The book of Acts is exciting on so many levels but mainly because we get a glimpse of the early church trying to figure out what to do when Jesus is no longer physically with them. When Jesus was around, being the church seemed a little easier. Conflict resolution often ended when problems or disagreements were brought to Jesus attention, he would quote scripture or provide divine insight and that was the end of that. But now that Jesus is no longer physically present, the disciples, apostles, and early converts were trying to figure out how to be the church in a new era. They did not always agree. But as we will see, the Holy Spirit works through disagreements as well.
The entire chapter of Acts 15 is about disagreement. First there is disagreement on whether or not gentile converts should be circumcised in order to be saved and late in the chapter, disagreement between Barnabas and Paul on taking John Mark with them on mission.
There are a few things to take note of in this chapter as we see the events unfold. First (as throughout the book of Acts), there is always an account of the work of the Holy Spirit through individuals. Paul and Barnabas have returned to Antioch to find that some believers have been teaching the exact opposite of what they have preached. Paul and Barnabas have gone to great lengths to make sure that the gentiles (non jews) understood that they were accepted as members of the body of Christ because they have received the Holy Spirit. This became an issue for many of the Jewish converts because they still believed that the restoration of Israel was part of the work of the early church and they understood Christianity to be a new sect of Judaism. The disagreement is resolved after going to Jerusalem and meeting with the Apostles and elders. We cannot escape the magnitude of this resolution. If this had been decided differently, what would have happened to the church? Maybe more important though, we get a great glimpse of the church at work in deciding over issues of conflict and how these conflicts are managed. The process for discernment was not left to one individual but rather was discussed and developed through a council of elders and apostles. Brilliant! “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us….”(Acts 15:28) This is an important aspect to how the church went about making decisions.
However, at the end of this chapter we see a sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas as they plan to “go back to visit each city in which they had previously preached.” (Acts 15:36) In discussing who their missionary partners would be, Barnabas includes John Mark, who had joined them on their first missionary journey (Acts 13). Paul disagrees with Barnabas’ suggestion of John Mark because John Mark had left to go back to Jerusalem in the middle of their last mission. We are unsure of why he returned to Jerusalem but enough can be inferred from the texts that Paul claims he is unfit for missionary work. Because of this disagreement, Paul takes Silas and heads to Syria and Cilicia while Barnabas and John Mark head to Cyprus. Yet we can see the Holy Spirit at work in the midst of this disagreement because the Gospel of Jesus Christ travels twice as far as what Barnabas and Paul had agreed to do in their next efforts by traveling back to all the churches they have already begun.
In the 16th chapter of Acts we experience what happens to Paul as the Holy Spirit prevents Paul and Silas from preaching in the province of Asia at that time. In attempting to go from place to place, Paul and Silas are directed by the Holy Spirit even if they are unaware of it. The Spirit continues to say no at their own leading until Paul has a vision to go to Macedonia. This leading would provoke God to use them in strange places to preach the Gospel of Jesus to places that might have been impossible in their own doing. From there Paul and Silas meet a woman whose heart was opened by the Spirit to receive their teaching, baptized her and her family, heal a demon possessed woman, get thrown in jail, set free by an earthquake, stop the jailer from killing himself and baptized his entire family. All in a days work.
Following their time in Macedonia and Thessalonica, Paul and Silas begin preaching in Athens. In a remarkable use of Paul’s gifts, God makes a way to make known to a the philosophers and debaters of that age, “the God that created the world and gives everything life and breath.” (Acts 17:24-26) While preaching about Jesus in the public places, Paul is requested to defend himself in front of the high council of Athens. It is here that Paul uses one of the Athenians own proclamations of a shrine that read “to an unknown God” as an opportunity to share the truth about the living God. Something Paul had personal experience of and was called for this very purpose.
In reflecting on these passages form Acts we may consider the similarities of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individuals and the 1st century church and the work of the Holy Spirit in our own lives and the church of the 21st Century. The church of the 1st century was riddled with conflict on several issues, yet this church managed to grow because of their work through disagreements. Even Paul and Barnabas, the two great missionaries of the 1st Century carried the message of Jesus twice as far because they disagreed over taking John Mark with them. Remember their plan was to go back and meet with believers who already knew the message and hope of salvation. Paul experienced the joy and difficulty of when God says no. Yet that very no led to an amazing testimony and changed the lives of several. And creative Paul was in using something from the culture in which he was preaching to bring about the reality of the living God that he was preaching.
Questions to consider:
• How do you manage conflict in your life? In your vocation?
• Can the Holy Spirit work a greater purpose through a disagreement?
• When have you experienced God’s ‘no’ to your own plans for your life?
• How can you use common culture to share the Good News of Jesus?