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22. The Great Debates (Acts 16:1-10)

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22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to send men chosen from among them, Judas called Barsabbas and Silas, leaders among the brothers, to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. 23 They sent this letter with them: From the apostles and elders, your brothers, to the Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, greetings! 24 Since we have heard that some have gone out from among us with no orders from us and have confused you, upsetting your minds by what they said, 25 we have unanimously decided to choose men to send to you along with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 15:22-26). 1

36 After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s return and visit the brothers in every town where we proclaimed the word of the Lord to see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to bring John called Mark along with them too, 38 but Paul insisted that they should not take along this one who had left them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. 39 They had a sharp disagreement, so that they parted company. Barnabas took along Mark and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and set out, commended to the grace of the Lord by the brothers and sisters. 41 He passed through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

1 He also came to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple named Timothy was there, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but whose father was a Greek. 2 The brothers in Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 3 Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was Greek. 4 As they went through the towns, they passed on the decrees that had been decided on by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the Gentile believers to obey. 5 So the churches were being strengthened in the faith and were increasing in number every day.

6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking the message in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to do this, 8 so they passed through Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 A vision appeared to Paul during the night: A Macedonian man was standing there urging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” 10 After Paul saw the vision, we attempted immediately to go over to Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them (Acts 15:36—16:10).

Introduction2

Having studied the inspired account of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas and their resulting separation, I began to wonder how this incident could have been reported today. For example, suppose that this “sharp disagreement” was reported in one of those tabloid magazines you see at the grocery store checkout stand (the kind that report a woman having a 120-pound baby). I can see the headlines reading: “PAUL GIVES BARNABAS A BLACK EYE – BARNABAS SPLITS!” Or imagine how this might have been handled in a White House Press Release: “BARNABAS ACCEPTS CHALLENGING NEW ROLE IN CYPRUS – OLD FRIENDS RELUCTANTLY PART.” If this were a fairy tale, it would read something like this: “And the two friends made up and lived happily ever after.”

Luke has chosen to characterize the parting of Paul and Barnabas in a different way. He does not sensationalize nor editorialize. He gives a very brief account of the events and then moves on.

I’ve taught this text before on several occasions. As I have prepared for this message, I have had to admit to myself that I am uncomfortable with this text. In fact, I’m uncomfortable with my own interpretation of it in the past. Previously, I have taken the position that neither Paul nor Barnabas was wrong; indeed, both were right. Each was simply exercising his own spiritual gift. But somehow this explanation doesn’t seem to square with all the facts. Let us look first at the text which describes the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas, and then I’ll tell you why it makes me uncomfortable.

Deadlock
Acts 15:36-41

36 After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s return and visit the brothers in every town where we proclaimed the word of the Lord to see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to bring John called Mark along with them too, 38 but Paul insisted that they should not take along this one who had left them3 in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. 39 They had a sharp disagreement, so that they parted company. Barnabas took along Mark and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and set out, commended to the grace of the Lord by the brothers and sisters. 41 He passed through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Judas and Silas, along with Paul and Barnabas, went down to Antioch bearing the letter from the leaders in Jerusalem. Judas and Silas spent some time ministering in Antioch and then returned to Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas stayed on in Antioch for some time. Eventually, Paul suggested to Barnabas that they return to the churches they had planted. It was no mere social call (“visit”) that he had in mind, however. It was, so to speak, a pastoral visitation. The word rendered “visit” in verse 36 means much more than just to stop by for a friendly visit. Consider a couple of other texts where this same term is employed:

“‘I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’” (Matthew 25:36, emphasis mine).

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because he has come to help and has redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68, emphasis mine).

Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27, emphasis mine).

Paul was concerned for the well-being of those who had come to faith in their previous missionary journey. He knew that the Judaisers would be seeking to persuade these new believers to undergo circumcision and to keep the Law of Moses. He wanted to deliver the letter from the Jerusalem leaders and to minister to these saints. It was much more than a friendly visit. This was a follow-up visitation.

