Threaded through these recent chapters, and Acts 15 in particular, is an embodiment of the human struggle to see ourselves as equal with those who are not like us. The ethnic and religious divide between Jew and Gentile in the first century is not unlike the racial, class and religious tensions that exist in every culture. The majority culture, the keepers of power, are guarded and skeptical by nature of sharing there status with others. This is an impulse that has plagued Christians as much as it plagues every other social group or demorgraphic. The early church leaders got it right ultimately here in Acts 15, but not without serious challenges.
Beware of your impulse to protect your place and keep others from finding theirs. If we are those in positions of power and privilege, God has placed us there to leverage that influence for the benefit of the vulnerable and marginilized, not for the exploitation or exclusion of them.
I love Peter's piercing question in v. 10. "Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" Some of the early Jewish Christians wanted to add circumcision and other demands to repentance and faith as legitimate requirements to be considered in Christ. They promoted a false gospel of Jesus plus certain works as a means to salvation and inclusion in God's family.
And we're all tempted to to do this at times. We all have values and convictions that are core to who we are and how we feel led to live and we're tempted to bind other people by our consciences. Peter's question is essentially an acknolwedgement that for centuries the laws they are trying to burden the Gentile converts with had been a crushing weight to every Jewish generation. It's as if Peter is saying, "we've tried this for hundreds of years and we know it doesn't work. We know we fall short. We know the demand can't produce obedience to the demand. We know the crushing weight of these laws has never empowered any of us. Why would we try to reproduce the pain of our own futility and require something of others that we know that can't achieve?"
Peter gets it. The law tells us what is good and right but it's powerless to produce what it demands. Therefore, the function the law ultimately reveals our weakness, sin and need for a Savior. Peter is hurling himself into the grace of Jesus. The Jewish Christians are hoping in the grace of Jesus. Why wouldn't the solution for sin in Gentiles be the same?
We must resist the urge to slap on culturally conditioned behaviors, disciplines and requirements that obscure the grace of Jesus or steer us away from the grace of Jesus. Our only chance is the grace of Jesus. So let's go all in ourselves on grace, and let's invite and encourage everybody else to do the same.
This passage is really highlighting the reality and challenge that human relationships and differing opinions present to gospel ministry.
First, the church leaders in Jersualem rightly land on strategy to receive and refresh their Gentile brothers and sisters in the Lord. They send a letter of embrace and encouragement but also the respected and influential men from the church to deliver that letter and confirm the authenticity and sincerity of the message. They eagerly and enthusiastically open their hearts to the new Christians, celebrate their conversion and invest considerably in their discipleship.
There is a tone and message of gospel reassurance that is desperately needed among and between followers of Jesus. Rather than heaping demands on them, the commend them to the grace of Jesus and rejoice in their shared faith. The only instructions given emphasize their need to pursue holiness in light of their newfound identity in Christ. They are to thoughtfully abstain from former practices that identify them with the world, in order to live now in the world as those set apart from the world. There remains an urgent and serious need for this kind of pursuit among God's people today.
Second, is the conflict between Paul and Barnabas surrounding John Mark. And I don't want to do all the exploration of and speculation of different details. If we just cnofine ourselves to the text, here's what we know... Paul didn't trust John Mark. Barnabas did. At it's simplest level, Paul felt John Mark proved himself to be unreliable, while Barnabas either felt he was reliable or deserved another chance. And the disagreement was severe and intense.
It was intense enough, in fact, that Paul and Barnabas, these two friends and ministry partners who loved each other and were extraordarily fruitful together found their difference of opinion to be intractable. This was a hill to die on for both of them. What I appreciate is the realism of the Bible. God doesn't cover up this kind of conflict and difficulty. The Bible exposes it. And we simply don't know who was right or wrong.
My guess is, neither was fully right or fully wrong. We love the oversimplification of right and wrong, victim and villain. But relationships are rarely that cut and dried. So we know they were both stubborn enough to not bend on this point. But they, by God's sovereign design and mercy, leveraged it for ministry multiplication. I just want to say this is a great model for how we can use conflict to our advantage.
Unless clear and overt sin is involved, we have to be willing to acknowledge differences and disagree without demonizing each other. And in doing so, we can find ways of separating or diverting that actually advances and extends ministry rather than undermining and sabotaging ministry. There are ways that we can retain a spirit of unity while finding an off ramp to partnering together in such a close way. In fact, It's the burden and responsibility of leaders and Christians, to find ways to move through entrenched conflicts with a determination to multiply ministry wherever possible.
