Today: [Acts 15:] Contention, Disputation and Destiny: In Acts 15 a controversy arises after Jewish believers demand that Gentile believers become Jewish converts as well. The work of spreading the gospel ceases for some time while this is decided upon. In the aftermath of the decisions that get made, we see that Paul and Barnabas part ways very poorly over the issue of John Mark. Contention destroys destiny, a lesson that we all must learn.
[Act 15:1-22 KJV] 1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, [and said], Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. 2 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. 3 And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. 4 And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and [of] the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. 5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command [them] to keep the law of Moses. 6 And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. 7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men [and] brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. 8 And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as [he did] unto us; 9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. 12 Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. 13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men [and] brethren, hearken unto me: 14 Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. 15 And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, 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: 17 That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. 18 Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. 19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and [from] fornication, and [from] things strangled, and [from] blood. 21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. 22 Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; [namely], Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren:
Barnabas and Paul complete their first and second missionary journey and return to Antioch to report their progress. At the same time, a second contingent of believers from Jerusalem and Judea arrive with the insistence that unless Gentiles coming to faith are circumcised, they remain in a lost state whether they accept Jesus as savior or not. In verse 2 Barnabas and Paul respond to this, and a notable change takes place. In chapter 14 we see the first reference to Saul of Tarsus being called Paul instead; however Barnabas was still mentioned first in the narrative. In this chapter, we don’t see them referred to as Barnabas and Paul but as Paul and Barnabas. The ministry of the Apostle Paul is maturing. To the demand that Gentile believers be circumcised, Paul and Barnabas vigorously object, and a decision is made in the Antioch church to send this dispute to Jerusalem to be decided. Here we see another critical feature of the early church, i.e., that of believers in one city deferring to the authority of the church in another city, specifically Jerusalem.
Regionally Antioch was a much more important city than Jerusalem, but at the same time, this was where the apostles originated from and where Jesus carried out much of His public ministry. The early church had nothing similar to the denominations we have today but instead identified its own constituent components by a city with some cities having more influence and authority than others. In the church today this level of authority and deference among different believing groups is almost non-existent other than in organizations such as the Catholic church and other prominent denominational structures. This results in a spiritual climate similar to that of the time of the judges when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes…”
Paul and Barnabas make their way southward to Jerusalem preaching along the way to both Jews and Gentiles and were received with great joy. They are submitting their controversial message to the Gentiles to Jerusalem, but they didn’t stop preaching to wait for the Jerusalem leaders to make their decision regarding whether or not the Gentiles were required to become defacto Jewish converts submitted to Moses law as a condition of salvation.
In verse 5 we see after Paul and Barnabas report to the elders in Jerusalem that there were among their number believing Jews that adhered as well to the principles of the sect of the Pharisees. The demand again is asserted that they must keep the law of Moses and be circumcised. There is much disputing, and Peter rises up with a reminder about the vision of God that led him to Cornelius’ house and the revelation that God puts no difference between Gentile and Jew but purified all their hearts by faith in Jesus, not Jewish religious legalism. This quiets the crowd gathered to decide this matter, and they pause long enough for Barnabas and Paul to recount the testimonies of their work among the Gentiles.
After this James, the primary elder at the church in Jerusalem speaks up in defense of liberty in Christ for the Gentile believers. Now, this is not the James who was one of the 12 original disciples. This is James, the brother of Jesus whose family along with Mary rose to prominence in the Jerusalem church. During Jesus’ lifetime, this James was not one of the 12 although he is believed to be among the 70 that followed Jesus. Because of James natural relationship through a family connection to Jesus, he was given presumptive authority over the church in Jerusalem. We see then two authority structures at work here – the 12 apostles giving their opinion about the Gentile question and James, the lead elder of the church in Jerusalem speaking to settle the matter.
The decision is made to extend liberty to the Gentile believers excepting a prohibition to abstain for participation in idol worship, and avoidance of sexual sin or eating strangled meat or blood as part of their diet. This quieted the controversy, and the Gentile church will be allowed to grow without the demand that they become Jewish adherents before acknowledgment as believers. Letters are written up and signed by the leadership and Paul and Barnabas are sent out to great the newly founded Gentile churches and to make known to them what the Jerusalem authorities expected of them.
