The church was born in a hostile environment. Less than two months earlier, the Jewish Council in Jerusalem had pushed the Roman governor to crucify Jesus. So, as 120 followers of their now-resurrected and ascended Lord met, they knew they were a minority in enemy territory.
When the Jewish holy day Pentecost came, the Holy Spirit poured down and empowered those believers as Jesus had promised. Peter preached Jesus as Messiah to a curious crowd, and 3000 repented and believed. It was an exciting turn of events, but one which would lead to greater hostility.
Some time later Peter again preached to a curious crowd after he and John had brought healing to a well-known lame beggar at a temple gate. Authorities arrested the two apostles for preaching Jesus resurrected. After being released, the apostles continued to spread the news about Jesus as the unity of the church community deepened.
They grew to about 5,000. (Even so, the church probably never reached 20% of the city’s population.) Growing numbers, continual sermons and undeniable miracles compelled the Jewish Council to arrest apostles again, this time threatening and beating them. But the Lord answered their prayer for boldness and the gospel continued to spread accompanied by signs and wonders.
One of the church leaders, Stephen, publicly defended himself by condemning the unbelieving authorities. They stoned him to death. That day, great persecution broke out against the church. Believers all scattered from the city, except the apostles. But, wherever they went, they preached the word about Jesus.
Saul, a rising-star rabbi, ravaged believers. He stormed from house to house dragging them off to prison. He received official authorization to Damascus, Syria. On the way, a sudden blinding light struck him. Jesus appeared to him and called him to preach the gospel to Gentiles. After healing, Saul (later to be known as Paul) started preaching Jesus in Damascus. It wasn’t long before he had to escape for his life. Fleeing to Jerusalem, he continued his ministry there.
Meanwhile, Peter worked miracles and preached the word in Samaria. Most notably he told the good news to a Gentile household of Romans. When the Holy Spirit came upon them all, it signaled the Lord’s acceptance of them and the start of a great influx of Gentiles. Scattered believers from Jerusalem planted a strong Gentile church in Antioch, Syria.
All this advance, however, was not without cost. In addition to Stephen’s martyrdom by stoning, King Herod had James, John’s brother, killed by the sword (probably beheaded). Only the Lord knows how many other believers were martyred in “the great persecution” of those early years.
Theological contention became another cost of the gospel advance, especially after Barnabas and Paul won Gentile converts on Crete and in southern Galatia. The issue? Should circumcision and obedience to the law of Moses be required of Gentile believers? After all, Jesus was the Jews’ Messiah. And the church was born Jewish. Leaders held a council in Jerusalem. Conclusion: Gentiles would not be required to be circumcised and obey Moses’ law.
I’ve reviewed our trip through Acts so far, because we’ve been on a long hiatus in Galatians and James. (We’re following the Acts’ narrative, interrupting it to consider the apostles’ letters about the time they wrote them.) Today we come to a surprising, somewhat unpleasant incident . . .
It started unremarkably enough when Paul suggested to Barnabas they revisit the new churches from their first missions trip. Barnabas replied, “I’d like to take Mark.” Paul thought it unwise. “Mark deserted us last time, remember?” Their conversation escalated until it erupted into a cutting confrontation and ended in the first church split in history. Here’s how author Luke recorded it . . .
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches (Acts15:36-41).
I understand the Scripture is Holy Spirit-inspired. I still find it surprising that Luke included this “missionary melee” for the whole world to read. It wasn’t a friendly conversation over coffee and bagels. It was a “sharp disagreement.” The same Greek term is used in the Greek version of the Old Testament translated “angry”: “Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book, and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day” (Deuteronomy 29:27j, ESV). That’s pretty hot and heavy stuff.
That these two church leaders would get into “a sharp disagreement” is almost as shocking as overhearing your pastor and his wife arguing. And then the Holy Spirit leads Luke to include it in his narrative! It reminds me that the heroes of the faith were just men and women like us. We don’t venerate them as saints. (All born-agains are saints!) Nor should we think of their exploits as beyond us, because the same Spirit who empowered them empowers us.
Don’t you wonder, though, why the Sovereign Lord allowed it? I don’t know, except that the Lord uses us in our weakness. (” . . . for my power is made perfect in weakness”–2 Corinthians 12:9). And just how was his power perfected here? Simple: two missionary teams instead of just one. Paul chose Silas and went his way. Barnabas took Paul and headed off his way.
If you’re like me, you’re asking, “Why couldn’t the Holy Spirit have led Paul to say, ‘Hey, Barnabas. We could double our effectiveness if I took Silas back to Galatia and you took your cousin Mark to Cyprus. What do you think?'” Instead—verbal fisticuffs! God moves in a mysterious way!
Of course, from our vantage-point in time, we can see how God caused this to “work together for good.” Then it was probably something to be embarrassed about.
Makes me wish we could see the good in our painful “thing” while going through it. Instead, we just have to trust God’s Romans 8:28 promise. (And maybe sing again the old hymn . . . )
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
You fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.