Acts 15:22-41: Best and Worst
February 1, 2023
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Exodus 1-3, Psalm 24, Matthew 10:21-42, Acts 15:22-41
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” One of the most famous beginnings to a novel ever written—and in some ways appropriate to this passage in front of us today.
On the one hand, we have the wonderful fruit of wise governance and godly peaceable leadership. The Jerusalem Council has come to a deal. Not a bad deal. Not a comprising deal. But an arrangement that all godly parties could accept so that the mission to the nations could continue to go ahead. The fruit of that deal is immediately evident. There is rejoicing! “Wow! Now we can keep on going. How wonderful it is that God has answered our prayers! Praise God!” There is rejoicing, and there is also preaching. When God’s people rejoice, they inevitably preach—whether from the pulpit or in personal conversations. We think of worship as something that just blesses God’s people. But real rejoicing in God always overflows to the nations. We are to “proclaim the excellencies” of the one who called us out of darkness into his light (1 Peter 2:9). Let us then rejoice in God, and then as we rejoice in him, tell others about him. “Look what I’ve learned. Here’s what God has done for me. Isn’t this amazing what I see and hear in the Bible?”
So it is good times. But there is a fly in the ointment, and it is more than just a minor matter. Can it be? Can it be that Paul and Barnabas fall out, argue? The cause of their argument is clear. One wants to take John Mark with them, one does not. You sense their different personalities are at work. Barnabas is Mr. Encouragement. Yes, John Mark had failed. But now let’s give him another chance! To abandon John Mark, as Paul wanted to do (in Barnabas’ eyes) ran against every fiber of Barnabas’ being. How could Paul not want to take John Mark with him? On the other hand, Paul was not so much Mr. Encouragement, but Mr. Principled. For Paul, the issue was quite different. How could they take John Mark—who had shown that he was not reliable—along with them on such an important, and also dangerous, mission? “It’s all very well to be encouraging, Barnabas, and I, of course, want to encourage people, too, and especially John Mark. But how could you want to take John Mark with us? Can’t you see that he let us down? How can you be sure he won’t again?” There was also another factor, which Luke does not wish to mention for fear of suggesting that Barnabas was acting out of illegitimate bias. John Mark was related to Barnabas; he was his cousin (Colossians 4:10). Perhaps Paul felt that Barnabas’ judgment was being clouded by his loyalty to his physical family.
But while this argument strikes us as sad, it was not by any means irredeemably so. Luke seems to indicate that the believers felt that Paul’s side of the argument was the correct one. While Barnabas went without any explicit approval from the church, the believers “entrusted Paul to God’s gracious care.” And in God’s providence, you could say that the witness to the gospel was doubled by this dispute, not halved. What is more, there is ample New Testament evidence that the breach between Paul and Barnabas was not final (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24).
Perhaps some sad disagreement has occurred in your own life between Christian believers. Perhaps you have observed that in others. Be encouraged. God is sovereign over even that. And his Word will not return to him empty but will accomplish the purpose he has for it. And, as far as it lies within your own power, if issues of central doctrinal orthodoxy are not at stake, live at peace with all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
To receive God Centered Life devotionals directly in your inbox, as well as other resources, enter your email address in the form at the bottom of this page and click "subscribe."