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Lesson 36: When Unity is Wrong (Acts 15:1-11)

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There is a strong movement toward Christian unity in our day. In 1994, a number of evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders signed the document, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which sought to emphasize what Catholics and Evangelical Protestants believe in common, and to encourage greater cooperation between the two camps. In October, 1997 a second document, “The Gift of Salvation,” was signed. According to one evangelical who signed it, the signers were committed to unity in the truth (Christianity Today online, 12/8/97, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: a New Initiative”). But the Catholic Church has not budged an inch from their statements in the Councils of Trent that condemn those who hold to the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

The Promise Keepers movement has also encouraged this movement toward unity between Catholics and Protestants. One of the seven promises that every Promise Keeper commits himself to is, “reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.”

Someone sent me a tape of a message that the popular author, Max Lucado, delivered at the 1996 Promise Keepers Pastors Conference in Atlanta. Lucado compares the church to a large ship, with Jesus at the helm. On board, the passengers are arguing over all sorts of doctrinal issues. He implicitly ridicules any doctrinal disputes as if they are petty and inconsequential, since we’re all headed for the same destination on the same ship. At one point, he exclaims, “Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have the labels ‘Methodist,’ ‘Presbyterian,’ and ‘Baptist’?” His audience of 40,000 pastors cheers. He continues, “Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have the labels ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’?” The pastors cheered again!

He then urges every pastor who has ever criticized any other man’s denomination to get up, find someone from that denomination, and ask his forgiveness before they all took communion together. If Martin Luther and John Calvin had been in the audience, Lucado would have had them asking forgiveness of the pope for criticizing the Roman Catholic Church!

The famous evangelist, Billy Graham, for many years has also played down any differences between evangelicals and Roman Catholics. He has said, “I have no quarrel with the Roman Catholic Church.” Speaking of the difference between evangelicalism and Catholicism, he said, “I don’t think the differences are important as far as personal salvation is concerned” (both quotes in Iain Murray, Evangelicalism Divided [Banner of Truth], p. 68).

Because of the powerful influence of Graham, of Promise Keepers, and of the evangelical leaders who signed the two evangelical-Roman Catholic accords, there is immense pressure on pastors today to drop all doctrinal differences and join together with all who call themselves “Christian.” One evangelical leader dogmatically states, “It is sin to refuse to join in ecumenical dialogue and processes with other Christians who confess Jesus Christ as God and Savior. It is a sin to send our missionaries to other lands with long Christian traditions without first consulting with the churches already there.” In the context, he is referring to countries where Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church are strong (Ron Sider, World Vision [April/May, 1994], p. 9).

I will readily admit that there have been many sinful and shameful divisions among Christians over petty issues. While we should avoid such selfish squabbling, our text shows that there are times when it is a sin not to divide over doctrine. When the doctrine concerns how a person gets saved, there can be no compromise.

Unity is wrong when it compromises the doctrine of salvation by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone.

Some men came from Judea to Antioch and began teaching, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1). Paul and Barnabas did not say, “They will know that we are Christians by our love, not by our doctrinal agreement, so we won’t judge you brothers for your personal beliefs.” Even though these teachers hailed from the mother church in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas did not begin with ecumenical dialogue. They began with “great dissension and debate.” Since this matter threatened to undermine the gospel itself, the church sent Paul, Barnabas, and some others to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to get the matter resolved.

The issue at stake was huge: Must Gentiles be circumcised and keep the Mosaic Law in order to be saved? Or, are Gentiles and Jews both saved by faith in Jesus Christ, apart from any observance of the Law? The answers to these questions have ongoing relevance for us, not only in upholding the true gospel of salvation, but also in the current movement toward unity between evangelicals and Roman Catholics. We will look at Peter’s response to these issues, which Luke records after stating simply that “there had been much debate” (15:7). Peter’s words establish that …

1. Salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

The issue here is salvation (15:1, 11), which refers to how a person can be delivered from God’s eternal judgment; or, with how a person’s heart can be cleansed from sin (15:9).

A. Salvation is by God’s grace alone.

Grace means “undeserved favor.” If in any way you deserve it, it is not grace (Rom. 4:4-5; 11:6). Peter makes it clear that the salvation of the Gentiles originated with God’s choice, that through Peter they would hear the word of the gospel and believe (15:7). He further underscores that God made no distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles (15:9). In other words, He saved the Gentiles apart from their becoming Jews or any other merit on their part. And, Peter sums up, “We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (15:11).

That’s quite a statement for a Jew to make! You would have expected, “They are saved in the same way as we are.” But, rather, Peter is saying, “We religious Jews are saved in the same way as these pagan Gentiles are, namely, through the grace of the Lord Jesus.” In other words, their Jewish religion didn’t chalk up “Brownie points” with God. Their keeping all of the ceremonial and moral laws didn’t move them an inch closer to salvation, because salvation is not based on any goodness in us or any religious activities on our part.

You may have been raised in the church, as I was. You may have devoted your whole life to service in the church. You can even serve as a missionary and suffer greatly for your religious work. None of it weights the scale of heaven even a little bit in your favor. The pagan murderer on death row is just as close to salvation as you are. In fact, he may be closer, because he is more likely to see his need for God’s grace than the religious person who takes pride in his good deeds. The Bible says that we all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. Thus we all need to be justified as a gift by God’s grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:23-24).

B. Salvation is through faith alone.

Peter says that God proclaimed the gospel through him to the Gentiles so that they might believe (15:7). He made no distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles, in that He cleansed the Gentiles hearts by faith (15:9). The proof that the Gentiles had believed and were saved is that God, who knows the heart, bore witness to their faith by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did with the Jews (15:8). Even before Peter finished his sermon at Cornelius’ house, the Holy Spirit came upon them and they began speaking in unlearned foreign languages, just as the Jews had done at the Day of Pentecost. It happened right after Peter had said, “everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (10:43).

Peter’s argument is that God would not give His Holy Spirit to those who were unclean in their hearts. The fact that He sent the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles the instant that they believed, apart from their being circumcised, shows that salvation is by faith alone, not by faith plus circumcision or some other act of keeping the law. Circumcision is not the means to a clean heart before God; faith in Jesus Christ is! It is obvious that the instant that the Gentiles believed, they were cleansed totally and completely from all their sins. It was not the beginning of a process of purification that had to be completed by their good works. Nothing remained to be added. God saved them by His grace through their faith plus nothing.

It is important to emphasize that we are saved by faith alone, not by faith plus our works. And, as John Calvin makes clear, “faith does not make us clean, as a virtue or quality poured into our souls; but because it receives that cleanness which is offered in Christ” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Acts, vol. 2, pp. 50-51; I updated the English). The Roman Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by God’s grace through our faith. But the catch is, they say that we must add our works to our faith in order to bring the process of justification to completion. The Canons and Decrees of Trent, which represent the official Catholic teaching to this day, state:

If any one says, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, ... let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 9, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [Baker], 2:112.)

If any one says, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified: let him be anathema (Session 6, Canon 12, ibid., 2:113).

If any one says, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof: let him be anathema (Session 6, Canon 24, ibid., 2:115).

If any one says, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened [to him]: let him be anathema (Session 6, Canon 30, ibid., 2:117).

In other words, the Catholic Church declares that we are justified before God by grace through faith, but not through faith alone, but that our good works must be added to that faith in order both to preserve and increase our right standing before God. Justification is not completed at the initial point of faith in Christ, and not even in this life, but only, hopefully, in Purgatory.  Thus the Catholic Church denies the sufficiency of the guilty sinner’s faith in Christ’s sacrifice as the means of right standing with God.  (For further treatment, see Justification by Faith Alone [Soli Deo Gloria], ed. by Don Kistler, especially pp. 7-14, by John MacArthur, Jr.) The Bible clearly declares that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone (Romans 4).

C. Salvation is in Christ alone.

Jesus Christ, by His perfect life, fulfilled the Law of God. By His substitutionary death on the cross, He paid the penalty that we as guilty sinners deserved. Thus, as Paul puts it in Romans 10:4, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” He paid it all; there is not one thing left for us to pay. It is not our righteousness in any degree that qualifies us for heaven, but rather the righteousness of Christ applied to our hearts through faith in Him. This means that …

2. Salvation by keeping the law is impossible.

Peter calls the Law of Moses “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (15:10). Certainly he is referring to the hundreds of ceremonial laws that were so complex as to be almost impossible to keep. But some Pharisees had done a pretty decent job of keeping those regulations, at least outwardly. Many of these same men had also kept the moral law of God outwardly. So I agree with John Calvin, who argues that Peter is referring to the human inability, even of the most godly of the fathers of the faith, to keep God’s law on the heart level (ibid., pp. 50-55). Note three things:

A. The purpose of God’s law was never to save sinners, but to show them their need for God’s grace.

Paul says, “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). As he goes on to argue in Romans 4, even Abraham, the father of faith, was not justified by his good deeds, including circumcision, but rather by faith in God’s promise of salvation. God has always offered two ways of salvation: (1) Keep His holy law perfectly, including your thought life, from birth to death; or, if that fails, which it always does, (2) come to Him as a guilty sinner, confessing your need of His grace, and trust in His provision of a substitute to pay the penalty you deserve. In the Old Testament, the sacrificial system looked forward to the perfect sacrifice God would provide in Jesus Christ. Since then, our faith looks back to Christ. But the law was never given to save sinners. It cannot do that because of the weakness of our flesh (Rom. 8:3).

B. Salvation by keeping the law is impossible because God requires obedience on the heart level.

Jesus pointed this out in the Sermon on the Mount. The Pharisees prided themselves on keeping the Law, but they were viewing it externally. They had never been unfaithful to their wives. But Jesus said that if they had ever lusted in their hearts after another woman, they had broken God’s law. They had never murdered anyone. But Jesus said that if they had ever been angry with their brother, they had violated God’s commandment (Matt. 5:21-32). God looks on the heart, and thus all of us are guilty many times over of breaking His holy law.

C. Thus salvation by keeping the Law is a burden that no one can bear.

As Paul argues in Galatians 5:3, if a person argues that circumcision is necessary for salvation, he puts himself under obligation to keep the whole law. As James 2:10 states, you can keep the whole law and just stumble in one point, and you become a law-breaker, guilty of the whole law. So if you wish to be saved by your good deeds, lots of luck! One strike and you’re out! If we add anything to faith as being necessary for salvation, then it is by works, not by grace alone.

Thus we’ve seen that salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Salvation by keeping God’s law is not possible, since the Law demands purity in the heart, not just outward observance.

3. The difference between sound doctrine and false doctrine on the matter of salvation is the difference between eternal life and eternal condemnation.

We need to understand that these Judaizers professed faith in Jesus Christ, but to their faith they added the necessity of being circumcised and keeping the Law of Moses (15:5). If you had asked them, they would have said, “We believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior. But, we also believe that in order to be saved, a person must also keep the Law of Moses.” For that error, Paul states that they were preaching another gospel, which is not really another, and that they should be accursed (Greek, anathema, which means, eternally damned; Gal. 1:6-9).

The Roman Catholic Church teaches precisely the same error as the Judaizers. They believe that a person is saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But, they add, faith in Christ alone is not sufficient to save you; you must add to it your good works. Further, they pronounce anathema on the one who says that faith alone is sufficient to save. You must either believe their word or the word of the apostle Paul. The two are completely opposed to one another.

