God Meant It for Good

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20a)

Perhaps the biggest issue people have with Christianity is how a good God can coexist with the evil and suffering of this world. More ink has been spilt trying to give a sufficient answer to the question of God’s goodness in an evil world than I could write in ten lifetimes, but in this one verse we find perhaps the best concise explanation. 

Let’s at least get one thing out of the way before we break down what is going on in this text: the problem of evil cannot really be a problem to God. Were God to face a real dilemma He cannot solve, such as the presence of evil, He would cease to be the sovereign authority of all creation. The problem of evil then is really only a problem from our human perspective. The old saying, “If God is God, He is not good. If God is good He is not God”, from a play by Archibald MacLeish, sums up the belief of many regarding this issue. Yet in the life of Joseph, we encounter a God who is God and He is also good. On the one hand, He is in total sovereign control of all things (including evil and suffering), while on the other hand, He is altogether good and loving. Isn’t that the kind of God we all know exists anyway? One who is truly God and is truly good?

The story of Joseph’s life is quite remarkable. A dearly loved and favored son, Joseph dreams a strange dream of his family bowing before him only to be sold into slavery by his own brothers for even mentioning it to them. He is then falsely accused by an evil seductress and imprisoned, only to later be released by Pharaoh for interpreting dreams, and ends up becoming second in command over all Egypt and saving multitudes from a dreadful famine. 

Joseph’s story has traces of evil and suffering all over it: favoritism, envy, hatred, slave-trading, betrayal, lies, temptation, false accusations, prison, and famine. Yet at every turn in Joseph’s story, the reader is reminded of God’s good purposes and presence. In his slavery, imprisonment, and rise to power, we are told, “God was with Joseph.” Apparently a good and sovereign God can coexist with evil and suffering in this world. But how?

Later in his life, Joseph’s dreams have been fulfilled. He stands as second in command to Pharaoh and his brothers finally come bowing before him. The very plot meant to destroy Joseph’s dreams actually was the instrument by which those dreams were fulfilled. Had Joseph never been sold into slavery, he would have never been falsely accused, and had he never been falsely accused, he would have never been imprisoned, and had he never been imprisoned, he would have never been released to become Pharaoh’s right hand man, and had he never become Pharaoh’s right hand man, multitudes would have perished in a severe famine.

In Genesis 45:5-8 Joseph tells his brothers, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life…God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth…so it was not you who sent me here, but God.” The psalmist, in Psalm 105, is so bold as to add that God, “summoned a famine on the land” and “sent a man ahead of them, Joseph.” How do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory statements? You sold me…God sent me. You meant evil…God meant it for good. Famines are bad…but God summoned it. 

First we must realize that what often seem like contradictions in our Bibles are actually not contradictions at all, but paradoxes. A paradox is the coming together of two parallel truths that don’t seem to be reconcilable. When 19th Century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon was asked to reconcile God’s sovereignty with man’s responsibility, he said, “I wouldn’t try…I never reconcile friends.”

The glorious truth obvious to Joseph and to all God’s suffering saints throughout the ages and needs to be understood by us as well is: behind every drop of suffering and behind every dark spot of evil, God is sovereignly working out His good and perfect plan. This truth is one some believers foolishly run from, yet which is given by God as a support for them in the trials of life. Instead of embracing God’s sovereignty and goodness behind our suffering and behind the evil of our world, many believers choose to attribute all supposed “bad” events to Satan and all supposedly “good” events to God. I was in a Bible study once with a godly Christian woman who said her father’s death was all the work of Satan and refused the thought that God could have been sovereign behind it. After a time of her own prayerful reflection and study, she told the group that she now understood that God was sovereign and did allow her father to die for His own good purposes.