[Acts 15:23-41 KJV]
23 And they wrote [letters] by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren [send] greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: 24 Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, [Ye must] be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no [such] commandment: 25 It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell [you] the same things by mouth. 28 For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; 29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. 30 So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle: 31 [Which] when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation. 32 And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed [them]. 33 And after they had tarried [there] a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles. 34 Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still. 35 Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also. 36 And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, [and see] how they do. 37 And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. 38 But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work. 39 And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus; 40 And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.
Notice that when Paul and Barnabas are mentioned in these letters of the Jerusalem church that Barnabas is mentioned first again. The Jerusalem believers still didn’t fully accept Paul. They also sent two of their own number, Judas, and Silas along to make sure that their message is adequately conveyed. This is the same Silas who will travel with Paul after his departure from Barnabas. Paul and Barnabas take their leave of Jerusalem and return to Antioch and give the decision to the Gentiles there regarding the expectations the Jewish believers have for them as a condition of being accepted among their number.
Consider again the prohibitions imposed upon the Gentile church:
1. Cease practicing idol worship. They would not be allowed to worship Jesus as just an addition to otherwise pagan believers.
2. Abstain from fornication. Sexual impurity was part of pagan religious practice. This would cease and would also not be allowed to be a part of their new found Christian tradition. This was more important than we know, as Paul later had to deal with lax sexual practices among several of the churches he founded.
3. Abstain from strangled meat and from blood.
What would be your response if a neighboring church sent word to your congregation that they expected you to adjust your lifestyle to their demands as a condition of your salvation as far as they were concerned? Would your church or pastor accept such an imposition upon the local church? Even in denominational churches, it is common for different congregations to pull out of the denomination with the assertion of liberty in Christ freeing them from obeying any ecclesiastical authority. Is this valid? Are we required in the eyes of God to submit to any jurisdiction other than our own personal choice? If we read the New Testament with any intellectual honesty, we have to admit that their idea of accountability is much different than the concept of accountability in the modern day. The old song “Me and Jesus Got Our Own Thing Going…” reflects the rule of the day or the current Christian culture. Are we better off embracing this principle of total autonomy in our faith? Or should we consider the issue of authority in an effort to align ourselves with the character of the early church in matters of personal or congregational dispute?
After the letters from Jerusalem are delivered, Silas decides to continue on in traveling with Paul and Barnabas. The three remain in Antioch for a time, teaching and preaching among the people there. Here again, we see a different dynamic at work here. The elders in Antioch apparently were very open to yielding leadership time to these traveling ministers. Can you imagine a traveling minister coming not just for a day or a week but for several months and the pastor yielding the platform to them, perfectly willing to acquiesce to their leadership for as long as they saw fit? That isn’t how church gets done today, but it is how the church at Antioch enjoyed the vibrant ministry of Paul and Barnabas for many days.
After some time verse 36 tells us that Paul and Barnabas decide to visit again the churches of Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Barnabas makes a decision to take with them a young man named John Mark, but Paul disagrees because Mark had not demonstrated his commitment to the work. Now comes contention between Barnabas and Paul. Paul doesn’t want Mark to accompany them and Barnabas will not relent. The dispute is so sharp between them that they break up their partnership. Barnabas fades from the Acts narrative here, and we know from history that he is martyred in Smyrna. After his death, Mark joins himself to Peter and travels with him to Rome where Peter himself is martyred. After the death of Peter, the believers in Rome prevail upon Mark not to leave the city until he commits to writing all of the stories about Jesus that he had learned from Peter, and thus the gospel of Mark is produced. What about Paul? He takes Silas, originally a legate of the church in Jerusalem and travels northward to Syria and Cilicia, preaching the gospel and confirming the churches.
What is our lesson from our chapter today? Contention stops the work of God. When the Jews contended with the Gentiles over circumcision the work of spreading the gospel ceased for many weeks until the controversy was settled. When Barnabas and Paul contended over including Mark in their journeys, the result was a very effective ministry team separated from one another and Barnabas fades into ignominy. Contention destroys destiny. Up to this point, Barnabas was influential second only to Peter himself in the church but now his time is done. Another lesson is no matter how prominent a leader such as Paul might be – they get it wrong sometimes. Mark was a valuable asset to the church. Without Mark whom Paul rejected we would not have the earliest gospel to be penned. Mark set the pace and the practice of committing what became our New Testament into written form. Contention may seem unavoidable, but it never brings about a positive result. Better to avoid contention and keep your calling and election intact, not allowing anything to take your eyes off of the harvest of God.