In the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York a very inexperienced group of young men from various universities across our country took on a very experienced and rugged ice hockey team from the old Soviet Union. The U.S. team was a huge underdog. The young men were not used to playing together. They had come from very different backgrounds. It was a new experience for them. Their opponents had been playing together for a number of years and were widely regarded as the best hockey team in the whole world, professional or otherwise. I remember the end part of the gold medal game in that series, and I remember Al Michaels exclaiming as the game wound down with the young men from the United States winning, "Do you believe in miracles?"
Maybe you have noticed that recently a movie about that Olympic contest has come out. One of the ways that movie has been promoted is by showing a clip in which Herb Brooks, who was the coach of that Olympic team, working with those young men. In the early stages of their workouts he would come up to individual players and say, "Who do you play for?" They would answer the "University of Minnesota" or some other college or university. He was working with a group of people, in other words, who were playing for themselves and their own schools. And then as he works with them, they get to the place where he can up and ask one of them, "Who do you play for?" The young man would shout out, "The United States of America!" That is a way of saying that the victory was won because a group of young men learned to work together, to play together.
Acts 15 teaches us that the church, in order to succeed, must learn to work together through challenging circumstances. In this great chapter Paul and Barnabas have only recently returned to Antioch, the great congregation made up of many people from Gentile backgrounds. They returned from their first missionary journey, and they have reported to the church about what God has done with them and how many have believed in the various places they have been. Everyone was rejoicing over that. But it wasn't long until difficulty erupted. Some began to insist that these new believers had to be circumcised.
This turns out to be one of the watershed events in the New Testament. They have to decide whether we are all going to be committed to the gospel of Jesus and to that alone, or whether we are going to bring our Jewish and our Gentile backgrounds and let that become the issue. This chapter is the wonderful story of how brethren work through that challenge, come to one accord, and go on with the work. Their challenges were much different than saying I have come from this university or that university. Here are people with centuries of background, either in the Jewish religious activity or in the heathen world that the Gentiles had lived in. The gulf between these groups was tremendously large. Yet it is overcome. Doesn't it make you want to know how? How do people like this learn to work together? What principles are there for the church to realize today?
The first thing that stands out in the reading of this passage is that in order to work together, people must intend to do so. That seems like such a simple point, doesn't it? But it is practical. O was made to grin by a paragraph by John White from "The Fight." He says of life in the church: "Your brothers and sisters in Christ are not perfect. After the first happy glow during which you may idealize them, you will be shocked t discover bitterness, bickering, and overt hostility in the Christian family. You will also discover that some Christians are stupid, honorary, tactless, stuffed shirts, prudes and hypocrites. Some will be bigoted advocates of totally unacceptable political positions and others will slurp their soup and have bad breath." Now that is fair warning, isn't it? That is real life. What he is saying is that if you are going to work together, you might as well be realistic about it. You will not be able to do so without being committed.
Now here Paul and Barnabas have been carrying the gospel of Jesus, the saving gospel of Jesus, to various places in Asia Minor. They have been mistreated. They have been persecuted, and yet they have kept on and done the work. God has blessed it. Now some brethren who are from the Pharisees sect come along and say, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." You will notice that they are taking circumcision not back to Abraham where it really began but back to Moses. What they are saying is, "Unless you become a Jew like us, then there is no hope for you." Are they being difficult? Are they being self-centered in their prospects? Are they insisting on having their own way? Well, maybe so.
But notice carefully that the story does not end at verse 1. There is a great deal of effort is put forth here because Paul and Barnabas and the church at Antioch care enough not merely to draw off by themselves and to go their own way. Counselors tell us that when we don't have a very high opinion of ourselves, or perhaps when we have too high of an opinion of ourselves, we deal with difficulty by just withdrawing. We say, "Alright, if that is how you are going to be, I will have no more to do with you and I will not participate anymore and I won't be involved anymore." Why not do that? Remember what the New Testament teaches us of every one of God's children. First, we are blessed with talents and abilities that are to be used in the Lord's service. The parable of the talents taught by Jesus in Matthew 25 presses this point home. Whether you are blessed with one talent or two or five, the Lord expects you to do what you can in his service. And secondly, Christians are members together of the body of Christ. We are not all the same members. We are various members. We have those different ways in which we can function. And yet a body is not a body unless it has different members that work together. And so, every Christian will need to intend to work together with his fellow members of the body.