This is to say that sound doctrine on the matter of salvation is absolutely essential! Don’t drift into the postmodern thinking that truth is relative and doesn’t matter. Don’t fall into the simplistic error that love, not sound doctrine, is the main thing, and that somehow we are unloving if we hold firmly to the biblical doctrine of salvation. You do not love another person if you see him heading for eternity under God’s condemnation because he is trusting in his own good works, and you don’t confront him with his fatal error. That is like watching a person about to drink poison, and saying, “I love you, brother,” but not warning him.

4. To promote unity with those who teach a false way of salvation is to sin by compromising the gospel as revealed by God.

Peter makes it clear (15:7-8) that the gospel of grace to all people who believe originated with God, not with men. Peter didn’t think it up; in fact, he would have sided with the Judaizers prior to his vision and experience with Cornelius. James reinforces the same point and supports it with Scripture (15:14-18). The doctrine of the gospel cannot be based on human wisdom or tradition, but rather on God’s Word and on His clear confirmation of the salvation of the Gentiles by faith alone, as evidenced by Peter and by Paul and Barnabas (15:12).

The point is, the Jerusalem Council did not decide that love and unity are more important than truth, and so we must set aside our quibbles. They didn’t say, “Whether a person is saved by grace through faith in Christ, or whether he must add circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses, aren’t the main thing. The main thing is to affirm one another as brothers in Christ, and not to divide over doctrine.” No! The foundation for Christian unity is the truth of the gospel, that we are saved by grace through faith apart from any good works. Good works inevitably follow saving faith. If a person claims to have faith, but has no good works as a result, his faith is not genuine (James 2:14-26). But it is faith alone in Christ alone that saves a person from God’s judgment.


Many do not like messages like this one, because they stir up controversy, and we all like peace. I’ve had people leave the church over similar messages that I’ve preached in the past. But as John Calvin wrote, “The name of peace is indeed plausible and sweet, but cursed is that peace which is purchased with so great loss, that we suffer the doctrine of Christ to perish, by which alone we grow together into godly and holy unity” (ibid., p. 38).

J. C. Ryle, a 19th century Anglican bishop, wrote,

Controversy and religious strife, no doubt, are odious things; but there are times when they are a positive necessity. Unity and peace are very delightful; but they are bought too dear if they are bought at the expense of truth…. It is a pity, no doubt, that there should be so much controversy; but it is also a pity that human nature should be so bad as it is, and that the devil should be loose in the world. It was a pity that Arius taught error about Christ’s person: but it would have been a greater pity if Athanasius had not opposed him. It was a pity that Tetzel went about preaching up the Pope’s indulgences: it would have been a far greater pity if Luther had not withstood him. Controversy, in fact, is one of the conditions under which truth in every age has to be defended and maintained, and it is nonsense to ignore it (source unknown).

The Jerusalem Council teaches us that unity is wrong when it compromises the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. May we join Martin Luther in saying, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it essential to emphasize justification by faith alone, with nothing added (see Rom. 4:2)?
  2. Can a Catholic believe in the teachings of his church and be truly saved? Why/ why not?
  3. Is God fair to save a terrible sinner the instant he believes, but to condemn a good person who never believes in Christ?
  4. How do you harmonize James 2:14-26 and Romans 4?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, False Teachers, Fellowship, Grace, Leadership, Scripture Twisting, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 37: When Concession is Right (Acts 15:12-35)

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We live in a day of much spiritual and moral compromise, even among evangelical Christians. For that reason, many of us abhor any thought of concession or compromise. Those words imply a weak, wishy-washy, kind of Christianity that isn’t worth following. We value men of conviction who stand firm no matter what. We want nothing to do with concession.

But I have seen people who are so strong on their convictions, even about minor issues, that no one can get along with them. If you don’t agree with them on every minor point of doctrine, they write you off as being a liberal or a heretic. If you confront such a man with his lack of love, he will write you off as a person who does not stand for God’s truth.

Spiritual maturity requires discernment, so that we stand firm when it comes to essential truth; but, on matters not essential to the faith, where godly men may differ, we elevate love over our rights. In other words, as we saw last week, there are times when unity is wrong, namely when it compromises the essentials of the gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But, also, there are times when concession is right:

Concession is right when it does not compromise essential truth and it is done out of love to avoid offending others.

We see both sides of this important principle in our text, which reports the conclusions of the Jerusalem Council. The main issue at stake was, must a person be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses to be saved (15:1, 5). Peter powerfully showed that we all, Jew and Gentile alike, are saved in one way only: by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, through faith in Him (15:9, 11). To add our works to faith alone is to pervert the gospel and put ourselves under God’s eternal condemnation, as Paul argues in Galatians 1:6-9. As we saw, Paul and Barnabas did not set aside this crucial truth in the name of love and unity. Rather, they had great dissension and debate (15:2) with those who taught the necessity of works being added to faith for salvation.

The force of Peter’s argument silenced even those who had disagreed, at least for the moment. Then Paul and Barnabas began to relate how God had worked through them as they preached the gospel to the Gentiles, confirming their message with signs and wonders (15:12). Paul could have launched into a defense of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, as he does in Romans 3 & 4. But here his emphasis was on what God had done through them, so that their opponents would know that the spread of the gospel among the Gentiles was God’s doing. The miracles that He granted confirmed His will through them (Heb. 2:3-4).

After Paul and Barnabas finished speaking, James took the floor. This was not the brother of John, who was killed by Herod (12:2), but the half-brother of Jesus, who later wrote the Epistle of James. He was the presiding elder of the church in Jerusalem. It seems to me that in some ways, James never did come to the depth of understanding of God’s grace that Paul had (see 21:18-25). When he stood up to speak, the Judaizers were hoping that he would champion their cause. But they were taken aback when he affirmed Peter’s message, backing it up with Amos 9:11-12. And, without mentioning them by name (until the letter, 15:25), he backed Paul and Barnabas’ view that the Gentiles need not be circumcised (15:19). Then, out of concession, he enumerated four things that the Gentiles should abstain from so as not to offend the Jews (15:20-21).

When everyone agreed with James’ judgment, the church chose two leading men to return with Paul and Barnabas to relate verbally to the Gentile churches the outcome of the Council (15:22). This would protect Paul and Barnabas from any false charges by the Judaizers that they slanted the report in their favor. Also, the final resolution was put into a letter that was to be circulated among the Gentile churches (15:23-29). The outcome was that the Gentile churches were greatly encouraged and the unity of the churches, made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers, was preserved (15:30-35). There are three main lessons that we can learn from our text:

1. Concession is never right if it compromises essential truth from God’s Word (15:12-18).

There are several difficult interpretive issues in James’ use of the quote from Amos 9:11-12. For one thing, he does not cite the Hebrew text, but rather the Greek Septuagint version, and even there he differs at several points. Perhaps he was citing it from memory and modifying it to give the sense of it as it related to his application. Also, it has been pointed out that James’ citation agrees exactly with one of the Jewish Essene sect texts of Amos 9. If some of the scrupulous Jewish Christians in his audience came from this sect, James may have been showing them that their own version supported the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s purpose (Richard Longenecker, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 9:447).

The main difficulty concerns the interpretation of the quote from Amos. Most premillennial commentators interpret it to refer to the second coming of Christ and the future restoration of David’s throne, followed by worldwide witness to the Gentiles in the millennium. Thus James would be arguing that since Amos predicted the future inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s purpose apart from their becoming Jewish proselytes, there is therefore no need for them to become Jewish proselytes in the present situation (John MacArthur, Jr., Acts 13-28 in The MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Moody Press], p. 69).

It seems to me, however, that James is using the quote from Amos to refer to what God was doing in the present, not to what He would do in the future. This is not to deny a future aspect and greater fulfillment of the prophecy in the millennial kingdom. But I think James uses the quote to establish that God’s purpose in the present age includes the calling of the Gentiles apart from their becoming Jews (Ray Stedman, Acts 13-20, The Growth of the Body [Vision House], pp. 64-65).

Another problem concerns the interpretation of verse 18. The quote from Amos 9:12 ends with “says the Lord, who does these things.” The rest of the verse is James’ comment. The problem is, his comment is so elliptical (incomplete) that it is hard to make sense of it. This resulted in a number of textual variants introduced by scribes who expanded the phrase into a complete sentence (Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [United Bible Societies], second ed., p. 379). Probably James’ brief comment means, “The Gentiles’ inclusion in the gospel was no surprise to God, who knew it from eternity.”

All the interpretive problems aside, the bottom line is that James was using Scripture to support Peter’s argument, that salvation for all people, Jew or Gentile, is by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The quote from Amos and James’ concluding comment support what Peter emphasized in verse 7, that the salvation of the Gentiles originated with God, not with man. It was not something that Peter or Paul and Barnabas dreamed up. God purposed to do it from eternity, and He revealed it through His prophets centuries before.

As we saw last week, the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is not to be set aside or compromised in the name of love and unity. It is the only way of salvation, both for Jews and for Gentiles. If we compromise the gospel, we have given up the very essence of the Christian faith. Any unity that is achieved through such compromise is not Christian unity in the biblical sense of the word. Included under the term “the gospel” are the essential truths of the sinfulness of all humanity, of the inability of people to save themselves, and of our need for a spiritual new birth that can only come from God.

Beyond the matter of the gospel and how we are saved, there are several other biblical truths that we cannot yield or we compromise the essence of the Christian faith. The inspiration, authority, and total trustworthiness of Scripture must never be compromised or we have no objective, authoritative basis for our faith. The nature of God as a Triune being, one God who subsists in three equal and co-eternal persons is another essential. We must affirm both the full deity and the full humanity of Jesus. It is also essential to affirm His sacrificial death on the cross, His bodily resurrection from the dead, His bodily ascension into heaven, and His bodily return in power and glory to judge all the living and the dead. Any concession on these essentials, even if it is for the sake of unity, is wrong because it is to join with those who are Christian in name only, but not in God’s sight. Concession is never right if it compromises essential truth from God’s Word.

2. Concession is right when it is done out of love to avoid offending others (15:19-29).

James sums up his judgment first by affirming that the Gentiles should not be forced to adopt circumcision and the keeping of the Law of Moses (15:19). Some think that James’ conclusion and the letter are weak in that they never state directly that these things are not required (James Boice, Acts [Zondervan], p. 266). Perhaps James and the Council were trying to be diplomatic, while still making the point, which the church at Antioch understood (15:31).

Then (15:20-21) James mentions four things that the Gentile Christians should abstain from for the sake of not offending the Jews. Three of these were not essential doctrinal matters, but rather matters that took into consideration the social situation and sought to avoid needlessly giving offense.  There are several views of verse 21. Without going into all of the possibilities, it seems to me that James is saying, “The reason that the Gentile believers should abstain from these four behaviors is that almost every city has adherents to the Jewish faith. So as not needlessly to offend Jews who need to believe in Christ as Savior, and so as not to offend recently converted Jews who are in the churches and thus cause divisions, Gentile Christians need to abstain from these four things.”

