Journey through Acts, Chapter 15:35-41

In chapter 14 last week we took a close look at Paul’s first missionary journey which lasted about two years. Barnabas and his cousin John Mark traveled with Paul on this journey, although John Mark left before it was half-way finished. And I might add Paul was not a happy camper about his leaving which we will hear more about this morning.

After John Mark left the group Paul performed a miracle by healing a man who had been lame from birth. Paul and Barnabas became very upset when those who had witnessed the miracle began calling the two of them gods. They called Paul Hermes and Barnabas Zeus. Why were they upset? Because these gods were manmade Gods, not the one, true God, not to mention they were not Gods! Paul and Barnabas refused to allow the pagans to merely add Jesus to their plethora of Roman Gods. They commanded that they turn from their fake gods to the one true God. As Paul and Barnabas were very aware that it was only by and through the power of the one, true God, the Most-High God that the miracle had occurred.

Of course, we’ve heard almost from the beginning of Acts about the strong opposition to the Christian movement and unfortunately that had not changed during the time Paul was preaching the Good News in his first of three missionary journeys. Nor has it even to this day. Satan is still alive and well.

Paul and Barnabas were persistent in their preaching of the Gospel, considering the cost to them to be nothing in comparison with obedience to Christ. If you recall they had narrowly escaped being stoned in Iconium. Now some of the Jews in strong opposition to the truth about Jesus had actually followed Paul from Antioch and Iconium to Lystra where he and Barnabas were currently located.

There they then joined up with people in Lystra who were also hostile towards Paul, and the two groups came together to stone him. He was drug out of the city and left for dead. However, Paul survived as clearly the Lord had other work for him to complete.

Paul’s stoning was proof of the words Jesus said in John 15:20 “If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” So, at the end of the message last week we looked at persecution and what was needed to not only survive, but to thrive when being persecuted. Jesus had told His followers in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

The root of the Greek word used to take heart means to exercise bold and confident courage.  If we don’t take heart amid persecution there is a good likelihood, we will become discouraged, and enter a state of total and complete despair.

After Paul and Barnabas arrived back in Antioch in Syria, upon completion of their journey, they were reporting on what God had done in Asia, especially regarding the Gentile churches that had been established and all the Gentiles who had been saved through their belief in Jesus as Lord.

As chapter 15 opens we hear, “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 (Acts 15:1-2).

These other men, who were most likely Pharisees, insisted to Paul and Barnabas that the Gentiles be circumcised, and that they must make observance of Jewish ritual as a requirement for salvation. Basically, they were saying that everything Paul and Barnabas had done, including establishing several churches among the Gentiles, without bringing them under the Law of Moses, was wrong. Unable to reach an agreement with these legalists, Paul and Barnabas were then sent to Jerusalem where they were welcomed by the church, apostles, and elders.

Obviously, the conversion of Gentiles was raising an urgent question for the early church. When the council met with Paul and Barnabas the central issue was whether Gentile Christians had to be circumcised and keep the law. Clearly, it was very difficult for some Jewish Christians to accept that Gentiles could be brought into the church as equal members without first coming through the Law of Moses. At this point the Jews had moved beyond whether the Gentiles could experience salvation – they agreed that they could. However, did it occur through mere faith, or works too?

Not only was this question urgent, but it was also of immense importance! Why? Because the question goes much deeper. What was really being asked here was, are Christians made right with God by faith alone, or by a combination of faith and obedience of the Law? Is the work of Jesus by itself enough to save the one who trusts in Him, or must we add works, through following the Law, to Jesus’ death in order to be reconciled, to be made right with God?

Now for the Jews, the truest test of following the law was circumcision. And as we’ve seen, one group of Pharisees insisted that following the law, including submitting to the rite of circumcision, was necessary for salvation. However, they may also have been concerned with the rapid growth of the Gentile Christians. How long would it be before they would outnumber them? And perhaps they were also afraid of weakening moral standards among believersif the Gentile Christians did not follow Jewish laws.

After much detailed discussion between Paul, Barnabas and the leaders of the church, Peter stood up and begin to speak. He pointed out something very important. The Gentile converts had received the Holy Spirit upon their conversion. What Peter was basically saying is that the indwelling of the Spirit should be proof enough – there was no need for the Gentiles to convert to Judaism to be saved. Otherwise they would not have received the Holy Spirit!

