24. When Division Becomes Multiplication (Acts 15:3-16:10)
Those who dislike confrontation and conflict will undoubtedly feel a bit uneasy as we work our way through Acts chapter 15. Not only does Luke record the account of the strong contention between Paul and Barnabas and some of those of the circumcision party, resulting in the Jerusalem Council, but he goes on to report a strong disagreement between Paul and Barnabas, resulting in their going their separate ways, rather than traveling together in a second missionary journey.
We would undoubtedly admit that the first confrontation—between Paul and Barnabas and the Judaizers—was necessary, even though unpleasant. But the second disagreement is much more puzzling. Why did Paul and Barnabas differ so strongly? Why didn’t one or the other change their mind? Why was this wonderful team split up? And why did Luke bother to include this very uncomfortable incident in his writings anyway? Why not simply have stated that the two men went on separate journeys and leave the unpleasant details out? What are we to learn from the disagreement of these two noble saints?
The strong disagreement and separation of Paul and Barnabas is more than just interesting reading. It certainly is not the kind of reporting that we see in the “rags” which are placed before our eyes at the checkout stand in the supermarkets. There is a great deal to be learned from the disagreement and separation of these two men, which I will attempt to point out as we proceed with this lesson.
Paul and Barnabas Part Paths
36 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” 37 And Barnabas was desirous of taking John, called Mark, along with them also. 38 But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.
Paul and Barnabas had returned from Jerusalem, with the decree of the apostles and the elders, defining and defending the gospel against the legalism of those who would force Gentiles Christians to become Jews by undergoing circumcision and placing themselves under the Law of Moses. They also returned with Judas and Silas, the two men who had been sent by the church in Jerusalem to accompany Paul and Barnabas, and to bear witness to the decision rendered in favor of their two companions. Paul and Barnabas stayed on for some time, teaching in preaching, along with others, probably making sure that the error of the Judaizers was laid to rest in Antioch.
Eventually, Paul approached Barnabas with a proposal that they return to every city where they had preached Christ on their first missionary campaign. Every city was to be re-visited, which, as I understand the proposal, would have included those cities visited in Cyprus, as well as in Pamphylia, Pisidia, and Lycaonia. In reality, Paul’s proposal was not that of a second missionary journey at all. It was really just a return trip, a re-run of the first journey. The purpose does not seem to be evangelistic, but edification. It was a trip to strengthen and encourage those who had trusted in Jesus on the first journey, and an opportunity to see how the saints and the churches were doing. Had a disagreement not arisen between Paul and Barnabas, one wonders (humanly speaking) if there would have been a second missionary journey.
Barnabas, as we might expect, was enthusiastic about such a journey, but he was also persistent in his desire to take along John Mark. Paul was adamantly opposed to this proposal, based on Mark’s previous desertion at Perga, and on the fact that he had not gone with then to the work. Barnabas was proposing that Mark retrace his very steps. Paul was opposed for this very reason. He had failed in the same circumstances; why put him back in these a second time, why repeat the same error? Barnabas did not seem to be willing to go without Mark; Paul seemed unwilling to go with him. They had come to an impasse, and neither was willing to change their position. It was, indeed, a “sharp disagreement” (verse 39).
Here is where many of the commentators go too far, in my opinion, making this more than a strong disagreement as to how their ministry should proceed, and thus terminating their partnership and proceeding with two separate ministries. A number seem to feel that this was a personal rift:
“This ‘son of consolation’ loses his temper in a dispute over his cousin and Paul uses sharp words towards his benefactor and friend. It is often so that the little irritations of life give occasion to violent explosions. If the incident in Gal. 2:11-21 had already taken place, there was a sore place already that could be easily rubbed. And if Mark also joined with Peter and Barnabas on that occasion, Paul had fresh ground for irritation about him … Paul and Barnabas parted in anger and both in sorrow. Paul owed more to Barnabas than to any other man. Barnabas was leaving the greatest spirit of the time and of all times.”333
“Robinson thinks, further, that there may have been other problems involved in the contention, including too ambitious a program for Barnabas; Barnabas’ act of siding with Peter (Gal. 2:11); difference of opinion as to the route to be followed; and Paul’s desire to visit his own Cilician country first.”334
I do not believe that the Scriptures give any credence to such a view. A strong disagreement is a vastly different thing, between friends and co-laborers, than a personal falling out.335 The differences between these two giants of the faith were not rooted in pride, personal ambition, or offended feelings, they were rooted in different spiritual gifts, outlook, and calling. Aside from the loss of on-going fellowship, such as they had known in serving side-by-side, the outcome of their separation was very positive. Consider come of the characteristics of this conflict, and see if the Scriptures do not represent this separation in a positive way.
