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A Practical Commentary On Holy Scripture by Frederick Justus Knecht D.D.

[Acts 15]

SOME disciples who came from Jerusalem to Antioch said to the Christians there: “Unless you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas opposed this doctrine; but in order to settle the question, they went up to Jerusalem, to consult with Peter and the other apostles.

When Paul and Barnabas arrived in Jerusalem, the apostles and elders or priests assembled in council to consider the matter. After much discussion, Peter rose up and said:

“Men, brethren, you know that in former days God made choice among us, that the Gentiles, by my mouth, should hear the word of the Gospel, and believe. And God, who knoweth the hearts, gave them testimony, giving to them the Holy Ghost as well as to us, and made no difference between us and them1, purifying their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why tempt you1 God to put a yoke upon the necks of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear. But by the grace1 of the Lord Jesus Christ we believe to be saved, even as they.” When Peter had finished speaking, “all the multitude held their peace” (Acts 15:12).

Then James, bishop of Jerusalem, spoke to the same effect. It was then decreed by the whole Council of Jerusalem that the Christians of Antioch, or elsewhere, were no longer bound to observe the law of Moses. This decree commenced with these remarkable words: “It hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us to lay no further burden upon you.”

General Councils. The assembly at Jerusalem was the first General Council, and has been the pattern of all succeeding Councils. Let us, therefore, examine: 1. how this Council was held; 2. what was the subject or matter discussed by it; 3. what was the significance of the decision arrived at by it.

1. How was the Council of Jerusalem held?

St. Peter presided over it and conducted its discussions. His discourse was listened to with respect, and all opposition was silenced by it. All present took part in the discussion, but the decision was made by the apostles and bishops.

Thus has it been at every General Council. The successor of St. Peter, the Pope, or some one delegated by him to represent him, has presided over it. During the discussion, learned priests take their part as well as bishops, but only the bishops, as successors of the apostles, have the right of voting in the final decision.

2. What was the subject, or matter discussed by the Council?

There was no question of setting up a new doctrine, but simply of explaining and defining that which God had revealed about the point in dispute.

Thus has it been with all General Councils. They have never set up new doctrines, but they have defined and explained the doctrines of divine revelation, in answer to the objections and denial of unbelievers and heretics, so that the members of the Church may be guarded against error and seduction.

3. What was the significance of the decision arrived at by the Council of Jerusalem?

The decision of the Council was not merely the result of a consultation of a number of wise and holy pastors, but it was a decision made under the guidance of the Holy Ghost. The apostles were convinced that the Holy Ghost had conducted their discussion and decision, and preserved them from error. When, therefore, they announced their decision to the Christian Church, they did not say: “We have decided in such and such a way”, but: “It hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us” so to decide.

The same applies in matters of doctrine to the decisions of every General Council which has been held, because it was to the Church in her office of teacher that our Lord promised to send the Spirit of Truth, to be with her and guide her unto all truth, and to direct her definitions of what it is that God has revealed on any point of doctrine.

The Infallibility of the Church is a great consolation for all the faithful. The Gentile Christians at Antioch “were filled with consolation” when they learnt the decision of the Council: for now all their doubts and fears were set at rest, and they knew exactly what God required of them. So also is it a great joy and consolation for us, living as we do in the midst of the errors and false doctrines of the age, to know that we have a guiding star by which we can steer our course, namely the infallible teaching of the Holy Church of God, which is, in the words of St. Paul (1 Tim. 3:15), “the pillar and ground of the Truth”, being unerringly guided by the Holy Ghost. We live at rest, protected from all anxious doubts, for by believing in the Church we believe in the Spirit of Truth, and we know that our faith does not rest on human but on divine authority. By yielding our faith to the teaching of the Church we submit our finite reason and our erring spirits to the Supreme Reason and Spirit of God, who is the Eternal Truth.

APPLICATION. I thank God every day for the gift of the holy Catholic faith! Have you been in the habit of doing so? O never neglect this in the future; for the safe possession of divine truth is the greatest of all blessings! And the greatest joy is that of being a Catholic.








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