Think of the most ungodly and heinous act in human history. Now, can you confidently say, “The perpetrators meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”? Perhaps you were thinking of the Holocaust or September 11th. But these crimes pale in comparison to an even more despicable crime: the crucifixion of God’s only Son. The early church understood the cross to be both the most heinous crime ever committed and an offense God predestined to occur for His own good purposes in redemption. In Acts 2:23 we read, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” So on the one hand, there are “lawless men” who “killed” Jesus and on the other hand, Jesus’ death was “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” Then again in Acts 4:28 the church prays that all the evil perpetrators (Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles, and Jews) did, “whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” 

If God is sovereign over a famine in Joseph’s day and all the sin leading up to that event in his life and the horror of Christ’s crucifixion, then He is sovereign over every evil event and amount of suffering in this world. Yet God always has a good purpose which He brings out of evil and suffering. The ultimate good purpose of all evil and suffering in this world will be realized in the new heavens and new earth when the bride of Christ will finally be redeemed out of this sin-cursed world and all will be renewed. Until then, may we learn to rest in God’s sovereign care over our lives even as we live in a world full of sin and suffering. 

After all, what hope would there be if there were no sovereign and good God behind the helm of this world and behind the wheel of our own lives?

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What did the Apostles Teach?

Question 3: What did the Apostles teach?

As you can imagine this question could be answered in all sorts of ways, for the apostles taught many things.

We could say the entire New Testament is the teaching of the apostles.

We could say they taught what Jesus taught.

We could say they taught the gospel.

We could say they taught the truth.

We could say they taught repentance toward God and faith toward Jesus Christ.

We could even quote 1 Cor. 15:3-5 or 1 Tim. 3:16 where we see the apostles writing creeds of their own.

But generally we could answer this question by speaking of the apostles teaching as a summary of all right doctrine, or say their teachings are the core/essential teachings of Christianity; teachings that are so central to the essence of Christianity that if you reject them you reject Christianity altogether and cannot be a Christian in any real sense of the word.

So what are these core/essential teachings of Christianity? Well, we’re not the only ones to ask this question, in fact, the early church asked this question after the 1st century came to a close, and the result was (surprise, surprise) the Apostles Creed. What does the Creed say?

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and buried, He descended into hell. The 3rd day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From which He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, a holy, catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”

This is a clear summary of what the core/essential teachings of Christianity are. It doesn’t detail 100% the things we hold dear; for example it mentions nothing about justification by faith alone, or the inspiration and infallibility Bible, but it is a great summary of our faith. Did you notice how the creed is largely a summary of the work Jesus has done? His birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and coming judgment. The Apostles Creed is all about Jesus. This shouldn’t surprise you, Christianity is all about Christ: who He is, what He did, and what He’s going to do.

Therefore, all of this leads to a final question:

Question 4: How will you respond?

The pressing issue for each of you and for me is how we respond to this Christ, and the teaching about Him from His apostles.

The most important thing any of us have to deal with in life is not where we’ll live, what job we’ll work, how much money we’ll make, what we’ll drive, what kind of house we live in, or even who we’ll marry – no, the most important thing you and I will face is what we do with Jesus. And what you do with Jesus isn’t something to put off for a later time, it’s importance sweeps all other issues into the background.

So, will we reject these teachings? If you reject them you reject Christ, and you’ll spend an eternity in agony wishing you did otherwise in Hell.

Will you embrace these teachings? If you do you embrace Christ, and you’ll spend an eternity grateful for the work He did on your behalf.

Why is the Apostles’ Teaching Important?

Question 2: Why is the Apostles’ teaching important?

The apostles’ teaching is important not only because there are no apostles alive any longer, but because their teaching is the foundation of the Church. Paul, in Ephesians 2:20, makes this point saying the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.”

Let me explain this by using Jesus’ words in John 14, 15, 16, and 17.

John 14

In John 14:26 Jesus said to His apostles, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

John 15

Later He said this to them in John 15:26-27, “When the Helper comes, whom I send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me, and you will testify also, because you have been with Me from the beginning.”

John 16

In John 16:13 Jesus told them, “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you (apostles) into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.”

John 17

Lastly, in John 17:20-21 Jesus prayed saying this, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their (the apostles, including Paul, the last apostle) word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.”

