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These several considerations, as seems to me, amount to a convincing and satisfactory proof, that nothing in this decree is of a moral nature.
V. THE DECREE EXPLAINED. Here some may say: How then do you understand them? To which I answer, That I am not obliged to explain any of them. Things necessary, or expedient, in some places, at certain seasons, and upon account of the circumstances of things and persons, need not to be understood by all in all times, or by those, who are under no obligation to observe them. It may be supposed, that they to whom the epistle was sent understood it. And it is unquestionable, that if any articles were obscure, or ambiguous, they who delivered the epistle were able to explain them. And so long as these regulations were necessary, or expedient, to be kept and observed, it is likely that the right sense and design of them were generally understood. But, as that expedient ceased, or abated, the exact meaning of these regulations might be gradually lost, or not distinctly retained by all.
However, I am not unwilling to show the probable meaning of these several articles, according to the best of my ability.
The whole decree consists of four articles. Which, as they are recited three times, are reckoned up in a different order, and in some small variety of expression.
Acts xv. 20. St. James proposeth them in the council after this manner: "That we write unto them, that they abstain from pollution of idols and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood." At ver. 29. in the epistle itself: "That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication." Afterwards, St. James in his discourse with the apostle Paul at Jerusalem, ch. xxi. 25. "Save only, that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication." Which is the same order with that in the epistle, and shall be followed by me. 1. Pollutions of idols, or things offered to idols.
The obvious sense of this regulation is, that Gentile Christians should abstain from eating meats, which had been offered to idols by heathen people: I mean, in some circumstances. Several things in St. Paul's epistles confirm this interpretation, and may enable us to discern the design of this prohibition. As 1 Cor. ch. viii. throughout, and x. 14—23.
But this regulation is now obsolete, there being no longer any heathen idols among us. All the idolatry of ancient heathenism, once so general, and so much delighted in by princes and people, is abolished in this part of the world. By the progress of the Gospel God hath wonderfully accomplished what he long before said he would perform. Zeph. ii. 11. “ The Lord will be terrible unto them; for he will famish all the gods of the earth. And men shall worship him, every one from his place, even all the isles of the heathen."
2. And from blood:
This I take to be a prohibition to drink or eat the blood of brute animals alone, or mixed with other things, raw, or dressed and prepared.
It may be of use to us to observe here some of those places in the Old Testament, where the eating of blood is prohibited.
Gen. ix. 3, 4. "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you: even as the green herb have I have given you all things. But flesh, with the life thereof, which is the blood. thereof, shall ye not eat.'
Lev. xvii. 10-14. "And whatsoever man there is of the house of Israel, or of the strangersthat sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will set my face against that man that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood. And I have given it to you upon the altar, to make an atonement for your souls. For it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, no soul of you shall eat blood; neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And whatever man there is of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, who hunteth and catcheth any beast or fowl that may be eaten: he shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust: for it is the life of all flesh. The blood of it is for the life thereof. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, ye shall eat the blood of no
• Το απέχεσθαι από των αλισγημάτων των ειδώλων. ver. 20. Απέχεσθαι ειδωλοθύτων. ver. 29:
ει μη φυλάσσεσθαι αυτές το, τε ειδωλόθυτον.
manner of flesh. For the life of all flesh is the blood thereof. Whosoever eateth it, shall be
That law in Leviticus, and the like elsewhere, are given to the house of Israel, and likewise to the strangers that joined themselves to them: for no others could offer sacrifices; nor could any others be cut off for transgressing these laws, but such as were of that people. The reason here assigned, that the blood was appointed to make atonement upon the altar, can affect none but Jews, and other men circumcised after the manner of Moses.
Eating blood cannot be reckoned an immorality. And, if it is not, this prohibition, in the decree, cannot be binding upon all men in all times; but only at some seasons, when the circumstances of things render the forbearing it expedient.
All wholesome food is lawful in itself, and under the gospel dispensation. As St. Paul says, Rom. xiv. 14, 15. "I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean to him it is unclean. But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died." And ver. 19. "Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another." See also what there follows, and 1 Cor. viii. 11-13.
However, I must add, that blood appears to me very unwholesome. Indeed I esteem it filthy, and highly disagreeable; so that I cannot bear the thought of eating it. If it ever comes to me in food, it is more than I know. And I suppose it is never brought, neither alone nor mixed with other things, to the tables of polite people.
