Relationship Splits – It Happens, Even to Good People – Acts 15:36-41

Today’s rather brief passage is one of those where we would wish to have a few more details about exactly what transpired between Paul and Barnabas. In writing this account, Luke is working to tell the beginning of the story of the Second Missionary Journey of Paul. And so it is necessary for him to explain why Barnabas did not participate, but rather, a new figure by the name of Silas becomes Paul’s travelling companion.

In short, Paul and Barnabas had a disagreement of significant proportions. It was all over John Mark (yes, the guy who would later write the Gospel of Mark), who had abandoned them on the first journey – apparently in some moment of personal weakness. Here is today’s reading:

Disagreement between Paul and Barnabas – Acts 15:36-41

36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

When it says in this text that it was a “sharp disagreement,” there is no way to get the original Greek words to water it down – this was a significant conflict, enough to cause them to part ways and work separately.

Paul was standing on principle. Though we don’t know the exact reason why John Mark departed, it was a scar that Paul could not get past. Maybe it was a personal failure? Or perhaps it had to do with John Mark’s possible discomfort at the Gospel going to the Gentiles? Maybe he even caused some of the trouble in Jerusalem by being an eyewitness reporter of these events? That would certainly rile a person of principle like Paul, for in this scenario, John Mark would have been challenging the core of the Gospel message of grace.

On the other hand, Barnabas was standing on the value of personal restoration. Some might argue that this was because John Mark and Barnabas were cousins (Col. 4:10); though being a person of grace and encouragement of others fits the entire Scriptural portrait of Barnabas. Paul himself could not have originally been aligned with the early church leaders apart from the gracious, visionary intervention of Barnabas. Barnabas saw the potential in John Mark, whereas Paul could not get beyond the problem.

I reconcile this as simply the outworking of two very different personalities with differing gifts. Though Paul had certainly a large compassion for lost people, he was a fellow who particularly highly valued truth, hard facts, and principles. Barnabas, while standing for truth repeatedly in biblical passages, valued people so highly – having a heart for seeing believers restored and reused in greater capacities than ever before.

These personalities sometimes have difficulties working together. As I’ve written previously, I relate to Barnabas most especially among biblical characters. And in my ministry life, I have a number of times had conflictual issues most often with other leaders who lean in the opposite direction toward the hard line on principle. I have sometimes been the last person standing in defense of someone – a couple of times when there really was no substantial defense remaining.

The fact is this: each of these personality proclivities needs the other. The “truth first people” need to be challenged that we are all such a mess saved only by God’s great grace, that none of us have much merit apart from Christ. But the “people-oriented, gracious types” need to be reminded that there are hard principles that genuine believers must honor in order to walk rightly with the Lord in the light of truth.

The fact is that all of these guys went on to serve the Lord well. We see Paul sending greetings to John Mark later on; and this passage in Galatians (2:12-13) shows the high esteem Paul had for Barnabas: (writing about a time he confronted Peter) … For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

God has a place in His vineyard for all of us to work for Him with the gifts He has given each one. And we need to value one another, even if we are not always working side by side.

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Is it a Precept or a Preference? – Acts 15:22-35

Another title that I could have given to today’s devotional is “So Where Do You Draw the Line in the Sand?”  Some people love rules, and especially when they have the role of enforcing them! Other people error by being so soft and loving that they have no substance or quality. So where do we draw lines for belief and behavior?

But first, let’s review the story…

I was pretty hard on the Jerusalem church at the end of yesterday’s devotional – saying that they were laggards in accepting the changes that came with the Gospel. But here’s the deal: when they had all the information and evaluated it fairly against what they knew of God’s revelation and work in the world through Jesus Christ, they did accept it completely and enthusiastically. And they wrote a congenial letter to the church at Antioch to state the strength of their decision.

A most important truth was established – that the Gospel message was fully of grace and did not contain the requirements of the Law of Moses. In the face of the Jewish world around them, this was not going to play well, yet the truth needed to be established. This would facilitate the rapid expansion of the Gospel in the Gentile world. Paul and Barnabas were affirmed, along with their mission.

As well, the Gentiles were encouraged to be sensitive at the same time to certain Jewish cultural backgrounds, particularly related to dietary matters, that were going to be difficult for the Hebrew Christians to accept and fellowship around. The exhortation was to avoid these things for the greater good of the church and family unity. No, these things were not precepts – not in the category of laws of necessary obedience; but they were matters of preference that could be laid aside.

