Covenants and Quarrels (Acts 15)
When asked about pre-marital counseling, I pose one important question to engaged couples: “tell me about your first fight.” The only truly disappointing answer is “we haven’t ever had an argument.” Without the story of a first argument, (even if it’s over what type of pizza to order) it is hard to see how genuine the relationship and love is between a couple.
The absence of quarreling is not of itself the sign of a healthy marriage – more important is the story of how a couple recovered from the quarrel and became stronger. That reveals much that is good.
There is the assumption that the church should never quarrel or argue. This assumption can lead to anxiety when people even suppose there might be some sort of church argument.
• The avoidance of arguing and quarreling at church may be so strong that the church members suppress their true feelings or agree to anything even if they have real concerns.
• They may avoid doing anything that could potentially upset others (phantom worrying).
• They may gossip and murmur because they will not take responsibility for their opinions and feelings. They may regard gossip as a way to avoid controversy.
The church is much more than an organization with a policy manual to be interpreted strictly. The church is a living breathing organism. It is a whole with many parts. It is a physical group of real people with spiritual gifts existing in a spiritual connection with God, Christ, and one another.
This means that the church has resources that no other group has. The church has unique resources…
1. Jesus taught us how to manage quarrels and disagreement (Matt 18).
2. Acts 15 teaches us how a spiritually empowered church faced disagreements and how the church became stronger. It was their first fight. And they came through it stronger.
The absence of quarreling is not the sign of a healthy church…more important is how they have the argument and how they become greater because of it.
The Antioch Controversy — The nature of the argument
A group of disciples from Judea visited the predominantly Gentile church in Antioch. They teach the Gentiles that they must keep the covenants of Abraham and Moses, otherwise they will not be among the saved. They will not be included in God’s chosen people.
These Judean believers are Jews, but they follow Christ as Messiah. They are not prejudiced or opposed to the Gentiles being included in the church; they are only convicted that these Gentile converts ought to keep the covenants.
Yet Paul and Barnabas, who are also Jews and followers of Christ, disagree. They are convinced that a Gentile does not have to become a Jew to follow Christ. They have seen the Gentiles like Sergius Paulus and the pagans in Lystra become Christian. They consider it inappropriate and burdensome to force the Gentiles to accept the heritage and practices of Judaism in order to be saved.
So the matter is taken to the apostles in Jerusalem. Along the way they tell the Phoenicians and Samaritans about the Gentiles coming into the kingdom, and the news is met with rejoicing.
The Jerusalem Solution
At Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas meet with leaders in the Christian movement. Peter is there. There are Pharisee converts present. The purpose of this group is to discern what God’s will is on the matter. Both sides have a point to make…
Luke shows us how the decision is ultimately made and it involves three ways of determining what God intends . . .
Peter had Vision – Peter had a vision on the rooftop of Simon the Tanner’s home. God told him not to call anything that he had created unclean. Peter fussed with God a bit, but he eventually saw things in a new way. Later, Peter witnessed Cornelius, a Gentile, and his family receive the Holy Spirit.
Vision could be interpreted as revelation and insight. Have you ever seen someone show the ability to see a situation with great insight? They may do it often, or just once. We might consider that a spiritual gift.
It would be too simple for us to dismiss Peter’s vision as some sort of miraculous event that could never be duplicated. Whatever the means or method, vision and insight are valuable resources for discerning God’s will. But isn’t it dangerous to assume that anyone’s whim or stray thought might be vision? Consider that Peter’s miraculous revelation alone isn’t enough for the church to plot its course or make a difficult decision. If it were, Peter could just walk in and say “I had a vision” and that’s the trump card. This isn’t the type of fortune-telling that puts someone on a pedestal or gives them a position that cannot be argued. Peter’s revelation was in the first place personal. It communicated to him what he had to change. He offered it to the group for interpretation. Peter actually comes off as reluctant, maybe even dense, in the story of his rooftop revelation. Peter shares his experience (probably that of Acts 10) in which he witnessed the Holy Spirit’s approval of Cornelius and family.
Paul and Barnabas had Experience – They are witnesses as is Peter. They have been worshiping with the Gentiles. They know the cultures. They were set apart by the Holy Spirit to preach to the Gentiles. They’ve seen the change. They even told the Samaritans about it. They have seen the salvation of Gentiles, and they know that God approves of it without any prerequisite to keep the covenants of Abraham and Moses.
