THE important nature of the transaction, related in this passage, and the discussion into which we shall be unavoidably led, in consequence of the different systems which it has been brought forward to support, might draw out this discourse to an inconvenient length. I shall therefore consume no part of our time with any introductory remarks, and shall study the greatest possible brevity, while I endeavour to explain, as distinctly as I can, the three parts into which the chapter naturally divides itself; the dispute in Antioch, which was the occasion of a reference to the Apostles and elders at Jerusalem; their deliberations and decision upon the question; and the letter containing their decree, which was sent to the Churches of Syria and Cilicia.
The origin of the dispute is stated in the first verse. |And certain men, which came down from Judea, taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.| It appears from the fifth verse, which I consider as referring to those teachers, and not to any abettors of their doctrine in Jerusalem, that, prior to their conversion, they were Pharisees; and they seem to have retained the peculiar opinions of their sect, with regard to the justification of a sinner. The law of Moses was virtually abolished by the death of Christ, in which its design was accomplished; but few among the Jewish believers were apprized of the expiration of its authority. The simple observance of its rites, however, was not yet unlawful, if it proceeded from a principle of conscience, mistaken, indeed, but revering what was still supposed to be obligatory; or from a charitable intention to avoid giving offence to the weak. But those men taught, that obedience to the law of Moses was indispensably necessary to salvation; or that circumcision, and the other duties, ceremonial and moral, which it enjoined, were the express condition of our acceptance with God. Hence, they urge it with the utmost rigour upon the Gentiles. As they professed Christianity, they must have assigned some efficacy to faith; and their system probably resembled that absurd and pernicious doctrine, which is still current in the Church, that our own good works, and the righteousness of Christ supplying their defects, are conjunct causes of justification; a doctrine which robs divine grace of its due honour, impeaches the merit of the Saviour as imperfect, and subverts the foundation of the gospel. We perceive, then, the reason that Paul, although he circumcised Timothy out of respect to the prejudices of the Jews, wrote to the Galatians in the following terms. |Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of none effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.| We discover, at the same time, the cause of the zeal, with which the men from Judea were opposed by Paul and Barnabas, whose regard to tile truth of the gospel, and concern for the souls of the disciples, would not suffer a doctrine so dangerous to be quietly disseminated. |They had no small dissension and disputation with them.| That their arguments were more powerful than those of their opponents, it is impossible to doubt; but controversies, both in religion and in politics, are not always determined by superior evidence, but are often prolonged by pride and obstinacy, by ignorance and prejudice.
Some, perhaps, are surprised that the men from Judea should have dared to contend with Paul and Barnabas, of whom the one was an Apostle, and the other a Prophet. Were any person now alive invested with the same authority, and endowed with the same extraordinary gifts, we are apt to think that we should willingly submit to the decision of this infallible judge. But we impose upon ourselves, by not attending to the difference of our circumstances. We look back to Barnabas and Paul with veneration, unabated by any personal quarrel, or by a near inspection of their frailties. We view them only at a distance, and in the august character of ambassadors of Christ. But were they living, and associating with us, we should be familiarized to their presence, and, amidst a conflict of opinions and interests, should be ready enough to forget the respect, to which, in our calm moments, we deemed them entitled. The opposition made to them on this occasion, is not a proof that their inspiration was not generally acknowledged by the Christians of their own age. The Israelites rebelled against Moses, whom they believed to be the minister of God. Under the influence of temptation, men often transgress the precepts of our religion, the divine authority of which they will not venture to dispute.