Characteristics of this Conflict
(1) Paul and Barnabas kept the problem on a personal level. These men had a personal disagreement, which they dealt with personally, face to face. So far as we are told, they did not involve others in the disagreement.
(2) Paul and Barnabas did not take the problem personally—they did not let their disagreement alienate them as friends and as brothers. I do not wish to minimize the intensity of the disagreement, but neither do I wish to read into this incident a personal “falling out.” It is a vastly different thing for two men to agree to dissolve a partnership in ministry than to have a friendship turn sour, developing into some kind of personal animosity. I find absolutely no indication in the New Testament which would indicate a loss of love or respect for each other. I see no signs of bitterness or alienation between these two.
(3) Paul and Barnabas saw the matter through to a resolution. These two men stuck to their convictions, and neither was willing to change, but the did come to a solution to the impasse. The solution was a separation—to go on two separate missions, but it was a solution. The problem did not continue to fester.
(4) Neither Paul nor Barnabas appear to have been acting out of self-interest or self-will. Put differently, it does not seem that these men were acting out of fleshly desires or inclinations. Humanly speaking, it would have been easier for either of the two to have “given in” to the other, or for both to have compromised. For these two men to go their own ways was a personal sacrifice, required by their convictions and calling.
(5) Neither Paul nor Barnabas sought to make this a biblical issue, in which one was “right” and the other was “wrong.” How often, when two Christians differ, they try to sanction their actions with texts of Scripture. Each party in the dispute gathers up a collection of proof texts, and the one with the longest list wins. This was not a biblical issue, in the sense that one of the two was doing the biblical thing and the other was being disobedient. Both Paul and Barnabas were “right” to do what they did, and would have denied their convictions and calling to do what the other felt compelled to do.
(6) Both Paul and Barnabas seem to be acting in accordance with their own spiritual gifts and calling. Who, but Barnabas, would we expect to come alongside Mark, to encourage him and to be used of God to minister to this stumbling saint so as to stand and to serve the Lord? And who, but Paul, would we expect to come down hard on failure to complete a mission?
(7) Both Paul and Barnabas ministered to John Mark by what they did. I see Paul and Barnabas, out of different gifts and ministries, applying this instruction, spelled out by Paul to the Thessalonian church:
And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
Knowing the Paul would not take him along on his next journey surely had an impact on Mark, just as knowing the Barnabas was willing to invest his life and ministry in him, even though he failed, would be an encouragement. Paul’s negative response, combined with Barnabas’ positive action, served to encourage Mark to take his problems seriously and to strive to prove himself a faithful man.
(8) The separation of Paul and Barnabas was a cooperative action, not a competitive one. All too often, when partners in ministry have separated in an unhealthy way, they have both pursued the same ministry, in the same place, requiring the involvement and support of the same people. In short, division or separation has not solved a problem, it has expanded it, resulted in competition, rather than cooperation. Barnabas took Mark, and went to Cyprus. Paul to Silas, and went in the opposite direction. The itinerary which they had planned was, in effect, cut in two, so that their initial purposes were met, but in a way that created no problems for the ministry of either.
(9) The passing of time bears witness to the fact that both Paul and Barnabas acted in a way that was beneficial to them, to Mark, to each other, and to the gospel. Notice that the result of this separation was two missionary ventures, not just one. Others were involved in ministry, including Silas, Timothy, and Luke. The Book of Mark was, to some degree, the result of Barnabas’ actions and ministry, and the birth of many new churches was the result of Paul’s actions and ministry. Neither Paul nor Barnabas later needed to repent of any wrongdoing in the matter of Mark, and Paul could say of Mark that he was now of profit to his own ministry (2 Timothy 4:9).336
(10) I believe that the New Testament bears witness to some very positive changes in the outlook and ministries of both Paul and Barnabas. Barnabas backed off from taking Mark into the more dangerous areas, choosing instead to take him to Cyprus, where Mark had successfully served, before his desertion at Perga (cf. Acts 13:5, 13). Barnabas also seems to have taken Mark to a ministry of edification in existing churches, as opposed to a front-line ministry of evangelism in hostile territory.337 Barnabas may also have been reminded that one must not only consider the individual, but the cause.338
Paul, on the other hand, may well have grown a great deal through this experience with Mark and Barnabas, and his ministry seems to have been enriched by it. By reducing the number of churches he had to visit, it opened the door to reaching out to new, unreached cities with the gospel. Paul seems to have learned a lesson in choosing to lay hands too quickly on a person, especially one who was not yet proven (cf. 1 Timothy 3:10; 5:22). He may have concluded, as a result of this experience, that in the future he needed to commit himself to faithful, proven men, with gifts similar to his own, so that he could extend and reproduce his own ministry and gift (cf. 2 Timothy 2:2). Paul may have also learned the need to be more sensitive and tender toward those who are not as “thick skinned” as he. I cannot help but see a tenderness and gentleness evidenced in Paul’s letters to Timothy, that does not appear to be present in his dealings with Mark. As I read 1 and 2 Timothy, I see some parallels between Mark’s fears and retreat and Timothy’s uncertainty and hesitancy in ministry, which requires constant encouragement from Paul. Paul seems to have grown in gentleness and understanding, as he deals with Timothy, and I am inclined to think that this experience with Mark was a significant part of his education.339
(11) It appears that Barnabas’ ministry to Paul had come to an end, and that Silas was now the better partner in ministry. One of the strongest gifts of Barnabas was his gift of encouragement (cf. Acts 4:36). Barnabas first came alongside Paul at a time when he was a newly born believer, and when none of the apostles would associate with him, fearing him. Barnabas sought Paul to ministry with him in Antioch, too (Acts 11:25-26). As of Acts 13:9 and following, the need for Barnabas seems to be diminishing. Now, in chapter 15, Mark needed Barnabas’ gift of encouragement much more than Paul did. This strong difference of opinion and of approach was the one means by which God could separate these two “inseparable” friends, brothers, and servants.
