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Bible Commentaries
Acts 15

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New TestamentsSutcliffe's Commentary

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Verses 1-41

Acts 15:1 . Certain men which came down from Judea. Epiphanius says, Cerinthus the heretic was one of the principals in this dissension. But they were, no doubt, of the devil’s sending, to disquiet the brethren, and distress the church. See the note on Acts 15:5.

Except ye be circumcised. Here we find the jews at issue, and divided in sentiment on the grand point of admission into their religion. Some not only permitted those of other nations, who owned the true God, to live quietly among them, but even to embrace their religion, without circumcision; whilst others would by no means permit them to do so. This controversy continued after they had embraced christianity; some allowing them to embrace christianity without submitting to circumcision and the jewish law, others contending that without circumcision and the observance of the law they could not be saved. These latter were the false apostles which troubled the churches at Corinth, Galatia, and Philippi, and were great enemies to St. Paul, who taught the contrary. It is the same thing to say, they must be circumcised after the manner of Moses, as to say, they must be circumcised and keep the whole law: Acts 15:5. They held this doctrine as necessary to salvation; and by it subverted the gentile converts, Acts 15:24, causing them to fall from grace. Galatians 5:4. This they did, agreeably to their common maxim, that all uncircumcised persons go to hell. These false apostles went out from Judea, and were as men who went out from the apostles: Acts 15:24. St. John therefore says, they went out from us, but they were not of us. 1 John 2:19.

Acts 15:2 . Dissension and disputation. Observe with what zealous warmth the apostle Paul opposes this antichristian design, of introducing circumcision into the christian church. Paul and Barnabas had no small disputation with them. He that could become all things to all men, could not become sin to any man; he therefore enters the lists with them, and earnestly contends for the faith of the gospel, urging that by the death of Christ we are freed from the whole ceremonial law; and that if circumcision were retained, then for the same reason all the other ceremonies ought to be restored, a circumcised person being obliged to observe the ceremonial law. Condescension and compliance ought never to proceed so far as to weaken the truths of the gospel: not to defend it vigorously on some occasions, is to betray it.

Acts 15:3 . They passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the grace of God in the conversion of the gentiles to the Lord. (The situation of Phenice may be seen in the Map.) This journey, with Barnabas and Titus, was undertaken fourteen years after Paul’s conversion, the three first years spent in Arabia and Cilicia being included. On this point the ablest critics seem agreed. Galatians 2:1. This mission was undertaken by revelation from heaven, with special reference to the conversion of multitudes of gentiles; and being all uncircumcised, their admission seriously involved the unity of the church. The thousands of jews in Jerusalem who believed were all zealous of the law.

Acts 15:5 . But there rose up certain of the sect of the pharisees which believed, and contended in the assembly that it was essential that all gentiles on admission to the communion of the church should be required to be circumcised, and strictly to keep the ceremonial law. A delicate point: the whole weight of the Hebrew ritual and tradition on the one side, and the grace conferred on the uncircumcised by the Holy Ghost on the other.

Acts 15:6 . The apostles and elders came together, and the multitude, as in Acts 15:12; including the whole church, to consider the matter, as in Acts 15:22.

Acts 15:7 . When there had been much disputing, Peter rose up and recited what had happened to him in the house of Cornelius. He pleaded, having God on his side, that as the Lord had made them free, they ought not to be entangled with the yoke of bondage. He believed that through the grace of Christ, the gentiles, though uncircumcised, should be saved as well as the jews.

Acts 15:12 . Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul. This was a reserve of eloquence, sure to turn the people, as an impetuous tide drives back the streams. Oh how the soul hung upon the ear; how the countenances brightened, while they related their progress from city to city, from province to province; how the word of the Lord had been glorified, and how miracles had been effected by his arm. How princes and nobles, and multitudes of the people had been converted without either number or record; and how the unbelieving jews in all places had stirred up the misguided populace to outrage, imprison, and stone them for the sake of Christ. But in all storms and conflicts, they were more than conquerors through him that loved them. All this was a gentile glory, reflected back on the church of the firstborn.

Acts 15:13-14 . James answered: being chairman of the assembly, he summed up the argument, and gave the final opinion. He said, Simeon (calling Simon Peter by his Hebrew name, שׂמעון ) hath declared how God at the first did visit the gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. To this idea of the calling of the gentiles a cloud of prophecies agree; particularly the words of the prophet Amos 9:11-12, which he here cites. Of James, Œcumenius writes, that he was bishop of Jerusalem, and brother of the Lord, being the son of Joseph, the husband of the virgin Mary.

