Opportunities and Obstacles

“Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them.

But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also. And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.” (Acts 15:22-33, 35-41 ESV)

It always seems that just when you begin to make some headway in resolving an issue in your life, another obstacle gets in your path. One step forward and two steps back. I’m sure you’ve experienced this process in your own life, I know I have. You fix one item just to discover two more that need your attention. You resolve one issue just to turn around and be confronted by two or three more that need to be resolved. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. That’s life, right? It happens at home, it happens at work, and it also happens at church.

Paul and Barnabas had received support and confirmation by the Jerusalem church regarding their teachings and vindication from the attacks upon them by the Judaizers who had come from Jerusalem to Antioch. Their work among the Gentiles and their insistence on salvation by grace through faith in Jesus was acknowledged and affirmed by the Apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church. The challenging and uphill work of evangelism among the Gentiles seemed to be leveling out and the door of opportunity seemed to be swinging back open. Let’s look first at the encouragement and affirmation, then we will deal with the new and dangerous roadblock that suddenly sprang up…

First, I doubt that most of us really comprehend the level of discomfort and the change that must have taken place in the hearts and minds of these Jewish Christians in the Jerusalem church during this period. The Jews had long taken pride and found deep affirmation in the knowledge that THEY alone were the people of God. While I have spent quite a bit of time on this topic lately trying to show that the promises of God in scripture have always included a time when the Gentiles would be brought into the fulfillment of these promises, historically this was not the case and is still not the case among ethnic Jews. They were and are God’s people and to come to God you must embrace Judaism and become a Jewish proselyte. That’s the mindset and worldview these first century Jewish Christians knew and in which they lived.

Yet, I want you to notice the outcome of the Jerusalem Council and the letter issued by that church to the Antioch church and the churches that Paul and Barnabas had established during their journey. Did they issue an edict against certain Gentile religious rites and practices? Yes, but it dealt primarily with dietary issues that would cause division between the Jewish and Gentile believers and with two core moral issues prevalent in their culture, idolatry and sexual immorality. It was a letter designed to bring about unity and fellowship among two very culturally diverse populations. In fact, this becomes very obvious in their choice of wording in the letter’s greeting: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.” A letter from brothers, to brothers.

I’ve mentioned before that I am one of four boys, four brothers. We’ve had our differences, our disagreements and, yes, even our fights (most of those fights were when we were kids, honestly) but in the end we are brothers and we stick together. We might pick on one another, but you had better not pick on one of us or you’ll rouse the others to his defense. Brother to brother, we’ve got each other’s back. While my brothers and I live very far from one another (one in Italy, one in California, and two in Oklahoma), if one of them needed my help I would do everything I could to be there as quickly as possible. I know you’d likely do the same for your brothers or sisters, right?

The church is a family of brothers and sisters, united in the love of our Lord. Let me state some things that should be obvious, but are often overlooked. We are brothers and sisters (family) regardless of our ethnic background or racial differences. We are family regardless of our political affiliations or disagreements. We are family regardless of our cultural or social structure differences. When we sit together at the table of our Lord, all of those differences are stripped away by His atoning grace and our need for mercy and forgiveness.

Next, notice that their letter comes not just from the Apostles but also from the church elders (pastors/teachers/shepherds) and it comes from them united together “in one accord.” This wasn’t some power move by the Apostles to exercise their authority and control over the new Gentile churches, this was from one group of concerned and loving churches to another. When one group of believers sees another heading off into heresy or loss of faith then we are obligated to speak up in love and offer instruction and guidance. The Judaizers had “unsettled” and “troubled’ the Antioch church. The Jerusalem church offers instruction and guidance and the Antioch church received it and it brought them encouragement, peace and strength through the teaching and preaching of Judas and Silas.

Whenever the church begins to grow stronger and closer then the enemy is not far away trying to bring strife and discord. As the Antioch church grows numerically, spiritually and in fellowship the enemy tries to thwart and stop their growth. Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch teaching and preaching after the Jerusalem delegation returned home. “After some days,” Paul suggests to Barnabas that they go and visit the churches they had previously established in Antioch of Pisidia and the surrounding region. I’m certain that he wanted to check on them, encourage and teach them and share the letter from the Jerusalem church with them.