So, to review: the Holy Spirit will be sent to the apostles, from the Father, in the name of Jesus.  Next, the Holy Spirit will bear witness to, testify, and cause the apostles to remember the Words of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit will lead the apostles into all truth and declare to them the things that are to come.  Then as a result of the testimony of the Holy Spirit, the apostles will testify and proclaim about Jesus (this is what we see in the book of Acts).  Jesus then, prays for us, asking specifically that through the word of the apostles we who believe may be one, as the Father and Jesus are one so that the world would believe Jesus came from the Father.

Did you follow that?

We learn from this that the Spirit who is going to inspire the apostles with truth, specifically “all truth” only speaks what He hears from Jesus and from the Father.  So, in turn when the apostles go out to preach, teach, and write letters to all the churches, those words are God’s Words, because they are being inspired by the Spirit, and Spirit only speaks what He hears.

Thus, the apostles preaching and writing should not be thought of as their own, but rather as God’s Words through the power of the God’s Spirit about God’s Son.

This is why the apostles words have power, and why when compiled together they form the New Testament Canon.  Their Words, have the same authority as the Words of Jesus, because their Words are God’s Words, given to them through the power of the Spirit.

Christians today have believed through the Words of the apostles, spoken and written.  And since we cannot hear them audibly any longer, we read their words.  This is the New Testament canon, which is the authoritative word to the Church today.  This brings to light the correct interpretation of Matthew 16:18 doesn’t it?  “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” Is Peter the rock?  No.  The Rock Jesus is referring to are the Words (Scripture) that will come from Peter and the rest of the apostles.  That is the foundation of the Church.

See the progression here: Apostolic representatives who then by the power of the Holy Spirit turn into Apostolic preachers, who then through the inspiration of the Spirit turn into Apostolic writers, who have left in their writings an Apostolic witness for the Church for all time.

Therefore the Bible you hold in your hand is the only Apostolic authority for us today. Or as R.C. Sproul says: “The church is Apostolic in that the teaching of the apostles as contained in the sacred Scripture is the foundation of the Church and the authority by which the Church is governed.”

Who Were the Apostles?

Question 1: Who were the apostles?

The original Greek word for apostle is apostolos meaning ‘he who is sent.’ The Bible uses this word along with the plural apostoloi which means ‘sent ones.’ This gives us an understanding of who the apostles were.

There were men chosen by Jesus, whom Jesus sent out with His message of good news. Mark 3:13-14 tells us how it happened, “And Jesus went up on the mountain and called to Him those whom He desired, and they came to Him. And He appointed twelve (whom He also named apostles) so that they might be with Him and He might send them out to preach…”

So out of the group of disciples Jesus calls to Himself on this mountain, Jesus chose twelve of them to be apostles. The picture given to us here is that all of the apostles were disciples, but not all of Jesus disciples were apostles. Mark tells us their names a few verses later: Simon whom Jesus called Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the zealot, and Judas Iscariot.

The apostles enjoyed a special office in the early Church. There were sent by Jesus, being commissioned by Him with the authority to speak on His behalf. This of course is modeled after Jesus Himself, who is called the Chief Apostle in Hebrews 3:1. Luke 10:16 makes it clear that as Jesus was sent by His Father and spoke with the Father’s authority, so too Jesus sent his apostles out to speak with His authority. Just as anyone who rejects Jesus rejects His Father who sent Him, anyone who rejects the apostles rejects Jesus who sent them.

Most of the great European cathedrals of history and older large American churches that have stained glass usually represent the apostles as being larger than life figures, super saints, men of mythical stature. Nothing could be farther from the truth – they were common men with an uncommon calling. We learn of their common and ordinary qualities all throughout the gospels. Not understanding Jesus, not trusting Jesus, denying Jesus, scared of storms, scared of men, and lusting after power the apostles were weak and insignificant. No paparazzi would have followed them around. But after Jesus ascended back to Heaven He gives the apostles the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, and the wondrous thing about the apostles after that is that these men who used be characterized by their weakness are now characterized by their bold and fearless preaching of the gospel.

