J. A. Alexander on Acts 15:13-19
In a comment on my recent post on Jack Kelley’s supernatural insight, dispensationalist Jerry Shugart claims that the comments of James in Acts 15:15-18 about Christ rebuilding the tabernacle of David refers to events that will occur only after the second coming. That notion is incorrect. James obviously applied the prophecy of Amos 9:11 to Christ building his church in the present age, and identified the tabernacle of David with the church. He said the prophecy refers to the Gentiles who were being brought into God’s family. The meaning of the passage was explained by J. A. Alexander as follows:
The essential meaning of the passage, therefore, is that the restoration of the kingdom of David was to be connected with the spiritual conquest of the Gentiles.
The following is Alexander’s commentary on Acts 15:13-19. [J. A. Alexander, The Acts of the Apostles explained. Vol. 2. (1857) pp. 79-84.
13. And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men (and) brethren, hearken unto me:
Held their peace, were silent, ceased; the same verb that is used in the preceding verse. Answered, not merely spoke (see above, on 3,12. 5,8. 10,46), but responded to what Peter, Paul and Barnabas had just said; or replied to the question which had brought them together. James is supposed by many to be “James the brother of the Lord” (Gal. 1, 19), not one of the twelve, but an unbeliever (John 7, 5), till convinced by Christ’s appearing to him after his resurrection (1 Cor. 15, 7), surnamed the Just, and put to death by the Jews soon after the close of the New Testament history. There is however a strong presumption that the person holding so distinguished a position in the church at Jerusalem, while the Apostles still survived, was himself one of their number; and as James the son of Alpheus was probably a cousin of our Saviour (see above, on 1,13), he might be called his brother (Gal. 1,19) in strict accordance with biblical and oriental usage. (See Gen. 14, 16. 29, 12. 15. Rom. 1, 13. 9, 3. 1 Cor. 1, 1.) It is very possible that James resided in Jerusalem more constantly than any other of the twelve, and had special charge of the church there, not however as an ordinary pastor, much less as a diocesan bishop, but as a resident Apostle. (See above, on 12, 17, and below, on 21, 18.) Hearken unto me, or simply hear me, i. e. me too, or me also; hear what I, as well as they who have already spoken, have to say upon the subject. This request is very far from favouring the notion that James spoke with superior authority, or even as the president of the assembly.
14. 15. Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written:
Simeon, the Septuagint form of the Hebrew name, found also in 13, 1 above, and in Luke 2, 25. 34. 3, 30. Rev. 7, 7, and used by Peter himself in one of his epistles (2 Peter 1, 1.) The more usual form (Simon) is rather Greek than Hebrew; but both occur in Jewish books. Some have strangely supposed that James has reference here to the words of Simeon in Luke 2,80-32. At the first, or simply first, i. e. before Paul and Barnabas had preached to the Gentiles, thus deciding the whole question in advance (see above, on vs. 7-9.) Visited, or viewed, surveyed, with a view to choosing (see above, on 6, 3. 7, 23.) Gentiles, nations (see above, on vs. 3. 7. 12. A people, chosen people, church (see above, on 13,17. 24, 31.) For his name, i. e. to be called his people, or perhaps, to be founded on his name, or in reliance on it (see above, on 2, 38. 4, 17. 18. 5, 28. 40.) For his honour or glory is not expressed though necessarily implied. The whole verse refers to the important fact, alleged by Peter, that this direct reception of the Gentiles was no new thing introduced by Paul and Barnabas, but practised long before by Peter, with express divine approval. The fact thus historically proved James now shows to have been no afterthought or departure from the purpose previously revealed, but a part of the divine plan from the beginning, as attested by the Prophets, the inspired writers of the Old Testament, and more particularly those who were commissioned to predict the advent of Messiah (see above, on 3, 21. 24. 7, 62. 10, 43, 13, 27.)