The second principle that comes up in this text is that while we are intending to work together, we must deal with threats as they come along. It is not enough merely to overlook or to ignore and to hope things will go away. If these believers from the sect of the Pharisees are permitted to have their way, their actions are going to destroy the gospel. Christianity will become nothing more than simply a new and improved variety of Judaism. And if that happens, it will mean that Jesus' death and his resurrection have all been for naught.
The church at Antioch decided that it would be good to have Paul and Barnabas to go to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem to deal with this question. Now be aware that this is a long, hard trip. It was a distance of some 300 miles. It was a lot of trouble to go to. They were asking Paul, who himself was an inspired apostle of Christ and who could have spoken to any issue authoritatively, to be willing to swallow any pride and to make that journey to Jerusalem. This was not some sort of a denominational conference. This was one congregation sending to another congregation seeking to maintain unity and to make sure they were working together for the sake of the gospel.
Paul and Barnabas willingly make this trip, even though the dissension and the debate had been strong, according to verse 2. Along their way they don't miss any opportunity to talk about what God has done, and it brings great joy to everybody who hears about it (verse 3). They are dealing with the issue.
As they get to Jerusalem, the question is whether things will descend into matters of personality or whether principles of God's will and of right and wrong are going to be addressed. It is amazing to me to notice in Acts 15 that no names are used of any of the opponents of the gospel or any of those who were misunderstanding. While strong feelings must have been present, animosity is absent. Instead, they are looking for this one thing - what does God want? How can we please and honor Him? What is his will in this whole matter? That is a powerful lesson for us. For us just to think that we can all remain silent and any of the things that we feel underneath the surface, or any things that maybe happened between human beings that are there, will just go away is a misunderstanding. That is not how the brethren dealt with it here in Acts 15.
The third principle that comes along is that working together requires that we talk with each other face to face against a background of good will. Ira North used to say that in the church there should be a situation where "everybody gets his say - nobody gets his way." When Paul and Barnabas have come to Jerusalem, they are welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders in verse 4. And then verse 5 describes a situation where they gather together and where those who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rise up and state their position and say what they have to say. But it is also a situation where Paul and Barnabas speak, Peter speaks, James speaks. Everyone is saying what he believes in and what he stands for. They are understanding each other. They are working through these differing convictions that are threatening their ability to work together.
I know no one enjoys controversy, surely. We don't like having to deal with things where we may have differing viewpoints or differing opinions. But whether it is a relationship of marriage, whether it is a relationship of friendship, or whether it is a relationship of brothers and sisters in the church, this is part of the work of building healthy relationships. It has to be done. It needs to be done with the same good will we see here. There is welcoming and not bitterness. Yes, there are strong feelings, but there is not resentment. They haven't decided that different people are on completely different sides. They are not against each other. They are trying to deal with the differing viewpoints which they have developed.
Many years ago, T.B. Larimore, a great gospel preacher, offered wisdom about solving church problems. Bro. Larimore said, "Be absolutely sure that all your proceedings are prompted simply and solely by an earnest desire to do good and only good and are conducted in the spirit of sacred love. With these assurances, be sure you are right and then go ahead." That was good advice.
That last phrase kind of fits the next point that needs to be thought through here, and that is the "be sure you are right" part. That, after all, was the question. Were those from the party of the Pharisees right in insisting that Gentile Christians had to be circumcised, or were Paul and Barnabas right in teaching as they had done that God accepts people in Christ regardless of their background? Which one was right? Which one did God want? When the apostles and elders are gathered together to look for answers, Peter stood up to speak. He reasoned based on what had happened at the household of Cornelius, something in which he himself had been deeply involved, something that the church in Jerusalem had dealt with back in Acts 11 some years earlier. And Peter pointed out to the people that God made a choice. God made a choice, not only by the vision given to Peter, but by the baptism of the Holy Spirit on the household of Cornelius, that he wanted these Gentiles to be accepted as Christians when they obeyed the gospel of Christ. "God made a choice," Peter said, "and God bore witness to his choice," verse 8 says. And then in verse 9 he said that "God made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their heart by faith." Peter's wonderful conclusion is in verse 11, "But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus just as they will." Isn't that a beautiful statement? By the undeserved favor of God Gentiles will be saved. So will Jews - in Christ Jesus. Now Peter was arguing based on the history of the church what God had done. God had made a choice.
Paul and Barnabas then spoke based on their experience. Verse 12 said, "All the assembly had fallen silent." There is attention paid to what is being done here. Paul and Barnabas (and Barnabas goes first in this situation since he has more background with the church at Jerusalem) "related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles." The signs and wonders that God did were to confirm the message that was being preached to show his authority behind it. This was proof that what they were doing was with God and with God's approval.