The separation of Barnabas paved the way for the selection of Silas (and others, like Timothy and Luke). I am convinced that for the second missionary journey, Silas was a better suited partner than Barnabas. For example, Silas, like Paul, was a Roman citizen (or at least appears to be). I do not know whether or not Barnabas was a Roman citizen. How difficult it would have been for Paul to protest against his unfair treatment as a Roman citizen in Philippi if Barnabas were not a Roman as well (cf. Acts 16:37). If Paul and Barnabas had gone about, reading the decree of the Jerusalem Council it would have had less impact than when Paul and Silas informed the churches of this decision.340 All in all, the gifts and ministries of Silas appear to have been better suited to the second journey than those of Barnabas. And thus God orchestrated a change in personnel, in a most unusual but effective way.
And so we see the hand of God at work once again in Acts, providentially orchestrating and arranging circumstances in such a way that the gospel is advanced and so that the proclamation of the gospel among the Gentiles is assured and assisted. The argument of Paul and Barnabas with the Judaizers resulted in the Jerusalem Council, which defined and defended the gospel, preparing the way for even an even greater expansion of the gospel into Gentile territory. The argument between Paul and Barnabas paved the way for the second major thrust of the gospel by a new team.
Luke’s account of the “strong contention” between Paul and Barnabas informs us of several important truths. First, Christians can disagree with each other, and both can be right. Disagreements are not necessarily a sin, and neither are they evidence of some sin on the part of those who differ. Second, disagreements can serve very beneficial purposes. In the case of the two disagreements of Acts 15, both served to advance the gospel. The dispute which was settled at the Jerusalem Council defined the gospel and cut Gentile Christians loose from the fetters of Jewish legalism and Judaism. It also served to distinguish between Christianity and culture, making it possible to “export” the gospel to any culture. And the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas served to pave the way for the second missionary journey.
If there is a prominent theme in the Book of Acts which is emerging it is UNITY IN THE MIDST OF DIVERSITY. The gospel which our Lord made possible and which His apostles proclaimed was one. Jewish believers and Gentile Christians are recognized as different in Acts, but the gospel they believe and the faith they hold is a common one to both. Paul and Barnabas did have different gifts, different perspectives, and even different callings, but they remained, to the end, one in the faith and in the bonds of love. Their parting was a division, but not a divorce.
The church of our Lord Jesus Christ is one church, one body, but composed of many members, each of whom have unique gifts, a unique function, and a unique contribution to the body. If the church is to be consistent with its nature and its duty, it must maintain unity while promoting and practicing diversity. This truth is one that is emphasized by Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians, particularly in chapters 12-14.
Unity in diversity is often resisted, even in the church. Too many times, unity is replaced by uniformity. Churches tend toward a denominationalism which tends to put people of the same culture, class, race, gift, and theology together.341 The more we tend toward uniformity, the less we are likely to practice unity in diversity. As a local church, we have purposed to avoid a denominational label or identification. We have also resolved to welcome Christians who represent a broader spectrum of culture, race, class, gift and theology. As a result of our diversity, we must be all the more diligent to strive for the practice of Christian unity.
