MESSAGE FOR MARCH 6, 2011 FROM ACTS 15:30-41
This morning, as we continue our series of messages from the book of Acts, we conclude our treatment of chapter 15. Last week, we covered Luke’s account of the Jerusalem council where a formal ruling was given by the apostles and Jerusalem elders on the status of the many Gentiles who had been won to Christ on Paul’s first missionary journey. After lengthy discussion, it was decided that the Gentiles would not have to be circumcised as some of the Jewish believers had been claiming. This morning, we treat the immediate aftermath of that decision and the messy and rather embarrassing account that eventuated in Paul’s second missionary journey. The council decides to send Judas and Silas along with Paul and Barnabas to give them the letter containing the details of their decision regarding the new Gentile converts. We pick up the narrative in verse 30 of chapter 15.
Luke writes, “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.
34 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37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.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.”
I find three important truths in this text worthy of our attention. In the midst of all this furious missionary activity, Luke once again reminds us that God uses the local church to send out missionaries. We see this in multiple places in this text. First, these emissaries with the message to the Gentiles came from the Jerusalem church. Verse 22 says, “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,” Verse 30 says, “So when they were sent off…” This was not the work of a missions agency—it was a local church, their elders and the apostles. Second, in verse 33, when Judas and Silas—these two prophets who had been ministering encouragement and strengthening the church at Antioch, Luke says, “33 And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them.” Luke makes it clear that these men did not simply get an idea to leave Antioch and leave independently of the church. They were sent off in peace—with the church’s blessing and doubtless their prayers. Notice the seemless connection between those doing mission work and the local church. Third, after Paul and Barnabas separate, it says in verse 40, “but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.”
Again, notice that this was not a matter of Paul and Silas saying, “Well, were going out into the mission field—see you when we see you.” Luke seems to be saying that their departure was in some way dependent on the commendation of the church. That begs the question--why Luke records no sending of Barnabas and Mark. It simply says in verse 39, where Luke records, “Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed to Cyprus.” This is probably not as independent a decision as it sounds for a couple of reasons. First, it’s at this point in the book of Acts that Luke focuses completely on Paul’s ministry. The reason he records the sending of Paul and Silas, while not recording any such sending of Barnabas and Mark, is probably because you never hear anything else about what these two did. Luke could very well, by his lack of any commissioning account, merely be communicating that his interests from this point on will be with Paul. It’s very difficult to believe that a missions powerhouse like the church at Antioch would not have sent out Barnabas, who had been a part of this church just like Paul and who they had sent out on the first missionary journey.
The point of application for us is simply that we as a local church are God’s sending institution of choice—not a missions agency disconnected from the church. Missions agencies have their place and play a vital role in the placement of missionaries, but the pattern in Acts is clear—missionaries are to be sent out of the local church. It was Mount of Olives that sent Chad and now, Charity to India and it was Mount of Olives that sent the Hankins to the Middle East. It was our church that sent the Harrisons to Africa and it will be our church that sends the Richmonds to Asia. On a human level, it is this church that is ultimately responsible for taking care of them if there is a problem. As a missionary sending church, part of our role is in raising up other missionaries to go out from among us. One of the purposes of the Youth Celebration of Missions presentation in a couple of weeks is quite unapologetically to be used by God to call more missionaries from this church so that we as a church can send them into the mission field. In doing this, we are only following the example set down in Acts. We hope you will not only come to this, but also be asking God if he wants you to go out to the uttermost parts of the earth with the gospel. God uses local churches to send out missionaries.
A second truth found in this text is: God directs our steps in life and ministry. Proverbs 16:9 says, “9 The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” It’s good and natural for a person to make plans and prayerfully chart a course for their life. But we must understand that God is not held hostage to, or in any way limited by our plans because it is HE, not us who ultimately directs our steps. We can chart the course, but is the one at the helm of our ship, not us. We see this powerfully in this text where the second missionary journey of Paul is taking shape. In verse 36, we Paul reveals to Barnabas his plan. “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.” As we follow Paul on this missionary journey for the next three chapters we see that he did indeed visit a few of the churches he had earlier planted. After he and Silas are sent out, they go to Derbe and Lystra and minister to the churches there.
After that, Paul wants to go into what was then called Asia but is now in Western Turkey. However we read in 16:6, “6 And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” IMAGE—MAP HERE--They then went to—in this order, Troas, Samothrace, Neapolis, Philippi, Amphipolis, Apollonia, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, Cenchrea, Ephesus, Caesarea, perhaps Jerusalem before heading back to Antioch. That tells us that Paul probably did not get to all the churches he had planted, but he did in fact visit or plant several other Gentile churches that extended hundreds of miles beyond his original plans. Some time, after they had visited Derbe and Lystra as he had planned, God begins to alter Paul’s course. In chapter 16, he received a vision of a man from Macedonia urging him to go there. That lead Paul on this much extended trip as God was establishing his steps. What Paul had envisioned to be a reprise of his first missionary journey ended up taking him over 2000 miles to plant more new churches and minister in an additional 13 cities. Paul was speaking from experience when he wrote in Ephesians 3;20 “ 20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” There is no indication that Paul was in any way thinking about going to Macedonia, but that was how God was directing is steps in fulfillment of his sovereign plan.
