So often when conflict arises there are times when we need to ‘agree to disagree’ but there are other times when we simply can’t. It's not like there was no conflict in the early church, one of the things I love about the bible is that it won't pretend, it’s 'a warts and all' story. In this midsection, in the book of Acts, we have two major conflicts recorded for all to read. One that needed to happen and the other one unfortunately often happens. One was a matter of salvation and the other was a matter of wisdom. I'll take the second one first
Question: What is the hardest thing about being a missionary?
It's other missionaries! Paul and Barnabas worked together so beautifully, for so long, and saw so many saved and many churches planted. Then Luke tells us they had a sharp disagreement. It was over whether to take John Mark with them on the 2nd missionary trip. You can imagine Barnabas, the son of encouragement, telling Paul “We must take him, sure he bailed on us, but don’t we believe in grace and hey he is my cousin” Paul said “No way Barnie! The gospel is too important and if he was not faithful in small things we cant give him big things.” Notice the solution, they agreed to disagree. This was a wisdom call.
We are not clear who was right. We are clear it didn't stop either of them preaching the good news of our Lord Jesus.
It's important to learn when to ‘agree to disagree.’ Don’t be an idealist! Conflict happens in the church! I've seen godly men who are good friends, who love Jesus and join the same church staff, and in 6 months one resigns.
Paul never lost respect for Barnabas but on this one, they went their separate ways and didn’t lose sight of the gospel.
The other conflict was not one you could ‘agree to disagree’
It is the most important conflict that has ever been waged. Certain men from Jerusalem came to the beautiful multiethnic church in Antioch to tell non-Jews that they were not true Christians
The Issue: Salvation by Works or Grace.
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.” ~Acts 15:1 (NIV)
You can take the man out of Pharisee but it's hard to take the Pharisee out of the man. If these teachers were right then the church of Antioch was not a true church and all non-Jews had to become Jews to be saved. This would have meant that the Gospel is no longer good news.
Faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone.
Right now unvaccinated people are having their privileges stripped from them. Unless you are vaccinated you can't keep your job. It has created tremendous pressure. How much more is it to say to non-Jews, you can't be saved unless you’re circumcised.
At one level we can understand how the issue of circumcision arose. God nearly killed Moses for not circumcising his 2 sons and it was quick thinking by his wife that saved him from death.
Circumcision was the God-given sign that you belonged to God's people. Everything was at stake.
We have all experienced someone coming along and denying our salvation. Unless you have this spiritual gift, belong to that particular church then you are not going to heaven.
I was offered $10,000 to sack a student minister, by their mother, because she wanted them to come back to her church. She was convinced that unless he went to church on Saturday he could not go to heaven.
Paul and Barnabas immediately take on the false teachers.
This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. ~Acts 15:2 (NIV)
The language is strong because this is the most important issue the church has ever had to face. This was so important that they went to the apostles in Jerusalem to sort it out. The process is all done in a gracious, clear, public, ordered and emphatic way.
How is this matter to be cleared up? What is interesting is this - they do not go to the Prophets for an answer as in the Old Testament. NO! There is no word of knowledge, no word of wisdom. The Apostles and Elders gathered and a passionate debate takes place among the leaders. This is the first Church Council and it would not be the last - the Council of Nicea 325 dealt with Jesus being truly God. What is interesting is that in a Church so Spirit-filled, led by Apostles who were still alive, the right thing to do was to have a debate among the leadership with bibles open.
When you see churches debating issues, like the Anglican Synod (Parliament), don't lament that the church is divided, this is the way things have always been done, so pray that the right decision is made. So pray for your Synod Reps: David and Pat Jackson.
After much debate, three people speak, Peter Paul and James. They all point to what God has done. Peter affirms that God chose him to preach the gospel to the Nations. He saw how God poured his Holy Spirit on these believing non-Jews just as he did to Jews in Pentecost. In other words, God makes no distinction between them and us, between non-Jews and Jews. Their hearts were cleansed not by the law of Moses but by faith in Lord Jesus. So to place them back under the law would be to test God not trust God. God made them Spirit-filled Christians not by circumcision but by faith in his Son.
