Debates and Differences.
Joshua 19-20, Acts 15
But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” – Acts 15:5 ESV
We can never escape the reality that God has chosen to accomplish His plan through flawed and fallible men. The fall left the human race ill-equipped to accomplish the will of God. Sin entered into the world and created an atmosphere where rebellion and dissension flourished and every man tended to do what was right in his own eyes. Selfishness and self-centeredness reigned. Disagreements and disunity ran rampant. And even among the Jewish people, chosen by God as His special possession, the tendency was for them to live in a constant state of disagreement with one another and disloyalty to God. In spite of their special relationship with God, they would find themselves committing sins against Him and one another. Which is one of the reasons God commanded Moses to establish cities of refuge. These six designated cities were designed to provide sanctuary for those guilty of unpremeditated murder. The fact was that, even among the people of God, murder would be a sad reality. Disunity and disagreements would exist and, at times, they could end up in one brother taking the life of another. Sin was a constant reality among the people of God and it still is. Even during the early days of the church, there were disputes and disagreements. And while we might want to look back on those days with a certain sense of nostalgia, believing them to have been idyllic and trouble-free, the Scriptures reveal that, even then, the presence of man’s selfishness and self-centeredness was readily apparent.
What does this passage reveal about God?
The spread of the gospel is all the more amazing when you consider that God accomplished it through the means of men. One of His primary instruments was a former professional bounty hunter who was well-known for his relentless persecution of the church. Another was a man who, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, had denied that he even knew Him three different times. God used ordinary men and women to spread the message of salvation throughout the world. He used the educated and the uneducated, the rich and the poor. He even used the hatred of men in the form of persecution to force the dispersement of His people throughout the known world at that time. God knew that His messengers were flawed and, while filled with the Holy Spirit, were still going to continue to wrestle with their sin natures. The flaws, weaknesses, and self-centered natures of men don’t surprise God. In fact, God’s power is best displayed through man’s weaknesses. God uses and blesses us in spite of us. And while we might long for a day when there are no more disputes and disagreements among us, God seems to want to use those inevitable moments of friction to force us to turn to Him and to seek His will. Our propensity toward conflict should always drive us to Him for wisdom and direction. Left to our own devices, we will always lean towards selfishness and allow sin to taint our decision making.
What does this passage reveal about man?
As God’s divine plan for the spread of the gospel unfolded, it was inevitable that man’s warped sense of understanding would get in the way. For generations, the Jews had seen themselves as the apple of God’s eye. They were the chosen ones. Their special relationship with God had left them with an elitist mentality that caused them to look down on every other people group. And interestingly enough, during the early days of the church, because it was birthed in the city of Jerusalem, many of the early converts were Jews. These individuals would tend to see salvation through the lens of their Jewish heritage and religious system. They would see Jesus as their Messiah and as an extension of their existing faith in Yahweh. They were not prepared for the fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ was available to any and all, Jew and Gentile alike. And even when they began to realize that God was opening up His Kingdom to include Gentiles, they couldn’t help but believe that the salvation of these outsiders would be incomplete and insufficient until they became fully practicing Jewish converts, following the rites and rituals of the Hebrew religion, including circumcision. It seemed that everywhere Paul went, he was confronted by Jewish believers who were demanding that all Gentile converts be circumcised according to the custom of Moses, or else they couldn’t be saved. This stipulation was unacceptable to Paul. But there was enough backing among many of the Jewish Christians that it led to “no small dissension and debate” (Acts 15:2 ESV). So Paul and Barnabas had to make their way to the church in Jerusalem for a special conference at which this matter would be debated and discussed. There “some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses‘” (Acts 15:5 ESV). This was followed by much debate. Speeches were given. Opinions were shared. But ultimately, they looked for what God was doing in and among them. They searched the Scriptures for insight. And, in spite of their initial differences, they came to a God-honoring solution. They put their differences aside and sought what God would have them do.
How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?
It is interesting to note that even after this special conference yielded a satisfactory solution, Paul and Barnabas ended up having a “sharp disagreement” over whether or not to include John Mark on their next missionary journey. Barnabas wanted to take him with them. Paul refused, noting that John Mark had abandoned them on their first missionary journey. Paul was unwilling to take John Mark along, and so he and Barnabas parted ways. There is no indication in the passage that one man was right and the other was wrong. In fact, they seemed to part amicably and God used both parties to accomplish great things for the Kingdom of God. Their disagreement and decision to part ways was actually used by God to further the spread of the gospel. And Paul’s opinion of John Mark would change in time (Colossians 4:10; Philemon; 2 Timothy 4:11). Disagreement is not always sinful. The key seems to be that both Paul and Barnabas were seeking to do the will of God. Barnabas, a man known for his encouraging character, was willing to extend grace to John Mark. He did not deny John Mark’s actions on that first missionary journey, but he was willing to offer him a second chance. Paul, ever zealous for the cause of Christ, was more prone to see things in a black and white manner, wanted John Mark to understand the magnitude of his actions. Interestingly enough, Paul’s strong personality was the very thing that God used to spread the gospel so effectively in those early years. But over time, Paul’s nature would soften and his zeal would become tempered by a growing understanding of God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness. His later letters are evidence of the slow, steady maturing process that took place in his life over time.
As we live life on this planet, we must be prepared for the inevitable disagreements and disputes that will arise among us as believers. They are going to happen. But we must always seek to do what God would have us do. We must be willing to discuss them openly and honestly. We must seek God’s will over our own. We must search His Word for what His will might be. And we must always remember that He is going to accomplish His plan with us, but also in spite of us. God longs for our unity. Jesus prayed for it in the garden the night before He was crucified. But God also knows that unity is impossible in the flesh. We must listen and submit to His Spirit. We must die to our own selfish desires and be willing to seek His will at all costs. Even if it means letting go of what we believe is best and allowing Him to do what He wants to do.
Father, give me a growing desire to see Your will done, not my own. Help me not let pride, selfishness and my own worldly views get in the way of what You are doing. I want to do what You would have me do. Give me the ability to let go of my own agenda at times and allow you to speak through others. May we always seek unity and allow You to guide our decision making. May Your will be our will. Amen
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men