This shift in their character is even noticed in Acts 4:13 which says, “When the people saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished, and understood that they had been with Jesus.” Common, ordinary men who followed and proclaimed an extraordinary Savior. Their time with Jesus left an enormous mark on these men, it changed them forever.

Well, after the death of the traitor Judas, there was an opening, and the apostles choose Matthias to take his place. In choosing Matthias to replace Judas Peter gave 3 qualifications one had to meet in order to be an apostle: 1) you had to be disciple of Jesus during His earthly ministry, 2) you had to be an eyewitness of the resurrection of Jesus, and 3) you had to be called and commissioned directly by Jesus Himself. Matthias met these and was chosen.

Later in Acts 9 Jesus Himself chooses Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles, and after this as you move onto into the New Testament you have the stunning reality that there were no more apostles called or chosen.

By the late first century this was confirmed again and again by the early Church fathers who recognized their authority was subordinate to the original apostles. This means by the standards set forth in Acts 1, there are no apostles alive today (which also means the gifts of the apostles are gone as well).

This leads to Question 2: why is the teaching of the apostles important?

The Church is Apostolic: Wait, What Does that Mean?

Today we beginning the conclusion of our series called ‘The Historical Church’ where we’ve focused on the marks of Church given to us in the ancient document from 325 AD called the Nicene Creed. In the first sentence of the last paragraph the creed says this, “And we believe in One, Holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.” We’ve gone over the Church’s unity, the Church’s holiness, the Church’s universal nature, and today we turn our attention to the fourth mark of the Church: Apostolic.

The meaning of Apostolic is clear and given to us within the word itself. To say the Church is ‘Apostolic’ is to say the Church is founded on the apostle’s teaching.

The book of Acts makes this crystal clear in Acts 2:42 when Luke, the author, says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Here we see a summary of what the early Church devoted themselves to or continued steadfastly in when they gathered together. They devoted themselves to prayer, to the breaking of bread (Lord’s Supper), and fellowship. But notice what’s on the top of the list here? “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…” Above all they did, the central object in focus was the teaching of the apostles. This is why we say that the apostles’ teaching is the foundation of the Church.

This is clear to most of us I think and, clear as it may be, it does bring up a number of questions, questions that need answering.

Questions like: ‘Who were the apostles?’ ‘What did the apostles teach?’ and finally ‘Why is the apostles’ teaching so important?’ It is these questions that clarify what we mean when we mention the phrase ‘apostles teaching.’  I’ll zero in on these questions in the next few days as we conclude this series.

Evangelism: the Gathering of the Elect

Calvinists are often shunned or frowned upon for placing lots of weight on the doctrines of God’s sovereignty.  One of the critiques is that Calvinistic doctrine does not lead anyone to any kind of evangelistic zeal, or burden to see men come to Christ.  Have you ever heard this kind of thinking?  I have, more often than I’d like to.  I think one reason while so many believe in this ridiculousness is that they are allergic to doctrine.  Upon entering into doctrinal debate with someone, they feel out of place or in over their head which causes a response like, “Is this doing any good?  Why aren’t we sharing the gospel with the lost?”  While some Calvinists certainly do fall into this error and place an unhealthy zeal on doctrinal debate, it is a straw-man argument to lump all Calvinists into the same boat.  I submit that you cannot know what evangelism is or have any hope in sharing the gospel with any pagan, if you’re not a Calvinist.  Here is why:

In Acts 18, Paul is discouraged in Corinth because a group of Jews did not believe his preaching that Jesus was the Messiah sent to save them.  Paul says in 18:6, “Your blood be on your own heads!  I am clean.  From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”  Afterwards Paul went to Titius Justus’ house and then to Crispus’s house, preaching the same Christ, and was amazed that all the households believed; along with many other Corinthians.  Paul seemed to still be discouraged though, as if the stink of what had happened earlier with the Jews was still heavy on him.  God encourages Paul in 18:9-10, “And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.”  It seems like a usual encouragement from the Lord here.  He makes sure to tell Paul that He is with him always and even promises safety, which Paul did not often have.

