the purpose and counsel of God (Acts 15:18): Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. He not only foretold the calling of the Gentiles many ages ago by the prophets (and therefore it ought not to be a surprise or stumbling-block to us), but he foresaw and foreordained it in his eternal counsels, which are unquestionably wise and unalterably firm. It is an excellent maxim here laid down concerning all God’s works, both of providence and grace, in the natural and spiritual kingdom, that they were all known unto him from the beginning of the world, from the time he first began to work, which supposes his knowing them (as other scriptures speak) from before the foundation of the world, and therefore from all eternity. Note, Whatever God does, he did before design and determine to do; for he works all, not only according to his will, but according to the counsel of his will: he not only does whatever he determined (Ps. 135:6), which is more than we can do (our purposes are frequently broken off, and our measures broken), but he determined whatever he does. Whatever he may say, to prove us, he himself knows what he will do. We know not our works beforehand, but must do as occasion shall serve, 1 Sam. 10:7. What we shall do in such or such a case we cannot tell till it comes to the setting to; but known unto God are all his works; in the volume of his book (called the scriptures of truth, Dan. 10:21) they are all written in order, without any erasure or interlining (Ps. 40:7); and all God’s works will, in the day of review, be found to agree exactly with his counsels, without the least error or variation. We are poor short-sighted creatures; the wisest men can see but a little way before them, and not at all with any certainty; but this is our comfort, that, whatever uncertainty we are at, there is an infallible certainty in the divine prescience: known unto God are all his works.
5. He gives his advice what was to be done in the present case, as the matter now stood with reference to the Gentiles (Acts 15:19): My sentence is; ego krino—I give it as my opinion, or judgment; not as having authority over the rest, but as being an adviser with them. Now his advice is,
(1.) That circumcision and the observance of the ceremonial law be by no means imposed upon the Gentile converts; no, not so much as recommended nor mentioned to them. “There are many from among the Gentiles that are turned to God in Christ, and we hope there will be many more. Now I am clearly for using them with all possible tenderness, and putting no manner of hardship or discouragement upon them,” me parenochlein—“not to give them any molestation nor disturbance, nor suggest any thing to them that may be disquieting, or raise scruples in their minds, or perplex them.” Note, Great care must be taken not to discourage nor disquiet young converts with matters of doubtful disputation. Let the essentials of religion, which an awakened conscience will readily receive, be first impressed deeply upon them, and these will satisfy them and make them easy; and let not things foreign and circumstantial be urged upon them, which will but trouble them. The kingdom of God, in which they are to be trained up, is not meat and drink, neither the opposition nor the imposition of indifferent things, which will but trouble them; but it is righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost, which we are sure will trouble nobody.
(2.) That yet it would be well that in some things, which gave most offence to the Jews, the Gentiles should comply with them. Because they must not humour them so far as to be circumcised, and keep the whole law, it does not therefore follow that they must act in a continual contradiction to them, and study how to provoke them. It will please the Jews (and, if a little thing will oblige them, better do so than cross them) if the Gentile converts abstain, [1.] From pollutions of idols, and from fornication, which are two bad things, and always to be abstained from; but writing to them particularly and expressly to abstain from them (because in these things the Jews were jealous of the Gentile converts, lest they should transgress) would very much gratify the Jews; not but that the apostles, both in preaching and writing to the Gentiles that embraced Christianity, were careful to warn against, First, Pollutions of idols, that they should have no manner of fellowship with idolaters in their idolatrous worships, and particularly not in the feasts they held upon their sacrifices. See 1 Cor. 10:14; 2 Cor. 6:14 Secondly, Fornication, and all manner of uncleanness. How large, how pressing, is Paul in his cautions against this sin! 1 Cor. 6:9-15; Eph. 5:3 But the Jews, who were willing to think the worst of those they did not like, suggested that these were things in which the Gentiles, even after conversion, allowed themselves, and the apostle of the Gentiles connived at it. Now, to obviate this suggestion, and to leave no room for this calumny, James advises that, besides the private admonitions which were given them by their ministers, they should be publicly warned to abstain from pollutions of idols and from fornication—that herein they should be very circumspect, and should avoid all appearances of these two evils, which would be in so particular a manner offensive to the Jews. [2.] From things strangled, and from blood, which, though not evil in themselves, as the other two, nor designed to be always abstained from, as those were, had been forbidden by the precepts of Noah (Gen. 9:4), before the giving of the law of Moses; and the Jews had a great dislike to them, and to all those that took a liberty to use them; and therefore, to avoid giving offence, let the Gentile converts abridge themselves of their liberty herein, 1 Cor. 8:9, 13. Thus we must become all things to all men.
6. He gives a reason for his advice—that great respect ought to be shown to the Jews for they have been so long accustomed to the solemn injunctions of the ceremonial law that they must be borne with, if they cannot presently come off from them (Acts 15:21): For Moses hath of old those that preach him in every city, his writings (a considerable part of which is the ceremonial law) being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. “You cannot blame them if they have a great veneration for the law of Moses; for besides that they are very sure God spoke to Moses,” (1.) “Moses is continually preached to them, and they are called upon to remember the law of Moses,” Mal. 4:4. Note, Even that word of God which is written to us should also be preached: those that have the scriptures have still need of ministers to help them to understand and apply the scriptures. (2.) “His writings are read in a solemn religious manner, in their synagogues, and on the sabbath day, in the place and at the time of their meetings for the worship of God; so that from their childhood they have been trained up in a regard to the law of Moses; the observance of it is a part of their religion.” (3.) “This has been done of old time; they have received from their fathers an honour for Moses; they have antiquity for it.” (4.) “This had been done in every city, wherever there are any Jews, so that none of them can be ignorant what stress that law laid upon these things: and therefore, though the gospel has set us free from these things, yet they cannot be blamed if they are loth to part with them, and cannot of a sudden be persuaded to look upon those things as needless and indifferent which they, and their fathers before them, had been so long taught, and taught of God too, to place religion in. We must therefore give them time, must meet them half-way; they must be borne with awhile, and brought on gradually, and we must comply with them as far as we can without betraying our gospel liberty.” Thus does this apostle show the spirit of a moderator, that is, a spirit of moderation, being careful to give no offence either to Jew or Gentile, and contriving, as much as may be, to please both sides and provoke neither. Note, We are not to think it strange if people be wedded to customs which they have had transmitted to them from their fathers, and which they have been educated in an opinion of as sacred; and therefore allowances must be made in such cases, and not rigour used.