The controversy might have been determined in Antioch. The authority of Paul was as great as that of any other Apostle; Barnabas was a Prophet; and there were other inspired men in the city, as we are informed in the thirteenth chapter, as well as ordinary teachers, who had power to rebuke and exhort, and to reject heretics, after a first and a second admonition. But such was the violence of party, that a decision on the spot was not likely to terminate the difference; and it was expedient to refer the question to a higher assembly, in whose authority all would acquiesce. Besides, it was not a local, but a general question, which might be agitated in any other part of the world; so that it was necessary to obtain a final sentence, which should be alike respected in Antioch, and in all the cities of the Gentiles, |They determined, therefore, that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the Apostles and elders about this question.|
Different opinions have been entertained with respect to the persons by whom this resolution was adopted. The supposition that Paul and Barnabas were commissioned by the false teachers, is, on many accounts, highly improbable. There is as little ground to think that the determination was made by the brethren, or private members of the Church; mentioned in the first verse. The structure of the passage does not give countenance to this idea. Zeal for the pretended authority of the Church in its collective capacity, is carried to excess, when an Apostle and a Prophet are represented as receiving and executing its commands. We know that there were in Antioch Prophets and Teachers, with whom Paul and Barnabas associated in their ordinary ministrations; and it is consonant to all our ideas of propriety and order, to conceive the determination to have been their deed. They alone were concerned, by the express command of the Spirit, in the separation of Paul and Barnabas to the work of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles; and no satisfactory reason can be given for supposing, that their authority was inadequate to the present purpose, or that it was suspended to make way for the interference of the people.
The history of this transaction is very short, and several particulars are undoubtedly omitted. It is by no means an improbable opinion, that as this controversy was not confined to Antioch, but had caused disturbance in the Churches of Syria and Cilicia, they concurred in this determination; and that their delegates were among the persons who accompanied Barnabas and Paul. This is not a mere assumption to serve the purpose of a party, by providing a sufficient number of members to render the assembly at Jerusalem a Council. It is supported by the following argument, that if they had no immediate concern in that assembly, if they made no reference to it, and had no delegates present in it, it is not easy to conceive on what principles they were bound by its decree, unless it should be affirmed, that the Apostles were representatives of the Catholic Church, and consequently of the Syrian and Cilician Churches. This answer, I acknowledge, would be satisfactory; but it should be observed, that upon this supposition we have here an example of a representative assembly of the Church, which authorises the holding of similar assemblies for deciding controversies, and deliberating on affairs of general concern. If to evade the consequence, this solution be rejected, I know not how we shall get rid of the difficulty, without admitting that the representatives of those Churches were present, and acted in their name. A decree of the Apostles, it must be allowed, would have been obligatory upon all Christians throughout the world; but the decree was also enacted by the elders; and what right the elders of Jerusalem had to make laws for other Churches, no man is able to tell. The abettors of Independency must be above all others perplexed to account for the fact; for they surely will reject the idea, that one Church may impose its decisions upon another, its equal in privileges and power. If any man should think that the sentence of the elders was obligatory upon other Churches, because it was conformable to the mind of the Spirit, he is requested to observe, that, upon this hypothesis, it was not at all binding as their decree; and that the Scriptural sentence of any man, or of a child, would have had the same obligation. But the transaction cannot be thus explained away, without manifest absurdity.
Whatever opinion is formed upon the subjects it is evident that the reference was made to the Apostles and elders. When the Apostles are considered as the immediate ambassadors of Christ, the highest office-bearers in his Church, they appear in a character peculiar to themselves, and exercise functions, in which no person could co-operate with them. But, on some occasions, we see them acting in a subordinate character, placing themselves on a level with the ordinary pastors and governors of the Church, assuming the designation of presbyters or elders, joining with them in setting persons apart to the ministry, and receiving from them commissions for particular services. That the reference was not made to them as inspired men, the infallible judges of controversies, is evident, because it was made at the same time to the elders s; for the wisdom of the elders could not improve the dictates of inspiration, and there was no defect in the Apostolic power, which their concurrence could supply. But their public character remained; and as they stood in no peculiar relation to any particular Church, we must conceive them to have acted, not in a private capacity, but in the name of all the Churches upon earth. Although it is commonly presumed, yet it would be difficult to prove, that the elders, to whom the reference was made, were those alone who constantly resided in Jerusalem. That city is perhaps mentioned only as the place of meeting. Without, however, contesting this point, let us suppose that none but the elders of Jerusalem are meant. Had the Church of Antioch intended that the controversy should be decided by immediate revelation, or by Apostolical authority, there was no cause for sending so far, as Paul, who was not behind the chief of the Apostles, was among them; or if expediency required a deputation to Jerusalem, it would have been an affront to the Apostles, to consult, at the same time, the elders, who were not inspired. The purpose, therefore, of the Church of Antioch, seems to have been to submit the question to a larger assembly than could be collected in their own city; and we cannot imagine any reason why the Apostles admitted the elders to deliberate along with them, but to establish a precedent for calling Councils in cases of emergency. Let it be observed, that no reference was made to the Church of Jerusalem, or the brethren at large. Accordingly, they took no part in the discussion; and we shall afterwards see, that from them the decree derived no portion of its authority.
