RPM, Volume 16, Number 29, July 13 to July 19, 2014

Studies in Acts

Acts 15:36-16:5

By Robert Rayburn

Text Comment

v. 36 Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch long enough apparently to ensure that the controversy had been laid to rest. Then they planned a follow-up visit to Galatia and the new churches they had planted on their first missionary tour.

It is worth noting the apostle's ongoing concern for the churches he planted. We might have supposed that a church founded by the Apostle Paul, especially one whose founding involved miracles, would be and would remain sturdy, sound, and full of spiritual vitality. Alas it was not the case, and that fact is a warning to us. God's people, however saved, whatever their privileges may have been, however solid the foundation that was laid at the beginning of a church, require constant care on the part of the ministry and constant vigilance is required of them. Galatians, Corinthians, Colossians were all written to churches near to death after the most wonderful beginnings.

Churches are susceptible to declension in every conceivable way. 1) Doctrinal. Who would have thought that the lessons of the 1920s and 1930s would be so easily forgotten by churches that were formed as a result of those controversies, but they are being forgotten as we speak. Indeed, it is bitterly ironic that it seems as if we could save the publishing houses a great deal of money and simply have them republish the books from that former era, so similar are the arguments, the subjects, the poses being taken. 2) Moral. The world brings a constant pressure to bear and worldliness in all its forms can creep in with scarcely a notice. 3) Spiritual. We all know how quickly our hearts can grow cold and how hard it is to warm them again. The only "safe" church is the church that is always on her guard, always striving to enter in, always fighting the good fight, always increasing in the work of the Lord, always fasting and praying for God's presence and mourning his absence.

Aside — (when was Galatians written) A long dispute about the date of Galatians too complicated to reproduce here. But, the majority of Bible believing scholars and many liberal ones as well have concluded that Galatians was one of the earliest, if not the earliest, writing of the NT and must have been written before the Jerusalem Synod about which we just read in Acts 15. If it had been written after, it is incomprehensible why Paul did not mention the decree of that Synod, as it would have decisively vindicated his position and cut the ground out from under the feet of those who were claiming that Jerusalem was backing them in their judaizing message. So, we place Paul's letter to the Galatian churches — that is the churches he and Barnabas are now planning to revisit — sometime between the time they returned to Antioch from planting those churches and the time they went to Jerusalem for the council.

v. 3 A wonderful example of Paul's balance and his principle of being all things to all men so that he might win them. He would remove offenses and stumbling blocks whenever and however he could. Timothy was half-Jewish. So, circumcising him did not betray the principle of free grace and, while not necessary, did lessen the difficulty for Jewish Christians and potential converts. Titus, on the other hand, was a Gentile on both sides of his family. That was another matter. And on that case Paul could not and would not budge, as we read in Galatians 2:3. For him to be circumcised would betray the gospel, it would be a case of attempting to be justified by the law. As he wrote in Galatians 5:2-4: "Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all [he is speaking to Gentiles]. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace." That is, for a Gentile to be circumcised on the grounds suggested by the judaizers would be to embrace a legalistic understanding of salvation. It is not circumcision that is the problem, but the legalistic motive underlying the practice as it was being taught to these Gentiles. The issue was salvation by works or by grace and to insist on circumcision for Gentiles required a principle of salvation by works.

v. 5 The end of the fourth section of Acts: the fourth of these summary statements, such as we have seen already at 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; and will see again at 19:20 and 28:30-31.

Now, we have before us this evening surely one of the most remarkable passages in the New Testament. This account of the sharp dispute between Paul and Barnabas — who would ever have thought it? A reader of the NT is familiar enough with disputes among Christians (both on the grand scale — Corinth — and the small scale — Euodia and Synteche in Philippians 4:2) and with the damage such division brought in the first generation of Christianity after Pentecost, familiar with the impassioned pleas for unity by Paul and other writers of the NT, their warnings of the danger such bickering poses to the church and its witness. Obviously nothing is so perfectly calculated to undermine gospel work as bickering Christians — for it is a powerful counterpoise to our message of peace and forgiveness. We who proclaim it can't manage it ourselves! Who is going to take us seriously then?

