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Unity in Christ

Last Sunday we learned some valuable lessons from the church in Antioch in how to deal with controversies and conflicts within the church. As you recall, there was one group of believers who believed and taught that Gentile Christians must be circumcised and follow the law of Moses like the Jews in order to be truly saved. But there was another group of believers – which included Paul & Barnabas – who believed and taught that faith in Jesus Christ was the only requirement for salvation – for both the gentiles and the Jews.

Because this issue was of such great importance – having eternal ramifications – the church in Antioch took this issue to the church in Jerusalem to seek the wisdom and guidance of the Apostles and elders there. To make a long story short, after much debate and at the leading of the Holy Spirit and following the counsel of Scripture, the decision was made that the Gentile believers did not have to become like the Jews to be saved. But rather, they affirmed that we are all saved the same way – by the undeserved grace of God. Jesus Christ did all that was necessary for our salvation – we simply need to believe and accept!

So with that issue settled, you might expect the church in Antioch to enjoy a long period of peace and unity. But unfortunately that was not the case. Even after seeing such a great example of conflict resolution within the church, Paul & Barnabas of all people – have a bit of a falling out. They have – what the Bible describes as a “sharp disagreement” and in the end, they wind up going separate ways. It seems to be a very different outcome compared to last week’s conflict which ended with everyone being in complete agreement.

Which makes us wonder – if the whole church can come together and arrive at a unified decision on such a terribly controversial issue – then why can’t these two key leaders of the church – missionary partners who had served God side by side for years – why can’t they seem to arrived at a unified decision concerning their issues?

Well, that’s what we’re going to look at today. We’ll start at verse 32 – which is still part of the story from last week as Judas & Silas (who are representatives from the church in Jerusalem) spend time encouraging the church in Antioch.

It reads like this:

32 Then Judas and Silas, both being prophets, spoke at length to the believers, encouraging and strengthening their faith. 33 They stayed for a while, and then the believers sent them back to the church in Jerusalem with a blessing of peace. 35 Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch. They and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord there.

36 After some time Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are doing.” 37 Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. 38 But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. 39 Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus. 40 Paul chose Silas, and as he left, the believers entrusted him to the Lord’s gracious care. 41 Then he traveled throughout Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches there.

Acts 15:32-41

So let’s begin first of all, by noticing that verse 34 seems to be missing from this passage. Verse 33 says that Judas and Silas were sent back to Jerusalem. And then it jumps right to verse 35 which says that Paul & Barnabas stayed in Antioch. So what does verse 34 say and why is it missing? Well, it’s just a tiny little verse that says this:

“But Silas decided to stay there.” Acts 15:34

Not exactly an earth-shattering verse, is it? But like most of the other missing verses that we’ve come across in the past, this particular verse is not found in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts that we have and so most scholars agree that verse 34 was not originally written by Luke but was added in later to help make sense of verse 40. 

Verse 40 tells us that Paul chose Silas and left with him on his second missionary journey, but verse 33 told us earlier that the church sent Silas and Judas back to Jerusalem! So this is why verse 34 clarifies – that even though the church sent Judas and Silas back to Jerusalem – in the end, Silas decided to stay in Antioch.

So all things considered, whether we include this verse or not, it really doesn’t change the meaning of the Scripture – it just provides us with some extra clarity for how Silas can be sent back to Jerusalem and still leave with Paul from Antioch for this next journey.

With all that sorted out now, let’s take a look at the actual conflict that comes up. Verse 36 says:

36 After some time Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are doing.”

Acts 15:36

Now this first part is not the conflict. In fact, as we see in the very next verse, Barnabas is in full agreement! They both thought that it would be a great idea to go retrace their last journey and to visit those new believers and the new churches and see how they were doing. This is just really good, practical wisdom!

The process of making disciples doesn’t end when a person accepts Christ as their savior! That’s really more like the beginning. As Jesus said in the great commission:

“…go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” Matthew 28:19-20a

That verse 20 is often the part of discipleship that we miss! We help someone get saved, maybe we even we baptize them, but then we often neglect the lifelong process of teaching them how to obey and truly follow Christ.

It’s kinda like raising kids. Raising kids isn’t just the process of pregnancy and childbirth – it’s the next 18+ years of teaching them how to be responsible adults who can in turn raise responsible adults!

And so this is what Paul is proposing to Barnabas that they do! They want to continue the discipleship process with these new believers – and not just leave them to figure things out for themselves!

And of course, this is something that we need to do as well! As a church, we need to make sure that we’re not just birthing new baby Christians and then leaving them to fend for themselves! We need to be willing to invest years of our lives into teaching them how to follow and obey Christ.