Some, with a view to prove that the present case does not furnish an example of a reference from an inferior to a superior court, assign as the sole cause of submitting the question to the elders, as well as the Apostles, that as the men from Judea pretended to have received authority from the elders, it was necessary to apply to them for the knowledge of the fact. But the truth could have been ascertained with much less trouble by a single messenger, and without a solemn and public consultation. Besides, when the Apostles and elders assembled, the subject of inquiry was not a question of fact, but of doctrine; not whether the men from Judea had authority to teach, but whether the observance of the law of Moses should be enjoined upon the Gentiles.
There are no remarks, connected with the main design of this Lecture, suggested by the two next verses, which indeed are so plain, as to require no illustration. In the fifth verse, we are informed, that |there arose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.| I am inclined to consider these words as a part of the speech of Paul and Barnabas, in which they relate the cause of their coming to Jerusalem, rather than as the statement of a new fact, that the doctrine, which had caused so much disturbance in Antioch, was espoused by some persons in the former city.
Let us now attend to the proceedings of the assembly which met to discuss the important question, upon which the peace and enlargement of the Gentile Churches depended. |And the Apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter,| to canvass the arguments on both sides, and to pass a final sentence. In the form of procedure, there was nothing different from what may be practised, and often is practised, in other assembles. No person rose and pronounced the dictates of inspiration, by which the rest were overawed; but Apostles and elders consulted together on equal terms, and the decree was the result of their united deliberations. It was founded upon a well-known fact, corroborated by other facts, which were brought forward in the course of the inquiry; and upon an argument drawn from the Scriptures.
It appears from the following verses, that there were other persons present, besides the Apostles and elders, and the commissioners from Antioch, who are called |the multitude,| and |the whole Church.| Nothing, however, can be plainer, than that they were present to hear, not to deliberate and judge; for, besides that the reference was not made to them, Luke expressly affirms, that none came together to consider this matter but |the Apostles and elders.| As the question, however, was of the greatest importance, affecting the interests of the Gentile believers, and prescribing the terms of their admission to the privileges of the gospel, it could not but excite general attention. |The whole Church| can mean only the whole assembly present, not all the members of the Church in Jerusalem; for as we are certain that there were in that city many thousands who believed, it is utterly improbable that so great a multitude should have been permitted to meet in public, by a government ill-affected to them and their cause. Besides, as what would be impossible now, was equally impossible then, although some men seem to forget this very obvious truth, and to believe any thing to have been practicable, if it is said to have taken place at the distance of a sufficient number of centuries, all the disciples could not have met in one place, except the temple from which such a concourse of suspected persons would have been excluded, especially when their design was to set aside the institutions of Moses; or some square or market-place, in which it is absurd to suppose them to have assembled. To evade this objection to the idea, that this was a Church-meeting, some enter into calculations, by which the believers in Jerusalem are reduced to the smallest possible number. In the same spirit, we see an eagerness to show, that, in the Apostolical times there were not so many disciples in any city, as could not have conveniently met in one place of worship, from an apprehension, lest, if there should be found to have been several congregations in the same city, and these were all accounted one Church, it should follow, that Churches were not then independent, but were united, according to the Presbyterian or Episcopalian plan, under one general government. While every unprejudiced reader of the New Testament must be convinced, that this hypothesis is not true with respect to Jerusalem, and appears to be equally erroneous with regard to some other cities, there is one thing, of which these inconsiderate reasoners have need to be reminded, that the tendency of their calculations is to prove, that the success of Christianity, in the first ages, was by no means so great as we have been always taught to believe; and that, if the gospel, as they pretend, collected only scanty handfuls here and there among Jews and Gentiles, the argument for its divinity, founded on its rapid and extensive progress, is divested of its splendour, and loses much of its force. If, by the same means which support a party, the cause of religion is injured, the advantage is dearly purchased.