The four things are repeated, although in slightly different order, in the letter (15:29), which James probably drafted with the approval of the whole body. The tone of the letter is not authoritative and demanding, with warnings of judgment if it is not obeyed. Rather, the overall tone is kind and encouraging toward the Gentile believers, and supportive of Paul and Barnabas and their outreach to the Gentiles. It also makes it clear that the false teachers had acted without the approval of the leaders in Jerusalem.

The fact that three of the requirements seem to be related to the Jewish ceremonial law, whereas the other seems to be moral, has led to many textual variants and interpretations. Some take them all to be moral; others take them all to be ceremonial. I think that three of the items related to Jewish ceremonial laws, and the other (fornication) related to a moral issue toward which many Gentiles would be insensitive because of their culture.

The first item, “things contaminated by idols,” or “sacrificed to idols,” referred to meat that had been offered to pagan gods, but then was sold in the marketplace. It would be offensive to most Jews if Gentile Christians ate such meat. “Blood and things strangled” referred to eating meat that had not been killed by draining the blood from it, thus violating Jewish dietary laws (Gen. 9:4; Lev. 3:17; 7:26; 17:10-14; 19:26; et. al). While the Gentiles were not subject to these laws, the Council requested that they abstain from these practices so as not to offend the Jews.

The last item, “fornication,” has been variously interpreted. Since the other three items are ceremonial, and since the prohibition against sexual immorality would apply to every believer as a moral absolute, some understand it to refer to the levitical prohibition of marriage to a near relative (Lev. 18:6-18), which the rabbis described as “porneia” (Metzger, p. 380).  The problem with this view is that it is an unusual use of this Greek word, and most Gentiles would not have taken it in this sense.

I think that we must understand the word as the Gentile recipients would have, to refer to sexual relations outside of marriage. But, why did this even need to be mentioned, since it is a part of God’s moral law? Sexual immorality was so commonly accepted among the Gentiles that there were probably some who professed faith in Christ, but did not yet understand God’s moral standards. They came out of a background where temple prostitution and having a mistress for sexual gratification were shrugged off as standard practice. If they professed faith in Jesus Christ, and yet continued these practices, unbelieving Jews who held to the sanctity of marriage could never be reached with the gospel.

From these four prohibitions, we can draw three applications:

1) Out of love for the lost, we should not do culturally offensive things that would cause them to reject the gospel.

Paul deals with this at length in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.

Paul was always sensitive to the cultural backgrounds of those he was trying to reach with the gospel, and he tried not to do anything that would put up a barrier between them and their need for Jesus Christ. Every missionary needs great wisdom to discern which issues are merely cultural, that he can go along with, and which issues are biblically essential, that he cannot compromise.

Some matters may need to be set aside temporarily, until people come to saving faith, and then introduced later. For example, if you are trying to reach Muslims, you probably should not begin by emphasizing the equal standing of the sexes before God. While that is a biblical principle (Gal. 3:28), it would probably keep most Muslim men from believing the gospel, since male dominance is a major cultural issue with them. But if a Muslim man comes to faith in Christ, he then needs to be taught to treat his wife as a fellow-heir of the grace of Christ (1 Pet. 3:7), and to respect women as co-laborers in the cause of the gospel (Phil. 4:3).

2) Out of love for fellow believers, we should not do morally permissible things that would lead them into sin.

Paul deals with this in 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14. Some Christians felt free to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, and in Christ, they had such freedom. It was not violating any moral command of God to eat such meat. But, there were some weaker Christians whose consciences would be violated if they ate such meat. They had come out of pagan idolatry, and to eat such meat might lead them back into their former practices. Out of love for their brethren, Paul tells the stronger Christians to give up eating such meat so as not to cause their brothers to stumble.

There is a lot of confusion over this principle in our day. Often, legalistic church members set up their own unbiblical standards and impose them on newer believers. For example, they require that these newer believers adopt a certain manner of attire for church, although the Bible does not stipulate such. If a newer believer does not conform, he is told that he needs to conform so that he doesn’t cause this older believer to stumble. But “causing your brother to stumble” does not mean that. It refers to doing something that is morally permissible for you, but it would be sin for another Christian, and your behavior would lead him to join with you and thus to sin.

I might add that it is impossible to live so as not to offend anyone. This decree from the Council no doubt offended many of the Jewish believers, who still found it difficult to accept any Gentiles in the church who did not live as Jews. So we can’t get too hung up about not offending anyone. We should seek to live in good conscience before God, seeking to please Him. If we know that we are offending another Christian, we should go to him and seek to get the matter resolved if possible.

3) Out of grateful obedience to God, we must never do things that are culturally accepted but absolutely forbidden by His Word.

We live in a day when many who profess to be Christians are ignorant of God’s holy standards for His people. I have met college students who say that they know Christ, but who do not feel that it is wrong to have sex outside of marriage. Divorce has become so widespread, even in evangelical circles, that many professing Christians walk away from their marriages as if divorce were just an unfortunate event, rather than a grievous sin. God’s moral standards do not change over time or from culture to culture. We must not be so influenced by our culture that we violate God’s holy standards. This leads to the final section of our text:

3. Our authoritative guide for all faith and practice is God’s Word, which should be taught and learned (15:30-35).

Judas and Silas, who accompanied Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch, “strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message.” I like that! And Luke reports that Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, “teaching and preaching, with many others also, the word of the Lord.” In Acts 11:26, we saw how these men “for an entire year met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.”

We often forget that the Great Commission is not just evangelism. That’s the first part of it; but the Great Commission also requires “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). Churches today are starved because pastors are expected to do all sorts of things, with teaching and preaching God’s Word low on the list. It should be at the top.

Also, the church has always been plagued with false teachers like these Judaizers, whose words unsettled the souls of the saints (15:24). The Greek word “unsettled” occurs only here in the New Testament. It was used outside the Bible to refer to going bankrupt or to a military force plundering a town (James Moulton & George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 37). Paul later warned the Ephesian pastors that from among their ranks, men would arise, “speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). So we always need to be growing in our knowledge and application of God’s Word, so that false teachers do not plunder our souls.


During 1977, millions of people lined up at museums across the United States to view the treasures from the tomb of King Tutankhamen of Egypt. It is interesting that Ali Hassan, the curator of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, discovered that some of the jewels in the tomb were not genuine, but were only colored glass. When he was asked how this could go undetected for so many years, Mr. Hassan answered, “We were blinded by the gold. One just assumes that real gold and real gems go hand-in-hand. This is a case where they don’t” (“Our Daily Bread,” Fall, 1978).

Satan mixes truth and error to deceive Christians. He gets us to compromise and unite over doctrines where we should not budge an inch. And, he gets us to fight and divide over issues where we need to concede our rights out of love. We need God’s wisdom and discernment to know essential truth where we must never concede, and to know areas where it is right to concede out of love so as not to offend others.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we determine which doctrines in the Bible are essential to the faith and which are not as important?
  2. What are some examples of offensive things that Christians can do that keep unbelievers from believing the gospel?
  3. What are some examples of offensive things that Christians can do that could lead weaker believers into sin?
  4. What are some culturally acceptable practices that the Bible says are always wrong, but where Christians are in danger of imitating the world?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Fellowship, Love

Lesson 38: When Personalities Clash (Acts 15:36-41)

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Leslie Flynn wrote a book titled, Great Church Fights. I have never seen a copy of it, but the title makes me want to read it. I did read a story that he tells in it of two porcupines in the freezing north woods that huddled together to keep warm. But when they got close, their quills pricked each other and they had to move apart. They needed each other for the warmth, but they needled each other with their sharp quills.

Church members often are like those porcupines: we need each other, but we needle each other! As Vance Havner observed, there are many “porcupine” Christians—they have their good points, but you can’t get near them!

We all know that we are called to love one another. It doesn’t sound very spiritual to admit that there are Christians that we just don’t like. Their personalities grate on mine. The way that they do things is always counter to the way I do things, which of course is the right way! You cannot get involved in serving the Lord through the local church for very long before you run into someone whose personality clashes with yours.

It is important that you learn to deal with such situations for several reasons. First, the command to love one another is not a minor one! It is the second great commandment and it is inextricably linked to the greatest commandment, to love God. John tells us that if we do not love our brother whom we have seen, we cannot love God whom we have not seen (1 John 4:20). Also, Christian unity is not a minor matter. Jesus prayed just before His death that we would be perfected in unity so that the world would know that the Father had sent Him (John 17:23). We can’t just shrug it off!

Also, I have seen many Christians who get discouraged and quit serving the Lord as a result of a clash with another believer. Sometimes they even grow disillusioned or cynical about the Christian life because of the clash that they either observed or experienced in the church. They get hurt and wrongly conclude, “Christianity doesn’t work. Christians are just hypocrites.” And they fall away from the Lord. So it’s important to learn what the Bible teaches about dealing with personality differences so that the enemy does not derail you from following the Lord Jesus.

For our instruction in these matters, Luke honestly reports a clash that occurred between two great men of God, Paul and Barnabas. Frankly, it’s not a pretty picture. I wish that he reported that they both repented of their anger and asked forgiveness of one another, but he does not. I assume from a few later brief references that that did happen, or at least that there was no lingering bitterness. But the clash led to a rupture in the close working relationship between these two godly men. Barnabas here passes off the record of Acts. Both Paul and Barnabas must have grieved over this in the years after this incident. The lesson for us is that …

Christians must be diligent to maintain unity and to continue serving the Lord in spite of personality clashes.

I want to make four observations about our text:

1. Spiritual maturity does not erase personality differences.

We often naïvely think that if we all were just spiritually mature, we would never clash with one another. I agree that generally our clashes should be less frequent and less severe in proportion to our spiritual maturity. But until we are perfectly sanctified in heaven, I’m afraid that the little ditty will always be true,

To dwell above with the saints we love, O that will be glory. But to dwell below with the saints we know, well, that’s a different story!

Note three things about the men involved in this clash:

A. Personality clashes can arise between men who share the same basic theology.

Paul and Barnabas had just come away from the Jerusalem Council, where the core issue of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone had been affirmed. Both men firmly agreed about this and other central doctrines of the Christian faith. But their personalities clashed over a practical matter of ministry, whether to take Mark along on the second journey.

B. Personality clashes can arise between men who are godly and committed to the cause of Christ.

Paul and Barnabas were not new believers. Both men had walked with God for years. They were both fully committed to doing the will of God, no matter what the cost. They had risked their lives for the sake of Christ (15:26), and yet they clashed.

C. Personality clashes can arise between men who have served together for years in the cause of Christ.

Paul and Barnabas had a long history of serving together. It was Barnabas who had gone to Paul and listened to his testimony when every Christian in Jerusalem was holding him at arm’s length. It was Barnabas again who went to Tarsus to look for Paul and brought him back to labor with him in the ministry at Antioch. The two men had been set apart and commissioned together to go out on the first missionary journey. On that historic mission, they had suffered together for the cause of Christ.

Also, this clash erupted out of godly concern on Paul’s part to revisit the churches that they had seen God establish on that first journey, to see how they were doing in the Lord. Both men had a heart for the wellbeing of the churches. And yet these two teammates, who had labored together and suffered together for many years in the cause of Christ, clashed. Spiritual maturity does not erase personality differences that can lead to strong clashes.