Peter makes the side point - let's face it, we Jews couldn't carry the load of the law and its 613 commandments, so why lay it on the non-Jewish Christians. Then the clincher.
No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” ~Acts 15:11 (NIV)
We are all saved in the same way as they are, by grace and not by law, through Faith alone in Christ and not works of the law, by what Christ has done not what I do. This is the issue that is forever being fought over throughout the church. This is the issue that is being fought in every heart. God accepts me, not on the quality of my performance but on the perfect performance of Christ's life, death, and resurrection. Christ loves me no more on my good days, He loves no less on my bad days. To trust Jesus, I need to stop trusting in my good works.
There was once a TV ad with the two boys in the hospital waiting room, they both had their hands stuck in the cookie jar. They could not pull their hands out unless they let the cookie go!
Let's be clear, we are not to stop doing good works but stop trusting them and cling to Jesus. We are not yoked to the Law we are yoked to Jesus, our identity is not tied to religious symbols but to our relationship with Jesus.
So first Peter then comes Paul and Barnabas and their point is simple.
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. ~Acts 15:12 (NIV)
If Peter witnessed the conversion of the nations and the gift of the Spirit, then Paul witnessed the signs of wonders among the Nations, again making the point: What God did among them he did among us. There is no ‘us and them’ Signs and wonders are used to not only prove that Jesus is alive and Lord but also show that nations are in.
God has gone to a lot of effort to show us once and for all that you and I are saved by grace and are part of God's people.
Finally, James, the Lord's half-brother speaks. It should not surprise us that the nations are included, because God had predicted it.
Acts 15:15-18 he quotes Amos 9
The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: “‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’—things known from long ago. ~Acts 15:15-18 (NIV)
It wasn’t a new idea, the Bible always said God's remnant will include the nations who call on God's name. It's not for those who bear the mark of circumcision but bear the name of God.
On this one, we are not going to ‘agree to disagree’
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. ~Acts 15:19 (NIV)
There is no Jesus plus Christianity
There is no faith plus works gospel
There is no mixing of Grace and law good news
If this battle had not been fought and won then it's not just that we would have to book every new Christian to see a doctor to be circumcised, it means that Jesus' death might as well have never happened. Paul says that if righteousness could be gained by the Law then Christ died for nothing.
We steal God's glory when we don’t rely on the finished work of Christ. Christianity would be as useless as every other religion
The writer C.S. Lewis once came late to a conference and he asked the ministers what they were discussing? They said “What is unique about Christianity compared to every other religion?” He said “That is easy, Grace”
500 years ago bishops, priests, nuns, and ordinary laypeople left the Catholic church. Why? The church stopped preaching that we are saved by faith alone in Christ, alone by grace alone.
With the gospel of grace comes freedom, true freedom is given to serve others.
James then asks only that the Non-Jews abstain from 4 things.
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. ~Acts 15: 20 (NIV)
But Jesus had declared all food clean, Christians are not under the law of Moses, so why ask them to limit their freedom?
For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath. ~Acts 15:21 (NIV)
You’re free to eat but don’t use your freedom to harm others. Let the truth of the gospel set you free but let it set you free to serve your fellow Jewish Christians. Let love limit your liberty.
Not every Christians get this!
In the last couple of weeks, I heard two lovely stories. One person chose to not get vaccinated because they loved their spouse who was strongly vaccine-hesitant. I know another person who has strong concerns about vaccination who got vaccinated because they wanted to teach Scripture in schools.
In both cases, they made love for spouse and the lost, their highest value. Grasping grace sets you free to love and love sends us in all sorts of directions
Luther said, Paul was hard on the gospel and soft on love, he would not allow the false teachers to demand circumcision,
He would not ‘agree to disagree’ This was the time to be nonnegotiable! But when he took Timothy on his mission trip, he asked him to get circumcised, Why? So that the Jews could hear the gospel from Timothy.
John Newton said Paul was like an Iron pillar on essentials and like a reed in nonessentials. Let's pray for wisdom to know the difference.