When the Apostles and elders came together to consider this matter, there was |much disputing;| not, we may presume, among the Apostles themselves, but among the other members of the Council, some of whom retained a strong predilection for their ancient institutions. I should not, however, willingly believe, that any of them went so far as to maintain the observance of the law of Moses to be necessary to justification; but, imagining it still to be in force, they contended, that obedience to its precepts should be required from the Gentiles as well as from the Jews. To terminate this dispute, which betrayed ignorance, and might generate strife, Peter rose, and addressed the assembly to the following purport: That, as they all knew, God had employed him, a considerable time before, to preach the gospel to the Gentiles; that He, to whom the state and dispositions of the heart are manifest, gave testimony to their sincerity in believing it, and his acceptance of them, by the descent of the Holy Ghost; and that, to those who were originally uncircumcised and unclean, he had imparted, by means of faith, that holiness of heart, of which circumcision and the legal purifications were typical. |Now, therefore,| he adds, |why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?| To impose the law of Moses upon the Gentiles was to go contrary to the will of God, who, by receiving them, when uncircumcised, into his favour, had plainly declared, that they ought not to be subjected to it. Peter calls it, |a yoke, which neither their fathers nor they were, able to bear,| to admonish his brethren, not to lay a burden upon others, which they had experienced to be intolerable. The multiplied, expensive, and troublesome services of the law would justify this description of it; but its propriety will farther appear, if we consider, that the law |could not make him, that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience,| by delivering him from a sense of guilt; that the repetition of its sacrifices reminded the, worshippers of sin, and showed that they were insufficient to expiate it; and that its whole contexture was calculated to create and: cherish a spirit of bondage and fear. There could be no good reason for wishing to retain, and to enforce upon others, so imperfect a. system of religion. In the following words, the Apostle suggests, another argument against imposing the law of Moses upon the Gentiles, namely, that it would be inconsistent to urge upon them as necessary to salvation, what was not the foundation of their own hope. |The Gentiles expect salvation without observing the law; we, who do observe it, trust not in our own works, but in the merit of the Saviour; and why should any man require that from another, upon which himself places no dependence?| |We believe that, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we shall be saved even as they.|
When Peter had, finished his speech, Barnabas and Paul successively rose to support it, by the relation of many similar facts; and they were heard with that profound attention which the novelty and importance of the detail naturally excited. |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.|
The last person who delivered his sentiments upon the subject was James. Having recapitulated the speech of Peter, he adds, |And to this agree the words of the Prophet, as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: that the residue of men might seek after the Lord, band all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doth all these things.| I shall lay before you the original passage in the prophecies of Amos. In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof, and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old: that they may possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen which are called by my name, saith the Lord, that doth this.| There is a considerable difference between the two passages; and to reconcile them has caused no small perplexity and labour to commentators. The translation of the seventy comes very near the words of James; but it is evident that it could not be cited at this time, when the Apostle was addressing an assembly of Jews in their own language. Some have recourse to the supposition, that the passage in Amos has been since corrupted by the Jews, who are accused, by the Fathers, of having vitiated other parts of Scripture, which most expressly militated against them. This, however, is an idea which should not be hastily admitted. Perhaps, we may account for the difference, by saying that James intended to give the sense, not the exact words, of the prophecy; and in respect of the sense, the two passages perfectly harmonize. In both, God promises |to raise up the fallen tabernacle of David;| or to raise his family, when sunk into obscurity, to greater glory than ever, by the birth of Jesus Christ, who should ascend the throne of that monarch, and enjoy everlasting dominion. What would be the consequence, or rather, what was the design of this dispensation? It is thus expressed by James; |That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles upon whom my name is called;| in which words, the conversion of the Gentiles is plainly foretold. It is thus expressed by the Prophet: |That they may possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen which are called by my name;| that is, in consequence of its exaltation, the family of David shall |possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen;| an event, which was accomplished, when, in the words of the Psalmist, |the heathen were given to Christ for his inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for his possession,| and being converted to the faith, they were called by the name of the Lord. The passages differ only in sound, and may be reconciled without the dangerous charge of corruption, and the desperate expedient of conjectural emendation. |Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.| The divine prescience accounts for the prediction of the conversion of the Gentiles so long before it took place. God acts according to a plan settled from eternity, and executed in the revolutions of time. In calling the Gentiles, he was doing only what his counsel had determined before to be done. The argument from the prophecy is plainly this, that since it appeared to have been the will of God, from the earliest ages, to admit the Gentiles into his Church, the believing Jews should beware of opposing it, by requiring their subjections to the law of Moses; to which they would not willingly submit.
|Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them which from among the Gentiles are turned to God; but that we write unto them, that they abstain from all pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.| |Pollutions of idols,| are explained, in the twenty-ninth verse, to be meats offered to idols.| The Gentiles believed, that, in partaking of sacrifices and other consecrated meats, they had fellowship with the Gods. On this account, meats offered to idols were an abomination to the Jews. With a view, therefore, not to shock the feelings of the Jews, and that the believing Gentiles might not symbolize with idolaters, and lay a stumbling block before their weak brethren, the use of such meats was forbidden, although it appears, from the reasonings of Paul on the subject, that in all cases it was not unlawful. |Fornication| was a crime, not only much practised among the Gentiles, but generally reputed to be harmless. It was connected, too, with their idolatrous worship; and prostitution in their temples and sacred groves, was a part of the homage which they paid to some of their execrable Deities. In writing to the Gentiles, it was necessary to take particular notice of a crime, to which the temptation was strong, from its frequency, and the opinion of its innocence. |Things strangled and blood| may be conjoined; the former signifying the bodies of animals, which have been put to death by suffocation, and in which the blood is retained; and the latter, blood taken from an animal, and separately used.
Whether this was a temporary prohibition, or was intended to be binding upon the Church in every age, is not a question connected with the religious principles of any party. Christians, in different communions, have been divided in their sentiments. It is affirmed by some, that |things strangled, and blood,| were prohibited, because they were used by the Gentiles in their idolatrous sacrifices. The Psalmist speaks of their |drink-offerings of blood.| According to this opinion, the prohibition must be considered as occasional and local. In a Christian country, where such idolatrous rites are not practised, the reason of it does not exist, because the use of blood gives no countenance to the worship of idols, and, consequently, cannot be a cause of offence. It is maintained by others, that the prohibition was not founded in any temporary cause, but has the same authority under the gospel which it had under the law, and even from the time of the deluge, when the command to abstain from the use of blood was given to Noah and his sons. No argument can be drawn in favour of this opinion, from its being introduced in the same decree with fornication, which is always unlawful, because duties ceremonial and moral are often mingled in the same general precept, without any distinction of their nature. It is not a proof of the perpetuity of the prohibition, that it was not peculiar to the Mosaic covenant, but was in force from the period of the flood. That there were ceremonial ordinances before the law was given from Sinai, is evident from the institution of sacrifices and circumcision, and from the distinction of animals into clean and unclean, which already existed when Noah went into the ark. As these rites, some of which were of a still more ancient date, are confessedly abolished, the antiquity of the precept concerning blood can throw no light upon the question respecting its duration. It is a groundless fancy, that there is a moral reason for abstinence from blood, or that it was originally enjoined in order to restrain men from shedding the blood of their brethren. Between these two things, there is no conceivable connexion. It is not from literal thirst for blood that murder is committed; and they who most plentifully use the blood of animals, are conscious of no greater propensity to kill their neighbours, than those who abhor it. Had men been forbidden to take away the life of the inferior animals, it might have been asserted with more plausibility, that the design of the Creator was to guard human life against violence. Under the law, blood was forbidden, because it made atonement for sin. It was then sacred; it was appropriated to the service of God. But now, when the consecration is at an end, and the legal sacrifices have ceased, blood is not more sacred than water, and may be used with as little risk of profanation.