Because of the commitment and outlook of our church, we have (to some degree) begun to manifest a greater diversity among our members. And because of our structure, we have an added temptation for those who wish to promote their own identity, and thus push us toward uniformity. In most churches, there is no public forum, where an individual member can stand and address the whole church. In our church, we provide an opportunity to do so weekly.342 Because of this “open” worship and sharing time, one can easily be tempted to speak in such a way as to promote one’s particular point of view or practice, and to put down those views or practices of others. The results, as suggested in 1 Corinthians, can be chaotic and destructive. How can we, as a church, be on our guard to promote diversity and unity at the same time?
Our text, I believe, is most instructive, for it teaches us how to disagree in such a way that promotes the gospel and preserves unity. We should, in short, deal with one another in the church as Paul and Barnabas dealt with each other, especially in dealing with their differences. I would like to expand upon our text by looking at the broader context of Scripture, to indicate the various kinds of differences, disagreements (or, if you like, arguments) which a Christian can experience. We must first be certain why it is we differ. This will greatly inform us as to how we should go about differing. And then, I would like to summarize some of the principles of differing which are evident in the disagreement between these two men of God.
Categories of Conflict
Conflicts initiated or caused by unbelievers.
There are essentially two kinds of conflict which are caused by unbelievers, which tend to involve believers. The first is that opposition and resistance caused by those who reject the gospel and who resist Christians as a result. The unbelieving Jews, often joined by unbelieving Gentiles, resisted Paul and Barnabas (and later, Silas) and followed them, stirring up trouble wherever they went (cf. Acts 14:2, 5, 19). Unbelieving Gentiles, prompted by economic or other motivations, opposed believers like Paul as well (cf. Acts 16:19-21; 1 Thessalonians 1:14-16; 2 Thessalonians 1:4-8).
Another form of opposition against the saints and the gospel is the opposition of religious unbelievers, who may claim and even appear to be believers, who seek to pervert the gospel from within the church. They teach false doctrine and they advocate practices which are evil (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, 26; Galatians 1:6-9; 2:4; 2 Peter 2 & 3; 2 John 7-11; Jude 3-4).
The first group—those who reject the gospel and persecute the church—are avoided by the apostles and others in the New Testament. They take no aggressive action against them, although they do use (not without exception) their civil rights and expect the government to protect them as the law stipulates (cf. Acts 16:35-40; 18:14; 21:37-40; 23:16-17). The second group—the false teachers—are more aggressively exposed and opposed, because their doctrine is both damnable and destructive (cf. Galatians 1:8-9; 2:4-5; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Timothy 3:6-8, 13; 2 John 7-11; 2 Peter 2:1ff.; Jude 3-4).343
Conflicts between Christians.
The second general category of controversy or conflict is that which occurs between two Christians, or at least that which is carried out by one Christian against another, whether the second responds, reacts, or retaliates. I will outline some of the forms which this conflict may take, based upon biblical examples, as found in the New Testament.
(1) There is the strife, opposition, and conflict which arises from those who teach and minister out of the power and inclinations of the flesh, who are self-seeking, self-asserting, and self-indulgent (Acts 20:28-30; 1 Corinthians; Galatians 5:13-21; Philippians 1:15-17; 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 6:3-10). Some, to be sure, preach the truth, but out of selfish ambition (cf. Philippians 1:15, 17), while others, out of self-interest, corrupt the truth, adapting their message to the whims of their audiences (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2). The appeal of such teachers and leaders is that they teach in such a way as to appeal to the same evil impulses and desires in others, promising God’s blessings in such a way that men can indulge themselves, basking in sin as though it were God’s generosity and grace (cf. 1 Timothy 6:3ff.; 2 Timothy 3:4-13,344 4:1-6; cp. 2 Peter 2:9-22).
(2) There is that painful confrontation which the godly Christian must initiate when a fellow-Christian had erred. There is the obligation of the offended brother to go to the offender (Matthew 18:15-20). And of the stronger brother to seek out the weaker, who is entangled in sin (Galatians 6:1). The unruly must be admonished (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Those who refuse to be corrected and who persist in sin must be shunned (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15). There is also the need to confront those, who by teaching or practice, distort or deny the truth (Galatians 2:11ff.; 2 Timothy 2:23-26; Titus 1:13; 3:10-11).
(3) There are those conflicts and divisions, while wrongly motivated and sinful in nature, which nevertheless have the beneficial effect of revealing those who are “approved” (1 Corinthians 11:19).