Barnabas was in agreement with this mission, and he was more than willing to accompany Paul on this journey. But he was determined that his cousin,4 John Mark, would accompany them. Paul disagreed strongly. He was unwilling to take Mark along when he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone on with them to the work to which they had been called. Paul and Barnabas were on the “front lines,” and this was a very dangerous place to be. Mark had failed the test once, and Paul was not about to take the same risk a second time.

Luke does not provide a lot of detail here, and we should not seek to go beyond the facts he has supplied. But he does inform us that they had a “sharp disagreement.” This was not a casual conversation; it was a strong difference of opinion, with irreconcilable differences. And thus the two had to part paths, seemingly never to partner in ministry again. Barnabas took Mark and returned to Cyprus. We are not told that he chose another partner in ministry, nor that he went back to Cyprus to do what Paul and Silas were going to do in Asia Minor. Barnabas simply drops out of sight. Paul chooses Silas to accompany him on his second missionary journey. Silas had ministered with Paul in Antioch (Acts 15:25-27, 32). He was also known as Silvanus.5 Paul and Silas were commended to the grace of God by the believers in Antioch and sent on their way.

Leaving Antioch, Paul and Silas first traveled through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. We should note, first of all, that Syria and Cilicia were named in the letter that was sent by the Jerusalem leaders:

They sent this letter with them: From the apostles and elders, your brothers, to the Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, greetings! (Acts 15:23)

In other words, the Jerusalem leaders had intended all along for this letter to be carried to the churches in Syria and Cilicia, and not just to the church at Antioch. Indeed, this letter would be delivered to all the churches that were planted in the first missionary journey (see Acts 16:4-5).

We should also note that the first missionary journey did not bring the gospel to Syria and Cilicia. Paul and Barnabas went to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. From Cyprus, they sailed to Asia Minor. It is therefore likely that the churches that Paul and Silas “visited” in Syria and Cilicia were actually planted by Paul after he visited Jerusalem:

When the brothers found out about this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus (Acts 9:30).

18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and get information from him, and I stayed with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you that, before God, I am not lying about what I am writing to you! 21 Afterward I went to the regions of Syria and Cilicia (Galatians 1:18-21).

A Point of Application

Before we press on, let me pause to call a point of application to your attention. Note how quickly Barnabas is replaced by Silas. I would like to suggest that we keep this in mind, especially if we think of ourselves as indispensable. You will recall that Elijah thought of himself as the “last prophet standing.”6 He was certainly not the only true believer around for there were more than 7,000 who had remained faithful to God (1 Kings 19:18). How quickly and how easily any of us can be replaced.

I wonder too if our text is not an example of how God, like a skillful coach, places just the right players on the field for what He has in mind. If you watch football, you know that there are specialty teams who train for particular tasks, such as the kickoff team, the punting team, the receiving or run-back team, the field goal team, the two-minute offense squad, and so on. I believe that Barnabas was just the right teammate for Paul on the first missionary journey. I likewise believe that Silas and Timothy (among others, perhaps, including Luke) were the right teammates for Paul on this second missionary journey. For example, when Paul and Silas were arrested and beaten in Philippi, Paul could rightly object that both of them were Roman citizens (Acts 16:37). We know that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, but was this true of Barnabas, or of John Mark? Perhaps not. Thus, the personnel changes on this second missionary team may very well have been God’s strategic planning, so that the impact of this team could be maximized. Those things which at first appear to be tragic may later become evident as the work of our all-wise God for our good and for His glory (Romans 8:28).

What Makes Me Uncomfortable with This Text

I’m about to share some of the reasons why I’m uncomfortable with my former “no-fault interpretation” of this text, but first I would like to explain why Barnabas has become my hero, and thus why I’ve worked so hard to defend him here in this text.

Barnabas truly was a great man. We first met him in Acts 4. There Luke described the newly-born church in the passion of its early days. There were many financial needs among the saints, and those who had material resources entrusted these to the apostles, who distributed them to those in need. Barnabas was named as an example of this early generosity:

36 So Joseph, a Levite who was a native of Cyprus, called by the apostles Barnabas (which is translated “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and placed it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:36-37).