2. Personality differences can lead to personality clashes that can cause us to sin.

The question always comes up, “Who was right in this clash?” Since Luke, who was obviously close to Paul, did not blame Barnabas or Paul, we need to be careful. The slight nod goes to Paul as being right, since it is stated that the brethren commended Silas and Paul to the grace of God, but nothing is said about Barnabas and Mark, except that they sailed away to Cyprus.

In light of the rest of Scripture, I think we can say that both men were right, but also, both men were wrong. Paul was right in that he was a rugged pioneer, venturing into enemy stongholds, and he didn’t need someone on his team who would run in the heat of the battle. He needed committed warriors who would not flinch in the face of hardship and adversity. Mark had not proven himself to be such a man. He should not have gone with Paul.

Barnabas was right in that he saw the undeveloped potential in Mark, and he wanted to extend God’s grace to this young man in spite of his earlier mistake in deserting the cause. History proved him right, in that Paul himself later told the Colossian church to welcome Mark (Col. 4:10). In his final imprisonment, Paul told Timothy to pick up Mark and bring him with him, because he was useful to Paul for ministry (2 Tim. 4:11). So Barnabas’ efforts to reclaim Mark for the cause paid off. Both men were right.

But, also, both men were wrong, and I believe they fell into sin in the way they dealt with this disagreement. They both stubbornly dug in their heels and refused to give in at all to the other man’s point of view. I’m sure that they both would have said that they were standing on a matter of principle. But they could have graciously agreed to disagree and have parted ways in a spirit of mutual respect. Instead, they had a “sharp disagreement.”

Paul uses the verb form of the Greek noun translated “sharp disagreement” in the great love chapter, where he states that love “is not provoked” (1 Cor. 13:5; see also Acts 17:16). At the very least, Paul and Barnabas were very provoked with one another. I think that we’re not going too far to say that both men crossed the line into sinful anger. Neither man was following Paul’s later directive, to put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience toward one another (Col. 3:12). It may have been God’s will for the two men to separate, but it was not His will for them to separate through a heated quarrel.

Two practical observations here:

1) A person’s greatest strengths are often the area for his greatest weaknesses.

Paul’s strength was his resolute commitment to follow Christ no matter what the cost, and to stand firm in his convictions. He even publicly confronted a powerful man like Peter. You could beat Paul, throw him in prison, stone him, or whatever, but you couldn’t stop him from proclaiming Jesus Christ and Him crucified as the only way of salvation. Paul’s weakness was his inability to accept and work with a weaker man, like Mark, who had potential, but just wasn’t there yet. Paul’s later comments regarding Mark, as well as other Scriptures that he wrote (e.g., Rom. 15:1, 7) show that he overcame this weakness.

Barnabas’ greatest strength was his ability to encourage the fainthearted and help the weak. He was the champion of the outsider and fringe person. He knew how to show grace to those who had failed. But he erred on the side of showing grace to those who needed to be confronted. As Paul mentions in Galatians 2:13, even Barnabas was carried away with the hypocrisy of Peter and the other Jews who withdrew from eating with the Gentile Christians out of fear of offending the Judaizers.

So the lesson is, know yourself. Where, by God’s grace, are you strong and gifted? Exercise that strength for His glory. But also, be careful, because your strength may lead you into sin if you are not on guard. A man who is strong in discernment can easily become judgmental. A man who is strong in accepting others can easily err by tolerating serious sin or doctrinal error.

2) Since God always uses imperfect instruments in His service, we should not put too much trust in men, but in God, who alone is perfect.

You cannot find two more godly, dedicated servants of Jesus Christ than Paul and Barnabas, and yet here they are, clashing with one another. Noah was the most righteous man on earth, and yet after God’s deliverance through the flood, he got drunk and shamefully exposed himself to his son. Job was the most righteous man in his day, and yet he wrongly contended with God for afflicting him. David was a man after God’s heart, and yet he fell into terrible sin. As Solomon lamented, there is no man who does not sin (1 Kings 8:46). While there is a proper place for trust in the leaders that God puts over us, there is an improper trust that elevates them too high. If we are trusting in men rather than in the Lord Himself, we will be shaken when those men let us down.

Also, the fact that God uses imperfect men and women in His service should encourage all of us to get involved in serving Him. As long as we are not tolerating known sin in our lives, He can and will use us in His purpose in spite of our imperfections.

3) Christian unity does not mean that we all must work closely with one another, but rather is a matter of shared life and shared light.

There is a lot of muddled thinking about Christian unity. Some try for organizational union, but if you have any knowledge of the World or National Councils of Churches, you know that organizational union means nothing. Others try to get all the churches together for a unity worship service. They argue, “They will know that we are Christians by our love, not by our doctrinal agreement.” But they ignore that Jesus also said in the same context, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17). There can be no true unity with those who deny the core truths of God’s Word.

Unity does not mean that we all have to work closely with one another. While we need to be careful not to go our separate ways too quickly, without working through differences, there are times when two strong leaders need to recognize that God is calling them to different spheres of service. Any parting of ways should be done in a spirit of mutual respect and without bitterness or acrimony. While I wish that there was some word here about Paul and Barnabas patching things up before they parted ways, at least later Paul did speak in a supportive way of both Barnabas and Mark (1 Cor. 9:6; 2 Tim. 4:11).

Unity does not mean that we all have to agree on every doctrinal or practical matter. As I mentioned several weeks ago, there are a few core doctrines that every Christian must hold to or he is denying the faith. But there are many issues where godly Christians, committed to the Scriptures, disagree. We must be charitable toward one another on these matters. And, there are many differences over the methods we use to do the Lord’s work. We should seek to follow biblical methods. We aren’t free to do things without biblical warrant. Some methods are so unbiblical that they deserve criticism. But as with doctrine, godly men disagree over which methods are biblical. We must be charitable toward those whose methods we do not agree with, even though we could not work closely with them.

The Bible recognizes two kinds of unity. In Ephesians 4:3, Paul mentions the unity of the Spirit, which he says we must be diligent to preserve. This implies that it is a spiritual fact, based on shared life in Jesus Christ. If a person has been born again into the body of Christ, then we are members of one another, and we must be careful not to damage that unity. Then, in verse 13, he mentions the unity of the faith, which he says we are to attain to as we mature in Christ. This is the oneness of shared light regarding biblical truth. It is the fellowship that deepens as we mutually grow to understand and love the great doctrines of the faith.

I might add that we need the Lord’s wisdom in picking compatible teammates in ministry. Paul was wise to choose Silas, a man endorsed by the Jerusalem church, who could back up Paul in delivering the decisions of the Council to the various churches. Silas was a Roman citizen, as Paul was, which was to their advantage in ministering in cities under Roman jurisdiction (Acts 16:37 ff.). He was a gifted prophet who could boldly proclaim God’s truth in a way that encouraged and strengthened believers (15:32). While no two men see eye to eye on everything, there should be a basic compatibility in approach to ministry.

We’ve seen that spiritual maturity does not erase personality differences. Such differences can lead to clashes that cause us to sin, if we’re not careful. Christian unity does not require that we all work closely, but rather shared life and shared light in the Lord.

3. We should not let personality clashes cause us to quit serving the Lord.

The work of Christ is greater than any one of us, and we should keep on serving Him even if we’ve had a clash with another Christian. Neither Paul nor Barnabas let this clash stop them from serving the Lord. They didn’t even take a time out. Instead of one missionary team, now in the providence of God, there were two.

Also, we do not read, “Paul was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, telling all the churches how wrong Barnabas was.” Rather, he went around strengthening the churches (15:41). There is no indication that Paul and Barnabas became rivals or competed with each other after this. Both men were committed to know Christ in a deeper way and to proclaim Christ to every person. As I said, every time after this that Paul mentions Barnabas or Mark, he does so in a kind and supportive manner.

Sometimes it is necessary to warn other Christians about someone who is unethical or whose doctrine is off base. Paul did that on occasion. But our main emphasis needs to be on proclaiming Christ, not on hauling out our complaints against others to vindicate ourselves and to run down the other person.


When you face a personality clash with another Christian, as you surely will, try to disengage your emotions and objectively think through the answers to these four questions:

1) What is the real nature of the difficulty?

This is not an easy question to answer, but you must face it as honestly as possible. We all need to be careful here, because we have a built in tendency to push personality differences into the realm of doctrine or sin. It sounds far more spiritual to say that the other person is doctrinally off base or that he sinned against me than to admit that his personality grates on mine. It is especially difficult because our feelings usually get hurt in these situations. Sometimes a more objective third party can help us work through these matters (Phil. 4:2-3).

2) Is there an important biblical principle at stake?

Again, be careful here! Is there more than one principle that applies? I can hear Paul quoting Jesus: “No one after putting his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God.” And, Barnabas probably countered, “Yes, but God is the gracious God of the second chance. Look at Jonah. Look at Peter. Mark deserves a second chance.” Both men had Scripture to back up their opposing views! Sometimes, because of personality differences, one man elevates one biblical principle, while the other man elevates a different biblical principle. Sometimes in such cases, if the principle is basic to one’s approach to ministry, it may be better to agree to work separately.

Some of you may be thinking, “What if you can’t separate from the person that you clash with because you’re married to him (or her)?” That leads to the third question you need to ask:

3) What godly character qualities is the Lord trying to develop in me through this clash?

Sometimes God in His grace (and in His sense of humor) throws us together with people who grate against us in order to sandpaper our rough edges. Let’s face it, I don’t need patience, forbearance, gentleness, and kindness when the other person sees everything my way! I don’t need to learn to deny myself when the other person thinks that I’m a wonderful guy. But when there is a clash, God often confronts me with my selfishness and stubbornness. If I submit to Him and don’t bail out of the difficult relationship, He will use it to develop those Christlike qualities in me.

4) Would the cause of Christ be furthered or hindered by my continuing to work closely with this person?

In the case of two Christians who are married to one another, it would not further the cause of Christ to divorce over incompatible personalities. They need to learn to appreciate one another’s strengths, to affirm each other in love, and to agree to disagree over certain matters of daily life. Divorce harms the work of Christ.

In the case of Christian workers, if they can learn to affirm one another’s strengths, the beauty of the body of Christ can be demonstrated through their working relationship. God gives us differing gifts, and the hand has no right to reject the foot because it is not a hand (1 Cor. 12:12-30). But, there are times where two workers have to spend so much time ironing out matters between them that it hinders their getting on with the work of the ministry. At such times, it is probably better to seek different spheres of service in a spirit of mutual respect and affirmation.

The British admiral, Lord Nelson, once came on deck and found two of his officers quarreling. He whirled them around, pointed to the enemy ships, and exclaimed, “Gentlemen, there are your enemies!”

When we face personality differences in the church, we need to be diligent to guard the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We need to seek to work out our differences if possible in a spirit of love and kindness. If we must part ways, we should continue serving the Lord and not let the enemy get us to attack those whom God has given different personalities than He has given us.

Discussion Questions

  1. When is it a sin to belong to a particular denomination? Are denominations by definition sinful? Defend biblically.
  2. How does liking someone interface with loving him (or her)? Is it wrong not to like everyone?
  3. When my personality clashes with someone else’s, how do I know when I cross the line into sin?
  4. How can we work at genuine Christian unity with other believers? What practical steps can we take?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Fellowship, Spiritual Life

Lesson 39: The Sovereign Spirit (Acts 16:1-10)

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Over 30 years ago, a friend of mine that I have long lost touch with wrote a paper that I have often thought about. I have modified and shortened it considerably, but it ran something like this:

That fateful week began and progressed as normal for the majority of Christendom. Oh, this week was quite different, but only a few Christians would notice—far too few.

