Acts 15

Today’s reading is Acts 15.

This chapter records “The Jerusalem Council” where the apostles came together to decide if the Gentile believers had to obey any of the Jewish law. This may be the same event Paul described in Galatians 2, which is why we read Galatians last week. Not all the details fit, so it is uncertain whether or not this is the same visit to Jerusalem that Paul described in Galatians, but the tensions between the Jewish and Gentile believers were an ongoing challenge that the visit described in this chapter went a long way to solving.

The theological issue of Gentiles and the law seems like it was solved pretty easily in verses 1-35. By contrast, Paul and Barnabas who had been chosen by the Holy Spirit, had a disagreement that was unsolvable in verses 36-41.

  • The occasion for their disagreement was a desire to return to the churches they had founded on their first missionary journey (v. 36). Ultimately, this trip would become Paul’s second missionary journey.
  • The reason for their disagreement was John Mark. Barnabas wanted John Mark to come but Paul was opposed to it because John Mark had deserted them on the first missionary journey (v. 38).
  • The result of their disagreement was that they split and went their separate ways (v. 39).

This passage is instructive in a number of ways. According to verse 40 Paul was“commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.” This suggests that the church at Antioch (see v. 35) officially backed Paul, so he would seem to be the winner of this dispute. Over time, however, God used John Mark to write “The Gospel According to Mark” and even Paul had to admit that Mark was useful in Paul’s ministry (2 Tim 4:11). So while Paul may have been backed officially by the church, apparently Barnabas was wise to include Mark despite Paul’s objections.

One lesson from this passage is that, sadly, there are times when godly Christians have problems with each other that cannot be solved. That seems strange to admit. If everyone involved is walking with God, it would seem that every issue should be solvable. But if godly men like Paul and Barnabas could not agree to extend grace to Mark after his failure, we should accept that sometimes disagreements among God’s people cannot always be resolved.

Another related lesson is to realize that God used Paul and Silas and he also used Barnabas and John Mark. In other words, although they did not agree, that did not mean that one party was in sin and the other was not. Have you ever had a disagreement with another believer that could not be solved? Were you convinced that you were right and they were wrong? Did you conclude that they must be in sin or at least unwise? Let this passage cause you to reconsider. As believers we should do everything we can to resolve our issues with other believers but we should also be prepared to “disagree agreeably” without condemning the other person. Can you choose to believe the best about another believer even if you can’t resolve every problem?

Galatians 2

Today we’re scheduled to read Galatians 2.

In our earlier readings from Acts we noted the tensions that began when God saved Gentiles and gave them the same spiritual status as the Jewish believers in Jesus had. Here in the book of Galatians, Paul is urging the churches he started in this region not to succumb to the teaching of the “Judaizers.” This is a name given to a group of people who claimed faith in Jesus but insisted that all Christians conform to Jewish law.

In this chapter Paul recounts his own first hand struggles as a Christian against the idea that Christians must obey the law. Peter recognized Paul as a genuine believer (v. 9b) and Peter and the other apostles also recognized the commission of Christ to Paul to take the gospel to the Gentiles (vv. 7, 9c). Yet Peter himself struggled at times to act “in line with the truth of the gospel.” (v. 14b). Sometimes Peter acted as if his Jewish background didn’t matter and blended right in with the Gentile believers (v. 12a). But when there were Jewish believers around, Peter feared their judgment and segregated himself from the Gentile believers (v. 12b). This was hypocrisy (v. 13a) and Paul spoke to Peter directly about it.

The point of this chapter is to emphasize the implications of the gospel. If Jesus really has fulfilled the law of God and if we are justified simply by believing in him, then it is wrong to add any religious or moral works as requirements for salvation. But a secondary lesson in this passage has to do with Peter’s hypocrisy. Despite how much Jesus loved Peter, taught him, and entrusted to him as an apostle, Peter was still human. He was still subject to fear about the opinions of others and, therefore, still susceptible to hypocrisy. Yet, despite his status as an apostle, Peter had the humility to receive Paul’s correction. Let none of us, then, think that we are above or beyond the correcting power of truth. We remain sinners until Jesus glorifies us finally, so let’s be ready to accept correction and grow from it when we are corrected with the truth.

Galatians 1

Today we pause from reading acts to start reading Galatians; specifically, Galatians 1.

