This chapter records the proceedings of the most important church business meeting in history. The meeting involved the leaders of the original church in Jerusalem and the leading missionaries on the frontiers of the Great Commission. It would be hard for me to exaggerate the importance of this meeting, because it dealt with issues like:
What is the gospel?
How many plans of salvation are there – just one, or more than one?
Are Jews and Gentiles equal in the church?
Who gets to be a Christian?
Paul and Barnabas, who had been leading Gentiles (non-Jews) to Jesus, were convinced that God had “opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (14:27). But there were those who did not like the fact that the door had been thrown wide-open. They were called “Judaizers” — Jewish believers who wanted to force Gentile believers into a Jewish mold. In the book of Galatians, Paul called these Judaizers “false brethren.” The Judaizers were coming behind Paul and confusing new believers with false doctrine by teaching, “Unless you are circumcised you cannot be saved” (v.1). Imagine that in a modern-day context: “You mean I have to undergo surgery to be saved?!”
When Paul and Barnabas learned what they were doing, they of course disagreed with them. But instead of allowing the dissension to get ugly, they took this problem to the original church in Jerusalem to mediate and make a decision.
Peter spoke to the issue (v.7-11), making the excellent point that since every sinner of every race is saved by the grace of Jesus (not by keeping rules and regulations), the church should not place the burden of Jewish Law on the Gentile believers. The group then heard testimony from Paul and Barnabas about how God had saved many Gentiles through their ministry. Then James (one of the coolest figures in the original church) spoke up (v.13-21).
The key point in James’ decision is this: we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God (v.19). In other words, we should not make it difficult for people to be saved! James understood that the Judaizers were wrong; we should not add anything to the gospel – not our own preferences, our own traditions, or our own requirements. SALVATION IS BY GRACE ALONE, THROUGH FAITH ALONE, IN CHRIST ALONE (see Ephesians 2:8-10).
Paul and Barnabas returned from Jerusalem, bringing the news that Gentile believers did not have to be circumcised or adopt a Jewish lifestyle in order to be saved. If that decision had gone the other way, evangelism of the Gentiles could have ended. But now the great missionaries couldn’t wait to get going again. As they embarked on another mission trip, something unexpected happened that damaged their relationship.
Verses 37-39 explains the issue that caused such a “sharp disagreement.” Paul asserted that their mission was too important to take a chance on an unreliable team member. Barnabas contended that everybody deserves a second chance. Paul looked at John Mark and saw a potential problem; Barnabas looked at John Mark and saw potential. They dissolved their partnership and went their separate ways.
What does this tell us about how God leads His people? God didn’t cause this conflict or this separation, but He used it to guide both of these men into greater effectiveness: now there were two mission teams in the place of one; Silas brought a skill set that Barnabas didn’t have; and Barnabas went on to effective ministry in Cyprus.
Note: one failure doesn’t mean God can’t use you again! Paul later wrote to the Colossians, “Mark is with me in prison, and he is my fellow worker, a comfort to me.” 2 Timothy 4:11 says, “Mark is very useful to me for ministry.” Mark – the quitter, the failure, the disappointment – was useful again for God’s work. God would eventually inspire Mark to write the second gospel, which is still saving souls and blessing the church two thousand years later!