(4) There are those confrontations which are to be avoided, because they stem from differences which are often God-given, and which are therefore not clear-cut matters of sin. In Corinth, much of the strife and divisions revolved around the different spiritual gifts, either of certain leaders, or of individual members of the body of Christ. There was an inappropriate evaluation of the “better” gifts, and a tendency for the saints to seek these gifts and to shun their own gifts. There are also the differences among Christians based upon maturity levels and upon personal convictions concerning matters like Christian liberties. Since these are private and personal matters, they are not to be preached, argued, or pushed on others, but kept to oneself (Romans 14:5, 22). Another area has to do with the leading of God in one’s life, for which one is personally responsible. Others ought to avoid pressing their opinion of God’s will for another’s life. Paul found it necessary to resist and reject such well-intentioned advice from Christian friends (cf. Acts 21:10-14).
It is in this area, I believe, that Paul and Barnabas differed. They differed in their spiritual gifts, especially in the matter of how to encourage John Mark. They had now come to the point where God was leading these two men in separate directions. It was not something to press for agreement on, or to try to correct on or the other as wrong, but something which each had to decide upon and to act upon as they believed God would have them to do. They did not allow their differences to become a controversy or a source of contention. They went their separate ways, respecting the other, but convinced about their own actions.
Those who find comfort and security in a neatly laid out plan, which indicates just the right response to every conflict, will not like the following range of responses, which I find indicated in the New Testament. Note the many different ways which Paul instructed Timothy and/or others to respond to those in error:
(1) Timothy and Titus were instructed to positively preach, teach, and practice the truth of the Word of God (1 Timothy 4:6-16; 6:17-21; 2 Timothy 2:15; 3:14-17; 4:1-2; Titus 2:1, 15).
(2) Paul ignored the attack of other preachers, who proclaimed the gospel out of selfish motives (Philippians 1:15-18). Indeed, Paul could actually rejoice in the fact that the gospel was being proclaimed.
(3) Paul trusted in the Spirit of God to change the attitudes of others, rather than to attempt to do so himself (Philippians 3:15). Indeed, Paul was reluctant to judge the attitudes of others (1 Corinthians 4:1-5). He knew, as well, that only some of men’s sins are apparent to the human eye (1 Timothy 5:24-25).
(4) Those who were in error were sometimes to be directly exhorted and refuted (Titus 1:9). Rebuke was to be gentle, in hopes of repentance (2 Timothy 2:23-26).
(5) At times, however, men had to be severely reproved (Titus 1:13), and even put out of the church (Titus 3:10-11).
Because of our fallenness and also by divine design, there are going to be many differences among and between people in this life. Christian unity does not deny these differences, and neither does it attempt to change all of them. If we are to live in unity, we must, as Christians, agree on those few things which are essential to salvation, and on these we must have agreement. For this reason, the Jerusalem Council gave a full airing of opinions and issues, and then the apostles, elders, and saints came to a unanimous decision. This “unity of the faith” must be preserved in the “bond of peace” and harmony (Ephesians 4:3). The “unity of the faith” is that which will only be attained in our glorified state (Ephesians 4:13).
If we are to preserve the “unity of the Spirit,” we must deal biblically with those differences which arise between us. From the example of Paul and Barnabas, and from other biblical texts as well, let me suggest some of the principles which should guide and govern our differences, in such a way that the “unity of the Spirit” can be preserved.
(1) We must recognize that that are many differences, even between believers.
(2) (We should take note of who it is who differs with us, and why.
(3) We should seek to discern the source of our differences, and the seriousness of the issues involved.
(4) We should seek to discover whether the difference is a matter of the gospel, of a clear biblical teaching or doctrine, or whether it is a matter of interpretation, of personal conviction, or of individual gift, calling, and guidance.
(5) We should seek God’s guidance as to the appropriate response, based upon the nature of the difference, and upon the Scriptures governing our response to it.
I believe that Paul and Barnabas have given us a model here for dealing with differences which are based upon our gifts, calling, and ministry. We should praise God that these two men never parted in spirit and in essential unity, but only in ministry.
Missionary Journey Commenced
40 But Paul chose Silas345 and departed, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia,346 strengthening the churches. And he came also to Derbe and to Lystra.347 And behold, a certain disciple was there,348 named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, 2 and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium.349 3 Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him350 because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4 Now while they were passing through the cities, they351 were delivering the decrees, which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe. 5 So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily.
Taking Silas, with whom Paul and Barnabas had ministered in the past, Paul departed, going first to his own territory in Syria and Cilicia. While Tarsus, Paul’s home, was in this territory, it is not mentioned. Luke does not choose to emphasize this leg of the journey, but quickly passes it by. He moves on to the return of Paul, with Silas, to the cities of Derbe and Lystra, and to Paul’s choice of Timothy to accompany them.