We do not hear of Barnabas again in Acts until chapter 9. Saul has just been dramatically converted as a result of his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. When the Jews sought to kill Saul, he fled to Jerusalem, where he attempted to meet with other Christians. No one wanted to believe that Saul was now a Christian, and so they refused to meet with him. It was Barnabas who came to Saul’s rescue, personally vouching for him. It was thanks to Barnabas that Saul eventually enjoyed fellowship with the Jerusalem saints (Acts 9:26-28).

As a result of Stephen’s stoning and the persecution that followed, some believers fled from Jerusalem and preached the gospel to Gentiles in Antioch:

19 Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews. 20 But there were some men from Cyprus and Cyrene among them who came to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks too, proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord (Acts 11:19-21).

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that a Gentile church had been planted in Antioch, they recognized their responsibility to strengthen and establish this work. And who would they send? Barnabas was their choice. It is not long before Barnabas heads out to search for Saul, and to bring him to Antioch where he would help strengthen the believers (Acts 11:25-26). And when Agabus the prophet came down from Jerusalem to Antioch, he warned that a severe famine would soon come all over the world. The saints at Antioch took up a collection for the needy saints in Judea and sent these funds to the Judea, choosing Barnabas and Saul to deliver it to the church (Acts 11:27-30).

It was “Barnabas and Saul” who were set apart by the Spirit and sent out by the church at Antioch to evangelize the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-4). Clearly, Barnabas was viewed as the leader of this missionary team, when they were sent out by the church.7 But when they reached Paphos and encountered the opposition of Elymas (also known as Bar-Jesus), Paul took the initiative in rebuking this Jewish adversary, pronouncing a temporary spell of blindness upon him (Acts 13:9-11). From this point on, it is “Paul and his companions” (Acts 13:13) or “Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 13:42, 46). Leadership has shifted from Barnabas to Paul. The wonder of it all is that Barnabas seems to have graciously received this “reorganization” as from the hand of God. How many men can graciously accept what amounts to a demotion with grace? Barnabas was one of those men. He is truly one of the great men of the New Testament.

Having said this, I find myself uneasy after reading Luke’s account of the split-up of Paul and Barnabas in our text. In spite of all the supporting evidence that I set forth in my last exposition of this text, 8 I find that I cannot even convince myself that this break-up was a no-fault separation. Let me share some of the aspects of this brief account9 which trouble me.

Troubling Matters and Some Answers

(1) The break-up of Paul and Barnabas is decribed in juxtaposition with the argument that precipitated the Jerusalem Council. There were strongly divergent opinions voiced concerning the salvation of Gentiles. As a result of the teaching of some, the gospel itself was under siege; the decision of this council in Jerusalem was monumental. Many people were involved in this debate, but when the dust settled, the leaders in Jerusalem reached a unanimous decision (Acts 15:25): salvation (for Jew or Gentile) was by grace through faith, apart from works (Acts 15:10-11). No Gentile need be circumcised, nor should he be compelled to keep the Old Testament Law. Thus the “great debate” was settled truthfully, peacefully, and with unity. The debate between Paul and Barnabas does not end on such an upbeat note. They do not come to one mind on the issue of taking John Mark along on their second missionary journey. And so it is that we have a debate of great importance being settled nicely, and another debate (which isn’t a matter of fundamental doctrine) which is never really settled, but instead results in two men going their own separate ways. When a nice, neat solution is followed by a messy solution, we don’t tend to feel good about it.

(2) Paul’s objection to taking John Mark along on their second missionary journey was that he had abandoned them on the first missionary journey (Acts 15:38). Now, it looks as though Barnabas has left his responsibilities prematurely, before his mission is finished. The decision of the Jerusalem Council was officially recorded in the letter that was written to the churches in “Antioch and Syria and Cilicia” (Acts 15:23). In this letter, they commended Barnabas and Paul, along with Judas and Silas (Acts 15:25-27). Judas and Silas were sent back to Jerusalem from Antioch (Acts 15:33). One would have expected both Paul and Barnabas to continue on to the churches in Syria and Cilicia,10 but only Paul does so (Acts 15:40-41). It seems as though Barnabas has abandoned his post (not unlike Mark) by not finishing his task. Paul quickly replaced Barnabas with Silas and shortly thereafter chose Timothy to fill the place of John Mark. Barnabas took only John Mark. There was no real “team” that went to Cyprus. We don’t hear of Barnabas again. We don’t know what ministry he had in Cyprus. He just disappears. The church at Antioch (in which Barnabas had such a prominent leadership role) commended Paul and Silas to the grace of God as they set out, but no such commendation is mentioned with regard to Barnabas. One is tempted to wonder whether Barnabas was more devoted to his cousin Mark than he was to the new believers in Asia Minor.

All in all, one does not come away feeling good about the outcome of this strong disagreement between Paul and Barnabas, while one does feel good about the outcome of the strong disagreement that precipitated the Jerusalem Council.

So what is the solution? My problem (of feeling uneasy, and wanting to justify Barnabas) was not with the text, but with me. I have tended to idolize these two great men. I found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that every leader has flaws. We dare not idolize any man, whether that man be Moses, David, Solomon, Peter, Barnabas, or Paul. We are to imitate godly men and women to the degree that they follow Christ.11 When we idolize men, we either deny their flaws or overlook them, and we turn our eyes from God to men. To idolize men is to make them idols, taking the place of God. The fact is that no one should be idolized, because no one but God is perfect; no one follows Christ perfectly. Peter and Barnabas had to be publicly rebuked because of their hypocrisy in dealing with the Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-21). Paul was given a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from exalting himself (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).

Our text (and any other Scripture passage) is not about the greatness of men, but rather it is about the greatness of our God. We are not to glory in men, but to glory in God:

26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

Our text is not about the greatness of men, but about the grace of God. In the past, I sought to excuse Barnabas for departing by giving him the credit for Mark’s restoration. I pointed to these words of Paul:

Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is a great help to me in ministry (2 Timothy 4:11).

Am I suggesting that Barnabas played no role in the restoration of John Mark? Not at all! But what I am saying is that ultimately the restoration of John Mark is due to the grace of God, and not to the greatness of Barnabas.

We are far too man-centered. We find men that we idolize, and then we seek to be just like them. They write books about how they found the key to success, and then we seek to do our ministry just like they have done theirs. We look for men to mentor us and to give us inspiration and leadership. God does use others in our lives, but we cross the line when we are more dependent on men than we are on God, and when we give the glory to men rather than to God.

One way that we can tell whether we idolize men or not is the degree to which we are devastated by the failure of those we respect and admire. All of us should be disappointed and grieved when a Christian leader fails or falls, but we should not be completely surprised. I have served as an elder in a local church for nearly 30 years, and I can tell you that I have made some foolish mistakes. I can tell you that the elders have collectively made mistakes. And even when we have done the right thing, we have never done it perfectly. We are mere men, and thus we are not perfect. We live in an imperfect world which suffers and groans, waiting for that day when the perfect will come (Romans 8:18-25; 1 Corinthians 13:9-12).

Within the confines of the evangelical faith, there is no denomination that is perfect, that has it all right. There is no theological system (not even my own) that is without its flaws and weaknesses (even if we don’t see or acknowledge them). No local church gets everything right. This is why true believers dare not isolate themselves, but must maintain unity and fellowship, because the strengths of others shore up our weaknesses, and our strengths shore up the weaknesses of others. We dare not be autonomous, attempting to live out our faith in isolation from the body of Christ. Our weaknesses should cause us to depend upon others in the body, rather than to depend only on ourselves.

I agonized because the first argument in Acts 15 (the Jerusalem Council) ended so well, while the second argument (between Paul and Barnabas) did not. And then I realized a very important reason why the argument between Paul and Barnabas follows the decision of the Jerusalem Council. The Jerusalem Council concluded that Jews and Gentiles alike are saved by grace, through faith, and not of works. If men were to be saved by Law-keeping, they would have to live perfectly, and that is impossible (see Acts 13:38-39; 15:10-11). If we are saved by grace, through faith, and not by works, then we don’t have to be perfect. We trust in the Perfect Savior and His sacrifice on the cross of Calvary. And even after we are saved, we don’t have to be perfect. Indeed, we cannot be perfect. We still struggle with the flesh, and our flesh is sometimes overcome by sin (Romans 7; see also 1 John 1:8-10).