16. After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up.
These are not given as the words of more than one prophet, but as a specimen or single instance of the way in which the prophets, as a class, contemplate the vocation of the Gentiles. The quotation is made from the Septuagint version, even where it varies most from the original; not because the latter would not answer the Apostle’s purpose, but because he no doubt spoke in Greek, and therefore used the current version, without regard to its inaccuracies, as they did not interfere with the design of his quotation. The original passage is Amos 9, 11. 12. After these things, although not a literal translation of the Hebrew, conveys the same essential meaning, that of mere posteriority or subsequence. I will return is neither in the Hebrew nor the Septuagint, but supplied by the Apostle, in perfect keeping with the sense of both, as an introductory suggestion that the prophecy is one of restoration and returning favour. Some, with less probability, regard it as a Hebrew idiom for again (I will again rebuild), which would be singularly out of place in a translation when it is not found in the original. (As to the idiom in question, see above, on 7, 42.) Build again, or rebuild, answering to one Greek word. Tabernacle, tent, not put for house or dwelling in general, but for the meanest and least durable of human habitations, contrasted with a royal palace, to denote the low condition to which David’s family must be reduced before the prophecy could be fulfilled. The same change is elsewhere represented by a shoot springing from the root or stump of a prostrate tree (Isai. 11, 1.) The image here presented is not merely that of a tent, but of a fallen tent. Ruins, breaches, fragments, or remains. Set it up (or rather upright) is again a single word in Greek and might be rendered, re-erect.
17. That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is palled, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.
The original is, that they may inherit (or possess) the remnant of Edom and all the nations. Edom is particularly named as a hereditary enemy of Israel, who had been subdued by David, but revolted under his successors. That it is merely used to represent the Gentiles, appears from the generic terms that follow. That the conquest here foretold is a spiritual one, is clear from the last clause, upon whom my name is called, which is often applied to Israel, as Jehovah’s consecrated or peculiar people. (See Deut. 28, 9. 10. Isai. 63, 19. Jer. 7, 10. 11. 14, 9, and compare Deut. 12, 6. Jer. 15, 16. 33, 2.) The essential meaning of the passage, therefore, is that the restoration of the kingdom of David was to be connected with the spiritual conquest of the Gentiles; and as such a subjugation is not merely passive, but involves the act of seeking after God, it is expressed sufficiently though not exactly in the Septuagint version here adopted. All these things is merely an amplification of the original expression (this.) All, however, is omitted in the oldest manuscripts and versions.
18. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.
According to the received text, here translated, this verse expresses still more strongly and directly than v. 15, the important fact that the reception of the Gentiles into the church was no afterthought or innovation, but a part of the divine plan from the beginning. But as the greater part of this verse is very variously given in the manuscripts, and wholly wanting in several of the oldest, the modem critics have expunged it, leaving only the words, known from the beginning, which must then be read as the concluding words of the preceding sentence, saith the Lord, the (one) doing these things (which are or have been) known from the beginning. This is then a supplementary or exegetical clause added by the Apostle to the passage quoted, and perhaps on that account converted by transcribers into an independent proposition. Beginning of the world is a single word in Greek, the same that is used in 3, 25, and there explained as an indefinite or relative expression, sometimes denoting absolute eternity, sometimes endless existence, sometimes a particular period, age, or dispensation. Hence some would make it here equivalent to Peter’s phrase (from ancient days) in v. 7 above, i. e. from the first promulgation of the Gospel to the Gentiles. But there seems to be no sufficient reason, even if the shorter reading is adopted, for diluting or extenuating this expression, as its strongest sense is equally appropriate and far more striking. Thus saith the Lord who doeth these things, known (to himself as part of his own plan or purpose) from eternity. Or the verb and adjective may be connected, as in 7, 10, making these things known from the beginning of the world, or of the old dispensation, or of the prophetic ministry (see above, on 3, 21, and compare Luke 1, 70.)
19. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:
Wherefore, because this mode of dealing with the Gentiles has been fully sanctioned by divine authority, and long ago predicted by the prophets. My sentence is, literally, I judge (as in the Rhemish version; Wiclif has, I deem), a common formula, by which the members of the Greek assemblies introduced the expression of their individual opinion, as appears from its repeated occurrence in Thucydides, with which may be compared the corresponding Latin phrase (sic censeo) of frequent use in Cicero’s orations. That James here settles the whole question by a decision ex cathedra, is as groundless an opinion as that Peter had already done so by his dictum. There is no trace in the narrative of any such superiority on either side. The whole proceeding is analogous to that which continually takes place in our own church-courts, when the roll is called to give the members present an opportunity of stating their judgment upon some important question. Even in Tyndale’s version, copied by King James’s Bible, sentence no doubt means opinion (sententia) not a final decision. That we trouble not, literally, not to trouble, or more emphatically, not to trouble in addition, i. e. besides (or over and above) the indispensable conditions of salvation, by imposing a gratuitous and supererogatory burden of mere ritual observance. (The same emphatic compound is used in the Septuagint version of Job 16, 3 Micah 6, 3.) Those from the Gentiles (literally, nations) turning unto God, i. e. from false gods to the true God (see above, on 14, 15.)