How often I have heard it said that Paul “discipled” Timothy, and how far that statement departs from the words in our text. If anything, we would be more accurate in saying that Barnabas wanted to take Mark along, in order to “disciple” him, something which Paul refused to do. A difficult missionary journey was no occasion for discipling a new or stumbling believer. Paul chose Timothy because he was a disciple, not in order to make a disciple of him (Acts 16:1). In contrast to Mark, Timothy had already been proven. He was “well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium” (Acts 16:2). And these were not easy cities in which to be a believer. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany them so that he could join in the ministry, as a colleague. As we can see from Paul’s two letters to Timothy, this young man’s ministry was very similar to Paul’s. Paul took Timothy along to expand and to perpetuate his own ministry, just as he later instructed Timothy to do (2 Timothy 2:2).352
Paul circumcised353 Timothy so as to enhance his ministry. It is indeed interesting that Luke would make a point of telling about Timothy’s circumcision by Paul (Acts 16:3) in immediate proximity to his report that they delivered the decree of the Jerusalem Council to the churches there (16:4). In this case, Timothy’s circumcision was not demanded by the Jews, as it was with Titus (Galatians 2:3-5). Titus seems to have been a Gentile, while Timothy was a Jew in Jewish reckoning. Although his father was a Greek, his mother was Jewish, and this made Timothy a Jew in the Jewish way of reckoning it. He was a Jew, but he had not yet been circumcised. Paul thus circumcised him, not because it was demanded by anyone, but simply because Timothy was a Jew. As a circumcised Jew, Timothy, too, could speak in the synagogues. As an uncircumcised Jew his ministry would not be as readily received.
Circumcision was an evil only in the context of those who made it such. I wonder if Luke is not, to some degree, softening or clarifying the position of the Jerusalem Council, so that non-circumcision was not a “law” matter either. It is interesting that the decree, not intended for so distant a place, was delivered there, too, it seems, and thus Paul’s action with Timothy is in juxtaposition with the reading of the decree. I think it is safe to say that “the gospel” is the reason for both Paul’s circumcising (Timothy) and his not circumcising (Titus). In the case of Titus, circumcising him would have been to compromise or corrupt the gospel, but in Timothy’s case, it was to promote the gospel. And so, just as Paul and Barnabas can be right and come to the opposite conclusion, so both circumcision and non-circumcision can be right. There is not a legalistic mindset, with all matters black or white. Notice, too, that it was not Timothy choosing to be circumcised, but rather Paul making the decision for Timothy and having it done. While the Judaisers could not impose circumcision for salvation, Paul could impose it for service. What this says, I think, is that the reasons for doing something or not doing it are all important.
Divinely Directed to Macedonia
6 And they passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region,354 having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; 7 and when they had come to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; 8 and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. 9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a certain man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
The Holy Spirit355 guided this missionary party, soon to include Luke,356 to Macedonia. Initially, the guidance of the spirit was prohibitive. They were not permitted to speak the Word in Asia (v. 6). We have no clue as to how this “forbidding” took place. It could have been circumstantial, such as a warning from civil officials or a sore throat, or it could have been an inner hesitation. It could also have been in the form of a vision or some prophetic utterance. By whatever means, it was recognized as the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It was not yet God’s time for the evangelization of Asia. So, too, with Bithynia. For whatever reason, and by whatever means, they were prevented from entrance into Bithynia.357
The need for a more positive guidance was now required. Having arrived at Troas was something like the Israelites reaching the Red Sea: they could not see how they could go back and were not sure they could go forward. In both cases, God did act in a way that made His direction and will evident. Troas was a port city on the Aegean Sea, across from Macedonia. Since they could not preach in Asia or Bithynia, they must either go forward or turn back.
The “Macedonian vision” made the answer clear. Paul alone, it would seem, had the vision of a certain Macedonian man,358 who plead for him to “come over to Macedonia and help us” (16:9). The meaning of the vision was apparent, and Paul’s report of it was all that was needed for the whole group to conclude that God wanted them to go immediately to Macedonia, and thus they proceeded to travel across the sea from Troas to the island of Samothrace, then on to the port city of Neapolis on the other side, and finally on inland to Philippi, a principal city of Macedonia.
As we close this lesson, we shall take up in our next lesson where Paul and Silas and Timothy and Luke (and, perhaps others) arrive at Philippi. But I wish to conclude this message by noting the many ways in which the guidance of God was accomplished, resulting in the arrival of this party in Philippi. There was, first of all, the proposal of Paul to revisit the cities they had first evangelized. Then, this plan was modified by the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas, so that Barnabas went in one direction, with Mark, while Paul and Silas went in the other. The cities that Paul and Silas visited, and the route taken, seem, in many instances, to be based upon human decisions as to the best course. And yet the guidance of God in more direct ways was also evident. The Holy Spirit was recognized as prohibiting evangelization in Asia and Bithynia. And it was through a vision that the region of Macedonia was identified as the next evangelistic target. The choice of Philippi as the specific city in Macedonia seems to have been Paul’s choice, or that of the entire group.