Most of us here can look back on our lives and thank God for the many time he chose to NOT answer our prayers the way we wanted—we can thank God for the way he directed our steps in such a way so that the plans that we had made didn’t end up materializing. At the time, it may have been heartbreaking not to marry that woman or get that job or purchase that home or get into that school as we had planned. With the passing of time, however we can see in hindsight what God saw all along—that we would be much happier and better off because the way he was directing our steps did NOT coincide with our plans and desires. Sometimes, our plans—like Paul’s are not nearly ambitious enough. God wants to do far more for us and through us, but our little faith could never believe in his provision enough for us to ask for what he actually intends to give us.
The fruit from this missionary journey is still being experienced today. Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians and Corinthians as well as to the Philippians and Ephesians are in our Bibles today because of his contact with these people on this missionary journey. Almost half of Paul’s letters were conceived as a result of this journey and God knew that 2000 years ago. This does not mean that we shouldn’t plan—God expects that. It merely means that when our plans go awry, we can trust fully in the God who directs our steps. If you are in a situation right now that is very hard and would never have been part of your plans—take heart. God directed your steps in some way to put you where you are and he is doing a work in your life that may bear fruit for generations to come. In glory, if not before, you will thank God for what is happening to you and for the fact that your plans were dashed before your eyes. This is one reason Paul says in First Thessalonians 5:18, “18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
God’s will according to Romans 12:2 is “good, perfect and acceptable”—even the parts that are wretchedly difficult because God, who is transforming you to the image of Christ knows what he is doing when he directs your steps. Therefore, by faith we can give thanks because at some time—in this life or the next, we will see that God’s will for us was far better than our own plans and purposes. Paul’s ministry here in Acts 15-18 reminds us that God directs our steps in life and ministry. A third truth is from the section of this text we will most thoroughly unpack. That is found beginning with verse 36. Luke writes, “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.”
The debate that has raged over this event for two millennia is over the question—“Who was at fault here?” The answer is the same it has always been—both Paul and Silas were at fault and we know that for two reasons. First, if there were clearly a good guy and a bad guy, Luke—who is a brilliant narrative writer, would have given us obvious indicators and there are none in this text. The fact that Luke does not overtly place blame is his way of telling us that both of these two men were at fault. Paul was probably blind to the human element a bit and so was lacking in compassion because he wasn’t even willing to pray about Mark coming along. Likewise, Barnabas was probably blind to what was at stake with regard to the gospel if this one-time deserter were to leave again and leave these men high and dry. There is no indication Barnabas prayed about this either and in this context, Barnabas was particularly vulnerable to having a log in his eye because Colossians 4:10 tells us that Mark is “the cousin of Barnabas.” Families are often blind to the weaknesses of their own members.
Another reason we know both were at fault is because of what 39 tells us. “And there arose a sharp disagreement…” That expression “sharp disagreement” implies the presence of sin. The word, when used negatively, mean “anger, irritation, or exasperation in an argument.” This word is also used to describe the wrath of God at times. This is not a friendly debate—this is very heated and almost certainly was not Spirit-driven. If it was Spirit-driven, there would have been the presence of the fruit of the Spirit and gentleness and patience and kindness are certainly not present in the midst of anger, irritation or exasperation. And if it wasn’t from the Spirit, it was from the flesh and that means there was sin here on both sides. Paul and Barnabas were brothers and friends—they had been through so much together. There is no excuse for brothers to behave like this.
The fact that they were both impassioned—Paul for his faithfulness to fulfill his call to preach the gospel and Barnabas for his compassion toward Mark is no excuse. Passion is never an excuse to sin. Passion is no excuse for walking all over someone in anger. Passion is no excuse for slander and a sharp attack. We mustn’t sanctify passion as always a good thing—sometimes it brings out the sin in our hearts. At some point, when it became clear that this disagreement was not going to be resolved, they should have had a prayer meeting to find God’s will and if God chose not to resolve it by clearly making his will known, they could have waited on him. If he still didn’t make his will know, they could have and should have parted company amicably, blessing the other brother’s missionary efforts. “I don’t agree with you, but the Lord bless you.” Later on, Paul says in Philippians chapter one, Paul tells his audience that what is most important—regardless of what is happening behind the scenes is that the gospel is being preached. Why couldn’t he have looked at Barnabas and Mark with that attitude? And why couldn’t Barnabas have turned his gift of encouragement to bless Paul, “Paul, you know I admire and respect you greatly and have learned that you hear from God, but please be careful about a hasty decision here where Mark is concerned.” That is the Christ-like way of handling these kinds of disagreements. That didn’t happen.