There seem to me to be two reasons for this prohibition, even in the law of Moses. One reason is that above-mentioned, that it was to make atonement for them, that is, for offences against the law. The other reason is thus expressed: "It is the life of all flesh. The blood of it is for the life thereof." That is, it is the nourishment of the animal, and not fit for your nourishment. And because it was not fit for food, and was useless and offensive; therefore it was to be poured out upon the earth, or covered with dust, that is, buried in the earth: which order is frequently repeated. So in ver. 13, of the forecited seventeenth chapter of Leviticus, and Deut. xii. 16. Only ye shall not eat the blood. Ye shall pour it upon the earth as water.” And again ver. 24, and ch. xv. 23.
The prohibition of blood was like the prohibition of fat. Lev. iii. 15—17. "And the two kidneys, and the fat that is upon them it shall be taken away. And the priest shall burn them upon the altar. It is the food of the offering made by fire, for a sweet savour. All the fat is the Lord's. It shall be a perpetual statute for your generations throughout all your dwellings, that ye eat neither fat nor blood." And ch. vii. 25.
"For whosoever eateth the
fat of the beast, of which men offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord, shall be cut off from his people." That is the reason which is expressed, and for which the penalty is so great. But another reason may be implied, which is, that the fat cleaving to the kidneys of animals is not wholesome.
Those ordinances answered two ends and purposes. They kept the Jewish people separate from other nations, and also promoted their bodily health and vigour. And for all their labour and self-denial, they had a present reward.
In the frequent washings and purifications appointed the Jewish people, I suppose their health was consulted: as it was likewise in the directions concerning creatures clean and unclean. Lev. xi. 3. "Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is cloven-footed, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat." See also Deut. xiv. 4--8. And it must be allowed, that such beasts as have both those properties, are preferable for food to others: as the ox, the sheep, the goat, and the deer of every kind. And though we do eat some animals which have but one of those properties, as the coney, the hare, the swine; we never eat those which have neither of those properties; that is, which neither chew the cud, nor divide the hoof. Nor do we use for food any of the birds, or fowls, forbidden in that long list, Lev. xi. 13—20. and Deut. xiv. 12-20. In ancient times there were among all people two sorts of creatures, clean and unclean. This
was at the altar; and partly, because it was heavy, and too strong a food, as Maimonides takes it. Patrick upon Levit. iii. 16.
And when they killed any of these, or other clean creatures for their food at home, still they were to forbear to eat the suet; partly out of reverence to God, whose portion it
distinction obtained and was general before the flood. Noah, therefore, "was commanded to take with him into the ark of every clean beast by sevens, the male and the female: and of the beasts that are not clean, by two, the male and the female," Gen. vii. 1—3.
This distinction related as much to food as to sacrifice. For the worshipper, as well as the priest, partook of the altar, excepting in the case of whole burnt-offerings. Every living creature therefore, which was clean for sacrifice, was also clean for food.
This article was inserted in the epistle, out of regard to the Jewish believers; that the Gentile converts might not give them offence. As there are now no Jewish believers, to take offence at our eating of blood, we may do as we see good. We may avoid it, if we please, for the sake of health; but are not obliged to forbear it upon a religious account, which would be no better than superstition.
3. And from things strangled, that is, from the flesh of animals, that have not been fairly killed, so as that the blood might be all drained out of them whilst warm.
Upon this our learned author says, p. 175. This is omitted by many of the ancient fathers, ⚫ and therefore by some esteemed a gloss.' But that is said rather too hastily, and without good ground; as may appear by what was said formerly. This article is as genuine and authentic as the rest. It is in all Greek manuscripts in general, and is quoted by the most ancient writers of the church. But near the end of the fourth century, and afterwards the Latin Christians paid little regard to those regulations. And for that reason the apostolic decree is not always quoted exactly by writers in that language.
This regulation, like the preceding, must be understood to have been inserted, that the Gentile converts might not offend the Jewish believers. We, now, are at liberty to act as we see fit. We are under no obligation to forbear things strangled upon a religious account.
4. And from fornication.
I suppose it to have been already shown by general, but unanswerable reasons, that this epistle is not concerned about things of a moral nature: consequently, what we now generally mean by this word is not here intended: that being an immorality, and in itself unreasonable. But the true meaning is not certain: nor ought it to be thought strange, that it is not.