But what makes this encouragement so astounding is what God ends with, “for I have many people in this city.”  What does that mean?  Not very many people in Corinth had come to faith in Christ yet.  So how could God say that He had many people in this city?  Is God wrong?  Certainly not!  What then is going on?  It’s because there are elect people within the city of Corinth that God has chosen from before the world began to believe, that have not heard the gospel yet.  God encourages Paul to keep on preaching, because of those people.  This is simply the outworking of Romans 10:14-17 in which it is clearly said that no one comes to faith apart from hearing the gospel.  God was encouraging Paul to be the vessel of salvation for these people who God had chosen from before the foundation of the world, that are now residing in Corinth.  Paul was obviously so strengthened by this word from God that he later encourages Timothy to labor and “endure all things for the sake of the elect, so that they may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” (2 Tim. 2:10)  Paul labored and endured all things for the sake of the elect in Corinth, why?  Because God was using him to gather in His elect.  The sovereignty of God in election gave Paul hope that God’s Word, the gospel, would never return void, but always accomplish the purpose for which it is sent. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

What does this have to do with evangelism?  How does the sovereignty of God empower us to bring the gospel to the people we live among?  Because we to, along with Paul, have this same encouragement from God.  No matter where we live, we can truthfully cling to the fact that God has chosen people before the world began in our cities, and God has ordained that the gospel be preached to them so they can believe.  We are invited to be the means that God uses to carry out His eternal purposes.

If I did not believe in God’s sovereignty in salvation, I would be so utterly discouraged every time I share the gospel, because if they do not believe, it is my fault.  I did not make it clear enough, wasn’t as persuasive as I could’ve been, or I didn’t try as hard as I should have.  But this isn’t the case.  Knowing that God has chosen people who will come to faith upon hearing the gospel gives me hope in sharing my faith.  It is as if God were taking us fishing and promising a huge catch.

One other thing though, because we do not know who these elect ones are that God has chosen within our cities, we share with everyone.  When people come to faith, we can know for sure, that it’s because they have been chosen from long ago.

I know of no doctrine that leads to a greater evangelistic zeal than the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in election.  Take heart, be encouraged, and share the gospel with all people, for God has many people in your city, and upon hearing the gospel, His elect will come to faith.

Paul & Barnabas: What We Can Learn

I’ve talked about how conflict is a present reality for us in ministry, set up the friendship betwen Paul and Barnabas, and walked through the passage where they part ways.  Now what can we learn from their separation?

a) First, we have a lesson in diversity.

Notice how Luke retells this event without assigning blame to either Paul or Barnabas.  It just seems that they’ve got different missions philosophies.  I think Luke does this to show that Paul and Barnabas didn’t have to be doing the same thing.  Paul went his way, and Barnabas went his way.  There were plenty of opportunities for the cause of the gospel in both directions.  This shows us that the mission of the Church is large enough for multiple methods to be used.  There will be diversity in missions, and we should not think one route of spreading the gospel is any better than the other.  But we would do well to remember that though there may be many ways to spread the gospel, there is only one gospel to be spread.

b) Second, the gospel is important enough for us to use every possible resource.

Yes they split, but because they split, there were now two missionary parties going out rather than one.  Two groups of people would hear the gospel, not just one.  It opened the door for more to hear the gospel.  The conflict did not stop Paul and Barnabas from doing missions.  Paul even, mentions Barnabas in a good light in some of his letters.  Rather than focusing on our conflicts, or on our personality differences, our focus ought to be the gospel.  If the gospel is above all things in our hearts, we’ll continue to minister as Paul and Barnabas did rather than leaving the ministry all-together.

c) Third, we can trust that Jesus is strong enough to handle our conflicts and use them for both His great glory and our great good.

When Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, and later met his brothers face to face he said “as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” (Genesis 50:20).  The brothers weren’t trying to do God’s will, and some of our conflicts in missions will be with those who aren’t trying to do God’s will either.  Yet, just as the actions Joseph’s brothers were in accordance with the sovereign purpose of God, so too our actions and the actions of those were conflicted with are under the sovereign purpose of God.  The ultimate display of this truth is the cross.  WE, in our sin, meant evil against Jesus by killing Him, but God meant the death of His Son on the cross for good.  What looked like a tragedy was turned into the greatest victory in history.  When conflict comes to you, turn to our sovereign God, and ask Him to work it out for good.  He will.

d) Fourth, in conflict we need to remember love.

Both Paul and Barnabas didn’t bring anyone else into their dispute.  They didn’t gossip about the other to their new companions.  They didn’t drag the churches into it either.  Rather than lashing out or complaining, they attempted to work it out, realized they couldn’t, and moved on, united under the common cause of the gospel.  This was wise, and was gracious. I think, 95% of the time, we know how to resolve our conflicts.  The problem is that we’re usually more interested in displaying ourselves to be right before other people rather than fixing the conflict.  You’re going to have to fight this desire if you want conflicts resolved.

e) Lastly, there is hope for reconciliation in conflict.

I’ve said that Luke never again mentions Barnabas in Acts, it’s just about Paul after the incident.  But we have a record of their reconciliation later in Scripture.  It is found at the very end of Paul’s life, in the very last chapter, of his last epistles (never to late huh?).  Paul’s closing words to Timothy are in 2 Tim. 4:11, where he says, “Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.” Timothy will come to Rome, but he’s not to come by himself.  He’s to bring John Mark with him.  Why?  Because Paul has need of him.  There once was a time when Paul had no use for Barnabas’ cousin John Mark in the mission field, but that has changed now.  John Mark has grown up, and perhaps Paul has too.

Lesson?  Conflict has an end, it may take years as it did in this case, but we see from this that it’s never too late for reconciliation.

Paul & Barnabas: Parting Ways

We’ve come to our text – Acts 15:36-41, which says:

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. Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also. 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. And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

I think a few things stand out clearly here:

a) This passage does not make for very pleasant reading does it?  The conflict between Paul and Barnabas is clear and big.  The very fact that Luke includes this incident teaches us that conflict will be something that accompanies ministry eventually.  This passage also marks a turn in Acts.  We will not hear of any of the other apostles or of Barnabas, but only of Paul and his journeys from now on.

b) Second, the scene is clear: Paul wants to retrace his steps and go back to the churches they’ve planted to see how their fairing. Barnabas agrees with Paul, but he adds his desire to take John Mark with them again.  Paul doesn’t think it’s a good idea.  It’s not quite clear why Barnabas wanted his young cousin John Mark to come with them again, perhaps it was because they were family and he was struggling between the apostolic mission and family loyalties.  What is clear is Paul’s reason for not wanting him to come along.  He viewed John Mark’s earlier leave in Pamphylia as a desertion.  They had been commissioned by the Church on this mission, and he left?  I think Paul thought John Mark’s desertion revealed a character defect which made him unfit for such ministry.  You can see why Paul wouldn’t want him to come again.  He doesn’t want his partner to leave; he wants someone who’ll stay, no matter the cost.

c) Third, in v39 we see them separate.  Reading this almost makes you feel bad doesn’t it?  When no one was there for Paul as a new believer in Jerusalem, Barnabas stepped in for him before the Apostles.  When he was shipped off to Tarsus, it was Barnabas who came after him, pursued him, and brought him back into Antioch for ministry.  They opposed Bar-Jesus and were persecuted together in Paphos.  They were almost stoned in Iconium.  They were called Zeus and Hermes in Lycaonia.  They rejoiced together in Antioch about the Gentiles coming to faith.  They opposed the Judiazers together in Antioch and Jerusalem.  Most of you know what it’s like to be on a mission trip together, you get close with the people around you because they’re the only ones you know.  Therefore we know that these two men were knit together in soul and to separate had to hurt both of them badly.

d) Fourth, they both chose new companions and went different directions– Barnabas chose John Mark his cousin and went off to minister in his home town of Cyprus.  Paul chose Silas and left to encourage the churches in Syria and Cilicia.