One pastor arose early on Sunday to review the sermon that he had prepared. He would begin his three-point evangelistic message with a funny story. Then he had included a few Bible verses, the quote from Time magazine, and a story about a dramatic conversion. And, of course, he would conclude with an emotional appeal to come forward and make a decision. “Yes,” he thought, “this one has been planned perfectly. It ought to produce great results.” As he reread the sermon for the last time, it was obvious that he didn’t notice the difference.

Sunday morning services throughout the country went exactly as planned. Each sanctuary was full of smiling, well-dressed Christians. The services began with the doxology, prayer, announcements, a couple of hymns, and special music during the offering. Although the hymns sounded rather dead, it was no worse than usual. In fact, people responded to the ministers’ pleas, and the offerings were larger than usual. Even the invitations were a success. As the congregation finished the third verse of “Just As I Am,” many came forward for rededication, salvation, or church membership. As the people filed out the door to get home in time for the football game on TV, it was obvious that none of them had noticed the difference.

The week continued on flawlessly. The banquet Tuesday night was a huge success, as the church raised enough pledges for the down payment on the new sanctuary. The Wednesday evening prayer meeting also went on as usual. The few who came prayed that God would bless all of the missionaries. For the Friday night high school social, the youth pastor had come up with some crazy new games that made it a roaring success. But no one noticed the difference.

A few church members even got to witness at work that week. Rick, for example, had been feeling guilty about not talking with Don. So at lunch he took a deep breath, pulled the booklet from his pocket, and read the laws to Don. Although Don didn’t seem very interested, Rick plowed through the entire presentation. He left the booklet with Don and encouraged him to pray the prayer at the end to invite Christ into his heart. Rick felt a sense of relief that he finally had shared the laws. But Rick didn’t notice. In fact, few Christians would have noticed, even in an entire year.

But there were a few Christians that had a most frustrating week. One pastor sat and stared at his Bible, but couldn’t get anything out of it. He knew the Bible and he knew how to prepare biblical sermons. But the Bible had become a dead book to him. He was frustrated and perplexed. But he noticed the difference!

Some other believers also noticed. One man kept succumbing to lusting after an attractive woman at work. He couldn’t get the victory, no matter how hard he tried. Another man angrily snapped at his wife and yelled at his kids. When he felt a twinge of guilt, he justified himself by blaming them for being insensitive to his needs. A small group that normally was overflowing with joy in the Lord and love for one another found themselves depressed and bickering. Several other Christians found themselves doubting their salvation, and even wondering if God existed. These believers were defeated, frustrated, and confused. But, they definitely noticed the difference!

When those at the church who had experienced a normal week heard about those who were having trouble, they weren’t surprised. They knew that something like this would happen sooner or later. They knew that these other Christians were just too radical. Those whose week had gone well smugly thought, “It serves those fanatics right! You can’t be excited about Jesus week in and week out!”

What was there to notice as different about this week? God decided to see which Christians were living in dependence on His Holy Spirit, and which ones were just depending on their own intellect and human plans to live the Christian life. So, He completely withdrew His Holy Spirit from the earth for the entire week! Think about it—would you notice the difference?

My friend was making the point that it is easy to fall into routine Christianity, where we function in the flesh instead of walk in vital dependence upon God’s Spirit. One of the main lessons of the Book of Acts is that the expansion of the early church was due to the working of the Holy Spirit. He was directing, moving, and empowering the apostles as they responded to His leading. If we want to see God working today in a similar fashion, we need to fight routine Christianity and rather, seek daily to submit to and follow the sovereign Spirit. The message of our text is,

Since the Holy Spirit is sovereign over His work, we must seek to follow Him as we labor for the Lord.

The text assumes that we, with Paul and Silas, are already seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33). If you are not living with that focus, you need to stop and confess it to the Lord, and yield yourself in obedience to His will for your life. Undergirding and woven through our text is the fact that the Holy Spirit is sovereign, and these men were obediently following His lead as they sought to do His work. There are four lessons:

1. The sovereign Spirit leads us to the right workers (16:1-2, 10).

We read that Paul came to Derbe and to Lystra (16:1). That was a radically courageous thing to do! Lystra was where Paul had been stoned, dragged out of the city and thrown on the garbage heap as dead. If I were he, I would not be inclined to go back to Lystra. But here, where he had suffered so terribly, and while he was still grieving over the falling out with Barnabas, God graciously brought into Paul’s life this young man, Timothy, who would become like a faithful son to Paul.

Timothy’s mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois (2 Tim. 1:5) were Jewish women who had become believers in Jesus Christ. Although Timothy’s father was an unbelieving Greek, these women had taught Timothy the Scriptures from his childhood (2 Tim. 3:15). On Paul’s first visit to Lystra, these women and the young Timothy had gotten saved. By Paul’s second visit, Timothy, who would have been in his late teens or early twenties, had established a good reputation among the believers in Lystra and Iconium. Just as witnessing the stoning of Stephen had made an indelible impression on Paul, so watching Paul get stoned had made a profound impression on young Timothy. As a result, he had resolved to follow Jesus Christ, no matter what the cost. So now Paul saw Timothy’s commitment and invited him to join the missionary team. It was the start of a lifelong and life-changing friendship.

Not only Timothy, but also Luke soon joined the team. In verse 10, the first of the “we” sections of Acts begins. It ends at the end of chapter 16, as Luke stays in Philippi to shepherd the new church there, while the team moves on. It resumes again, six or seven years later, in 20:5 and runs to the end of Acts. Luke, the beloved physician, a Gentile, became a faithful worker with Paul.

These new relationships did not happen by chance. The Lord knows that we need fellow Christians of a kindred spirit to encourage us and to work with us in the cause of Christ. We need older believers like Barnabas had been to Paul. We need contemporaries, like Silas and Luke. And, we should ask God for some younger believers, like Timothy, that we can bring along in the faith. Ask the sovereign Spirit to lead you to the right people to be not only your friends, but also your co-workers in the cause of Christ.

2. The sovereign Spirit gives us wisdom in the right strategies for ministry (16:3).

Paul circumcised Timothy because of the Jews in those parts, who knew that his father was a Greek. Why did Paul do that? Many have criticized him for violating his own convictions against keeping the Jewish ceremonial law.

But Paul acted consistently with his convictions, even if it caused his critics to misunderstand him. In Galatians 2:3, Paul states that Titus, a Gentile, was not required to undergo circumcision. So why circumcise Timothy, but not Titus? With Titus, it was a question of whether a man is justified by grace through faith alone, or whether he must also keep the Law of Moses. It would have compromised the very gospel to circumcise Titus. But with Timothy, who was half-Jewish, it was a matter of causing needless offense to unbelieving Jews. Circumcision would allow Timothy to accompany Paul and Silas into the synagogues where they often preached. So it was a matter of becoming a Jew to the Jews, so that he could win the Jews (1 Cor. 9:20). Paul did not want anything to hinder Jewish people from hearing and believing the gospel.

We all need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom from God’s Word so that we know which convictions to take a stand for, and which areas we need to yield out of love. All too often, we stand firm where we ought to yield, and we yield where we ought to stand firm. Only the Holy Spirit can impart the wisdom we need as we grow to understand God’s Word.

3. The sovereign Spirit enables His workers to strengthen the churches (16:4-5).

The missionary team traveled throughout the region, delivering the decrees of the Jerusalem Council. As a result the churches were being strengthened in the faith and were increasing in number daily. The Jerusalem decrees, as we saw, affirmed two things. First, they affirmed that salvation is not by keeping the Law of Moses, but rather is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Second, they asked Gentile believers, out of consideration for the Jews, not to engage in four things that were especially offensive to Jews: eating things sacrificed to idols; eating meat with the blood, or meat that had been strangled; and, fornication, which was commonly accepted in the pagan culture (15:29).

It strengthens churches to hear the gospel affirmed, that we are saved by God’s grace through faith alone in what Jesus Christ provided for us on the cross. And, it strengthens churches to learn to walk in love, in submission to proper spiritual authority. These churches were not free to vote on whether or not to submit to the apostolic decrees. They willingly submitted to them. The aim behind the decrees was to show love and to avoid offending the Jews so that lost Jews could get saved, and believing Jews would not divide from the Gentiles in the churches.

We who are pastors and elders should seek to strengthen the church by helping every person understand the gospel clearly. And, we should help each member joyfully submit to God’s Word and to act in loving regard for others so as not to cause needless offense. Then the church will be strong and increase in numbers.

We’ve seen that the sovereign Spirit leads us to the right workers, gives us wisdom for the right strategies in ministry, and enables us to strengthen the churches. Finally,

4. The sovereign Spirit leads His workers to the right opportunities for ministry (16:6-10).

I can only touch briefly on each point. Note six things:

1) Opportunities come to those who are already serving, not to those who are doing nothing.

Sometimes people don’t serve the Lord because they’ve never experienced a dramatic “call” to ministry. But this Macedonian call did not come to people who were doing nothing; it came to men who were actively serving the Lord. It was not a call to begin serving the Lord or to become a missionary, but rather a clarification of direction in an existing ministry. You can turn the steering wheel of your car all day long, but if the car isn’t moving, you won’t get anywhere. You can sit around and pray for God’s direction for service, but you won’t get it if you’re not already serving Him. Start doing something to serve Jesus Christ, and He will redirect you if He needs to.

2) God sometimes leads us to the right opportunities by hindering us from the wrong ones.

We read (16:6) that these men were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia” (a province in western Turkey). Next, they tried to go north into Bithynia (near the Black Sea), but “the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them” (16:7). What’s going on here? Didn’t the Lord want those in Asia or Bithynia to hear the gospel? Yes, later He did (18:19-21, 24-19:41; 1 Pet. 1:1), but not now. All we know is that the Holy Spirit is sovereign over His work, and that He stopped these faithful men from going into these two regions and redirected them into Europe at this time. He did not do it because of anything that He saw in the Europeans that was more worthy than what He saw in the Asians or Bithynians. The gospel does not come to people based on their merit, but rather based on God’s sovereign, unmerited grace.

I’m going to raise a couple of questions that I cannot answer, but you can chew on them with me. First, how did the Holy Spirit forbid these men from going into these areas? It could have been through an audible voice. It may have been through circumstances that blocked the way. It may have been a lack of inner peace. It may have been physical illness on Paul’s part, which was why he linked up with Luke at this point. The bottom line is, we don’t know how the Spirit communicated these prohibitions, since the text does not say. But He uses many different ways of hindering us from heading in the wrong direction. We’re not talking here about doing something that is against God’s Word, but rather about doing good things that simply are not His will for us at this time.

The second question is, how did these men know that the hindrances were from the Holy Spirit and thus to be obeyed; and not from some other source and thus to be overcome? In 1 Thessalonians 2:18, Paul says that Satan had hindered him from visiting the Thessalonians. But here, it was the Spirit of God who hindered them. How did he know the difference? Sometimes God wants us by faith to keep knocking until closed doors are opened. At other times, the closed doors are His way of saying no. All I can say is, we need His wisdom and discernment to know the difference. I don’t have any formulas for figuring it out!