And we are aware, both from the NT and from church history, of the special danger of bickering ministers. It seems to be a favorite strategy of the Devil to put the leaders of the church's work at odds with one another. Even at a time of great spiritual power, this evil seed can be sown and do great damage to the progress of salvation in the hearts of men. You have only to read the history of the Great Awakening to be reminded of that (Read Arnold Dallimore's two volumes on George Whitefield, if you have not yet read them. They will prove the point all too well: both that it happens and what damage it does when ministers fall to fighting among themselves. Sometimes it comes over matters of great consequences — Calvinism vs. Arminianism in the dispute between Whitefield and Wesley, e.g.; but Dallimore will convince you that mixed among the principles are usually other motives as old and as simple as envy and jealousy. You can see even good men succumbing to such a low place that they would rather see souls not saved than that that man, with his views, should get the credit for it, rather not see that church prosper than to see it prosper under him, etc. A window on our sinfulness and how, as Alexander Whyte puts it, "self" is just another name for "sin.")

But, this is different than that.

First we have an apostle and a man who is as near to being an apostle as one can be and still not be one. Both are heroes in Luke's narrative. Both are exemplars of everything that is fine and noble in Christian character.

What is more, they were apparently fast friends. Barnabas, you remember, was the one who believed in Paul, shortly after his conversion, when the other Christians in Jerusalem still suspected that his conversion was a ruse to trap them. And Barnabas had been the one to enlist him in the greater work when, after some years away in Tarsus, he went to get Paul to bring him down to Antioch where there was need of a gifted teacher and organizer. And then, in Acts 13-14, we have read of the trial and triumph that they shared together on that first missionary journey through Cyprus and Galatia. Men who are thought to be Roman gods together, men who are stoned together, men who work miracles together and who found churches together, are not easily parted; so we think.

But a dispute breaks out among them, so sharp that these good men, these great men, these heroic servants of the kingdom of God could not get beyond it, could not resolve it, and parted company on account of it. Barnabas was sure that it was better not to go on another missionary journey with the apostle Paul than cede to Paul's opinion of Mark's fitness for the work. Paul was so unwilling to give Mark another try that he was willing to part company with his best Christian friend and his colleague in ministry rather than give in to Barnabas' viewpoint. We can't believe this!

Did not anyone say to them, "gentlemen, this cannot be allowed to happen!" Didn't someone say to them, "alright, we are putting you in this room by yourselves. Begin with prayer and don't come out until you are ready to go together to Galatia. We don't care what you decide about Mark, but you must not, for the gospel's sake, be parted in this way. I wonder what Mark thought. Did he ever go to his cousin and say, "Barnabas, I can't stand the thought that I would be the cause of a rift between you and Paul, two men whom God has called to do great things in the advancement of the gospel. You go on with Paul without me."

We say, how can this be? And it is made the worse by the fact that Luke makes no effort to explain or to defend or, even, to apportion the blame.

It is hard for us to believe that Paul was at fault. But, Paul is Luke's great hero and he does not come to the Apostle's defense. Some have seen evidence that Barnabas was in the wrong in the fact that this is the last we hear of Barnabas in the NT. He drops out of sight at this point. But, that is making a lot of very little. Barnabas wanted to take Mark along — presumably Mark had repented of his former failure to persevere (on the first journey) — and that sounds like a Christian perspective. Paul felt that Mark was neither able nor willing to do the hard work that would be required of him. We have no evidence that the motives of either man were sullied, each thought his position necessary and correct and best suited to the advantage of the gospel. If later events are any indication Mark had, or would have, more in him, more to his faith and to the ruggedness of his character than Paul saw in him or gave him credit for at this point.

How ironic and unfortunate this all seems in light of the fact that Mark would later be an important member of Paul's entourage (Colossians 4:10) and that, at the very end of his life, in 2 Timothy 4:11, we hear Paul saying to Timothy, "Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry." It almost makes you wonder if Paul didn't go out of his way to reinstate Mark out of a sense that he had misjudged him and done him a disservice years before.

We simply don't have enough information to say who was to blame if one was more than another. And that, no doubt, is from the Holy Spirit, for it makes of this piece of history a lesson with universal application. Several important lessons are to be drawn.

1. First and most immediately, it is a reminder of the nature of the apostles themselves. They were not angels. They were not necessarily even the best Christians who ever lived. They were Christian men with a special calling and with the necessary gifts and graces for that calling. But they remained sinners as we do. No one was more adamant in confessing that fact about himself than Paul (Romans 7:14-25).

2. The necessity of constant vigilance over our relationships. If Paul and Barnabas can have a falling out, how much more you and I. (So often the implication of biblical examples: if David can sin as he did...) Notice too how this problem rose up suddenly and broke the close bond between these two fast friends.

3. A very important application of this history is this: some problems, some divisions, some disputes simply do not submit themselves to simple and immediate resolution. Perhaps sinless men would know how to resolve such problems, but even very good men sometimes cannot find the way to do so.