It is surprising, if this precept was intended to continue in force to the end of the world, that there is no mention of it in any of the Epistles, nor so much as a distant allusion to it. Paul seems to teach a different doctrine, when he condemns those who command to abstain from meats, which |God hath created to be received with thanksgiving, of them which believe and know the truth.| |For every creature of God;| that is, unquestionably, every creature fit for food, for of others he cannot be supposed to speak; |every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it he received with thanksgiving.| If blood is excepted, why does the Apostle say |every creature?| Why does he not, to prevent mistake, rather say, every creature, |except such as God has reserved out of the general grant?| As he was warning Christians against the doctrine of those who should afterwards introduce a superstitious distinction of meats, we cannot but wonder that he has taken no notice of a distinction, which, if it exist at all, is an important part of religion. No accurate writer would lay down a general rule without stating the exceptions, especially when he was bringing forward the rule, in opposition to those who had subjected it to arbitrary limitations.
Let it not be objected, that, in the twenty-eighth verse, abstinence from blood is called |a necessary thing,| as well as abstinence from fornication and pollutions of idols. Things are necessary on different accounts; some, because they are of moral obligation, and others, because they are enjoined by positive command; some, because they are always useful, and others, because they are useful for a season. If any thing is connected with a particular end, as an indispensable mean of accomplishing it, it is necessary to that end. The end which James proposed, in requiring the Gentiles to refrain from things strangled, and from blood, was to promote concord and peace between them and the Jews, who, when they saw the Gentiles, from respect to them, who held blood in abhorrence, denying themselves the use of it, would be the more easily reconciled to their exemption from the other precepts of the ceremonial law. This, I think, may be collected from the words which he immediately subjoins. |For Moses of old hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day.| They may be thus paraphrased. |The writings of Moses are read in the religious assemblies of the Jews, who are dispersed among the cities of the Gentiles. In this manner, they are well acquainted with the precepts of his law. Having been accustomed, from their earliest years, to regard those precepts as divine, they cannot at once be persuaded to renounce them. It is necessary, therefore, that the Gentiles, who are now united with them in the same society, should be required to concede a little to their prejudices; and that, while they abstain from fornication as a crime, and from pollutions of idols, as criminal in their nature or their consequences, they should likewise abstain from things strangled, and from blood, which are abominable to the disciples of Moses.|
On these grounds, I consider the precept as a temporary expedient, adapted to a particular state of the Church. Its obligation has long since ceased; and |to him that esteemeth any kind of meat to be clean, to him it is clean.| But let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. |Let not him that eateth, despise him that eateth not; and let not him that eateth not, judge him that eateth.|
It was the judgment of James, that the yoke of the ceremonial law should not be imposed upon the Gentiles; and that, with the exceptions already considered, they should enjoy perfect liberty. In this judgment the whole council acquiesced. |Then pleased it the Apostles and elders, with the whole Church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch, with Paul and Barnabas; namely Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: and wrote letters by them after this manner, The Apostles, and elders, and brethren, send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch, and Syria, and Cilicia.| It is observable, that the brethren are mentioned in the superscription of the letter; and that the whole Church or assembly concurred in the mission of Judas and Silas. From these facts it has been concluded, that the decree was enacted by the authority of the brethren, as well as by the Apostles and elders; and, therefore, that to exclude the brethren from all concern in the government of the Church, is a violation of their original and inalienable privileges. But let us not judge according to appearances. Let us remember, that the reference of the controversy was not made to the Church, but to the Apostles and elders; that the Apostles and elders alone came together to consider it; that we do not find a single member of the Church rising, in the course of the discussion, to deliver his sentiments; and that the sentence is called, in the next chapter, the decree that was ordained of the Apostles and elders, without any mention of the Church, or rather to the express