Just as we are saved by grace, through faith, so we serve by grace through faith:

6 Therefore, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and firm in your faith just as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness (Colossians 2:6-7; see also 2 Corinthians 5:7).

We who could not merit salvation by Law-keeping cannot be sanctified by Law-keeping either. We are sanctified on the same grounds that we were saved.

2 The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort? (Galatians 3:2-3)

Having just read the verdict of the Jerusalem Council – that salvation is by faith, apart from works – why would I expect God’s servants (even giants like Barnabas, Peter, Paul, and John Mark) to live their lives perfectly? This is not an excuse to wallow in sin, or to be sloppy about obeying our Lord. But it does inform us that there are no perfect saints (in the sense that they never fail, never get angry, never think an evil thought, never make a bad decision, never deal harshly with someone).

Leaders don’t have to be perfect in order for us to follow them. Christians don’t have to be perfect for God to use them. The Book of Acts is about the greatness of God, about the sovereignty of God in salvation (Acts 13:48; 16:14), sanctification (Philippians 1:6), and evangelization. The degree to which the Great Commission is realized in Acts is not to be explained by giving men credit for doing everything right; the success of the gospel is to be explained by the sovereignty of God, who causes even the opposition of unbelievers and the failures of the saints to achieve His foreordained purposes. Acts is not about great men, but about mere men who have been empowered and used by a great God to do great things. I need not ignore, deny, or gloss over the failures of men, even apostles, to assure myself that God’s purposes will be accomplished. His purposes are accomplished through imperfect human instruments. Our weaknesses are designed to cause us to lean more heavily upon God, rather than to trust in our own strength:

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me - so that I would not become arrogant. 8 I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10).

Galatia Revisited
Acts 16:1-5

1 He also came to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple named Timothy was there, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but whose father was a Greek. 2 The brothers in Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 3 Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was Greek. 4 As they went through the towns, they passed on the decrees that had been decided on by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the Gentile believers to obey. 5 So the churches were being strengthened in the faith and were increasing in number every day.

Luke tells us that Paul and Silas traveled from Derbe to Lystra (verse 1), but in Acts 14, they traveled from Lystra to Derbe (Acts 14:8-20). The explanation is clear when one looks at a map of Paul’s first and second missionary journeys. On the first journey, they first sailed to Cyprus, and then sailed north from Cyprus to Asia Minor, coming to Perga. From here, they traveled south to Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, and finally Derbe. They then retraced their steps to Perga, and finally sailed from Attalia to Syrian Antioch. On the second missionary journey, they traveled from Antioch in Syria to Asia Minor by land, traveling north. And thus they came to these cities in reverse order.

Two things are prominent in verses 1-5 of chapter 16. First, we have Luke’s report of how Paul chose Timothy to accompany him (verses 1-3). Second, we have a brief report about the delivery of the letter from the Jerusalem leaders, and its impact on the Galatian churches (verses 4-5).

It is hard to think of the selection of Timothy as anything but a replacement for John Mark (just as Silas was a replacement for Barnabas). I find it most interesting that Mark’s replacement is said to have come from the city of Lystra, and that he was highly recommended by the believers in Lystra and Iconium. Lystra, you will recall, is the city where Paul was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19-20). I wonder if Timothy was one of those surrounding Paul’s body when he was laying there. My point in this is that Timothy lived in a very dangerous place, and yet his testimony was highly respected by the Christians who knew him and his testimony in that dangerous place. While John Mark was a young man who bailed out before they even reached Lystra, Timothy was a young man who emerged in the midst of opposition and danger. Here was the kind of young man whom Paul could trust when things got rough.

Our text is the commencement of a long and very close relationship between Paul and Timothy. Several times, Paul speaks of Timothy as “his son” in the faith.12 Just as there is a bond between a child and the mother who bore it through painful labor, so there seems to have been a bond between Timothy and Paul, who was stoned in the very city where Timothy lived. Timothy was one of those very rare folks who shared the same vision for ministry as Paul:

19 Now I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be encouraged by hearing news about you. 20 For there is no one here like him who will readily demonstrate his deep concern for you. 21 Others are busy with their own concerns, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know his qualifications, that like a son working with his father, he served with me in advancing the gospel (Philippians 2:19-22).