They argued fiercely and they separated and that’s what makes this a bit embarrassing to read even all these centuries after this took place. There is something within us that tells us that believers—especially leaders like the apostle Paul and Barnabas shouldn’t behave like this. In Galatians chapter two Paul publically rebukes Peter for his hypocrisy over the question of eating with Gentiles. Barnabas too is implicated in that sin as he too was drawn away. Peter being rebuked is bad enough, but here it is Paul—the one who had corrected these other two leaders—he is involved in this very public sin—this sin was not in a back room somewhere—it had public consequences. Everyone in the area in the church and doubtless some outside the church would have heard about this scandal and it surely was a source of discouragement and dismay. “The apostle Paul—the one who had preached so valiantly and faced death many times on account of the gospel—he splits with his friend and co-worker Barnabas. How could anyone have an argument with Barnabas, the son of encouragement and how could the winsome and buoyant Barnabas become so irate with his partner in ministry—a apostle of God?”
We’re fooling ourselves if we don’t think that kind of buzz was generated by this event after this sad occurrence. Christ’s two highest profile missionaries to the Gentiles disagree so violently that they separate into two camps. This is a case of leaders behaving badly. Here are two point of application that come from this text. First, we must never place human leaders on a pedestal because they will fall off them and injure you. This incident is a powerful illustration of the truth Paul later wrote in Second Corinthians 4:7. “7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Jars of clay—perishable, cheap and ordinary—utterly unimpressive. It’s a metaphor to illustrate the weakness inherent in fallen humanity…ALL of fallen humanity. That’s what we are on our very best day—a jar of clay… with feet of clay. What’s impressive is God and his power, which is poured into and out from these jars of clay. What’s impressive is that God would place his treasure, which verse six tells us is the “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”—that he would place that in something as unimpressive as a jar of clay. The reason he does it is because if you know the fallen human is a jar of clay, you’re not going to be impressed with the pottery, but with the glory of God in Christ. That’s the point. God uses unimpressive, fallen people to do things that they, in their clearly unimpressive state not be able to do and that points to the supremacy of God’s power. It’s a bit like mounting the hope diamond in a setting made out of tin foil. What’s going to get the attention, the diamond or the setting? The rudeness of the setting only highlights the beauty of the diamond and people will say, “Wow, that rock is so gorgeous, it looks good even in tin foil.”
Why do you suppose Luke includes this admittedly embarrassing story? First, because it happened and he is a good historian and an event of this magnitude is worthy of inclusion in a record of the expansion of the gospel. But also because God wants us to see that even Paul was a sinner saved by grace. There is only one perfect human being—only One who will never fail us or disappoint us or shock us with a sudden ill-timed remark, Jesus. If we look up to him, we will only grow more impressed with his glory as the years go by. But if we look up to a fallen leader and put him or her on a pedestal, eventually they will come crashing down on you because he or she is only a jar of clay and jars of clay are not intended or designed to be admired or scrutinized.
Another point of application is the third truth of this text and that is God redeems sin—even when it occurs in leadership. God was able to bring many good things out of this bad development and when he brings bad things out of good things, he is showing us that he is not only not straightjacketed by sin, he can actually use it to make things better. That’s a form of redemption and we see that all over this event. The first good thing he brings out of this is: He doubles his missionary force to the Gentiles. We don’t know what Barnabas and Mark did on Cyprus, but they were preaching the word, so it must have borne some fruit. And Paul takes Silas along to his incredible second missionary journey. This split–as God with many splits—ends up becoming something God can use for his glory. That doesn’t mean splits or divisions are good in the church—only that he is bigger than our sin and can redeem it for his glory. A second good thing is two new missionaries become seasoned in the gospel. Silas was with Paul a lot and with him authored First and Second Thessalonians. Peter says in First Peter 5:12-13, “12 By Silvanus, [another way of saying Silas] a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it.13 She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.” Silas proves to be a blessing, not only to Paul but also to Peter as a faithful brother who helps Peter write First Peter.
Also, Peter speaks of Mark, who God also made us of and probably in no small part because Barnabas gave him a second chance. Paul closes his letter to Philemon saying, “23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.” Mark, unlike Demas came back and became a very useful minister of the gospel. At the end of Paul’s life as he was sitting in a Roman prison he writes to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:11, “11 Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” Paul had gone from placing no confidence in Mark, to specifically requesting him to come be with him in what he knew were the closing days of his life. Finally, Mark wrote the second gospel which almost every scholar believes was his record of Peter’s account of the life of Christ. One of the reasons we have four gospels is because Barnabas takes a chance on Mark and brings him to Cyprus. That does not mean Paul was wrong—maybe his second missionary journey would have been too much for this young man at this time. But God knew what he needed in order to make him into a vessel useful for the kingdom.
The lesson for us is simply that God can redeem your sins and mistakes and make good come out of them. This is no reason to go ahead and sin—God is dishonored and much hurt is caused by sin, but it does tell us that we should never think that we have sinned so much we can no longer be of use to God. In fact, God will use the sin which you feel disqualifies you to minister to others as you serve with the insights that God’s dealings with you over that sin has left you with. And if you are here today and you have never placed your trust in Christ, you are on a one way trip to eternal wrath and judgment. But Jesus died to redeem you out of your sin and make you a new creation. Come to him to today and place your trust in him to save you from the eternal penalty of your sin and give you joy unspeakable and full of glory. May God grant all of us the grace to trust him to direct our steps, redeem our sin and call out from this church people to go for him to the nations for his glory and our joy.
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