Beza's interpretation may be seen in his Annotations upon Acts xv. 20. He is clear, that things of a moral nature have no part in these regulations, but only such things as are in themselves indifferent, recommended for peace-sake, and out of regard to weak brethren. Therefore this word is not here to be understood in its common acceptation. He applies it to some things mentioned by St. Paul in the eighth and tenth chapters of the first Epistle to the Corinthians, particularly, sitting at meat in an idol's temple," 1 Cor. viii. 9.
But I apprehend, that what St. Paul there speaks of must rather relate to the first prohibition in this Epistle, "The pollution of idols, or things offered to idols."
To me it appears probable, that hereby are forbidden some alliances with heathens: which, though not absolutely unlawful, had better be avoided by Christians, lest they should prove dangerous temptations to apostasy. So the Apostle writes, Heb. xii. 16. "Lest there be any
fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright." I suppose, that both these characters are given of Esau. He was not a lewd profligate or fornicator, in our sense of the word; but he married Canaanitish women, "which were a grief of mind to Isaac and Rebekah," Gen. xxvi. 34, 35. Which Jacob carefully avoided, ch. xxviii. 6-9. Theodoret mentions the interpretation which I have given of that text. I am indebted to Beausobre for the reference.
I am confirmed in this interpretation by observing the earnestness, with which St. Paul dissuades Christians from marrying with heathens, though such marriages were not unlawful. 1 Cor. vii. 39. "The wife is bound by the law, as long as her husband liveth: but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will, only in the Lord." 2 Cor. vi. 14, 15. "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel ?”
• See vol. II. p. 14-18.
Μη τις πορνός, η βεβηλος, ώς Ησαυ.] Πορνείαν το Ησαν την γαστρίμαργιαν εκάλεσε ο Ούκ αν δε τις άμαρτοι, πορε
γειαν αυτό καλεσας και τον παρονομον γαμον αλλόφυλος γαρ YUYAIXAS NYAYεTO. Theod. in Heb. xii. 16. T. III.' P. 456.
See him on Heb. xii. 16.
The Jews were forbidden by the law of Moses to marry with idolaters. Deut. vii. 3, 4. And see Malachi ii. 11. Ezra obliged many, who had married such women, to put them away, though they had children by them, ch. ix. and x. Nehemiah severely reproves such persons, and gives a reason against such marriages, which would be of some weight in the early times of the gospel, ch. xiii. 23-27. Remarkable are the words of Ex. xxxiv. 15, 16. "Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods: and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice: and thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and they make thy sons go a whoring after their gods.”
St. Paul has wisely determined the point: that Christians should not marry with idolaters, as before seen. Nor should a person converted to Christianity dissolve by separation a marriage, contracted whilst he was an idolater, and before his conversion to Christianity. But, if the unbelieving relative went off, then the Christian would be at liberty. So I understand what he says, 1 Cor. vii. 12-16. "If any brother has a wife, that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which has an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother, or a sister, is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace." That is, if the unbelieving relative depart, the marriage must be dissolved. But the believing relative is not to be the first mover in dissolving the contract of marriage. Such things were done under the law. But a more friendly and peaceable behaviour is required of us. For, as he goes on, "What knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? Or, how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?" that is by bringing off in time such relatives, respectively, from idolatry to Christianity.
The danger of idolatry might still be great: but not so great under the gospel, as under the law. And the gospel of Christ was less burdensome, and more reasonable and inviting, than the law of Moses.
Marriages with idolaters were not to be dissolved: but yet should not be contracted. Though such a marriage would not be unlawful, yet it was a point of prudence, and a matter of expedience, to avoid it. This is what I understand by fornication in this Epistle. And as there are not now, and have not been for a good while in this part of the world, any heathen idolaters: this article, like the rest, is become obsolete. And as all the directions, here given, relate to things expedient in the circumstances of those times; it is not to be at all wondered at, that the meaning of several of them is now obscure and doubtful.
VI. OBSERVATIONS, IN THE manner of COROLLARY. I have now shown, that this Epistle was designed for the use of all believers from among the Gentiles; that the regulations, contained in it, are not of a moral nature, but relate to such things as are in their own nature indifferent. I have also endeavoured to show the meaning of each particular.
I am in great danger of being esteemed prolix. Nevertheless, as the subject is before me, I shall go on to put down some other observations, chiefly in the way of corollaries.
1. This decree is not to be understood as a precept, or commandment, but as delivering advice and counsel concerning some matters of prudence and expedience, considering the circumstances of things and persons at that time.