So there we have it, conflict in ministry was a reality for the early church, and history has proven it to be a reality ever since.  Tomorrow I’ll post on what I think we can we learn from this story and what we can learn about our own conflicts in ministry.

Paul & Barnabas: Setting the Stage

Before we get into the text (Acts 15:36-41), let me set the stage.

The first time we hear of Barnabas is in Acts 4:36 when he sold his land and laid the earnings at the feet of the apostles.  He was a Levite, and he was also called Joseph.  We do not hear about him or from him until after Paul comes onto the scene.  The first time we hear of Paul is in Acts 8:1 when he was in hearty agreement to Stephen’s death.  He is converted in chapter 9, and begins preaching Christ in the synagogues of Damascus.  When Saul learned of the Jews plan to kill him, he fled the city by way of being lowered in a basket through a large opening in the wall, and he went to Jerusalem to find solace with the disciples.  But when he tried to associate himself with them, they were too afraid and didn’t think he was believer.  So Saul was in Jerusalem, alone.

Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement” comes back onto the scene now.

He finds Saul, takes him into his care, brings him before the disciple’s, and he tells Saul’s testimony himself to the disciples.  Because of this, Saul is allowed to move about and speak freely of Jesus.  He began to argue with the Hellenistic Jews, and they tried to kill him (as the Jews did before).  So the disciples sent Saul off to Tarsus and Barnabas stayed behind.  Once we get to Acts chapter 11 a couple of years had gone by, and God was stirring up the gentiles in Antioch and bringing them to faith.  The leaders of the Jerusalem church heard about this, rejoiced greatly, and decided to send someone there to encourage them.  Peter and John couldn’t go because they had gone off to Samaria to look after Philip.  So the leaders chose Barnabas, and off he went.

Once Barnabas arrives in Antioch the Scripture picks up speed.  Barnabas witnesses the grace of God among the gentiles, rejoices, encourages them to remain true to the Lord, and leaves for Tarsus because he wanted to find Saul.  Perhaps Barnabas needed help and could think of no one else better suited than Saul to come along side him.  Then, within two more verses Barnabas finds Saul in Tarsus, brings him back to Antioch, and they begin teaching side by side with great success, so much so that the citizens of Antioch began to notice these people always talking about the “Christos” (the Christ), so they began to call them “Christians” in Antioch.  From this point on, Barnabas and Saul, who comes to known as Paul, take an offering for the believers in Judea, return to Jerusalem and pick up John Mark.

The three left on the first missionary journey, which took them to Galatia and back.  But it wasn’t long into the trip before John Mark left them.  Now, upon Paul and Barnabas’ return to Antioch, they spent a large amount of time with the disciples, and it was during this time they told them how God had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.  Then the Judaizers came and began teaching that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised to be saved.  Paul and Barnabas debated them, and eventually it was such a big issue that they decided to call a council to weigh the matter.  After James made his mind about the issue, Paul and Barnabas were sent back to Antioch and they stayed there teaching and preaching.

Now the stage is set for the conflict that is about to occur.

Paul & Barnabas: Welcome to Conflict

When I began seminary, I was required to begin an internship at a church or some other kind of ministry.  God opened the door in a small church and I began working with college students.  During the first staff meeting I ever went to, my pastor told me something I’ll never forget.  He said, “Adam, 95% of people who get fired from ministry, don’t get fired over doctrine, they get fired over personality conflicts.” I was stunned to hear such a comment!  I couldn’t believe it!  People working side by side in ministry don’t get along?  Well, God has grown me up a bit since then and my former pastor’s words have proven true time and time again, no matter if I’m ministering in India, Atlanta, or even within the walls of my own congregation.  Conflict in ministry seems to be a present reality much of the time for me.  I think if you we’re honest with yourselves, you’d all admit that this is true for all of you too.

