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Sketches From The Life of Paul
by Ellen G. White
Chapter 19: Meeting with the Elders
"And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly." Thus Luke describes the reception of the apostle to the Gentiles on his arrival at Jerusalem. Although Paul everywhere encountered prejudice, envy, and [p. 208] jealousy, he also found hearts that were open to receive the glad tidings which he brought, and that loved him for the sake of Christ and the truth. Yet, cheering as was the kindly greeting he received, it could not remove his anxiety as to the attitude of the church at Jerusalem toward himself and his work. Their real feelings would be more fully seen in the meeting with the elders of the church, to take place on the morrow.
Paul longed to be fully united with these. He had done all in his power to remove the prejudice and distrust so unjustly excited because he presented the gospel to the Gentiles without the restrictions of the ceremonial law. Yet he feared that his efforts might be in vain, and that even the liberal offerings of which he was the bearer might fail to soften the hearts of the Jewish brethren. He knew that the men whom he was to encounter were persons of great firmness and decision, and he looked forward with considerable apprehension to this meeting with them; yet he could not avoid the ordeal, trying though it might be. He had come to Jerusalem for no other purpose than to remove the barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding which had separated them, and which had so greatly obstructed his labors.
On the day following Paul's arrival, the elders of the church, with James at their head, assembled to receive him and his fellow-travelers as messengers from the Gentile churches. Paul's first act was to present the contributions with which he had been intrusted. He had been careful to guard against the least occasion for suspicion in the administration of his trust, by causing delegates to be elected by the several [p. 209] churches to accompany him as joint trustees of the funds collected. These brethren were now called forward, and one by one they laid at the feet of James the offerings which the Gentile churches had freely given, although often from their deepest poverty. Here was tangible proof of the love and sympathy felt by these new disciples for the mother-church, and their desire to be in harmony with the Jewish brethren. Here was evidence also, that Paul had faithfully fulfilled the promise given, when at the council years before he had been urged to remember the poor.
These contributions had cost the apostle much time and anxious thought, and much wearisome labor. They far exceeded the expectations of the Jewish elders, and might have been expected to call forth warm expressions of gratitude and appreciation. But Paul's half-acknowledged fears as to the manner in which the gift would be received were realized. He could only find comfort in the consciousness that he had done his duty, and had encouraged in his converts a spirit of generosity and love.
After the presentation of the gifts, Paul gave the brethren an account of his manner of labor, and its results. He had on former occasions stood before the same assembly, in the same city. It was before the same audience at the apostolic council (Acts 15) years before, that he related his experience in his conversion, and the great work which God had wrought through him among the Gentiles. The Spirit of the Lord then witnessed to the word spoken, and under its influence the council yielded their prejudices, and expressed themselves as in harmony with the position of the [p. 210] apostle, and sent an address to the churches to that effect. But the same battle was again to be fought, the same prejudices once more to be met.
Paul now gave his brethren an account of his labors since he parted with them four years before, and "declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry." As he described the work at Ephesus, which had resulted in raising up that large church in the very stronghold of heathenism, none could listen without interest. But he necessarily touched upon points that would irritate those who had cherished prejudice against him. He could not recount his experience in Galatia without stating the difficulties which he had encountered from those Judaizing teachers who had attempted to misrepresent his teaching and pervert his converts. In describing the work at Corinth, he could but mention those who had spread confusion and strife among the church there. Yet he related all with great gentleness and courtesy, carefully avoiding everything that would unnecessarily wound his brethren, and dwelling especially upon topics where he knew they could harmonize.
The effort was not without good results. The Spirit of God impressed the minds of the brethren and affected their hearts. The tidings of the progress of the gospel, the evidence that the power of God was working with the apostle's efforts, softened their feelings toward Paul, and convinced them that their prejudice against him was unfounded; and they glorified God for the wonders of his grace. At the close of Paul's address, the brethren joined in a season of solemn praise, and the Amen, expressive of their hearty sanction of his work, was swelled by many voices. [p. 211]
But beneath this apparent harmony, prejudice and dissatisfaction were still smouldering. Some in the church were still striving to mold Christianity after the old customs and ceremonies that were to pass away at the death of Christ. They felt that the work of preaching the gospel must be conducted according to their opinions. If Paul would labor in accordance with these ideas, they would acknowledge and sustain his work; otherwise they would discard it.