What an encouragement this young man must have been to Paul, his spiritual father in the faith.

The question in the minds of most is not Timothy’s qualifications to serve, but why Paul had him circumcised. This is a particularly glaring problem in light of the decision of the Jerusalem Council and the events that surrounded it:

1 Then after fourteen years I went up to Jerusalem again with Barnabas, taking Titus along too. 2 I went there because of a revelation and presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did so only in a private meeting with the influential people, to make sure that I was not running - or had not run - in vain. 3 Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, although he was a Greek. 4 Now this matter arose because of the false brothers with false pretenses who slipped in unnoticed to spy on our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, to make us slaves. 5 But we did not surrender to them even for a moment, in order that the truth of the gospel would remain with you (Galatians 2:1-5).

There were those who were teaching the believers that in order for a Gentile to be saved they must, like a Jew, be circumcised and then keep the Law of Moses (Acts 15:1, 5). When Paul went to Jerusalem, he took Barnabas and Titus along with him. The Judaisers insisted that Titus must be circumcised because he was a Greek. Paul absolutely refused because it would compromise the gospel. It was the gospel that was at stake here, and Paul would not allow it to be perverted into a system of works, rather than grace.

Why then would Paul soon thereafter circumcise Timothy? Was Paul compromising the gospel in doing so? Not at all! Titus was a Gentile, and everyone knew it. Timothy was the son of a Jewish mother, but his father was a Greek. Circumcising Timothy identified him as a Jew. As such, he could accompany Paul wherever he went. Circumcision did not compromise the gospel, because no Jews were demanding that he be circumcised. No one was insisting that he had to be circumcised in order to be saved. Circumcision was Timothy’s identification with the faith of his mother, and this enabled him to minister to the Jews more effectively:

19 For since I am free from all I can make myself a slave to all, in order to gain even more people. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew to gain the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) to gain those under the law. 21 To those free from the law I became like one free from the law (though I am not free from God’s law but under the law of Christ) to gain those free from the law. 22 To the weak I became weak in order to gain the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some. 23 I do all these things because of the gospel, so that I can be a participant in it (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

It was Paul who wanted Timothy to be circumcised in order to minister more effectively, not some Jewish false brethren who were demanding that he be circumcised in order to be saved. Timothy was not really a Gentile either, and these factors made all the difference in the world. The gospel was therefore not compromised, but rather it was promoted by Timothy’s circumcision.

As this missionary team passed through the cities of Galatia, cities that had heard the gospel on the first missionary journey, they delivered the decrees which had been determined by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. In this way, the churches were freed from the burden the Judaisers sought to impose upon new Gentile converts. And thus the churches were being strengthened in the faith and were growing daily in number. Grace not only gives life to those who are dead in their sins, it produces growth in those who have been saved. Those who are saved by faith are to walk by faith, and thus to grow in their relationship with God through Christ.

The Macedonian Call
Acts 16:6-10

6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking the message in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to do this, 8 so they passed through Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 A vision appeared to Paul during the night: A Macedonian man was standing there urging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” 10 After Paul saw the vision, we attempted immediately to go over to Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them (Acts 16:6-10).

As initially proposed by Paul, their mission had been fulfilled:

After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s return and visit the brothers in every town where we proclaimed the word of the Lord to see how they are doing” (Acts 15:36).

Paul, Silas, and Timothy have visited the Galatian churches and have delivered the decrees from the apostles and the elders in Jerusalem. They have no doubt taught these churches additional truths they needed to know. But having completed this part of this journey, they sought to press on to preach the gospel elsewhere.

The second missionary journey is something like a two-stage rocket launching. The first stage gets the rocket off the ground and into the air. Then this stage is jettisoned and the second stage is ignited, taking it much farther into space. So it was with this missionary journey. The first stage took Paul and his companions back to the churches that had been planted earlier. Having completed this “stage” of the mission, it is time for the second “stage” to be launched. The ways in which God guided them to the “second stage” of their mission are both interesting and informative.