Several things about the guidance of God should be underscored from our text. First, God’s will is not something about which Christians should worry or agonize, as though it were a mystery, a game of hide and seek, and as though we might miss it if we don’t go through all the right steps to discern it. God’s guidance, on the one hand, seems to be something about which no one worried much. We are not even told they spent time praying for it (though they might have). And God’s will was not something which we are given the impression they might have missed. A God who is sovereign will be sure to make His will known, and who will also be certain that we do not miss it. I think that there is too much emphasis on missing God’s will today, as though it is so vague we might not recognize it. Our text, consistent with the message of Acts, shows that our Lord is still in control, bring to pass those things He commanded and promised.
Second, God’s will is not something one finds out by the use of some formula. His guidance and direction is seen in a number of ways. God does not always guide by supernatural intervention. Indeed, He seldom guides by the spectacular and the miraculous means, unless it is necessary. He guides through men’s choices, by their differences, and by circumstances. We dare not look for divine guidance in but one or a few means or mechanisms, for His ways are higher than our own.
Finally, God’s will is not something we find out in advance, and then carry out. God’s will is progressively revealed, as we need to know. Seldom does God tell us what He wants us to do before the time to do it. So it is here. So it is most often.
333 A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 241.
334 Cited by, Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 223. Happily, Carter and Earle do not agree, as will be shown later on.
335 “Clarke argues with learning and force that there is nothing in the expression, sharp contention (vs. 39a), to justify the conclusion that ill will characterized either of them. That they were both perfectly sincere in their positions may well be granted. That they were both right from their respective points of view is possible.”
“Let us sum up the resultant facts: first, there appears to have been no breach of fellowship between Paul and Barnabas (1 Cor. 9:6); second, Barnabas was evidently right in giving Mark another chance, as his history reveals and as Paul later recognizes (see Col. 4:10; Philemon 24; 2 Tim. 4:11); third, two missionary parties went forth, each of which had special qualifications for its respective fields of service; fourth, the division appears to have had no ill effects on the church at Antioch, nor to have created any problems on the fields visited; fifth and finally, the incident apparently opened the door of opportunity for Silas to accompany Paul on his Second Missionary Journey, and thus to gain experience that developed him into one of Paul’s closest companions and most useful co-workers in the gospel ministry.”
“Thus we are taught the lesson from first-century Christianity that even great men may forcefully disagree on what they regard as principles and still maintain Christian grace and charity while proceeding on their respective courses, and that out of such vigorous disagreements of energetic men may come greater good than from apathetic acquiescence (Rom. 8:28).” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), pp. 223-224.
336 This is, in no way, an admission of failure or wrong judgment on Paul’s part. It is, however, Paul’s recognition that the problems in Mark’s life which had once made him unprofitable and unfit for ministry to and with Paul were a part of the forgotten past. Mark was profitable and so, too, was the ministry of Barnabas in his life at a time of great need.
337 For example, how would Mark have handled the arrest and beating which Paul and Silas underwent in Philippi (Acts 16:19-24)?
338 From the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas it would seem that Barnabas was thinking primarily in terms of Mark, while Paul was thinking primarily of the ministry.
339 I would encourage you to read through Paul’s epistles in the light of his experiences in Acts. I do think that much of what Paul has written in his epistles has been shaped by his experiences, as described in Acts.
340 The Jerusalem Council was precipitated by the preaching of Paul and Barnabas. The council vindicated these two men, and renounced the authority and teaching of those who contradicted them. Silas was one of two men sent back to Antioch, to testify on behalf of the Jerusalem church that Paul and Barnabas were vindicated by the council. Silas was a much more forceful witness than Barnabas, who was a party in the dispute.
341 The church growth movement, in the name of homogeneity, even tends to promote this uniformity.
342 Due to our understanding of the teaching of Scripture, we grant this opportunity to exercise leadership in the church only to men, in order to obey the precepts of Scripture and the demonstrate the principle of headship (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:1-16; 14:34-36; 1 Timothy 2:11-15; 1 Peter 3:1-6).
343 There is a category of false teachers, a rather large category so far as the New Testament is concerned, of those whose spiritual condition--saved or unsaved--is unclear. Many of these false teachers could well be unsaved, although it is not clearly stated. The Old Testament counterpart would be men like Balaam, whose salvation is at least dubious. These New Testament false teachers are frequently referred to, but in a way that leaves their salvation in question, which may be deliberate. The following texts are illustrative of this “cloudy category” of false teachers: Acts 20:29-30; 2 Corinthians 11:13-14; Philippians 3:17-19; Colossians 2:8-23; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2; 2 Timothy 2:14-19; 4:3-4, 15; Titus 1:10-16; 2 Peter 3:3-4, 16.