 I’m so thankful for the people who have – and who continue to – invest in my life – helping me become more like Christ. And I’m glad I have opportunity to do that for you. There are a few people here whom I have invested in for a couple decades already! I believe that’s God’s design for the church. We need to be in it for the long-haul – willing to invest time and effort into helping one another know and follow Christ.

And so just as a quick little challenge for you already this early in the sermon, first of all think about the people who have invested into your life – teaching you how to obey all that God has commanded you – maybe your parents, a camp counsellor, a pastor, a mentor, or some of your good friends – think of those people and thank the Lord for them. They are a tremendous treasure!

And then secondly, think of a few people in your life that YOU can invest in. Who do you have in your life right now that you could help as they learn to know and obey the Lord? Are you willing to invest significantly into their lives – even perhaps for the next couple of decades? I read once that we tend to over-estimate what God might do in a year, but we underestimate what God might do in ten. So pray about that and see how God might lead you to invest in someone’s life for perhaps even the next 10 years.

But to get back to the passage at hand, Paul suggests that he and Barnabas go and revisit those new believers from their last journey and see how they were doing.

37 Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. 38 But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. Acts 15:37-38

Now you’ll recall that when Paul and Barnabas had first set out on their original missionary journey, John Mark had gone with them as their assistant. But before they had gotten too far along, John Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem.

And again, we aren’t given the details about why he left, but it’s clear from this verse here that Paul didn’t think it was a very valid reason! Paul felt that John Mark had deserted them and therefore didn’t want him to come along on this trip. But of course, Barnabas, whose nickname was the Son of Encouragement, was more than willing to give John Mark another chance and wanted him come along.

And I think this is where THIS conflict is a bit different from last week’s conflict.

Last week, the conflict in the church was regarding a proper understanding of our salvation. There was a true belief and a false belief. One side was right and the other side was wrong. There was clear evidence from the Scriptures, from the leading of the Holy Spirit, and from what they had all seen God do as to which understanding of salvation was correct. 

And so in a situation like that, a careful and prayerful examination of the evidence by both parties would naturally lead to a unified decision – which is exactly what we saw.

However, that sort of dichotomy isn’t so clear in this conflict between Paul & Barnabas. There wasn’t clearly someone who was in the right and clearly someone who was in the wrong. And in fact, as we read through this passage, the Bible doesn’t ever comment on rightness or the wrongness of those in this situation.

And so I think we need to be careful not to assign blame or to paint either Paul or Barnabas in a negative light, because the Bible doesn’t do either of those. 

The image that the Bible paints for us is not so much one of a clash between right and wrong, but more so a clash of personalities and priorities!

This was not a clash of theological beliefs. Paul & Barnabas had already worked alongside each other for years already – serving the church in Antioch, and then together preaching the Gospel and planting churches throughout south Asia Minor! Together, they had just fought for the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. So they were clearly on the same page theologically!

They believed the same things, but their personalities, how God had individually wired them, and perhaps even the specific type of ministry that God had called each of them to, led to this this clash.

And when you think about it, that certainly makes sense.

Paul, on one had, was called by God to preach the Gospel to kings and to the Gentiles – and God had called him to suffer greatly for the cause of Christ. We know that from Acts 9:15….

15 But the Lord said, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. 16 And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.” Acts 9:15-16

And so God had given Paul the type of personality to accomplish exactly that. He was fiercely zealous, doggedly-determined, and could face any type of hardship or adversary! God had equipped him with the personality he need so that he could boldly go where no man had gone before and preach the Gospel – no matter what the cost! God had matched his personality perfectly for his calling.

The same thing was true for Barnabas. But of course, Barnabas had a slightly different calling than Paul, and so God had given him a different personality! Known as the “Son of Encouragement”, Barnabas had always been the guy to lift others up and to help them along. He was a teacher and a mentor and his calling in life was to build others up. We see that throughout the book of Acts.

The first time we meet Barnabas, he had just sold a field he owned so he could give the money to the needy in the church. Later on, he was the first believer in Jerusalem to trust and accept the newly converted Saul into the church and introduced him to the Apostles. Even later, when Barnabas goes to serve the church in Antioch, he goes and finds Paul who had gone home to Tarsus and brings him along with him. And even when they go out as a missionary team, Barnabas begins as the leader of the team, but over time, he takes on a more supportive role and allows Paul to take the lead.

Throughout all of this you can see Barnabas’ unique personality and calling. And so when it comes now to taking John Mark along with them on this second journey, you can understand why there is such a sharp disagreement between Paul & Barnabas! Both men are determined to carry out their God-given calling – but how they do that in this case is very different.

For Paul, he needed partners who could stand with him in any circumstance – willing to endure any hardship for the sake of Christ. Jail-time, beatings, stoning even… For the sake of the Gospel, they had to be ready to endure it all! And since John Mark had already deserted him once, Paul couldn’t risk the mission by taking him along again! The Gospel was too important!