3) God’s leading us to the right opportunities is usually a progressive matter, not an instant revelation of the big picture.

Paul was feeling his way along at this point. After these two hindrances, if you had asked him what his plans were, he probably would have said, “I honestly don’t have a clue!” In The Tapestry [Word], Edith Schaeffer says that she and Fran did not move to Europe with a plan to start L’Abri, which became a world-famous ministry. They moved there to minister to children. When their own children got into the university, they started bringing unsaved friends home to talk to their father about Christianity. It soon developed into the L’Abri ministry as they followed God’s sovereign leading. Usually, knowing God’s will is like driving in the fog. God just gives us enough light to see the next few feet. As we follow, He gives us the light we need to keep moving ahead.

4) When God reveals His will to us, we must make sure that it is from the Lord, and then be quick to obey.

The word “concluding” (16:10) indicates that the missionary team discussed the meaning of Paul’s vision before taking action. The word means to join or knit together, or unite. As they talked, it all came together. As soon as they were sure of what God was saying, immediately they sought to go into Macedonia. They didn’t form a committee and deliberate for months. They figured out what God wanted and went down to the harbor to buy tickets.

Does God direct us through visions in our day? The answer is, He can, but be careful! There are all sorts of crazy visions that people have that are not from the Lord. Benny Hinn told an audience on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (10/19/99) that the Lord had revealed to him that thousands of people from all over the world would be raised from the dead when people put their caskets in front of their TV sets tuned to that station. I don’t know of any funeral homes that have been lacking for business yet!

On the other hand, Bill Bright tells of how late one night as he was studying with a friend for a Greek exam in seminary, he suddenly sensed God’s presence in a way that he had never known before. He had the overwhelming impression that the Lord had unfolded a scroll of instructions of what he was to do with his life. Specifically, he knew that he was to devote his life to help fulfill the Great Commission by winning and discipling the students of the world for Christ. When he shared it with his Bible professor, Dr. Wilbur Smith, he paced back and forth in his office, saying, “This is of God. This is of God. I want to help you. Let me think and pray about it.” The next day, Dr. Smith handed Bill a piece of paper on which he had scribbled, “CCC.” He explained that God had provided the name for Bill’s vision, Campus Crusade for Christ (Come Help Change the World [Revell], pp. 26-27).

The balance we need is on the one hand not to quench the Spirit, but on the other hand to examine everything carefully and hold fast to that which is good (1 Thess. 5:19-21). An obstinate apostle Paul could have plowed ahead into Asia or Bithynia against God’s promptings not to do so. But the obedient apostle obeyed God’s promptings and waited until the Spirit showed him where to go. Then he went immediately. The world has never been the same.

5) Often, when we obey, the reality does not match the vision.

Paul saw a man of Macedonia calling for help. He got there and found a small group of women gathered by the river, and one of these became the first convert. The second convert was a demon-possessed slave girl. Her conversion landed Paul and Silas in prison with their backs shredded by whips. It wasn’t a glorious beginning, to say the least! But it’s how the gospel began to take root in Europe, and we now know that the history of Europe has been forever different. Often when we obey God’s leading and launch out into His work, the reality doesn’t match the vision. But we must continue to obey what we know He called us to do.

6) The greatest help that we can give to people is to proclaim the gospel to them.

“Come over to Macedonia and help us” (16:10). Paul went and gave them the best help in the world: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved” (16:31). That is the most helpful message that we can give to anyone. It is the most helpful thing that we can do for anyone. We may have to feed a hungry man and provide for his other physical needs, before we can tell him. But if we only provide for his physical needs and neglect the spiritual, we have not given him the most important help.

If you were walking down the street and heard someone cry, “Help me! Help me!” you would be stirred to action. If you could not provide help yourself, you would at least make sure that the proper help got to this needy person. Ask God to burden your heart with the cry of the lost: “Come over and help me!” If you cannot go yourself, at least you will give and pray for missionaries to go. That’s the best help we can give to a desperately lost world.


Let me leave you with the questions I asked at the beginning of this message: Are you seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness? If not, you need to do some serious thinking about your priorities. Would you notice if God withdrew His Holy Spirit from your life this week? If not, you need to get in tune with Him and seek to follow His leading for how He wants you to labor for His kingdom.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a Christian know if he is walking in true dependence on the Holy Spirit?
  2. How can we know the Spirit’s leading on issues where the Bible does not give specific help?
  3. How can we know exactly where God wants us to be serving Him? What factors should we consider?
  4. Does God still guide through dreams or visions? If we have such, how can we know if it’s from the Lord?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Spiritual Life

Lesson 40: Three Encounters With God (Acts 16:11-34)

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God uses some unusual means to bring people to salvation. Charles Spurgeon tells of a man who once went to a chapel to listen to the singing, but he didn’t want to hear the preaching. So as soon as the pastor began speaking, the man put his fingers in his ears. But after a while, an insect landed on his face, and so he had to take one finger out of his ear to brush it off. Just as he did, the pastor said, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.” The man listened, and God met him at that point to his soul’s conversion (Spurgeon’s Sermons [Baker], 1:306).

A missionary to Africa many years ago told of a woman who came to every service, accompanied by her dog.  She would sit on the outside, next to the aisle. At the end of the service, when the pastor gave the invitation to come forward for prayer, she would go forward, and the dog would come along beside her.

The woman’s husband was a hard, abusive man. In fact, he beat her so severely because of her Christian lifestyle that she died. There must not have been any law enforcement in that part of Africa then, because the man was not arrested. So he was left alone with the dog. He began to notice that every Wednesday evening about 7 p.m. the dog would disappear for about two hours. Also, every Sunday morning, the dog would leave about 9 and return about noon. Sunday evening, again the dog would leave for a couple of hours and then return.

The man’s curiosity was so aroused that he decided to follow the dog. He followed it to the church and he took a seat in the back to watch. The dog sat down near the aisle, in his usual place. After the service, he watched the dog go forward and take his place at the altar, where his wife had prayed. The man was so touched in his spirit that he, too, went forward and gave his life to Christ. So God used a dog to lead a hardened sinner to repentance!

We may not have any stories quite like that here today, but if we went around the room, we would hear some very different ways that God worked to bring each of us to salvation. Our text shows us three very different people who had different encounters with God. We cannot be sure that the second person, the slave girl, actually got saved, since the text does not say. But we can hope that she was saved, since God delivered her from demonic forces. But these three encounters with God teach us that …

God providentially works to draw very different people to Himself through the same gospel.

These three encounters may seem insignificant, but actually they were the beginning of a movement that changed world history. I’m sure that the Roman Emperor, Claudius, would have shrugged his shoulders in apathy if he had learned that a little Jewish man named Paul had set foot on European soil to tell people about Jesus Christ. Claudius had more important matters to attend to than this! And yet this was the beginning of Christianity in Europe, and its influence there changed the world. These three encounters should encourage us to be faithful to share our faith as we see how God uses the gospel to save different people.

1. God works through His providence to draw different people in different circumstances to Himself.

God’s providence refers to the fact that He is sovereignly working behind the scenes, even when we are not aware of it, to work all things after the counsel of His will. In other words, nothing happens by chance, even though it may seem to us to be by chance. Certainly the salvation of a soul, whom God has predestined to salvation before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4-5), is not left to chance!

Take the case of Lydia. She was from Thyatira, in western Turkey. The town was noted, among other commercial ventures, for its trade in expensive purple cloth. Emperors and Roman senators, as well as the wealthy, wore purple garments as a status symbol. Lydia, who was probably a widow, had moved from Thyatira to Philippi to do business there. The term translated “a worshiper of God” (16:14; see 10:2; 13:16, 26, 50) means that she was a Gentile who had come to believe in the God of the Jews, although she was not yet a full proselyte to Judaism.

You may recall that Paul would have preached in Lydia’s home region, but the Holy Spirit forbade him at that time (16:6). Then he wanted to go into Bithynia, but again the Spirit said no. Finally, through the vision of the Macedonian man calling for help, Paul and the missionary team went to Europe. Luke reports that they ran a straight course, which means that the wind was favorable, and got to their destination in two days (later it would take five going the other direction, 20:6). Surely, God was with them now! They landed at the port city of Neapolis, walked the ten miles to Philippi, and no doubt wondered when God would introduce them to this Macedonian man who was ready to receive Christ.

They stayed in Philippi for some days, but no Macedonian man materialized. On the Sabbath, Paul said, “Let’s find out where the Jews gather for worship.” Philippi lacked the ten Jewish men in a town that it took to form a synagogue. As the missionary team wandered down by the river, they came upon a small group of women praying. Paul and his team sat down and explained the gospel to this small group of women. The Lord opened Lydia’s heart, along with the hearts of those in her household, to respond to the gospel (16:14), and they got saved.

So the Lord brought Lydia from western Turkey to Philippi and Paul from wanting to go into western Turkey to Philippi, and brought them together here so that she could get saved! If you had asked Paul if his intention was to start a church with a group of women, I’m sure he would have said, “No way!” But it was God’s way to begin the church in Europe. The Macedonian man turned out to be an Asian woman!

Then God orchestrated another “coincidence.” As the team was going to this place of prayer, probably to give further teaching to these new believers, a slave girl with a spirit of divination met them. The Greek term is that she had a “Python spirit.” This referred to the legendary snake that guarded the Delphic Oracle in central Greece. Apollo supposedly killed this snake, and the snake’s spirit dwelled in the priestess there. So a “Python spirit” referred to a spirit that enabled someone to predict the future. This slave girl was being used by her owners for fortune-telling, much to the fortunes of the owners!

This girl kept following after the missionaries, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). As this continued for many days, Paul became greatly annoyed, so he commanded the spirit in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her, and it did so instantly. Luke does not tell us if this girl got saved, but we can hope that since her owners had no further use for her, the church would have taken her in and that she did meet the Lord Jesus.

Luke is interested in the story because it shows how the Lord got Paul and Silas to their next divine appointment, with the Philippian jailer and an entire jailhouse full of prisoners. Again, he does not tell us if any of the prisoners trusted in Christ, although it is not unreasonable to assume that some did. But the jailer and his entire household believed in the gospel and got saved. Advocates of infant baptism use the story of the jailer to argue that surely there were some infants among the household that got baptized. But the story does not say any such thing, and it specifically states that those who got baptized had believed in God (16:34). You have to assume infant baptism and read it into this text to find it there, because it simply is not there!

Notice how different these three individuals were. Lydia was a respectable businesswoman with religious convictions. She had a home large enough to offer lodging to the four missionaries, and so she must have been fairly well-to-do. The slave girl was a piece of property to be used and discarded by her masters. Rather than seeking after God, she was actively serving Satan. The jailer was a hardened military man. He could take prisoners with their backs bleeding, throw them into the prison, fasten their feet into the stocks (which were not designed for personal comfort!), lock the door, and go get a good night’s rest, except for being awakened by an earthquake.