God may often bring us to places of conflict and tension between people to get us to move into areas of ministry that we would otherwise ignore because of familiarity and comfort with existing realities. When conflicts between faithful men and women reach an irreconcilable point, I wonder if it's not usually because God is trying to multiply Kingdom efforts.
One of the most difficult things in walking with Jesus is submission. It's entirely unnatural to submit to God's authority, the authority of His Word, to those he's placed in authority over you, to spiritual authority and even to the desires and needs of others over your own desires and felt needs. Everything in me, and in us, resists authority. Yet this is integral to walking with God. We must embrace his authority and the authority he delegates to people in our lives as legitimate, and be willing to submit our natural will to those God's positioned in authority over us. I say that here because I see to short passages today which are beautiful but unlikely examples of submisssion.
Submission to Spiritual Authority and Christian Community
Timothy is a genuine Christian with a great reputation among the churches mentioned here. He is a faithful man who loves Jesus and is a worthy partner in ministry even for Paul. Timothy is an exemplary young man in his character and faith. Yet, the very thing that some were troubling the Gentiles about, circumcision, and which the church leaders had dismissed as a requirement, is what Timothy willfully submits to.
Understand, Timothy has every right not to go through what would have been a very painful procedure. He had the authority of the apostles in Jerusalem freeing him from this obligation. He had every reason and right not to be circumcised. Yet, here's Paul, who pushed for the Gentiles to be free of this burden and requirement, suggesting that he needs to be circumcised. I can imagine how I may have looked and Paul and gotten angry about the double speak going on... "well you said I'm free from that, Paul. Now you're trying to force me. Which is it?"
What Timothy displays here is a mind boggling submission. He does not have to do this before the Lord. But, Paul seems to think it would help give him more credibility with the Jews he will minister to. And Timothy submits his own will (I assume he wasn't excited about this) to the wisdom of Paul, not because it's required of him, but because it's helpful to others.
This is the mark of real freedom. Freedom isn't really about the asserting of my rights for my good, but the laying down of my rights for the good of others. This is something our culture knows little about. We typically see our freedom as a freedom from authority. We often use the freedom we have as Americans, and as Christians, to retain the right to do what we want. But the biblical idea of freedom, the freedom we have received in Christ, is not the freedom to do what we want, but the freedom to do what is right.
Submission to the Spirit
The second section here demonstrates the attentiveness of Paul's missionary team to the Holy Spirit. We aren't given details obviously, but it is clear that they were seeking the Lord, and listening to His guidance, discerning together the wisdom of the Spirit. And it was the Spirit who forbid them to speak the word in certain places and at certain times. This is a great example of not geting ahead of God's plans. Here they are, ministers of the gospel being prevented by the Spirit from fulfilling their ministering.
It's a great reminder that even as we study and apply the word of God, we must do so with the wisdom of the Spirit of God. Understanding the Scriptures, in other words, does not free us from moment by moment dependence upon the Spirit. We must diligently seek and submit to the SPirit as we faithfully apply the word and walk in obedience to God. Even good, godly thing done in the flesh can end up undermining the work of the Spirit.
Francis Schaeffer was wrote:
"The real problem (in our world and culture) is this: the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, individually or corporately, tending to do the Lord’s work in the power of the flesh rather than the Spirit. The central problem is always in the midst of the people of God, not in the circumstances surrounding them."
I love the collective yieldedness and dialed-in-ness of Paul and his companions to the Spirit, and their willingness to have their plans rearranged by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit will always be faithful to lead us and convict us and direct us, as Jesus promised. The real question is whether we will be surrendered and responsive to the Spirit.
Acts 16 is a very short synopsis of how a church gets planted in a new location or community.
Prayer and Obedience
Paul and his ministry team have followed the directio nof the Holy Spirit to Macedonia, the city of Philippi specifically. And it's clear that they were devoted to prayer. In fact, that was the primary strategy for their ministry it seems. I have no doubt they were culturally aware and sensitive. They were eager learners, and thoughtful about their engagement in each new geographic area, and they were always looking and discerning where they may find open doors for ministry and boldly walking through those doors when they presented themselves.
In this case, it's as they are praying or making prayer a priority that they come across a group of women were there for prayer too. So they start talking to the women, which was culturally uncommon and a little frowned upon. But they engage them with the gospel. And the Holy Spirit opens one woman's heart, Lydia, to receive the good news of Jesus. She is an accomplished woman, of some means because of her business savvy and her conversion opens the door to her household who all come to believe and are baptized.