James interprets Scripture – This James may very well be the brother of Jesus Christ, a son of Joseph and Mary. He is also perhaps the author of the Epistle of James. But what matters here is that he’s a leader in the church in Jerusalem. His experience is different than that of Paul, Barnabas and Peter. He worships mostly with Jews who follow the Messiah. But James brings a third perspective into this – Scripture. He quotes from Amos 9 and Isa. 45. These Scriptures witness to the credibility of what Peter saw and what Paul and Barnabas experienced. James is saying that Scripture, the vision, and the experiences of Paul and Barnabas fit with God’s ancient intentions . . .
‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
from its ruins I will rebuild it,
and I will set it up,
so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—
even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.’
These three sources at work in the dialogue and prayers of the church will keep the church in step with the Holy Spirit and help it overcome the fear and discouragement of disagreement. And it preserves the church from treating traditions as idols. Instead, tradition informs them but they remain open to the new works of God.
They arrive at a solution that is good. Why is it good? Because it is God’s decision, not their own. They submitted themselves to God’s will and actions and not their own prejudice and understanding. And whatever part of the decision they do own, is meant to keep the church in step with the spirit.
Notice that when the letter from Jerusalem is sent out, the writers state that The Holy Spirit decided and then the leaders in Jerusalem follow in step. In 15:28, the language of the letter is: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements…”
Note: The Holman Christian Standard Bible translates 15:28 as “For it was the Holy Spirit’s decision—and ours—to put no greater burden on you than these necessary things:”
Sometimes the church has to learn how to have a GOOD argument in order to arrive at a GOOD decision – the Holy Spirit, Scripture and the humility of the church are important to both.
But before we conclude, let’s note that one quarrel within the church has been overcome; yet, there is another quarrel. This one concerns two of the individuals who stood side by side in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas intend to return to the mission work and yet they have a disagreement over taking John Mark. Paul thinks that John Mark abandoned them. Barnabas wants to give him a second chance. The disagreement is so serious that they part company.
There’s a certain grief we ought to feel at the break-up of these friends. They went through so much together and accomplished great things in God’s name:
• Barnabas was the first to welcome Saul/Paul – he gave him a second chance. (So why couldn’t Paul give John Mark a second chance?)
• They faced down a wizard in Cyprus and saw the conversion of a high ranking official.
• They established churches in faraway places, to the ends of the earth.
• They were mistaken for Greek gods.
• They narrowly escaped being martyred for their message.
It’s a heartbreaking loss and it seems like they could have reached a compromise. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? We tend to side with Paul. He and Silas did have the blessing of the congregation. But then Paul should trust Barnabas’ instincts to give John Mark a second chance.
Luke doesn’t take sides. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t matter or it isn’t clear. We miss the point if we put the emphasis on which one was right. The message is that God’s covenant and his Holy Spirit is greater than our quarrels and our tendency to get it all wrong.
• In 1 Cor. 9:6, Paul mentions Barnabas. This is most likely a comment that comes after the dispute. It shows that Barnabas is still involved in the mission even if he and Paul have gone their separate ways.
• In 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul writes, “Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you; for he is very useful in serving me.” Either John Mark has grown so that Paul now trusts him, or Paul is admitting that he misjudged John Mark. Either way, it teaches us that the apostles are faithful, not infallible. They trust in a God without error despite their ability to foul up. And God overcomes it all!
Agreement and Disagreement
1. Sometimes we are wrong – The Pharisee believers were wrong – not condemned – just wrong on this issue. Paul or Barnabas or both of them were wrong in their dispute with one another. But being wrong is not the unforgivable sin. Not if we are striving to keep in step with the Holy Spirit. God will show us the truth.
2. Some disagreements end in separation – Some end in unity. But the kingdom of God and the work of the Holy Spirit prevail. If we are going to have a GOOD decision, then we need a GOOD argument. It may be that Paul and Barnabas did not have a GOOD argument. But even in their case, the Spirit of God prevails.
3. We need to read Scripture with the Spirit. We have a lot of sympathy for James quoting Scripture to make a point. But even that alone would not have been enough. James says that Simon Peter’s insight is vital to making sense of what is written. We need to read the word of God as living and convicting and not as a dead and boring policy manual on how to set up an institutional franchise of “Church of Christ, Inc.”
When moments of controversy, quarrelling, or just simple questioning come upon us, let us turn first to the resources of the Holy Spirit that God has given us. Let’s seek the benefits of vision, experience and Scripture. Let’s dedicate ourselves to following the leadership of God and Christ and affirm our love for one another in the Spirit. Along the way it is okay for us to have some GOOD arguments. But let’s be humble as we seek the decision that the Holy Spirit has made. And when it is over, I am sure that the conclusion will seem GOOD to all of us.