Also notice how different the circumstances were in which these three people encountered the Lord. God had already worked in Lydia’s heart to make her a seeker after Him and so she was in a prayer meeting. The slave girl was on the streets, with absolutely no knowledge of the one true God. The jailer was saved in connection with doing his job. He was suddenly awakened by this powerful earthquake, and when he saw the prison door opened, he was ready to fall on his sword and die, since he would be tortured and executed if any of the prisoners had escaped. Out of this extreme crisis, he met the Lord.

Isn’t it interesting that the Lord picked these three very different types of people to form the nucleus of the infant church in Philippi? Lydia didn’t start a seeker church for Yuppie businesspeople. The slave girl didn’t join the hippie church for former street people. And the jailer didn’t join the military chapel. They all had to learn to accept and love each other in the same church in Philippi. The Lord works through His providence to draw very different people from different backgrounds to Himself, and He wants them to learn to love one another as a testimony to the world of His saving grace. And even though these three people were very different, it was the same gospel that saved them all.

2. God uses the same gospel to save people, no matter how different they are.

God providentially orchestrated the circumstances that led to the salvation of these people, but His messengers had to faithfully deliver the message. Some will say, “If salvation is totally of the Lord, then He will save whom He is going to save, and we don’t have to do anything.” That is a perversion of Scripture! God’s normal means of saving people is to use His servants to proclaim “the way of salvation” (16:17) to those He intends to save.

A. We should seek every opportunity to proclaim the gospel, both through our words and through our lives.

Paul and his team were probably looking for men to preach to. It would have been counter to Paul’s pharisaic background to teach women about spiritual matters. But if he had been operating on that basis, he would have missed this opportunity to explain the gospel to this small group of women by the river. And yet this was how God intended to start the church in Europe.

The lesson for us is not to despise any person as unimportant in God’s sight. We can easily think, “This person is not a ‘key’ person. It would be a waste of my time to share with him (or her).” Not so! “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God” (1 Cor. 1:27-29).

Paul and Silas bore witness not only by their proclaiming the gospel verbally, but also by their example. Their rights had been violated, their backs were ripped open by the rods that beat them, and they were thrown into the stocks in prison. But rather than complain, they sang hymns and prayed (16:25). If their focus had been on their own well-being, as soon as the prison doors flew open they would have said, “All right! We’re out of here!” Or when they saw the jailer about to fall on his sword, they would have said, “Go for it! It serves you right, you barbarian!” But their focus was not on themselves. It was on glorifying God and seeing other people, no matter how undeserving, experience God’s saving grace.

Don’t miss the application: If you ever are treated unfairly, you are probably being given a major opportunity for witness. If you rejoice in the Lord and keep your focus on the salvation of those who are mistreating you, your life and words can lead them to the Savior. If your focus is on yourself and getting your rights or getting revenge, you will miss the opportunity.

B. Satan seeks to thwart the gospel by his subtle strategies.

Sometimes Satan will use outright aggression against the Lord’s people, such as unjust beatings and imprisonment. But his more dangerous strategy, because it is more subtle, is not aggression, but alignment. “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation” (16:17). Those were perfectly true words! Why would Paul get irritated? If the girl had been shouting out a half-truth, I can see why Paul would be upset. But why was he upset with her shouting out the truth?

As Paul put it (2 Cor. 2:11), he didn’t want any advantage taken of him by Satan, because he was not ignorant of his schemes. One of Satan’s subtle strategies is to align himself with the truth. He is doing it in our day through the Mormon Church declaring itself to be just another evangelical denomination. When they say, “We are one with you; we believe just as you do. We’re Christians, too,” the world wrongly thinks that their message is no different than the gospel. When Protestants publicly confirm that they are one with Roman Catholics, the world mistakenly thinks that both groups are just different flavors of Christianity. You can take your pick in accordance with your preferences. But the truth is, the Roman Catholic Church and the Mormon Church both proclaim different ways of salvation than the gospel.

C. The gospel always centers on the person of Jesus Christ and on faith in Him alone as the way of salvation.

Paul’s gospel always centered on Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). The Christ he preached is the Christ revealed in the Old Testament and the Gospels. Note that he explained the way of salvation, both to Lydia and her group, and to the Philippian jailer and his household (16:14, 32). People need adequate understanding in order to believe. They must know who Jesus is and what He claimed. The Jesus Christ that Paul proclaimed is clearly eternal God in human flesh, who came to bear on the cross the just penalty that God requires for our sins. He taught that we are justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24). He plainly stated, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).

There are some in evangelical circles who say that since salvation is by faith alone, that to tell people that they must accept Jesus not only as Savior, but also as Lord, is to mix faith and works. But Paul told the jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved” (16:31). When he adds, “you and your household,” he means that the same promise applied to his household: If they would believe in the Lord Jesus, they, too, would be saved. There is no such thing as group salvation based on someone else’s faith. But you can’t come to Jesus as Savior and make His Lordship an optional package to consider later. You must trust in Him as Savior and submit your life to Him as Lord. Of course you grow in both faith and obedience as you mature as a Christian. The initial evidence that these converts submitted to Jesus as Savior and Lord is seen in their obedience through baptism and in the good deeds that followed their faith (16:15, 33, 34).

We’ve seen that God works providentially to draw very different people to Himself. He does it through the same gospel message, proclaimed by His servants.

3. Those who hear the gospel can either respond in faith or reject it because of the hardness of their hearts.

A. God opens the hearts of some to respond in faith.

Even though Lydia was a religious woman who feared God, she was not converted. She did not have it in herself to believe in the gospel. Rather, “God opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (16:14). Many, if not all, in her household also believed, since they confessed their faith in baptism (16:15). The jailer and his family also believed and were baptized (16:33-34). That is always the order in the Book of Acts: belief first, then baptism as a public confession of faith. The New Testament is clear that if we believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, it is not because we were so brilliant as to make that decision. It is because God graciously opened our hearts to respond. Saving faith is the gift of God (Acts 11:18; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29).

B. Others reject the gospel because of the hardness of their hearts.

There were some in this story who could have met God, but they missed Him. The owners of the slave girl missed God because of their greed and anger toward Paul for taking away the source of their income (16:19). They also lied to the city magistrates, trumping up false charges about Paul and Silas. The city magistrates could have listened to Paul’s defense, which surely would have included the gospel. But they missed their opportunity to meet God, because as good politicians, they wanted to keep their constituency happy. The crowd in Philippi missed meeting God because they swallowed the accusations of the slave owners without hearing Paul’s message and thinking carefully about it. Probably some anti-Semitic prejudice inclined them to reject Paul and his gospel.

Those who reject Jesus Christ cannot blame God for not opening their hearts to the gospel. They are responsible for their own sin. God does not owe them salvation. If they perish, they perish because they are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness” (Eph. 4:18, 19).


I once knew a man who was living as an immoral, drug-using hippie in one of the canyons leading to the beach northwest of Los Angeles. One morning a pastor and his wife prayed that God would direct their day and perhaps lead them to someone who needed to hear about the Savior. As this pastor was driving down this canyon, his muffler fell off his car right in front of this hippie’s shack. He went up to the door to ask if he could use the phone, and through this contact, he led this man to Jesus Christ.

Is God behind bugs that land on someone’s nose, and dogs that go to church, and mufflers that fall off cars at precisely the right place along the road? Is He providentially behind your being here today and hearing this message about your need for salvation? I think so!

The question is, how will you respond? In your hardness of heart, will you cling to your greed and sin and respond in anger to the message, as the slave owners in the story did? Or, will you join Lydia and the jailer and their households by responding in faith and giving glory to God for opening your heart to the good news, that Jesus Christ will save every sinner who believes in Him?

Discussion Questions

  1. Is there such a thing as luck? How can we know that all things are ordered by a wise and loving Providence?
  2. How does God’s providence relate to not losing our temper when we are treated unjustly?
  3. Should evangelicals work together with Roman Catholics or Mormons on social issues, such as abortion? Why/why not?
  4. If God must grant saving faith, why can’t unbelievers blame Him for not giving it to them?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Evangelism, Predestination, Soteriology (Salvation)


Net Bible

NET Bible

Lesson 41: How to be Right When You’re Wronged (Acts 16: 16-40)

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We Americans have a thing about standing up for our rights. If our rights are violated, we don’t take it sitting down. We will protest, we may sue, we’ll write to our congressman, take courses in assertiveness training, or whatever it takes to get our rights. We don’t do well when we are wronged.

The fact is, most of us as Americans have never experienced any serious violation of our religious rights. We do not know firsthand the true meaning of the word “persecution.” Perhaps some of you may have felt ostracized at work or have been passed over for a promotion because you are a Christian. Maybe your mate or a family member treats you with contempt because of your Christian convictions. But few of us know the kind of persecution experienced by those in former or present communist countries, or those in strongly Muslim countries They could more effectively preach from the story in our text than I can.

As Roman citizens, Paul and Silas had a right to a trial before any punishment. Romans were exempt from public beatings. And yet the two missionaries were falsely accused, beaten, and thrown into the inner prison, with their feet locked into the stocks, without any semblance of a trial. Their rights had been violated. If anyone had a right to be angry, they did. If it had been America, they would have sued and had the magistrates removed from office. Their response teaches us how to be right when we are wronged.

When you are wronged, entrust your soul to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.

I am using the wording of 1 Peter 4:19, which is one of two times in the New Testament God is called the Creator (Rom. 1:25 is the other). The term emphasizes His omnipotence and sovereignty. We see His mighty power here in the earthquake that rocked this prison. Either the quake or God’s miraculous power loosed all of the prisoners’ chains. And yet the same mighty power that sent the quake could have prevented the beating and imprisonment in the first place, but did not. So the first lesson is:

1. Count on it: you will be treated wrongly.

As Peter tells his persecuted readers, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). Don’t be surprised! Just because God is the omnipotent Creator does not mean that He will spare you from intense trials. It is false teaching that Christians are exempt from the common trials that come upon the entire human race: sickness, poverty, tragedies, and death. And, in addition to these common trials, we can expect even more trials because we are Christians.

Note some of the ways that Paul and Silas were mistreated. First, there were the false accusations. The real reason for the anger of the slave girl’s owners was that they had just been deprived of their source of income (16:19). But they didn’t mention that when they dragged Paul and Silas before the authorities. Rather, they accused them of throwing the city into confusion and of proclaiming customs that were not lawful for Romans to accept or observe (16:20-21). Those charges were simply not true. At some time you will be falsely accused.

Further, there was racial prejudice behind these false charges. The phrase, “being Jews,” was no doubt said with a slur. The Roman emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome in A.D. 49. The incident in Philippi took place probably in the fall of A.D. 50, and so anti-Jewish sentiment was running high. The Jewish religion was tolerated, but Jews were prohibited from proselytizing Romans. Many of you have experienced or will experience prejudice simply because of your racial background.

Also, Paul and Silas’ legal rights were violated. They were assumed guilty without a hearing or trial. They were not given an opportunity to defend themselves. They were physically attacked in an inhumane way. And, they were then locked into the stocks, which was a painful torture in and of itself, let alone when your back was ripped open from a beating. While in this country at this time, such physical torture from government authorities is rare, you may face times when your legal rights are violated.