exclusion of the brethren. These facts, I presume, are sufficient to convince a cool and dispassionate inquirer, that there is some other way of accounting for their interference, than the supposition that they exercised judicial authority; a supposition particularly perplexing to those who are most disposed to adopt it, the friends of Independency, because, while they maintain the equality of Churches, and their entire exemption from all subjection to any society or court upon earth, this would be an example of the members of one Church exercising jurisdiction over those of another. Upon their principles, therefore, as well as ours, nothing more can be implied in the concurrence of the brethren, than that they approved of the deed of the Apostles and elders; in the same manner as in the succeeding ages, the laity, although they had no concern in enacting the decrees of Councils and Synods, sometimes expressed their consent by subscribing them. If, as we have already shown, this was only a partial assembly of the believers in Jerusalem, whatever was the power of the Church, a part had no right to exercise it; and the interference of the individuals who happened to be present, could not therefore be an act of authority, but was a simple testimony of approbation. The Apostles and elders might the more readily allow them this privilege, and perhaps request their concurrence, because, although their sentence stood in no need of confirmation by the suffrage of the people, it would, when accompanied with it, be more cordially received. The Gentiles would rejoice to learn, that the Jewish believers in Jerusalem were willing, that they should not be encumbered with the yoke of the ceremonial law; and the converted Jews of the dispersion would acquiesce with less reluctance when they found, that the exemption of the Gentiles was agreeable to their brethren in Judea. This explanation is satisfactory, because it is consistent; whereas the opposite opinion represents Luke as guilty of great inaccuracy and confusion, in first repeatedly defining the members of the Council, and then, at the close, abruptly introducing a new party, which he had before studiously excluded.
In the letter of the Council, there is scarcely any thing which has not been already considered; and I shall therefore pass it over with a few remarks. It contains a censure of the doctrine of the false teachers, who |troubled the Churches with words, subverting their souls.| It denies that they had received authority from the Apostles and elders, as they appear to have pretended. |To whom we gave no such commandment.| It mentions the names of the messengers sent by the Council, to deliver their decree, and more fully explain it. |It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you, with our beloved Barnabas and Paul; men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth.| It declares the exemption of the Gentiles from the law of Moses, and points out the limitation, to which they were required to submit, in the exercise of their liberty.| For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication.| It recommends obedience to the decree as conducive to their personal holiness, and to the peace of the Church. |From which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well.| Lastly, it concludes with a wish or prayer, for the welfare of the Churches. |Fare ye well.|
The decree is announced with great solemnity. |It seemed good to us, and to the Holy Ghost;| that is, it seemed good to the Council, because it seemed good to the Holy Ghost. This ought not to be considered as a claim of inspiration, but as a simple assertion, that the sentence was not expressive of their private opinion, but of the mind of the Spirit, which they had collected from Scripture, and from his recent dispensations to the Gentiles. On this account they are warranted to assume the style of authority, and to demand obedience from the Churches. The sentence was not, as some wish to represent it, a mere advice, such as one Independent Church may give to another. That it was an act of jurisdiction, an authoritative deed, is evident from its being called in the next chapter a decree. The word is used, in other places of the New Testament, to signify the commands of princes, and the ordinances of the ceremonial law. and in its present application must bear a similar sense. Language so solemn ought to be cautiously adopted by other Councils; but I see no reason for asserting, that it would be arrogant to speak in the same style, unless they could refer to some miraculous operations by which their sentences were confirmed. If the Scriptures have not been given in vain, miracles are not now necessary to assure us of the truth. They are written with such plainness and perspicuity, as all Protestants acknowledge, that in matters relating to faith and practice, their meaning may be certainly known. The decree of a Council, which is clearly founded upon Scripture, undoubtedly seems good to the Holy Ghost; and what should hinder it from saying so, I confess myself unable to comprehend.
