By J.R. Miller
Acts 15:1-5, 22-29
It is easy to start quarrels. There are some people who make trouble wherever they go. They seem always to be watching for something to find fault with. Instead of being peacemakers, seeking ever to allay strife and bring together those who are in danger of falling apart--they go about sowing seeds of dissension and starting quarrels.
We have an illustration of this in the story of this Antioch church. Everything was prosperous and happy. But one day some strangers appeared and worked their way in among the Christians. They had come from Jerusalem. They were Christians--but not the right kind of Christians. They had not learned the large lesson of Christian love--that the gospel is for the whole world. At once they began to make trouble in the peaceful Antioch church. They told the Gentiles that they could not be saved unless they first became Jews. We should beware of the danger of trying to force others into our own way of receiving the grace of Christ.
This was a time of crisis in the history of Christianity. It would have been easy to split the church. But wise counsels prevailed. The Holy Spirit ruled in the hearts of believers and led them to make a peaceful course. A council was called and the matter was calmly considered. This was a most important council. If the Jewish idea was to prevail, the progress of the church would be very slow. If, however, the other view should prevail, and the doors be thrown open to all, so that whoever would might enter and enjoy its privileges, then the largest prosperity would be assured.
It is wise when Christian people have differences to get together and talk them over. If this is done in good temper and a kindly spirit, it is generally possible to reach a peaceful conclusion. That is what these Christians did. As they did so, new light broke upon the question they were considering. Paul and Barnabas told what God had done at Antioch. Peter related his experiences. James, who was presiding, made some conciliatory remarks and gave his advice. The result was that the danger was averted, all agreeing on a course, which showed wisdom and love. The decision was that a commission should be sent to Antioch with a kindly letter. There were four things it was decided they should require of the Gentile Christians. Even some of these requirements were only concessions to Jewish sentiment, and not essential to the spiritual life. We should have patience with other people's opinions when they differ from ours. Some of us are apt to be too severe with what we think mere prejudices. When people have been brought up from infancy under certain influences and teachings, their beliefs have become part of themselves, and it is not easy for them to give them up at once. We must beware that our liberty does not become intolerant and despotic.
The treatment of the whole matter in this council shows us the beauty of mutual concession in all nonessentials. The truth must never be given up--but the truth must be held in love. We must be patient even toward prejudices, and with what we may call bigotry.
Some points in this letter we should study. A rebuke was given to those who tried to compel the Gentile Christians to do things not required by our Lord's teaching. "We have heard that certain who went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls." We should guard against meddling with the spiritual life of others. If we should judge others less--and try to encourage, cheer and build up all our fellow Christians in faith and love--we would do better service.
The letter assured these Gentile Christians also that those in conference had all come "to one accord." That was something wonderful, when we think of the difference of opinion among the members of this council when they first met. The Holy Spirit was evidently in their midst, moving their minds and hearts, and they had love, the one to the other, which inclined them to respect each the other's opinion. The lesson is one that should be well learned and diligently practiced on all occasions where Christian people meet together. Godly men who think at all--differ in opinion on most subjects. No true fellowship can be got anywhere, except by mutual concession. It is not right either that all the conceding should be done on one side--both sides should vie in their spirit of tolerance. Even in the truest home, the only basis of perfect accord is mutual yielding in love. Where one stands up, in stubborn self-will, for his personal rights, and demands that all the others shall submit to him--loving fellowship is impossible. There may be the peace of despotism--but not the peace of love.
Paul and Barnabas had just come back from the mission field, and they bore the marks of suffering. Elsewhere, Paul, referring to this journey, speaks of bearing in his body "the marks of Jesus." He was thinking of the stonings and scourgings, and the hardships and sufferings endured as a missionary. There are things from which Christians should keep themselves--things which may not be sinful in themselves--but which would lower the tone of spiritual life and hurt the soul. One essential point of pure religion, is to keep ourselves unspotted from the world. There are things we dare not touch--if we would preserve our souls in purity. There are companionships we must not let into our life, even for an hour, if we would get the beatitude of purity, which our Lord promises. There are things which seem pleasant--but which end in death.
"Look, father," cried a child, "at the beautiful berries I have found." The color fled from the father's face as he asked, with much alarm, "Have you eaten any of them, my child?" "No, father; not one." And as she gave the berries into her father's hand to be destroyed, tears were in her eye as she asked, "Why, father, what are they?" The father answered, "They are poison berries!" The child did not know that death was hidden in the berries. Just so, the world's pleasures look very attractive to the eyes of some--but ofttimes deadly poison lies under their fascinating beauty.