So essentially, one side was told to not make precepts of beliefs that were in reality preferences, but the other side was encouraged to be sensitive to not live out the freedom of their every preference in the face of those who struggled from a cultural background of rejection toward such things.

Beyond the great message of the love and grace to be found in God and his provision in Christ, there is hardly any other message so pervasive in Scripture (particularly the New Testament) than that of giving away personal values and tastes in order to rather serve others. This is the essence of Christian living – of having the mind of Christ who did not hang onto the glories of heaven, but rather took on humanity to the extent of being subject to death for sins he did not commit.

What would it be like to be a part of any church that really worked to flesh out this central concept of Christian application? Where would conflict fit into such a scenario? Imagine a place where there were no assertions of personal preference, but only the conscious work to serve someone else – probably someone very different. Could that happen in a place like … like … well, like … Hagerstown?

The Council’s Letter to Gentile Believers – Acts 15:22-35

22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. 23 With them they sent the following letter:

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:

Greetings.

24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

Farewell.

30 So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. 34 (Some manuscripts include here … But Silas decided to remain there … but this is clearly a later addition.)  35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.

But We’ve Never Done It That Way Before! – Acts 15:1-21

It will soon be 36 years since the time I was first employed by a church in ministry – beginning as the minister of music at a rather small church in Cherry Hill, NJ.  And I was doing church ministry in varied ways for several years before that – particularly as a summer intern.

A lot has changed about ministry over the years. I have changed a great deal also. From the perspective of 1977, I could have never possibly envisioned the different ways “doing church” would morph. Back then, I would have presumed that I would always be in a church with a pipe organ, hymnals, choirs, and pulpit. Beyond the on/off switch, nobody thought about lighting and staging. Computers and video projection were unimaginable. All good Christians attended church twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday night.

In many ways, I wish nothing had ever changed – I could use a lot more of my traditional education if it had not!  I have spent my life in ministry fighting for acceptance of change – always working to embrace new methods of telling the timeless truth of Christ so that the latest generations may hear it and follow the savior of my ancestors. If I could have seen at the start as to how much pain this would bring to my life, I really do not think I would have done it. But I do not doubt that I have obeyed God in my advocacy for visionary people and modern methods of communicating the Word.

In a phrase, I have spent four decades in (what I trust has been loving) combat with the brothers and sisters comprising the Christian forces of “But we’ve never done it that way before.”

So I think I understand Paul and Barnabas in our passage today. At Antioch, some teachers from Jerusalem were advocating that to be genuinely saved, it was necessary to follow certain prescriptions from the Law of Moses. Rightly understanding that this teaching entirely opposed the grace of the Gospel, Paul and Barnabas confronted it in debate. The conflict was such that it was necessary for it to be settled at what we historically know as the first church council in Jerusalem.

As the missionary duo spoke with the church leaders in Judea about all they had seen and experienced, some traditionalists with Pharisaic backgrounds stood to insist that the Law of Moses needed to also be kept. Paul and Barnabas shared with the council the incredible signs and wonders that accompanied the spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles – particularly emphasizing that the same Spirit had come upon the Greeks just as it had come upon the Jewish believers. Clearly this was one new work of God – not a repeat of old legalistic stuff that nobody then or before was ever able to observe perfectly!

James – the leader of the church in Jerusalem – gave the decisive word by quoting from the Scriptures in Amos that this was indeed a prophetic fulfillment. He also spoke some words of wisdom in terms of what should be communicated to these new Gentile believers as they were welcomed into this new work of the Church of Jesus Christ. In tomorrow’s reading, we will see that this is agreed upon and enacted, though Judaizers (those insisting on observance of the Law of Moses along with believing in Christ) would be a thorn in the side of Paul and the early church for decades – being addressed especially in the book of Galatians.

There is a famous bell curve often written about in leadership circles that illustrates change and the ways people adapt to it. At the front end are the innovators and early adapters; at the back end are the laggards who struggle to ever accept it. Paul is a classic innovator, while the Jerusalem church embodied the laggards.technology-adoption-curve-300x106

Change is not good simply because it is change, but it is inevitable and needs to regularly be embraced with wisdom – like James brought to the Jerusalem Council.

The Council at Jerusalem – Acts 15:1-21

15 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14 Simonhas described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:

16 “‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it,17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’—18things known from long ago.

19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”