Learning to Live in Unity.

22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

30 So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. 33 And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.

36 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” 37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. Acts 15:22-41 ESV

On the night He was betrayed, Jesus spent time in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying to His Father. And one of the topics He covered had to do with was unity:

20 “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. 21 I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” – John 17:20-21 NLT

Jesus knew that one of the greatest challenges to the church, which would form after He left and the Holy Spirit came, was maintaining unity. Jesus was fully aware that His church would eventually be comprised of people from every tribe, nation and tongue. There would be Jews, like His 11 disciples, but there would also be Gentiles, who would bring their pagan mindsets and non-Jewish instincts along with them. The church would become a melting pot made up of people from all walks of life, every conceivable ethnic group, and a wide and disparate array of backgrounds. And while Paul could say, from a theological perspective, that “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NLT), the everyday reality would be quite different. This early in Luke’s chronicle of the life of the church, we have already seen divisions taking place. With the gospel beginning to make its way outside the walls of Jerusalem and beyond the cultural context of Judaism, we have seen the inclusion of Gentiles into the family of God. This exciting, yet somewhat unexpected aspect of God’s redemptive plan, was creating a bit of tension within the church. What had begun as a predominantly Jewish-focused and influenced ministry, had quickly morphed into a much more eclectic and egalitarian movement. And this shift had not taken place without incident or difficulty. Some of the Jewish Christians in Antioch had been Pharisees, just like Paul had been. That means they had a high regard for the Mosaic law. These men had spent their entire adult lives studying, revering, and attempting to keep the law. They were the religious rule-keepers of Judaism. And they would have brought that legalistic mindset with them to their newfound faith in Christ. They didn’t suddenly stop being Pharisees or forget all that they had been taught. So, when they heard the news that Gentiles were coming to faith in Christ, they were shocked that these people were not first being required to convert to Judaism. Their strong pride and belief in the Hebrew nation as the people of God, made it difficult for them to imagine anyone being able to have a relationship with the God of Israel outside the context of the religion of Israel. Therefore, they campaigned aggressively for these Gentile converts to become Jewish proselytes so that their salvation would be complete. This was the whole reason the council had been called together in Jerusalem.

With all the wonderful things taking place in those early days of the church, there were problems and issues that came along with its rapid spread and growing ethnic diversity. It was going to be impossible to bring together all of those people from such diverse backgrounds and not have conflict and disunity as a natural byproduct. Which is exactly why Jesus had asked His Father to bring about unity. It was going to take divine intervention. Men, when left to their own devices, will almost always find reasons to disagree and divide. Even as redeemed individuals, Christians will find that their sin natures lead them to respond to one another in less-than-Christlike ways. James, the half-brother of Jesus addressed this in his letter.

1 What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. – James 4:3 NLT

Paul would have to write a letter to the church in Corinth, dealing with a divisive matter taking place within their local congregation. It all had to do with disagreements over food sacrificed to idols. There were some in the church who knew that there was nothing inherently wrong with eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols, because idols don’t really exist. Now, the whole reason this issue had come up was because, within the pagan religions, there was a practice of taking the animals that had been sacrificed to idosl and selling it in the marketplace. It was high-quality meat. And there were some of the believers in the church in Corinth who, having been saved out of that pagan context, knew that the meat was good and the idols were false, so they saw no reason not to take advantage of this ready supply of high-quality food. But there were others in the church, referred to by Paul as their weaker brothers and sisters, who were new to the faith and who didn’t understand that their former gods were false. They saw the eating of this meat as a way of validating or honoring these gods, so they were appalled at the idea of anyone in the church doing such a thing. And so, a conflict arose. But Paul addressed the issue in fairly simple terms: “Now regarding your question about food that has been offered to idols. Yes, we know that ‘we all have knowledge’ about this issue. But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church” (1 Corinthians 8:1 NLT). There were those who knew that the meat was perfectly fine to eat. They were free to eat and enjoy, because while idols are real, the gods they represent are not. But Paul was going to trump their knowledge of the truth with an appeal to love. It is love that strengthens the church, not our knowledge of right or wrong. Paul went on to elaborate on his thoughts regarding this matter.

So, what about eating meat that has been offered to idols? Well, we all know that an idol is not really a god and that there is only one God.…However, not all believers know this. Some are accustomed to thinking of idols as being real, so when they eat food that has been offered to idols, they think of it as the worship of real gods, and their weak consciences are violated. It’s true that we can’t win God’s approval by what we eat. We don’t lose anything if we don’t eat it, and we don’t gain anything if we do. But you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble. – 1 Corinthians 8:4, 7-9 NLT

Again, love trumps all. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Paul was a huge believer in the rights of the Christian and would fight for the freedoms we have in Christ. But He would also demand that we be willing to die to our rights in order to protect the spiritual well-being of another brother or sister in Christ. Paul’s attitude was fairly simple and straightforward: “So if what I eat causes another believer to sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live—for I don’t want to cause another believer to stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13 NLT).

Unity was going to be an ongoing struggle within the rapidly growing and diversifying church. There were going to be conflicts and disagreements. We even see Barnabas and Paul disagreeing over whether or not to include John Mark on their next missionary journey. If you recall, John Mark had originally traveled with them on their trip to Cyprus. But when Paul and Barnabas had determined to go to Pisidian Antioch, John Mark had left them and returned to Jerusalem. Paul never forgave him for bailing on them. And when Barnabas suggested that they take John Mark with them again, Paul balked at the idea. This disagreement would end up with Paul and Barnabas parting ways and headed two separate directions. But rather than viewing this as a sad and unnecessary outcome, it seems that this was yet another God-ordained and orchestrated event that would result in an expansion of the gospel ministry. Now there were two teams. Paul chose Silas and made his way to Antioch and Cilicia. Barnabas chose John Mark, and returned to Cyprus. God would take what appeared to be a case of disunity and use it to further His Kingdom. Paul and Barnabas couldn’t agree on what to do with John Mark, but they were in complete unity over the need to continue the spread of the gospel. We may not always agree with everyone in the church, but we must never let our disagreements harm the cause of Christ or do damage to the name of Christ.

It was King David who wrote, “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1 ESV). But the members of the early church were going to learn just how difficult it was to pull off that kind of unity. It seems that everything was stacked against them. They were all so different. Their backgrounds were so diverse and life paths, so divergent. But God was choosing them and placing them within His family, making them members of the body of Christ. Their unity was not going to be a byproduct of their shared ethnic identities or inherent similarities. They had none. It was going to be the work of God. He was going to have to unify what was inherently different. And the words of Jesus regarding the unity of a man and a woman in marriage, apply just as well to the God-ordained union of believers within the body of Christ. “Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together” (Mark 10:8-9 NLT).

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson