The juxtaposition of the two meetings in Acts 15 hits me like a ton of bricks. The first meeting (15:1-35) involved Paul and Barnabas along with the apostles, the elders, and, it would seem, the whole church at Jerusalem–many of whom didn’t really know one another that well. The invitees to the second meeting in Antioch (15:36-41) were just Paul and his faithful ministry partner, Barnabas, “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36)–two men who had been through thick and thin together and had partnered well to plant churches and encourage new believers.
The agenda for the Jerusalem meeting centered on deep theological questions which would have a foundational impact for the church for centuries to come. At Antioch, the question was simply one of who should go with Paul and Barnabas for the next couple of months as they visited the churches they had established and see how things were going. In Jerusalem there was consensus of opinion, unity among the participants, and a confidence that what seemed good to them was because it seemed good to the Holy Spirit (15:28). But in Antioch, these two brothers couldn’t agree as to whether or not another brother should join them on their planned follow up tour.
And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
(Acts 15:39-41 ESV)
What?!?! Sharp disagreement? Literally, “contention contention” or, “irritation irritation”? (We get our English word paroxysm from the original word, meaning “a sudden attack or violent expression of a particular emotion or activity.”) How could this be?
And they separated!?!? Each so entrenched in their position that they find new ministry buddies and head in opposite directions?
And did the church take sides too? Nothing is mentioned of Barnabas being sent off with the blessing of the church at Antioch, but Paul is “commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.”
After the triumph of the theological council at Jerusalem, after the clarity and unity and certainty that the Spirit had led, how does the Antioch planning meeting seemingly go so south? No clarity. No unity. But I’m guessing the same Spirit.
So what are we to make of this? Is it intended to show Paul’s clay feet? Or evidence that Son of Encouragement had his limits? Did the Spirit of God not fill them that day? Was this totally an outcome of the flesh?
Or, is it a reminder that God in His sovereign purposes and mysterious ways uses jars of clay to accomplish mighty purposes. That He determines to use works in progress to accomplish the work of the kingdom of heaven. That He multiplies workers for the harvest even through disputes on how best to steward the harvest.
I don’t know. But it seems worth chewing on. Seems kind of profound that the same men who walked away from Jerusalem likeminded concerning the implications of grace were unable, by that same grace, to come to a meeting of the minds on such a simple matter as who should accompany them on their church strengthening road trip.
Maybe it says something of legitimate differences of opinion and perspective. Paul seems to have held the mission up as the greatest priority and didn’t want to risk Mark bailing on them again (Acts 13:13). But Barnabas, perhaps being true to his name, wanted to encourage Mark and give him a second chance, placing the man and his restoration above the mission. Maybe it’s not that the Spirit was absent in their deliberation, though it would seem to have gotten somewhat heated as some point, but that the Spirit’s fingerprints are all over it. Using these men and how they were wired to accomplish what He had purposed. Working all things–even heated, divisive argument things–for good, for these brothers who loved the Lord Jesus and were both called according to His purpose (Rom 8:28). Maybe.
I’m sure I’ll be noodling on this some more.
By His grace. For His glory.