But for Barnabas, as a teacher and mentor, he just had to use this opportunity to build into the life of young John Mark – he had such potential! To give up on him now, after one little mistake, would be a tragedy! It would be such a terrible dis-service to John Mark and the Kingdom of God – not to help this young man develop into the man that God had called him to be.

And so this is the real conflict.

Both men have deep, personal convictions that taking John Mark or not taking John Mark would be totally incompatible with their calling! In their minds, to change their positions on this issue would be to fall short of what God had called them to do.

And so, both men stood by their convictions and in the end, they determined to part ways. Verse 39 tells us:

39 Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus. 40 Paul chose Silas, and as he left, the believers entrusted him to the Lord’s gracious care. 41 Then he traveled throughout Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches there. Acts 15:39-41

Now because the Bible doesn’t get into the details of exactly how this all played out, we really don’t know whether this was a cordial parting of ways – where they both acknowledged God’s different callings on their lives and therefore choose different paths. Or whether the emotion of this conflict led to bitterness, anger, or hurtful words.

I know my own sinful tendencies would certainly make a sharp disagreement like this very difficult to work through without crossing the line into sin.

But based on the lack of any indication of wrong-doing in this passage, I might conclude that Paul & Barnabas were able to work through this sharp disagreement without creating a huge rift between the two men. And certainly as you read through some of Paul’s later letters, he seems to have no animosity towards Barnabas or John Mark.

In 1 Corinthians he speaks of Barnabas in a very positive light. In Colossians and Philemon – Mark is apparently with Paul and sends his greetings at the end of the letters.

And perhaps the most clear affirmation of Paul’s positive relationship with John Mark is in 2 Timothy 4:11. He writes:

11 Only Luke is with me. Bring Mark with you when you come, for he will be helpful to me in my ministry. 2 Timothy 4:11

So we don’t really get any idea from the Scriptures that this disagreement had severed any relationships – and if it had for time, then these men had since worked hard to restore them. 

And in either case, it’s a great example for us! Either, they disagreed without sinning, or if they did sin, but then later worked to make things right!

And I think that’s a great take-away for us. When we have a conflict with one another, we don’t have to allow that conflict to damage our relationship. It is possible to disagree – and even disagree sharply – and still maintain brotherly love and respect for one another – without crossing the line into sin.

There will be times another brother or sister in Christ will have a deeply rooted conviction that is contrary to a deeply rooted conviction of ours! There will be times when we simply have to agree to disagree.

But that doesn’t mean we need to hold a grudge, to be harsh or unkind to one another, to put up walls in our relationship, or to allow that disagreement to otherwise lead us into sin.

And sometimes, it’s possible that the best solution is to part ways – at least for a time or within a certain context that would require us to be on the exact same page – but there should never be a need to sever the relationship. After all, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. We have an eternity to look forward to together! And really, our ability to disagree and still have a positive relationship with one another should illustrate the kind of agape love that Christ has for us!

In John 13:35 Jesus says:

35 “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” John 13:35

And I don’t think Jesus is talking about the times when it’s easy to love one another – when we’re all enjoying potluck together or playing board games or sitting around the campfire singing kum-ba-ya. No, the real test of our love comes when we have disagreements. Sharp disagreements. Totally different points of view. Completely opposite convictions. That’s when our love for one another is put to the test!

And yes, in our fallen sinful state, there will be times when that test results in failure. Angry words get spoken. Hurtful comments get made. Bitterness is given chance to take root.

But when that happens, we need to be quick to make things right. We can’t let our pride and stubbornness keep us from the peace and unity with that God has called us to. As we read in Ephesians 4:2 last week:

2 Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. 3 Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. 4 For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. Ephesians 4:2-4

Unity doesn’t mean that we are all the same. Because we never will be! God created each one of us to be very different, but despite those differences, we have much in common. We are all children of God, dearly loved by Him, and we have all been called to the same glorious hope for the future! And as the Jerusalem Council determined last week:

“We are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.” Acts 15:11b

That’s why we can be united even when we have such differences! Our unity in Christ is far more important than any differences we might have. 

As we gather this morning to share communion together, we’re reminded of this over and over again.

In a few moments, we’re all going to eat the same bread and drink the same drink – reminding us that we all share in the same salvation! As brothers and sister gathering around the family dinner table, we recognize that we all have the same Heavenly Father – who’s love for us was so great that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to become like one of us, to become human like one us of, and die a criminal’s death on a cross so that we can be forgiven and have eternal life.

Christ’s body was broken for all of us. His blood was spilled for each one of us. We are all saved the same way – by the underserved grace of the Lord Jesus.

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