The Scripture says, "do not let the sun go down on your wrath [Ephesians 4:26]" and, also, "if you know that your brother has something against you, go, leave your gift at the altar and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift [Matthew 5:23]." But, it also says, "insofar as it depends upon you live at peace with all men." And we know that Paul could not avoid any number of conflicts during the years of his ministry simply because of his fidelity to the truth of God. And we know of cases, all of us do, where people are adamant without reason. As Calvin once wrote to the Duke of Somerset, "It is quite true that we ought to bear with the weak; but in order to strengthen them and to lead them to greater perfection. That does not mean, however, that we are to humour blockheads who wish for this or that, without knowing why." [Letters, pb. ed., ad loc.] In other cases, too, a way forward simply can't be found. And, it remains a fact, wearyingly confirmed in church history, that the great men and women of the church, its pioneers and geniuses and bravest and most daring warriors were, in many cases, very difficult to live with, to get along with, even to like. Not always by any means, but often enough. Mary Slessor of Calabar, the Scottish woman missionary to Africa was a great woman who did a great gospel work, but it is no secret that she was eccentric and trying to her colleagues. She was a loner; she found it difficult to function as part of a team. Dr. Eleanor Soltau, who died just a few weeks ago, after decades of wonderful medical ministry in Jordan, was a woman who knew her own mind. Shortly after joining and receiving in 1982, when the RPCES became part of the PCA and our own WPM was absorbed into MTW, she dumped MTW and hooked up with another mission board because she didn't like some of the things MTW was asking of her. So she told them to take a hike. I have no idea what the rights and wrongs of that situation were, I don't care to know, but I bet there were good intentions on both sides.

A better example still, for it concerns men of the stature of Barnabas and Saul is the conflict that divided Covenanters from one another in the late 1640s and early 1650s. It concerned the action of the General Assembly to allow people who had not shown themselves true to the Reformation during the recent troubles to be restored to positions of authority in the State, even people who had been openly hostile to the religious covenants upon which the Scottish Reformation was based. This was thought the height of foolishness by many including Samuel Rutherford. To allow enemies of the Reformation back into power, they argued, the church was conspiring to murder itself — which, in fact, is exactly what happened in ten years time. But there were many good men on the other side, including some of Rutherford's best and closest friends, Robert Blair and David Dickson. These men argued that the other side was too obstinate and that they might turn foes into friends with a more conciliatory attitude. Once in a service at which all three were present Rutherford refused when David Dickson asked him to participate with them in the administration of the Lord's Supper. It was a dismal time for many friends who found themselves on opposite sides of an argument that was too important to ignore and impossible to resolve.

Gregory the First, Gregory the Great of Gregorian Chant fame, wrote:

The holy church corrects certain things with fervor, she tolerates others with meekness, she closes her eyes on still others and bears them with reflective attention. [Christian Spirituality, vol. 1, p. 485]

4. And that leads us to the fourth application, viz. that in certain cases one must simply go on, while doing what one can to alleviate tension and to reduce the unwelcome consequences of a division. Paul and Barnabas simply separate and go on about their work instead of insisting on a solution that was not possible in the present state of affairs. Whitefield did the same. He could neither give up his ground theologically nor persuade Wesley of his position and so he simply stopped making it a matter of open dispute as much as he possibly could and went about his own work. "I think it best not to dispute," he wrote, "when there is no probability of convincing."

5. And, in such cases, we are to wait on the Lord for the resolution we cannot achieve but that he can supply. Time will often bring a new perspective and the march of divine providence show the way to things impossible before. So in this case. We do not know about Barnabas but we fairly assume a complete reconciliation with Paul on the strength of the fact that Mark is found later in the NT not as Barnabas' assistant but as Paul's! Given the hope of better things that is always ours who trust in God and the power of the gospel, how important it becomes not to spread poison at the time of the dispute, but to let it lie as quietly as possible until the Lord rises with healing in his wings.

That is the lesson here and everywhere in the Bible: to have as few disputes between believers as possible and, when they cannot be avoided, to carry ourselves in them and toward others who disagree with us in such as way as to cause even our enemies to say: there is more love and peace in a Christian dispute than there is in our peace. And that is done in the same way that Luke reported this dispute of long ago: no imputing of motives, resisting every temptation — and they are powerful temptations — to put the worst construction on what people say and do instead of the best, leaving the dispute behind and getting on with life and work for Christ, and waiting patiently for the Lord to resolve. It is a formula for supernatural peace and harmony and power in the church.

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