Increasingly, our religious rights are being violated in the interest of so-called “neutrality.” Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that nude dancing was entitled to considerable legal protection as “expressive behavior,” but they struck down student elections permitting speech that might be used for prayer prior to high school football games. This led Theodore Olson, a leading critic of the Supreme Court, to suggest that the students should dance nude before their football games, since the court prefers naked dancing to prayer as a form of expression (Kathleen Parker, The Washington Times [9/11/00], p. A12)!

Whatever form it takes, you should not be surprised when you are treated wrongly. God does not give Christians an exemption, even when they are in the middle of doing His will and pursuing His kingdom and righteousness. As you know, a missionary wife and her baby were recently shot to death and the pilot of their plane was badly wounded when a Peruvian air force plane opened fire on them. That couple was in Peru to serve Jesus Christ. They were in, not out, of God’s will. Paul and Silas did not sit in jail lamenting, “Maybe we missed the signals! Maybe God didn’t mean for us to come to Macedonia. Are we out of the will of God?” Being in the will of God is not a guarantee of protection from trials.

Peter warns those going through suffering to be on the alert, since the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us in such times (1 Pet. 5:8). In times of trial, Satan tempts us to think things like, “If God exists and if He is good, why didn’t He protect you from this extreme situation?” As Peter goes on to show, and as Paul and Silas here exemplify, the solution is to resist the devil by being firm in our faith in the Almighty God. Our trials do not mean that He does not exist or that He is not loving and good. He has a greater purpose that we often do not understand. Our responsibility in such difficult times is to trust and obey Him.

2. When you are treated wrongly, entrust your soul to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.

Paul and Silas show us four aspects of a right response to wrong treatment.

A. When you are treated wrongly, keep your joy in the Lord uppermost.

Paul and Silas, their rights having been violated and their backs torn open, their feet in the stocks and locked in the dark inner prison, were praying and singing hymns of praise to God at midnight (16:25)! That convicts me of my lack of joy and my grumbling over the minor irritations in my life!

As John Piper rightly states, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. Thus if we want to glorify God, which is the highest goal for the Christian, we must focus on finding joy in Him. Scripture commands us, “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Ps. 37:4). “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together…. O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:3, 8). “Praise the Lord” is not a nice suggestion; it’s a command! Although I have not verified it, I have heard that the most frequent command in the entire Bible is, “Sing!” And you can’t rightly obey the command to praise God and sing for joy unless your heart is full of joy in Him.

Paul and Silas would not have been rejoicing in the Lord in the dungeon at midnight under these awful circumstances if it had not been a regular part of their everyday lives. They had a daily habit of mentally focusing on how great and wonderful God is, and on the many blessings that He daily heaps on His children. The greatest blessing is His gift of salvation by His free grace. Thus Paul could say that the life he now lived in the flesh, he lived by faith in the Son of God who loved him and gave Himself for him (Gal. 2:20). As you know, when he later wrote to this Philippian church from a prison cell in Rome, the major theme of that letter was joy in the Lord in spite of our circumstances. “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord” (Phil. 3:1). “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).

I wish that Paul had said, “Rejoice in the Lord as a general rule.” But, always? Come on, Paul, get realistic! He also wrote to the Philippians, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Phil. 2:14). All things? I could handle, “Try not to grumble too much.” “Rejoice always;… In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:18). Always? In everything? The man must not have lived in the same world I live in! O, but he did! He was a man who had learned to focus on the Lord and His abundant grace in every situation, and so he was filled with joy in the Lord in every situation, even in severe trials.

He wrote, “We exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5). He told the Colossians, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake” (Col. 1:24). Was he a masochist, or what?

No, in this he was simply obeying the words of Jesus, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great” (Matt. 5:11-12). Or, as James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2-3). Peter echoes this: “But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Pet. 4:13). It’s not enough just to grit your teeth and endure trials; God wants us to rejoice in them!

We need to keep in mind that Paul and Silas did not know the end of this story when they began singing at midnight in the dungeon. For all they knew, they would be executed the next day, or left to die a slow death in prison. Their singing was not based on their knowledge of a happy outcome. It was based on their knowledge of a good and sovereign God. While in this instance, His will was to send a powerful earthquake and free them, it doesn’t always work out that way. Many of God’s faithful saints have died for their faith, but like John Hus, who was betrayed and burned at the stake, they die singing.

A cheerful, joyous spirit does not depend on having wonderful, trouble-free circumstances. It depends on daily cultivating joy in the Lord. As G. Campbell Morgan observes, “He did not sing because he was to be let out of prison. He sang because prison did not matter” (The Westminster Pulpit [Baker], 9:314-315). The only way that prison and mistreatment and a raw back do not matter is when the delight of God matters more. As George Muller put it, the chief business of every day is first of all to seek to be truly at rest and happy in God (A. T. Pierson, George Muller of Bristol [Revell], p. 257).

I emphasize this first point because it is foundational to everything else. So many professing Christians are grumbling, discontented people. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, they think that they would be happier back in slavery in Egypt than to be with God and His provision in the wilderness. Cultivating joy in the Lord every day is not optional. It is mandatory for all who know His salvation.

B. When you are treated wrongly, keep your witness to others in mind.

Paul and Silas were not singing so that they could be good witnesses in this difficult situation. They were singing because their hearts were full of praise toward God and the joy of His salvation. But the overflow of their worship was witness. That’s how it always should be. The world should see (or hear) our joy in the Lord from the dungeon and ask, “What’s with these people, anyway?” Then we tell them. Our lives back up the reality of the message.

Luke notes that “the prisoners were listening to them” (16:25). They always are, of course! Those who are prisoners in Satan’s domain of darkness are always listening to and watching the Lord’s people, especially in times of trial. If Paul and Silas had been having a pity party because their rights had been violated and they had been treated wrongly when they were just trying to serve the Lord, they would have been depressed and complaining. They would have missed this great opportunity for witness.

As I mentioned last week, any time that your rights have been violated and you have been mistreated, you are probably looking at a wonderful opportunity for bearing witness of Christ. Years ago, in the former Soviet Union, a criminal who later got saved and became a church leader, wrote about his experience in prison:

Among the general despair, while prisoners like myself were cursing ourselves, the camp, the authorities; while we opened up our veins or our stomachs, or hanged ourselves; the Christians (often with sentences of 20 to 25 years) did not despair. One could see Christ reflected in their faces. Their pure, upright life, deep faith and devotion to God, their gentleness and their wonderful manliness, became a shining example of life for thousands (in Christianity Today [6/21/74]).

Not many of us will ever go through what Christians in communist prisons had to endure. But we will be treated wrongly, at work and at home. With Paul, we should aim at doing all things for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:23), because the prisoners will be listening. Focus on joy in the Lord and don’t forget your witness.

C. When you are treated wrongly, trust the sovereign, all-powerful God to work for His glory.

I have a hunch that if most of us had gone through what Paul and Silas suffered, if we were praying at midnight it would be, “God, get me out of here!” I can’t prove it, but I also have a hunch that Paul and Silas were not praying that way. If they had been praying that way, as soon as God sent the powerful earthquake, they would have said, “All right! We’re out of here!” And they would have run for their lives.

I think that if they were offering any petitions mixed in with their praise, it would have been, “Lord, use this situation for the greater furtherance of the gospel.” Paul and Silas knew that God could have prevented them from being beaten and thrown in prison in the first place, but He did not do so. They trusted that He had another purpose in mind, and so He did, namely, the conversion of the jailer and his family. As Paul later wrote to the Philippians, his aim was that with all boldness, Christ would even now, as always, be exalted in his body, whether by life or by death (Phil. 1:20). Paul trusted God to work for His purpose and glory, whether Paul got delivered or whether he died in the process.

The real issue, when you’re treated wrongly, is, Do you trust in a sovereign, omnipotent God who could have prevented this situation if He had so willed? If you do, then the next issue is to pray, “Lord, use this difficult situation for Your glory to further Your purpose.” Whenever Paul wrote as a prisoner, he never said, “Paul, a prisoner of that scoundrel Caesar who has unjustly put me in prison!” No, it was always, “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” He trusted in the sovereign and all-powerful God, who easily could overrule Caesar if He so chose.

Maybe you’re wondering, “Does trusting God mean that we should never stand up for our rights? Do we just lay down as doormats and take whatever happens passively?” That leads to the last point:

D. When you are treated wrongly, know when and why to stand up for your rights.

We don’t know why, but for some reason the next morning the magistrates sent to the jailer and told him to release Paul and Silas. Maybe they thought that the beating and night in prison would send these guys packing, never to return. But at this point, Paul says, “No way! They have violated our rights as Roman citizens. We demand that they personally come and bring us out” (16:37). Why did Paul do that?

There were at least two reasons. First, Paul was concerned for justice for all people, and what these magistrates had done was grossly unjust. He knew that by making them come and personally apologize and escort them out of prison, word would spread through the community of what had happened. It would be a very long time before these officials would beat a man without a trial. Paul’s action helped hold these men accountable to carry out justice for others who would be accused of some crime. The next time, they would follow the Roman law!

Second, Paul was concerned about the future of the church and the gospel in Philippi. By making these officials realize that they had committed a serious offense against Roman citizens, Paul insured that they would not trouble the Christians in Philippi. Also, if he wanted to come back again, he knew that they would not prevent him. So he stood on his rights in order to protect the church and the cause of Christ in that city.

In line with that, Paul’s action showed the entire city, which would have heard about this incident, the spirit of Jesus Christ. By rights, Paul could have had their heads if he had taken his case to a higher authority. But he let their wrong go unpunished and by his actions showed that Christians are not out for personal vengeance. The spirit of Christ is to forgive those who sin against us, while at the same time holding them accountable to change their behavior.

This one incident does not exhaust the biblical teaching on when to stand up for your rights and when to let them go. Some wrongly teach that we should never defend ourselves, either legally or against aggressive attacks against our character or person. But Paul wrote Second Corinthians to defend his character and his apostolic ministry. All I can say here is, when you are treated wrongly, your response should be motivated by the furtherance of God’s glory and the gospel, and by the administration of God’s justice through law and government, which He has appointed for the well being of society. It is wrong to act out of personal vengeance, greed, or other selfish motives.


The main application of this story for me is to work on having joy in the Lord in every situation. Everything else flows from that. If I radiate His joy because I have entrusted my soul to Him, the faithful Creator, then even when I’m wrongly treated, He will be glorified and others will be drawn to the Savior.

The late Romanian pastor, Richard Wurmbrand, spent 14 years in prison for preaching the gospel, three in solitary confinement in a dark cell. His captors smashed four of his vertebrae and either cut or burned 18 holes in his body, but they could not defeat him. He testified, “Alone in my cell, cold, hungry, and in rags, I danced for joy every night.” During this time he asked a fellow prisoner, whom he had led to Christ before they were both arrested, “Have you any resentment against me that I brought you to Christ?” The man responded, “I have no words to express my thankfulness that you brought me to the wonderful Savior. I would never have it another way.” (In “Our Daily Bread” [2/85].)

May God enable us all, when we are mistreated, to imitate these men of God in entrusting our souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right!

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we know when it is right to defend ourselves and when we should simply yield our rights?
  2. Is depression a sin? How can a person be “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10)?
  3. What should a Christian do when his life has been a poor testimony to those without Christ?
  4. What are some practical steps toward deepening our daily joy in the Lord?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Faith, Suffering, Trials, Persecution