In our Sunday School classes at Southern Calvert Baptist Church, we have been walking through the book of Acts. It has been an awesome series as we have learned the secret to the success of the early church. They were led by the Holy Spirit. What does that look like in a practical manner? The answer is found in the book of Acts.
- Daily, corporate Bible study
- Daily fellowship
- Daily examining relationships (with God and with others)
- Daily, corporate prayer time
- Daily worship
- Daily witnessing opportunities
As this was happening, the Spirit led, new people came to Christ, and churches were being planted left and right. The calling that the believers had been given was three fold:
- Be witnesses (Acts 1:8)
- Make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20)
- Plant Churches (Matthew 16:16-18)
Once the Gentiles began to hear the Gospel and respond, a major conflict arose within the ranks of the established church in Antioch. This conflict also made its way back to the church in Jerusalem. What are the believers going to do? Will this conflict divide them or, will they allow God to use the conflict to unify them? Let’s find out. Open your Bible to Acts 15.
I. The Conflict
The difference between Christians and nonChristians, when it comes to conflict, is how each group handles it. Nonbelievers face conflicts and in the midst of those conflicts, they are divided and usually end up cutting each other apart trying to win the battle. Christians also face conflicts. When we follow the Lord, we endure conflicts without beating each other down.
1 Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
2 And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. (Acts 15)
Here is the conflict, Jesus + _____________ (fill in the blank) = Salvation. In other words, faith in Christ is not enough to save a person. In this case, faith in Christ + circumcision = Salvation. The conclusion of this statement is that the Gentiles who have not been circumcised in the flesh are not really saved.
The first thing we see here is that conflict must be confronted. Paul and Barnabas confronted the conflict right away. Many time, we do not like conflict and we especially do not like confrontation so we avoid confrontation in the midst of a conflict. If I ignore the problem, hopefully it will go away. When conflict is avoided, it festers and the feelings only get worse. The consequences grow as the conflict festers. The second thing that we need to take notice of is the attitude of both parties who are debating the conflict. When you hear the word debate, you often think of verbal jousting or “fighting”. This debate was more like constructive criticism. They were examining the arguments from all angles. There was humility on both sides. When being confronted or, when you are the one doing the confronting, humility needs to be your attitude. Both sides of this debate were humble and gracious, even though they did not agree with each other. The third thing that we see in this conflict is that they appeal to spiritual leaders. They cannot resolve the conflict on the spot so they reach out to other spiritual leaders and ask for help. This was not a minor doctrine that both sides could agree to disagree on. The conclusion of the argument is, in order to be saved, is faith in Christ alone enough, or, must we have faith in Christ plus something else? The fact that both sides were willing to appeal to spiritual authority figures proves that they had an attitude of humility in the midst of this conflict. Many times, conflict among believers leads to division, splits, and the ineffective ministry among the lost. In this case, the believers unify to resolve the conflict and along the way, the ministry actually grows while they work to resolve this conflict.
II. The Testimonies
As Paul and Barnabas traveled back to Jerusalem, they were able to visit churches that they had help plant.
3 Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren.
4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. (Acts 15)
Paul and Barnabas share testimonies about how the Lord was working among the Gentiles. The promise in Acts 1:8 was happening all around. The Gospel started in Jerusalem and it had spread to the uttermost. Now, the churches that we praying and helping with the ministry had a chance to hear first hand how the Gentiles were coming to faith in Jesus Christ. Then, when Paul and Barnabas arrived in Jerusalem, they first shared the testimonies before bringing up the conflict and the resolution that needed to come. All rejoiced and all were encouraged by these testimonies. Conflict among the believers does not stop the ministry from growing. Trying to resolve conflict God’s way actually leads to more ministry opportunities.
After encouraging the brethren with the testimonies, Paul and Barnabas deal with the conflict.
5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.
7 After there had been much debate, (Acts 15)
These former Pharisees had come to faith in Jesus Christ. Their conclusion was not that the Gentiles had to be circumcised to be saved. Their conclusion was that the Gentiles were saved by faith in Christ and now, they need to be circumcised and keep the Law. Again, the debate that followed was not heated back and forth between two opposing parties. This debate was more like constructive criticism.
The Apostle Peter takes his stand and shares his experience with sharing the message of the Gospel with the Gentiles.
7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe.
8 “And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us;
9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.
10 “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?
11 “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” (Acts 15)
Peter reminds the brethren about the conversion of Cornelius and his family (Acts 10), that they were all saved and that the proof of that salvation was each one receiving the Holy Spirit. Peter’s testimony is that we were saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. God does not show partiality. He saves the Gentiles the same way that He saves the Jews, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Why should we add a yoke to the Gentiles that we could not keep ourselves. Before faith in Christ, Peter and all the other Jews were circumcised and they had the Law but could not keep It. Circumcision did not make the difference. The Law did not make the difference. Faith in Jesus Christ made the difference. That is what cleansed their hearts. No one could argue with that.
The Apostle James stands up next and gives a testimony.
13 After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me.
14 “Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name.
15 “With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written,
16 ‘AFTER THESE THINGS I will return, AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID WHICH HAS FALLEN, AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS, AND I WILL RESTORE IT,
17 SO THAT THE REST OF MANKIND MAY SEEK THE LORD, AND ALL THE GENTILES WHO ARE CALLED BY MY NAME,’
18 SAYS THE LORD, WHO MAKES THESE THINGS KNOWN FROM LONG AGO.
19 “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles,
20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. (Acts 15)
James does goes back into the Old Testament and quotes from 5 different prophets about the fact the message of the Gospel has always been just as much for the Gentiles as it has been for the Jews.
- Amos 9:11-12
- Jeremiah 12:15
- Deuteronomy 28:10
- Isaiah 63:19
- Jeremiah 14:9
- Daniel 9:19
- Isaiah 45:21
In fact, God first gave the Gospel to the Gentiles, who were to pass it on to the Jews. Then, the Jews were supposed to proclaim it to the Gentiles. One thing that James adds, from the Law, is that there are two things that the new believers (along with all believers) should avoid. They need to stay away from idolatry because that will impact their relationship with God and lead them to sexual immorality. Idolatry and sexual immorality go hand in hand. These new believers were living in an extremely pagan society. It was filled with idolatry and sexual immorality. They had to stay away from both, for their own good and for the sake of the Gospel.
In conclusion, the conflict was resolved and the doctrine of the church was that faith in Christ alone was enough for salvation.
III. The Results
Conflict does not destroy the ministry. Conflict, handled God’s way actually leads to a more unified church. As believers, how we handle conflict is a testimony to the lost and dying world around us. Conflict must be confronted with the right attitude, an attitude of humility. Debate does not destroy. It actually builds up. There is nothing wrong with appealing for help to spiritual authorities. Handling conflict the right way actually leads to more ministry opportunities. When word get out about how believers handle conflict the right way, the lost world will beat the doors down to get to us to find out the secret to our success. We become light to those around us and our words will be seasoned with salt, causing nonbelievers to want more of what we have.
How do you view conflict? What happened during your last conflict? Did you handle it God’s way? Did you confront it or avoid it? Did you have a humble attitude as you walked through it? Did your last conflict lead to more unity or division? Have you ever appealed to spiritual authority figures for help in the midst of conflict? May the Lord help us stand firm on the Truth and face conflicts head on, for the glory of God and our own good.