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Acts 15:1-35 - Homiletics

The controversy.

The apprehension of truth, full, pure, and unmixed with error, should be the desire of all good men. And it is a great help towards attaining truth when we are able to love it and to seek it absolutely for its own sake, without reference to its consequences, without regard to the wishes of others or undue submission to their opinions. It is also necessary for a man in pursuit of truth to divest himself of prejudices, and the influence of false opinions which he has adopted from habit, and without due consideration. The mind should approach the consideration of truth unwarped and uncolored by any subjective influences except the love of God and innocency of character. Divested of prejudices and of passions, and possessed of adequate knowledge, the mind would receive moral and religious truth with nearly as much certainty as it does mathematical problems. The object of controversy should be to clear away all prejudice, all ignorance, all passion, every groundless opinion and prepossession, which stand in the way of the acceptance of truth. And controversialists should be ready to admit the probalility that those who differ most widely from them may, for that very reason, see some side of truth which is hidden from their own eyes, and therefore should be ready to give a candid consideration to their arguments. The controversy which is described in its origin, progress, and settlement, in the passage before us, is an instructive one. We see on the side of the Judaizing party the types of the hindrances constantly existing to the reception of new truths. There was at first a blind and indiscriminate attachment to old opinions. They had been brought up in the belief that the Mosaic institutions were unchangeable. The very suggestion of a modification of them was treason against Moses and against God. They had been brought up in the belief that they were exclusively the people of God. All the pride and selfishness of their hearts rebelled against the idea of others being admitted to an equality of privileges with themselves. They had cherished a contempt and hatred for all other nations of the earth: how could they believe that those nations were as much objects of the love of God as they themselves were? Again, they had fattened in the opinion of their own righteousness, of their own moral superiority over other people: how could they be willing to accept a gospel which taught them that they could only be justified by grace, and that they must seek that grace on a level with all other sinners, through the merits of Jesus Christ? Again, their reverence for their rabbis and great men, and for their sayings and teaching, which they were accustomed to lean upon with a certain superstitious awe, and to quote with a proud fondness, was another hindrance to the reception of the gospel in its integrity by them. And all these influences, good and bad, concurred to close the eyes of their reason against all opposing evidence. They would, indeed, admit a Christianity which left the Law of Moses intact, and obliged all Christians to become Jews, so to speak. That exalted their nation, flattered their pride, increased their self-importance, left the prejudices of their childhood undisturbed. But the gospel as preached by Paul they could not and would not accept. The controversy on the other side was waged with fairness and firmness combined. St. Paul's large experience, both of the prejudices of his opponents, which he had once felt himself in their full power, and of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, which had been manifested to him in so remarkable a manner, gave him an unrivalled command of the argument. He had as much reverence for Moses, as full a conviction of the Divine origin of the Law, of the inspiration of the prophets, and of the infallible authority of Holy Scripture, as his opponents had. But he had a deep insight into the doctrines of grace, borne witness to by the Law and the prophets, which they had not. He saw the harmony between the Old and New Testaments; how the Law was a schoolmaster to bring men to Christ; how Christ was the end of the Law for righteousness to every one that believes; and how in the gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ the Law was not destroyed, but fulfilled, tie had, therefore, a full certainty as to the main points of the controversy which others had not. And yet he was tender and considerate toward his opponents ( Galatians 4:19 ), and brought, not abuse, but argument to bear against their errors; as in the two wonderful Epistles, to the Galatians and to the Romans. And in a similar spirit we find him here willing to refer the matters in dispute to the Church at Jerusalem, presided over as it was by James, who had the credit of leaning to the side of his antagonists. But combined with this gentleness we have to mark his unflinching firmness and boldness. It required no small courage and strength of conviction to withstand a person of such weight and authority as Peter, and to reprove him before the Church. It required no little heroism to go into the very stronghold of Judaism, and there, before James, and Peter, and the Pharisees, and the most Judaizing members of the Churches of Judaea, to proclaim the gospel of the free grace of God ( Galatians 2:2 ; Acts 15:12 ), and the free admission of the Gentiles into the Church of Christ. And let us mark the result. All the true-hearted men were won by Paul's way. Peter recovered from his weakness and openly sided with Paul; James threw his great weight unequivocally into the same scale; Barnabas shook off his momentary hesitation; the whole assembly gave a unanimous vote in favor of Paul's view; and the Church was saved from disruption. In an age when the peace of the Church is so much disturbed by controversy, and when such violence, both of language and of action, is indulged in by those who wish to enforce their own views, it is important to study carefully the history of this first great and trying controversy, which threatened at one time to split the Church to its very foundations, but which was brought to such a happy issue, under the blessing of God, by the wisdom, charity, and firmness of the apostle to the Gentiles. God grant, of his tender mercy, a like spirit to the leaders of party in our own days, and a no less happy settlement of the questions which separate brother from brother, and impede the progress of Christian truth.

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