We would like to have been told a great deal more than Luke has included in his account. I believe that Luke’s report is all that we need to know, and that additional information may even have proven to be counter-productive. God first used “closed doors” to guide these missionaries. In some unspecified way, the Holy Spirit prevented them from preaching in Asia. How we would love to know the means the Spirit employed to make this clear to Paul and the others. The problem is that we would probably expect God to guide us in the same way. The important thing is that Paul and his associates recognized this closed door as God’s guidance. For whatever reason, they were not to preach the gospel in Asia on this trip.

Having been prevented from preaching the gospel in Asia, they ventured on to Mysia, but they were prevented from proceeding on to Bithynia. Once again the “Spirit of Jesus” would not allow them to do so. Since God closed these doors, the missionaries made their way to Troas on the coast of the Aegean Sea. This is something like Moses and the Israelites on the shores of the Red Sea, wondering where they can go.

This was a critical point in this second missionary journey. God had prevented them from preaching in Asia and Bithynia, but He has not yet informed them as to where they are to preach. During the night, Paul receives a vision which we have come to know as the “Macedonian Vision”:

9 A vision appeared to Paul during the night: A Macedonian man was standing there urging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” 10 After Paul saw the vision, we attempted immediately to go over to Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them (Acts 16:9-10, emphasis mine).

The vision came to Paul in the night. He saw a man urging him to “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” The entire group recognized this as divine guidance and immediately began seeking to go over to Macedonia to preach the gospel.

There is a subtle, but informative, clue to be found in verse 10: “After Paul saw the vision, we attempted immediately to go over to Macedonia. . . .” Suddenly Luke’s account shifts from the third person (“they”) to the first person (“we”).13 Luke seems to have joined these missionaries in Troas. He will soon disappear, only to reappear with Paul in Acts 20:6. At such times, Luke is reporting from personal experience.

Conclusion

I would like to conclude by considering what our text has to teach us about divine guidance. There are those who believe that God must guide His children by continually revealing (in a supernatural way) what they should do at any moment. If this were true, one would expect that it would be taught in the Book of Acts. After all, this is the book in which the Holy Spirit is more prominent than almost any other book of the Bible. This is the book where signs and wonders are as frequent as they are in the Gospels. Should we not expect God to guide His followers in some very dramatic and spectacular ways?

In addition to highlighting the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the church, another prominent theme in the Book of Acts is the sovereignty of God in history and in the church. Nothing is outside of God’s control. We see this throughout the Book of Acts. The theme of God’s sovereignty, combined with the prominence of the Holy Spirit, might lead us to expect almost constant supernatural guidance. But this is not really the case.

It would be safe to say that God does guide in supernatural and spectacular ways – occasionally. But this is hardly the norm in the Book of Acts. Let us consider how God has guided up to this point.

God revealed His will to His church in Acts chapter 1:

6 So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8, emphasis mine).

God’s will was for the gospel to be proclaimed, in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the remotest parts of the earth. When we reach the end of the Book of Acts, we will see that this was partially achieved to one degree or another. How this comes to pass is a whole different story.

The Holy Spirit came upon the church at Pentecost, and through the preaching of Peter, many came to faith (Acts 2). The church in Jerusalem continued to grow, despite considerable opposition and a number of obstacles. When Ananias and Sapphira lied about their gift to the church, both were divinely disciplined, and although the unbelievers in Jerusalem were reluctant to associate themselves with the church, they did hold Christians in high regard, and many were being saved (Acts 5:11-14).

When some of their widows were being overlooked, the apostles determined that seven men of great character should be appointed to oversee this ministry. They did so in order that they (the apostles) might not be hindered from their primary ministry of “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4). The church did select seven good men, but the irony was that God used two of these men (Stephen and Philip) to have a profound evangelistic impact – Stephen by his death and Philip by his life and ministry. Stephen’s death precipitated a great outbreak of persecution against the church, and this caused the saints in Jerusalem to scatter abroad, taking the good news of the gospel with them (Acts 8:1-4; 11:19ff.). Philip took the gospel to Samaria, and to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:5-40).