When Paul and Barnabas had returned to Antioch from a peregrination in several cities and countries, where they had preached the gospel, "They gathered the church together, and rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles. And there they abode long time with the disciples," Acts xiv. 27, 28.
Whilst they were there, "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. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined, that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. When they were come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church, and by the apostles and elders: and they declared all that God had done with them: but there had risen up certain of the sect of the pharisees which believed, who said, that it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together to consider of this matter. And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and spoke"- After that Barnabas and Paul were heard, "who declared what
miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them." After which James riseth up, and reasons upon the point. And then concludes: "Wherefore my sentence is," Ato εyw иpvw, I judge, I determine, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: but that we write to them," SE UTOS, that they "abstain from pollutions of idols Then pleased it the apostles," or it seemed good "to the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch- And they wrote letters by them after this manner It has seemed good unto the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden, than these necessary thingsFrom which, if ye keep your
selves, ye shall do well:"You will do what is acceptable, and agreeable, and will be well taken by us, and by all the brethren of the circumcision. So Cornelius says to St. Peter, ch. x. 33. Immediately therefore I sent to thee. And thou hast well done, that thou art come." Philip. iv. 14. "You have well done, that you have communicated with me in my affliction." 3 John, ver. 6. "Whom, if thou bring forward in their journey, after a godly sort, thou wilt do well. Afterwards ch. xvi. 4. It is said of Paul and Barnabas, "that as they went through the cities they delivered them the decrees to keep, that were ordained," determined, "by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem." The meaning of the Greek word here rendered decrees is equivalent to placita, resolutions, decisions, upon a question, and particularly, upon that question, which had been brought from Antioch to the apostles at Jerusalem.
For certain, if we have given a right interpretation of the words, these regulations are not a part of the gospel of Christ, which is everlasting; but wise decisions and determinations, suited to the circumstances of things, in the Christian church at that time.
2. These regulations are the result of that wisdom, with which the apostles of Christ were inspired, for deciding the question, whether Gentile converts should keep the law; and for directing their conduct, in the use of that liberty, which they had a right to, and was now secured to them.
"It has seemed good unto the Holy Ghost, and to us," that is, it has seemed good unto us, under the divine influence and direction, "to lay upon you no other burden, than these necessary things:" which we have judged expedient to be observed by you in the present circumstances.
I say these regulations are the result of that wisdom, with which the apostles were inspired upon this occasion. For it does not appear, that any such regulations had obtained before. If they had, some notice would have been taken of it. And the reminding men of it would have tended to reconcile those, to whom these directions were sent to comply with them, and pay a regard to them. Nor can I discern either in Josephus, or in the books of the Old, or the New Testament, any hints or traces of them, before this council at Jerusalem.
I may hereafter enlarge farther upon the wisdom bestowed upon the apostles for conducting the affairs of the Christian church. All that I intended to say here, is no more than this: that the four articles in this decree are not taken from any Noachic precepts, nor from any other Jewish traditions: but were now first thought of, and first proposed and recommended by the apostles, upon occasion of the present emergency.
3. The several regulations of this decree were expedient and useful (as has been already hinted' several times) on one or both these accounts. 1. To prevent offence in the believing Jews, and facilitate civil converse, and religious communion between believing Jews and Gentiles. And 2. To secure the Gentile converts themselves, the more effectually from apostasy, or a return to idolatry, by keeping them out of the way of some dangerous snares and temptations.
That the former was one ground and reason of these regulations, may be reckoned evident from the history in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts, and from many things in St. Paul's epistles: where he shows the expediency of forbearing some meats, when there was any hazard of offending a Christian brother. As Rom. xiv. and xv. at the beginning, and 1 Cor. chap. viii. and x. 25-33. That the latter was another ground and reason of the counsels here given, may be also argued to be very probable from St. Paul's exhortations to avoid dangerous temp
• Τότε έδοξε τοις αποςόλοις.
• Εδοξε γαρ τῳ αγιῳ πνευματι, και ἡμιν.
e Vid. Grot. in Act. x. 33. et xv. 29.
4 Παρεδίδεν αυτοις φυλάσσειν τα δόγματα τα κεκριμμενα
νων των αποσόλων. κ. λ.
• Visum est Spiritui Sancto, et nobis.] Id est, visum est nobis ex extinctu, sive suggestione Spiritûs Sancti. év dia duw. Piscator in Act. xv. 28.
See particularly, p. 505, note 8,