I should have had us read Acts 15 first before we turned to Galatians, but it’s too late to fix that now. Although Galatians was not written at this point in the story of Acts, Galatians 1 describes Paul’s life before he became a Christian (vv. 11-14) and his early Christian life (vv. 15-24). The events of Galatians 2 are described either back in Acts 11:30 or in Acts 15 so that’s why we’ll read Galatians now before going further in Acts.

Here in Galatians 1, Paul expressed his surprise at how quickly the believers in the region called Galatia were turning to a perversion of the gospel instead of the true gospel Paul brought to them. We’ll learn more about this perversion of the gospel in the days ahead but for now it is important to know that it was an attempt to blend Judaism with Christianity and impose that blend on the Gentile believers.

Paul knew Judaism quite well which is why he began addressing this problem with his own religious resume as an enthusiastic Jewish Pharisee (vv. 13-14). In order to highlight the difference between the Judaism he was raised in and lived under and the gospel, Paul reminded the church “that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (vv. 11-12). Instead of seeing his faith in Christ as an extension of his Judaism, Paul saw it as a complete conversion. Once he was “...was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (v. 14b) and then God chose “to reveal his Son in me” (v. 16a). Anyone who attempts to blend the Christian faith with Judaism, then, has misunderstood and mischaracterized the Christian faith.

The lesson for us is to be careful with the gospel--understand it well and guard it from corruption. There are all kinds of ways in which Satan would love to corrupt the gospel. Most of them, however, add human works to faith in one way or another. These might be Jewish traditions or they might be some other kind of religious actions. The scriptures remind us in this chapter that the gospel is God’s good news; it is not ours to modify. Modifying the gospel changes it into “a different gospel” (v. 6b) which means it isn’t good news at all (v. 7a).

Most people dislike conflict but within your friends and neighbors there are likely many different religious practices including some that claim to be “Christian.” You may love your friends and neighbors and desire to be accepted and fit in among them but don’t change the message of salvation in Christ in order to extend acceptance to them or to be accepted by them.

Acts 13

Today’s reading is Acts 13.

Being part of the first church in Jerusalem must have been an amazing experience. People were being saved all the time and everyone who believed started meeting in one another’s homes for prayer, instruction, and fellowship. Here in Acts 13, the first Gentile church at Antioch, seems to have had a similar experience. Verse 1a told us that there were “prophets and teachers” there and they are named in the latter half of that verse. Although they enjoyed great worship and fellowship, God’s work needed to go forward so that more and more people would become part of the church and, when Jesus returns, experience eternity in the kingdom of God. So God spoke in the person of the Holy Spirit and called on the church to send Barnabas and Saul out to evangelize people and form new churches. Thus began both the “first missionary journey” of Paul and Barnabas and the final stage of the Great Commission as described in Acts 1:8: “ the ends of the earth.”

God worked through Barnabas and Saul (and, for some reason, Luke the author of Acts, switched to calling him “Paul” in verse 9). People came to believe in Jesus and they were organized into local churches. But I want to focus for this devotional on the importance God’s mission over our comfort. The church at Antioch sounds like an amazing experience and, human nature being what it is, Paul and Barnabas may have stayed there for many years doing the Lord’s work. It took the direct voice of the Holy Spirit to compel the church to send Barnabas and Paul out on their first missionary journey. They needed God’s prompting to do what Jesus had commanded us to do in Acts 1:8--just as the Jerusalem church needed the prompting of persecution to move to “Judea and Samaria” (Acts 1:8).

God acts sovereignly to make sure that his will is done so we never have to worry about the mission failing. What we should remember, however, is that until Jesus returns, we have work to do. It is easy to get very comfortable with the familiar--even (especially?) when God is using us and ministry is going well. But God did not call us to be comfortable, he commissioned us to spread the gospel and start churches.

This means that our church will sometimes have to part with people we love who are obedient to the mission. It has already happened to us in recent years and it will happen again. This is also why we send 8-10% of our giving as a church away into missions and church planting. If we spent 100% of what God provided to us on our own work--even good, spiritual work--we would be disobedient to what God commanded us to do.

Maybe you’ve been considering some kind of change--giving more to the church or to missions, starting a new ministry here at Calvary, or going into church planting yourself. If comfort with the present situation is stopping you from taking on a new challenge for God’s glory, will you should reconsider that in light of this passage?