The elders of the church had been at fault in allowing themselves to be influenced by the enemies of the apostle. But when they heard from his own lips an account of the work he had been doing, it assumed a different aspect. They could not condemn his manner of labor; they were convinced that it bore the signet of Heaven. The liberal contributions from the new churches he had raised up, testified to the power of the truth. They saw that they had been held in bondage by the Jewish customs and traditions, and that the work of the gospel had been greatly hindered by their efforts to maintain the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile.
Now was the golden opportunity for these leading men to frankly confess that God had wrought through Paul, and that they were wrong in permitting the reports of his enemies to create jealousy and prejudice against him. But instead of doing justice to the one whom they had injured, they still appeared to hold him responsible for the existing prejudice, as though he had given them cause for such feelings. They did not nobly stand in his defense, and endeavor to show the disaffected party their error; but they threw the burden wholly upon Paul, counseling him to pursue [p. 212] a course for the removal of all misapprehension. They responded to his testimony in these words: "Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe, and they are all zealous of the law. And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together; for they will hear that thou art come. Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads; and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law. As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication."
The brethren hoped that by this act Paul might give a decisive contradiction of the false reports concerning him. But while James assured Paul that the decision of the former council (Acts 15) concerning the Gentile converts and the ceremonial law still held good, the advice given was not consistent with that decision which had also been sanctioned by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God did not prompt this advice. It was the fruit of cowardice. By non-conformity to the ceremonial law, Christians would bring upon themselves the hatred of the unbelieving Jews, and expose themselves to severe persecution. The [p. 213] Sanhedrim was doing its utmost to hinder the progress of the gospel. Men were chosen by this body to follow up the apostles, especially Paul, and in every possible way oppose them in their work. Should the believers in Christ be condemned before the Sanhedrim as breakers of the law, they would bring upon themselves swift and severe punishment as apostates from the Jewish faith.
Here is a decisive refutation of the claims so often made, that Christ and his apostles violated the Sabbath of the fourth commandment. Could the sin of Sabbath breaking have been fastened upon Christ or Stephen or others who died for their faith, men would not have been suborned to bear false witness against them to furnish some pretext for their condemnation. One such instance of transgression of the law would have placed the Christians in the power of their enemies. Their carefulness to show the utmost respect for customs and ceremonies of minor importance is an evidence that it would have been impossible for them to violate the Sabbath of the fourth commandment without suffering the severest penalty.
The disciples themselves yet cherished a regard for the ceremonial law, and were too willing to make concessions, hoping by so doing to gain the confidence of their countrymen, remove their prejudice, and win them to faith in Christ as the world's Redeemer. Paul's great object in visiting Jerusalem was to conciliate the church of Palestine. So long as they continued to cherish prejudice against him, they were constantly working to counteract his influence. He felt that if he could by any lawful concession on his [p. 214] part win them to the truth, he would remove a very great obstacle to the success of the gospel in other places. But he was not authorized of God to concede so much as they had asked. This concession was not in harmony with his teachings, nor with the firm integrity of his character. His advisers were not infallible. Though some of these men wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, yet when not under its direct influence they sometimes erred. It will be remembered that on one occasion Paul withstood Peter to the face because he was acting a double part.
When we consider Paul's great desire to be in harmony with his brethren, his tenderness of spirit toward the weak in faith, his reverence for the apostles who had been with Christ, and for James, the brother of the Lord, and his purpose to become all things to all men as far as he could do this and not sacrifice principle,—when we consider all this, it is less surprising that he was constrained to deviate from his firm, decided course of action. But instead of accomplishing the desired object, these efforts for conciliation only precipitated the crisis, hastened the predicted sufferings of Paul, separated him from his brethren in his labors, deprived the church of one of its strongest pillars, and brought sorrow to Christian hearts in every land.Click here to read the next chapter: "Paul a Prisoner"