Up to this point in Acts, Luke’s account contains only one report of direct, supernatural guidance. This was when the Spirit guided Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch, resulting in his salvation. Other than this, God guided His followers more by providence than by direct revelation. The conversion of Saul would change the course of world missions, and this was the result of a personal encounter with the risen Lord (Acts 9:1-19). Another instance of direct divine guidance is reported in Acts 10. Here, Peter requires a dramatic revelation to convince him that he should go to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, and preach the gospel (Acts 10:9-20). Another divine revelation was required to convince Cornelius to send for Peter to preach the gospel in his home (Acts 9:1-8). The result was not only the conversion of Cornelius and his guests, but the realization on the part of Peter’s Jewish colleagues that God intended to save Gentiles as well as Jews (see Acts 11:18). God spoke to Peter, but through Peter, He also spoke to the church.

In the latter part of Acts 11, God worked through an unnamed and unknown (to the reader) group of Jews who fled from Jerusalem, but who preached to gospel to Gentiles as well as to Jews. Thus a church was founded in Antioch, and this church would be the hub of the missionary movement that was about to be born. The church at Jerusalem sent Barnabas to minister to this new church at Antioch. Barnabas promptly located Saul and brought him to minister at Antioch with him. This ministry was the beginning of something very significant in the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

God guides from behind the scenes in Acts 12. For His own reasons, God allowed Herod to execute James, one of our Lord’s inner three. He fully intended to cater to the Jews by executing Peter, but a divine deliverance prevented that. And by the end of chapter 12, Herod is no longer the one who takes life, but is the one whose life is taken, because he accepted the praise of men as though he were a god. I believe that the death of Herod changed the course of the history of the church, for if he had been allowed to live and to continue executing the leaders of the church, things would have been much different. God was guiding, but His hand was not readily apparent (except to the reader of Acts).

Now, in Acts 13, God directs the church in Antioch to set Barnabas and Saul apart for “the work to which He had called them” (Acts 13:1-2). This guidance did not come to Barnabas, or to Paul, but through the Spirit to the church. There was no need to specify what “the work to which they were called” might be. Their ministry up to this point had made this apparent. It would appear that God did not directly reveal every place that Barnabas and Paul would preach the gospel. Sometimes the next course of action was evident by the opposition they faced. Sometimes God providentially directed their course, as when Paul and Barnabas strongly disagreed and went their separate ways (Acts 15:36-41). Sometimes God guided by closing doors to ministry (Acts 16:6-7). And then there were the rare occasions when God spoke directly (that is, through a vision) to reveal where they should go.

My point is that we should look for divine guidance from a variety of indicators. First and foremost, we should be guided by the Word of God. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8) is a very clear revelation of God’s will. Sometimes circumstances (open and closed doors) will indicate the path or course of action we should take. Sometimes God guides through the painful events of our lives, as when He guided Paul to take Silas as a partner and Timothy as his helper. The fact is that when all is said and done, God’s will is accomplished, in a way that glorifies Him and not men. The good news for Christians is that even though men fail, God’s purposes and promises are always fulfilled.

It is with great sadness that I read our text and see Paul and Barnabas parting ways. But it is with great joy and confidence that I see how God used this unpleasant parting to achieve His gracious purposes. To God be the glory!


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 22 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on April 30, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

3 I believe that “left them” is too weak an expression here. John Mark “deserted” them in Pamphylia. The word that is used here is the root from which the term apostasy is derived.

4 Colossians 4:10.

5 2 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; 1 Peter 5:12.

6 1 Kings 19:10, 14.

7 I deduce this from the word order and by the names employed (“Barnabas . . . and Saul”).

8 /seriespage/when-division-becomes-multiplication-acts-153682111610

9 I should point out that Luke keeps his account brief. He does not seek to make anyone look bad, but neither does he “gild the lily” to make the situation look better than it was.

10 And, from there, to go on to the churches in Asia Minor that had been founded in the first missionary journey (see Acts 16:1-5).

11 See 1 Corinthians 4:16: 11:1; Ephesians 5:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; Hebrews 13:7.

12 1 Timothy 1:18; 2 Timothy 1:2; 2:1.

13 See “we” in verses 11, 12, and 13, “us” in verse 17.

Related Topics: Spiritual Life