As you may remember, Barnabas and Paul had taken John Mark with them on the previous trip. However, Mark turned back and abandoned the work when they arrived in the port town of Perga in Pamphylia (see Acts 13:13). While we aren’t told why Mark turned back, it seems apparent that Paul still harbored some lingering animosity towards Mark regarding the situation. However, Barnabas wants to bring him along and give him a chance to redeem himself. Both men are incredible spiritual leaders and had just been teaching the Antioch church about God’s grace, love and the fellowship they enjoy with the other brothers through the unifying work of God’s Spirit. Now, they are so angry with one another that they split up and go different directions. Barnabas takes Mark and sails to Cyprus while Paul takes Silas and heads back to Perga, Lystra, Derbe and Pisidian Antioch.

One step forward, two steps back.

We often place our spiritual mentors and leaders on a pedestal. While it is certainly appropriate to place Christ there, it is inappropriate and dangerous to place others there. No matter how hard they work, how godly they are, how diligent they work at guarding their hearts, they will always fail to live up to the standard of perfection we expect from them and they will, at some point, fall from that pedestal of perfection. After all, they are frail and sinful men just as we are. While I am not trying to make excuses for personal failure, I am trying to remind you that we all do fail.

Excuses? No. Forgiveness and grace? Absolutely.

In the past, I’ve attempted to determine who was right and who was wrong in this situation. We often try and place blame. However, when we try and place blame on someone in a situation like this, we may be simply trying to justify our own sinful actions or decisions. No doubt, as Paul and Barnabas separated and went in different directions, one was blaming the other for their anger in this situation. “If he would have just listened to reason…” “If he wasn’t so stubborn and hard headed…” I’ve now come to the realization that Paul and Barnabas were both wrong. How can I be so sure? Easy. Listen to Luke’s description, “there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.” Two incredible leaders who had just been teaching the church about unity despite differences are now in “sharp disagreement” and “separated from each other.”

Let me end with an observation and lesson regarding Paul and Barnabas’ disagreement and separation. As I mentioned above, I believe they were both at fault in this situation. Some like to point out that this disagreement between Paul and Barnabas resulted in two missionary teams going to different areas. Some have even suggested that this was God’s design and purpose. Let me state emphatically, God can redeem these circumstances and bring good out of the bad but He did NOT intend for Paul and Barnabas to contradict the very things they had just taught and part ways in anger.

“For God is not a God of confusion but of peace…” (1 Corinthians 14:33a ESV)

“Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” (2 Corinthians 13:11 ESV)

What does this mean for you and me? Two Lessons: 1) We should avoid spiritual hypocrisy by living and acting in a manner consistent with what we say we believe; 2) God is even able to redeem our failures for His glory when we fail in keeping #1.

While I don’t believe it was God’s will that Paul and Barnabas separate over this sharp disagreement regarding John Mark, I know God was able to redeem the situation and use both teams. He was even able to redeem John Mark and reunite him with Paul. While we do not have any evidence that Paul and Barnabas participated in another trip together, we do have evidence that Paul discovered the value in John Mark. Listen to Paul’s admonition to Timothy late in his life:

“Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:11 ESV)

So, let me encourage you to see the potential in others even when they may have failed at some point. God’s grace is powerful, effective and quite capable of redeeming those of us who have failed Him miserably. And if you find yourself in Mark’s shoes, repent, seek restoration and remember that God is able to redeem even the worst of us. Just ask Paul…

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15 ESV)

Lesson Note: Some of you may have noticed that verse 24 is missing in the passage above. The missing verse is not in the oldest manuscripts of Acts, so it is omitted by many of the new translations. While the information in that missing verse (that Silas remained in Antioch) appears to be entirely accurate, based on subsequent verses, it is omitted in newer translations to preserve the historical accuracy of the text.

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