344 Note the contrast between the pleasure-seeking, pleasure promising false teachers, with the godly preaching of Paul and others, which leads to and requires steadfastness in the face of opposition and persecution. Godly preaching does not lead to prosperity, but to persecution. To this the Old Testament prophets would say a hearty “amen.”
345 “Silas had influence in the church in Jerusalem (verse 22) and was apparently a Roman citizen (16:37) also. He is the Silas or Silvanus of the epistles (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:19; 1 Peter 5:12).” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 242.
346 This was, of course, Paul’s home and “stomping grounds,” where he was raised, but also where he seemed to serve, prior to Barnabas coming to look for him (cf. Acts 9:11, 30; 11:25; Galatians 1:21).
Robertson writes, “Paul would go ‘by the Gulf of Issus through the Syrian Gates, a narrow road between steep rocks and the sea, and then inland, probably past Tarsus and over Mt. Taurus by the Cilician gates’ (Page).” A. T. Robertson, III, p. 242.
347 “Derbe and Lystra are named in the reverse order from 14:6, since Paul approached them from the east on this occasion.” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 259.
348 “It is not stated positively in which city Timothy lived. . . The natural inference is that Paul found Timothy at Lystra.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 225.
349 “That the brothers in Lystra and Iconium should have known him better than those in Lystra and Derbe is quite natural: Lystra was much nearer to Iconium than to Derbe, although Lystra and Derbe were Lycaonian cities and Iconium was in Phrygia.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 304.
350 “It was Timothy’s mixed parentage that made Paul decide to circumcise him before taking him along as his junior colleague. By Jewish law Timothy was a Jew, because he was the son of a Jewish mother, but because he was uncircumcised he was technically an apostate Jew. If Paul wished to maintain his links with the synagogue, he could not be seen to countenance apostasy. He set his face implacably against any move to circumcise Gentile believers like Titus (Gal. 2:3-5), but Timothy was in a different situation.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 304.
351 “Now the plural is used: ‘they handed over the decrees.’ This was Silas’s duty, not Paul’s. . . . Paul himself, as we have seen, never invokes the Jerusalem ‘decrees’ when he deals with the practices which they forbid.” Bruce, p. 305.
“Paul’s silence about them in Corinth and elsewhere, although he could insist on acting in accord with the general practice of the churches (1 Cor. 11:16; 14:33f.), suggests that he preferred to argue a case from basic principles rather than in the first instance by an appeal to authority.” Marshall, p. 261.
352 I am amazed at the way this text is cited as a “discipleship” text. It is not a discipleship text. Discipleship is for all who come to the faith. Paul speaks here of selecting only those who are faithful men, those who are disciples. Paul is teaching Timothy to perpetuate his gift and ministry through faithful men who have the gift and the calling to do as he is doing--teaching. Men who are gifted should seek those who are faithful and who are similarly gifted, and pour their lives into them, thus perpetuating the ministry of their own gift through others.
353 I think that Paul not only “had Timothy circumcised” but that he, in fact, circumcised Timothy himself.
354 This expression, “the Phrygian and Galatian region,” is the center of much discussion and debate. The issue centers about the “North/South Galatian Theories.” The basic question is whether the first missionary journey included “Galatia” (South Galatia--Galatia in a more generic sense) and thus the Book of Galatians is written to the saints in these cities, or whether “Galatia” is “North Galatia” (the more technical use of Galatia), visited later by Paul. Since this burning issue does not change the meaning or relevance of our text, I will pass by this matter. For further discussion on this question, cf. Marshall, pp. 261-262, or one of the commentaries on Galatians.
355 Notice that the Holy Spirit is also called the “Spirit of Jesus,” linking the ministry of Paul and Silas and the others directly with that of our Lord. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is directly related to that of the Lord Jesus.
356 Note the “we” of verse 10. Luke will come and go in Acts, as indicated by the presence or absence of the pronoun “we.”
357 It is interesting to note in 1 Peter 1:1 that Bithynia is one place where the gospel did reach, as indicated by Peter’s reference to saints in that place. What God prohibited Paul and Silas from doing, He did lead someone else to do.
358 Some have speculated that this “certain man” was, in fact, Luke, but this is highly speculative, and, in my mind, unlikely, since Luke includes himself (“we”) among those who, after the dream was reported by Paul, concluded that they should immediately proceed to Macedonia.