The church is beautiful, but it is a conglomeration of people, which also makes it messy. In Acts 15 we see two disputes: a macro dispute over a deal-breaker theological issue and a micro dispute of differing opinions between two people. There are timeless lessons here when we are faced with both.
Jewish Christians come from Judea to Antioch teaching that unless the Gentile believers are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, they could not be saved. Basically, they felt Gentiles had to first become Jews before they could become Christians. The clung tightly to the Jewish people being God’s exclusively chosen people. Naturally, this was a hard thing for them to break free from. It was such a big part of their life and culture. They had no problem with Jesus... as long as they also followed Jewish laws and rituals to be saved.
Paul and Barnabas initially attempt to persuade them otherwise; to help them see what they have seen and understand that it is faith in the grace and work of Jesus ALONE that saves us. But their persuasion falls on deaf ears, and they can’t let it go.
This was no insignificant issue…this had to do with SALVATION. This was about the core of Christianity. It wasn’t a nuanced belief or preference, but the essence of Christianity. A matter that needed to be elevated, addressed and resolved.
A decision is made to go to Jerusalem to have the matter settled by the apostles and the elders. The question at hand: Are Christians saved by faith in Jesus alone or by faith PLUS obeying the law of Moses. Is the work of Jesus enough, or do we also need our own works?
After warm greetings and much discussion and debate, Peter rises to reflect on what God had been doing and how He had given the Gentiles the gift of the Holy Spirit just as they had received it. The multitudes in attendance keep silent and listen. James also responds, pointing to Scripture to confirm what Peter, Paul, and Barnabas were saying. Through bringing people together, discussions, debating, keeping quiet to hear what others were saying, and most importantly reflecting on the work of God and the words of Scripture, the issue is settled. Jesus alone saves us.
Now back at Antioch, the matter settled and communicated, Paul suggests he and Barnabas return to visit the churches they planted to check on them. Barnabas wants to take John Mark, but Paul argues against it. After all, Mark had let them down on their last missionary journey. Both dig in their heels, “and there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.” Barnabas takes Mark and heads to Cyprus. Paul takes Silas and heads in an entirely different direction. Luke doesn’t say who was at fault…perhaps neither were. Perhaps Barnabas, the encourager, felt his calling in this season was to be an encouragement to Mark. Perhaps it was time to move on; to divide and conquer...no longer one ministry in one place, now two ministries covering even more territory. And on Paul’s new journeys with Silas, Timothy – who becomes like a son and mentee to Paul – join them.
Unlike the issue of circumcision for salvation, this was no deal-breaker dispute. Though they didn’t resolve it, they didn’t drag the church down with them. They didn’t let it derail them or cause church friction. They didn’t go out and bash the other, instead, they went out and furthered the Gospel message. They remained united in cause and message, though separated for a time. We see later in Paul’s letters that he ministers with Mark, and even specifically asks for him in his last recorded letter.
Unity is so highly valued and preached by Jesus, but people will have personality clashes, varying preferences, different callings, and disagreements...even with the same theology. Ray Pritchard says, “Hold your convictions firmly yet graciously knowing that God may lead someone else differently than He has led you.”
We need discernment about when to dig in our heels and when to agree to disagree. And ALWAYS we need to look to GOD'S WORD. Issues of salvation are always worth the fight, but personal preferences and callings may lead us down different paths, which we must walk in love for our brothers and sisters, not as a platform to hurl insults and create disunity. God, give us discernment to know when to fight and when to walk away. Let your Word and your Truth always be our compass.
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