And then in the next place, James speaks in verse 13. This James is the one who was the half-brother of Jesus. Barnabas had been an inspired prophet. Paul, of course, was the apostle to the Gentiles. James was widely regarded as a pillar in the church in Jerusalem. He is an important Christian leader. James argues from scripture. He reasons with them based on what the Old Testament prophets had had to say. He quotes in verses 16 and 17 from Amos, chapter 9. And James argues that the prophet had shown ahead of time that God wanted a people for his name, and that these people were going to come from all the nations (verse 17). The Gentiles would be called by the name of the Lord, also. So you have here God's choice in church history, God's blessing in the work of Barnabas and Paul, and then all of that is confirmed by what scripture had always taught. That kind of reasoning is powerful. To argue from the experience of Barnabas and Saul without the proof of scripture would have been ineffective. But when you put those things together and they all come to the same point and they all prove the same thing, they all lead to the same truth, that is a powerful line of thought.
These beloved brothers are laying down their own wills to try to look for the authority of the Lord, to try to stay with the Book, to try to see what scripture says and what God wants. That is an instructive point for us.
Even this is done with thoughtful sensitivity for the feelings of those who may have had a different viewpoint. James, being an inspired teacher as he was, could have just declared the truth and said that is it. But James says in verse 19, "My judgment is." He is calling there for agreement and for consensus. "My judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God." Then he shows concern for the sensitivities of the Jews who read Moses (v. 20-21). That same sort of sensitivity and thoughtfulness for the feelings of other people shows up in the letter that they finally end up writing down in verses 23 and following. They refer to the folks at Antioch as their brothers in Christ. They commend the work of Barnabas and Saul and show regard for the efforts these men have already put forth.
We could spend more time on this thought but the point is "Be sensitive," even when you are right doctrinally. You have the truth of God's word behind you. Make sure to be sensitive to the feelings of people. Do not just walk over people roughshod. You may end up right but not able to work together.
The next things that stands out here is that they resolve the issue. They actually come to one accord. Verse 25 makes this point. They had come together verse 22 says, "with the apostles and elders and the whole church." And then they come to one accord about something that seems good to all of them. What an accomplishment to come to a consensus, to come to a situation where they agree together! Does this mean that ever single person present agreed? Well, I don't know that I could prove that, but it seems like they have come to a satisfactory agreement that "Yes, this is what God wants, this is God's will, this is God's purpose."
Things are not resolved until the practical details are addressed. The brethren agreed on what necessary things would be required. They think of how to get the message to Antioch so that it will be believed and received. They sent two trusted leaders with Barnabas and Paul. The letter was read and was a great encouragement to everyone.
And then the next thing that stands out is they went on with the work. After you have come to an agreement doctrinally about what scripture says, and have shown sensitivity for the feelings of others, and have addressed the practical matters, there is time to get on with the work. There is a mission to fulfill. The gospel must be preached to people everywhere. There are congregations that need to be strengthened. There are brothers and sisters to encourage. The point of all that we have studied is not just to "get along." It is to work together in doing the work the Lord has given his people.
Now there is one little post script that I need to mention. "Watch out for the little things." It is so odd, but human, that in Acts 15 when they have worked through this huge challenge and when Paul and Barnabas are getting ready to go out for their second missionary journey, they can't agree on whether to take John Mark. So they have to take someone else, each of them, and go their separate ways to continue in the work. They don't do so with bitterness, but they go in different things. Keep the big things the big things. Focus on God's mission for us and in that way let's work together to do the Lord's will.
How do we work together in the church? We intend to do so. We deal with threats to our working together. We talk to each other face to face with good will. We look for what God wants, what is good and right. We resolve the issue with some sensitivity to the feelings of each other, and then we get on with the work. There are lessons here that are needed in what we do as a congregation.
This picture in Acts 15 is one that continued to carry weight in the rest story in the book of Acts. In Acts 16:4-5, Paul uses this on his next missionary trip. In Acts 21:25 James uses this when Paul finally comes back to Jerusalem in great danger. There are lessons here that remain with the church forever. It is a question of whether our hearts are right, whether we intend to work together for God's glory to accomplish what he has given us to accomplish.
Think about that in the practical ways. Is your heart right with God today? Are you needing in obedience to the gospel to be cleansed? Are you someone who let other things enter in, things that didn't get resolved and that needs to be taken care of today?