Then, again on their way to prayer, Paul and the rest are confronted by a girl who is under oppression from a demonic spirit. This keeps happening day after day, and you can imagine Paul, as they pray together is wrestling with how to respond to the opposition of this spirit, through the young girl. Eventually, he responds boldly in the Spirit to the demonic harrassment, causing the demon to leave the girl. The trouble was that the demonic power was teh source of her divination which was a considerable means of income for people who were using her for their own gain. And now, Paul and Silas have essentially killed their business.
The response is accuse Paul and Silas of stirring things up and causing a raucus which gets them a beating and imprisonment. We leave off in the text there for today. And really this is all just a description of what happens, not a prescription for how we plant churches. We don't all go to jail first, thank God.
But, the pattern we see is a bold confrontation with demonic forces and cultural idolatry that arrests the attention of the power brokers as well as the ordinary citizens. There is no more universal idolatry than money, so discerning and confronting demonic influences is a must. But also being willing to challenge the normative and accepted practices which people questionably or unethically employ to gain and protect their economic status, is a real need. The Gospel and the Kingdom are not friendly to existing wordly systems and structures. We should not expect to plant churches in communities by befriending everyone and affirming or celebrating everything. There are cultural things which the Gospel and Kingdom expose, confront and undermine.
We should expect spiritual warfare, cultural pressure, and even governmental opposition at times. We will rarely see the power of the gospel without first displaying the beauty of the gospel. And it's often in the face of conflict, pressure and opposition that we have the best opportunities to embody the beauty of the gospel. So, God, in his sovereignty has ordained hardship and persecution here for Paul and Silas, to draw greater attention to the gospel and to give greater credibility to the gospel.
- What is the role of prayer in your life right now? What if you started praying every day, not for your felt needs only, though that's fine... but what if you started praying every day, kingdom oriented, expectant prayers. For example, start praying each day, "Father, I know you want to use me as an ambassador of Christ. So please fill me with your Spirit, and lead me by your Spirit, to be aware of open doors through which I can humbly and boldly represent you in serving others, listening to them, encouraging them, testifying about you to them, or praying with them and for them."
I love seeing Paul and Silas' joy, graciousness and love for people coexist with their resilience, toughness and doggedness. He is singing hymns to the Lord, worshipping Jesus, after being brutally beaten and while wrongfully sitting in prison. They have the meekness and humility to endure their persecution and suffering while remaining full of the spirit. And yet when it come time to leave, Paul will not go while there are legal battles to win and public opinion to sway. It's an interesting example for those of us who are always inclined to let things go and just be peacable and non-confrontational. Paul is determined to confront his persecutors, and make every effort to see them held accountable for their unlawful actions.
And in between Paul witnesses to his jailer and sees his whole household converted and baptized. So there's lots happening here. We have God's intervention to free Paul and Silas... their gospel opportunism, saving the soldier's life and then seeing the Spirit save his soul... then they are freed legitimately, but refuse to go. And before it's all over they Roman rulers are apologizing to Christian missionaries for having treated them so horribly. God is supernaturally and powerfully invading their lives in ridiculous ways.
Just don't miss that. They are giving themselves to God's mission and making disciples and God's power keeps landing on them. God displays his power in and through those people who make His priorities their priorities. And it's when God's power is joined to God's people laboring for God's purposes that churches are planted and disciples are made.
They get out of jail and return to Lydia. And in just a few days, they've seen a well-off, single woman who owns her own business give her life to Jesus. They cast a spirit out of a demonically oppressed girls, upsetting the business ventures of those using her. And then they get imprisoned and see a Roman guard and his household come to faith. And this is the beginnings of the church in Philippi, to whom Paul would write the letter, Philippians, a few years later. This became a faithful church, that Paul was deeply affectionate toward and greatly encouraged by. And it all started with these three unrelated people, who by God's sovereign design, would be put in positions to hear Christ preached. And for different reasons and under different circumstances, each would receive him...
This is the reason diversity should be found in churches... because the gospel has a way of bringing unlike people together in Jesus, and making them into a new humanity, a new community, a new family. That doesn't happen without challenges, but if we'll give ourselves to it, we can add relational beauty to doctrinal purity, which is what God calls his church to anyway.
- Pray to these ends... pray for God to make us spiritually alert, and situationally adaptable and aware. And pray that he would give us the privilege of open doors to diverse spheres of people who need the gospel and whom God is calling to himself.