In the two following verses we are informed, that the messengers of the Apostles and elders repaired to Antioch, and delivered the Epistle to the multitude, who |rejoiced for the consolation.| The controversy was satisfactorily terminated; and their privileges were established by such authority, as would preclude the danger of future disturbance.
From the preceding illustration it appears, that the Church in the Apostolic age, was not broken down into small parts, detached and independent, but was united, not only by love and a common profession, but by the external bond of a general government. The assembly which was held in Jerusalem, may, with propriety, be called a Council or Synod, between which words there is only this difference, that the one was used by the Latins, and the other by the Greeks. It was an assembly summoned to decide upon a cause, which affected itself not alone, but the whole Christian world. The members of whom it was composed, were the Apostles, the representatives of the Catholic Church, the elders, and the delegates from Antioch, among whom there probably were deputies from the Churches of Syria and Cilicia. A controversy, which could not be determined in the place where it originated, was submitted to their judgment; they proceeded in the ordinary way, by reasoning upon it; and finally pronounced a sentence., by which all parties were bound. This is the model of Presbyterian Synods, and the Scriptural warrant which we produce for holding such assemblies.
In all past ages, the meeting at Jerusalem has been considered as a Council. Modern Independents, indeed, generally object to this opinion, for obvious reasons; but it was adopted and maintained by some of their wiser and more enlightened predecessors. In this number was the celebrated Dr. Owen, whose distinguished piety, extensive learning, and profound knowledge of the Scriptures, have placed him in the first rank among Christian divines. I shall conclude their argument with the following quotation, which is worthy of particular attention. |No Church is so independent, as that it can always, and in all cases, observe the duties it owes unto the Lord Christ, and the Church Catholic, by all those powers which it is able to act in itself distinctly, without conjunction with others. And the Church that confines its duty unto the acts of its own assemblies, cuts itself off from the external communion of the Church Catholic; nor will it be safe for any man to commit the conduct of his soul to such a Church.|
We have arrived at a remarkable period in the history of the primitive Church. Its constitution, as arranged by the Council of Jerusalem, was to continue unaltered to the end of the world. From that time, Jews and Gentiles were to compose one holy people in the Lord. The law of Moses, which was abrogated by the death of Christ, was gradually forsaken by the believing Jews; and, after the destruction of Jerusalem, the observance of its rites was abandoned by all who professed Christianity, except a few obscure heretics, who were excluded from the communion of the Catholic Church.
Let us rejoice, that God has established a Church upon earth, enlightened by heavenly truth, governed by divine laws and institutions, invested with high privileges, and protected by his gracious providence; and that in consequence of the free access into it which has been conceded to the Gentiles, the prophecy is fulfilled, |Mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.| While we are thankful, that we have been admitted into its external communion by baptism, let us remember, that the saints alone are its genuine members; and let it be our care to possess the spiritual qualifications, without which the Head of the Church will not acknowledge us. As the ceremonial law is repealed, and circumcision is not now necessary to constitute us the people of God, let us stand fast in the liberty, with which Christ has made us free; and beware of entangling ourselves with a new yoke of bondage, by subjecting our consciences to human authority in religion. Our Saviour redeemed us with his blood, that we should no longer be the servants of men; and all who profess to be his disciples, should recognise him as their only Teacher and Lawgiver. |This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him.|