During this meeting of the Jerusalem Council, Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and the other church leaders, while in agreement that the Old Testament law was very important, determined it was not a prerequisite to salvation. The law cannot save; only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ can a person be saved. The council upheld the conviction expressed by these faithful, and might I add, teachable men. Following the Jewish laws, including being circumcised, was not essential for salvation. As Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

A letter was then written outlining the council’s decision. Paul and Barnabas, as well as two men from Jerusalem, Judas and Silas who were also prophets, were sent with the letter back to Antioch were the dispute originally began. We are told it pleased the apostles, elders, and the whole church to send the letter which was written specifically to the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. It was not addressed to every Gentile congregation. Why to only three churches and why these three? Because it only applied to these three. It was written to these churches because Jews and Gentiles attended them together, thus creating the possibility of tension and conflict within. The letter states the decision of the Jerusalem council is that Gentiles should consider themselves under no obligation to perform the rituals of Judaism – salvation comes by faith alone. Thus, this very important issue was settled once and for all and for all time……

Which brings us to the end of chapter 15 and our passage for the day. We read about yet another sharp disagreement arising this time between Paul and Barnabas. Now despite their time together on Paul’s first missionary journey, immediately prior to this disagreement, their relationship may have become somewhat strained as Barnabas had sided with the legalists in Antioch over the matter we just discussed at great length. Does salvation come through faith alone? How do we know Barnabas disagreed with Paul? Because Paul references it in Galatians chapter two. Despite this, Paul suggests to Barnabas that they return to all the cities where they had planted churches during their first missionary trip, basically to just check in and see how they are doing.

Paul was an evangelist and took the gospel to places where it did not exist. He preached where there were no believers and by the power of the Holy Spirit brought people to faith in Christ. He did the very important work of establishing early Christian communities. Yet, he understood the need to help those communities grow in Christ – to disciple them. It wasn’t enough to just make believers. He needed to continue supporting and encouraging them. Paul was not merely content to plant churches without seeing them carefully nurtured and growing in the faith. As such, this was the reason for his second missionary journey.

When he suggests this second journey to Barnabas, Barnabas was enthusiastically onboard; however, he wanted his cousin John Mark to go with them once again. Remember, John Mark (the apostle Mark who wrote the Gospel of Mark), is the one who skipped out on them during their first missionary journey. If you recall, we’re not sure why John Mark left that first journey. However, whatever the reason, it would appear Paul had lost faith in him.

Both men apparently felt very strongly about the matter as neither one conceded. Rather the contention was so sharp they decided to part ways. Luke doesn’t tell us who was right and who was wrong. But as we know there are always two sides to every story, or maybe I should say three sides to every story, yours, mine, and the truth! But it would appear that these men were not walking in the spirit during this disagreement.

We just heard earlier in the chapter there was much dispute over an important doctrinal matter. We also heard that it was resolved. How? Through teachable spirits and the pursuit of the truth. Listening for the wisdom and discernment of the Holy Spirit was clearly involved. Here however, the contention while still sharp, is of a personal nature, and far less important. And it does not appear that these two men sought out the will of the Father regarding this matter.

So, Paul took Silas and Barnabas took Mark and they split – each going out to different regions to minister. We have no idea how long their relationship was constrained. We do know, however, that the work of reconciliation is of major importance in the life of a Christian. And we do know that they eventually reconcile because Paul would later affectionately mention Barnabas as being worthy of monetary support in his work of proclaiming the gospel in 1st Corinthians 9:6. And in 2 Timothy 4:11 he states, “Luke alone is with me. Take Mark and bring him with you, for he is helpful to me in my ministry.”

This reminds us that as Christians we are commanded to resolve relationship problems with others before we present our ministry to God. And how are we to resolve these problems? Fortunately, God does not leave us in the dark. He gives us explicit instructions. Matthew 18:15-17 states, “If you brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Now we clearly see Satan at work here in both situations. First, he wanted the false doctrine of righteousness by works to succeed. Remember that is the foundation of the Law of Moses – actually living the law. But even if it didn’t succeed, we know Satan wanted a bitter doctrinal war to completely split and sour the church. After all, that is certainly one of his greatest desires – to create division in the body of Christ.

This doctrinal dispute could have potentially split the church if not handled carefully. The legalists in the Jerusalem church preferred a legalistic religion to one based on faith alone. If the legalists had won, the Gentiles would have been required to be circumcised and, in effect, converted to Judaism. This would have confined Christianity to simply being another sect within Judaism. When pausing to consider this, I think it’s important for us to realize that there is something of a “Pharisee” most likely in all of us. We may unwittingly mistake upholding tradition, structure, and legal requirements as a necessary component for following and obeying God.

In the situation between Paul and Barnabas God used the division, as He can always redeem good out of evil. Paul in Romans 8:28 tells us, “And we know that in all tings God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  However, may this situation serve to remind us that we will all be held accountable for every idle word spoken, for every wrong act perpetrated against another when we stand before Christ face-to-face at the judgment seat.Let us pray…….Gracious and Holy God we praise you for your many blessings. As we enter into the season of Thanksgiving, please help us to stay ever mindful of them throughout each day. Help us to stay focused on you and to fulfill your purpose for our lives each day. Help us grow closer to you and grow more in love with you with every hour. Please keep our families safe and healthy. Please help our country reconcile. May your will be done during the upcoming election and guide each one of us as we make our choices when voting. Please eradicate covid 19! And please help our country rebound economically. We love you Lord! And now let us pray the words our Lord and Savior Jesus taught us…….
Remember Jesus loves you and so do I! Emoji

Pastor Cathy

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