Acts 15:16 . After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David which is fallen down. To the comment on that place, Dr. Lightfoot adds here, that “Rabbi Nachman said to rabbi Isaac, whence has thou learned when Bar Naphli will come? He said, who is this Bar Naphli? The other replied, he is the Messiah. Dost thou then call Bar Naphli the Messiah? Yes, said he, for it is written, In that day I will build again the tabernacle of David which is fallen down.” Vol. 2:694.

Acts 15:17 . That the residue of men might seek after the Lord. The Hebrew reads, “That the residue of men may possess the remnant of Edom.” The LXX, by a substitution of the word Lord for Edom, evidently understood Amos as speaking of calling the residue of men, or the gentile nations, to seek the Lord, and in the age when the tabernacle of David should rise in Christ.

Acts 15:18 . Known unto God are all his works. From the beginning of the world he foresaw, and inspired his prophets to say, that the gentiles should thus be converted to the Lord, as Barnabas and Paul had just declared.

Acts 15:20 . Write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, by not eating of flesh presented to them, nor drinking out of any vessel used in their feasts. The spirit of this is paternal, and the injunctions are precepts anterior to the law of Moses.

And from fornication. But why write this to christians, to whom every species of impurity is prohibited? The bearing of the injunction must be against polygamy, too common both to gentiles and to jews. On this ground St. Paul calls Esau a fornicator. Hebrews 12:16. This law is enforced by the order of nature, males and females being born in nearly equal numbers.

And from things strangled, and from blood, as stated on Genesis 9:4. Leviticus 17:9. Deuteronomy 12:16-23. Maimonides defines the prohibition to extend to blood taken from the veins of slaughtered animals, and not to blood which may be about the flesh. As the precept is connected with cautions against the effusion of human blood, it was wise and good in the Lord, on allowing animals to be killed for food, to show that he was still the arbiter of his creatures’ lives, by this humane and salutary reservation.

Acts 15:39 . The contention, literally, the paroxysm, was so sharp, that they parted, and divided the sphere of their labours. The reason assigned is, that Mark had departed from the work in Pamphylia. Therefore Paul would not take him again as a colleague to revisit the churches, and launch out into Galatia, and all the western provinces of Roman Asia. This circumstance proved advantageous, as the work of the Lord required a double mission. Paul went through with his second expedition, especially in Galatia and the northern provinces, where he had great success. Barnabas went to Cyprus, his native place, and seems to have taken the Greek islands for his sphere of labour. Disputes between regenerate men are confined to certain points; they still love as brothers in the Lord. Therefore we find Paul, when at Rome, putting Mark the first of his four fellow-labourers, Philemon 1:24; and naming Barnabas to the churches with the highest pastoral honour and respect. 1 Corinthians 9:5-6.


The two former chapters having described the labours of the apostles in planting the gentile churches, we now proceed to consider the care they exercised over them. The ground is delicate, the moment critical. Marvellous, that the christian pharisees should concede the point of circumcision to the gentile converts without a schism! They had the law, and the whole weight of traditions on their side. But they had, on the other hand, the eloquence of Paul, pleading against them the mighty works of the Lord. He rebutted all their arguments, and composed their voices to silence.

On this grand question the apostles among themselves were not divided: they saw the hand of God, and bowed to his decision. While ministers remain united, rents in the church cannot be large. James adduced a most pertinent and cogent passage from the prophet Amos, that the falling tabernacle of David should be raised by the residue of men, Edom, or the gentile world, turning to the Lord. Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, when the hosts, the armies of the gentiles, shall surround thy banners. The pastoral letter which James advised, and which was adopted by the council, filled the church of Antioch with joy; for if the motion of the pharisees had been adopted, the work among the gentiles had been destroyed.

Cerinthus is said in this council to have resisted Peter, and opposed Paul and Barnabas. He afterwards became altogether a heretic, affirming that Christ was simply a man, and denied the necessity of baptism. Iren. lib. Acts 1:25. Epiph. heres. 28. Augustine reproaches him with being extravagant in his notions, as a chiliast or millenarian, contending for a temporal kingdom of Christ for a thousand years after the resurrection. Irenæus reports also, lib. 3. cap. 3, that when St. John went to bathe at Ephesus, he found Cerinthus in the baths, and said, “Let us go out quickly, lest the baths should fall, and we be crushed under the ruins.”

Bibliographical Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Acts 15". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jsc/acts-15.html. 1835.
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