For the next week or so, I want to focus on this idea of conflict in ministry:

First, I want to walk through Acts 15:36-41, because this is where Paul and Barnabas part ways.  It’s one of the biggest ministry conflicts we have in the Bible, so it will prove helpful to us for our purposes here.  And second, I want to apply this text, and give some practical advice about dealing with conflict in ministry, some helpful things to do; and some unhelpful things to stay away from.  But before I start on this tomorrow, read through the text and spend some time in it:

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.” Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also. 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. And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Faith vs. Reason? Or Faith & Reason?

Are faith and reason separate?  Are they two distinct, un-overlapping, different positions one can hold to in this world?  Or are they two sides of the coin of man’s experience in this life?  To me, the latter is the most truthful and honest option.  How then can these two seemingly different realities work in tandem and meet each other without damaging the nature and substance of the other?  Ravi Zacharias helps us out:

God has put enough into this world to make faith in Him a most reasonable thing, but He has left enough out to make it impossible to live by reason alone. (Why Jesus, Introduction, page XVI)

To further impress this Paul says to Agrippa in Acts 26:25

I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.

What is Paul mean by saying he is speaking “true and rational words?”  It means that the gospel of Jesus Christ is both true and rational.  In other words, if one is seeking to know true reason, rationality, and truth one will ultimately land on and embrace the gospel.

Election Ought to Produce Evangelism

One major critique I’ve received of reformed theology is that is does not foster a desire to evangelize.  Is this true?  Not at all.  It is a straw man argument people make who are opposed to thinking hard about the deep things of God.

In Acts 18:9 God tells Paul, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent.”  This is understandable taking into account the trip Paul just took.  He is in Corinth after just leaving Athens, and he’s had a rough go the past half-year or so.  Many people have come to Christ, churches are being planted, but Paul is clearly discouraged and afraid to continue speaking because this is precisely how God encourages him to keep going in 18:9.  Why would God have said these things if Paul really wasn’t feeling these things?

Most people stop here and do not continue further, merely stating that God encouraged Paul to keep sharing the gospel, keep preaching, and they move on.  But DO NOT miss 18:10.  In it God continues this encouragement to Paul, “…for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”  The proper response to this is “What?”  Not many people have come to faith in Jesus, yet God encourages Paul to keep going spreading the gospel by telling him that He has many in Corinth who are His people?  Either God doesn’t know that lack of success Paul has had, or He has another purpose in this statement than usually taught.

What is happening here?  God is using the doctrine of election to produce evangelism in Paul.

You see it?  Not many have come to faith.  Yet God says He has “many in this city who are His people.”  God is telling Paul that many of the elect sons and daughters of the King of Kings are residing in Corinth, and they have not come to faith yet.  How will they come to faith?  Through the gospel being proclaimed to them in the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is why Paul tells young Timothy in 2 Tim. 2:10 that he “endured everything for the sake of the elect, that they may obtain the salvation that is in Christ with eternal glory.”

You see, election ought to produce evangelism in us.  If it doesn’t, we either have a cold heart toward the lost, or do not understand election.

Right & Might – We Have All We Need

Matthew 28:18-20 says:

All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I command you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

Acts 1:8 says:

But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.

Are these two passages asking about the same type of power here? Matthew talks of authority and Luke (author of Acts) talks of power. Are these two the same thing? No. Matthew gives us the right to carry out the commission, while Luke gives us the might to carry out the commission. Conclusion: We’ve got the right from Jesus and the might from the Holy Spirit to carry this out. We’ve got all we need.

Christianity is Utter Reason and Rationality

In our present-day, non-Christians (especially well-informed intellectual non-Christians), claim that Christian belief is not rational.  They make this claim not based on examination of the alleged facts of Christianity, they just throw out the facts as not worthy of true investigation and claim it’s absurdity.  They usually say something like this, “Christianity is similar to belief in the tooth fairy.  Belief in the tooth fairy is good and could even be useful, that is, for a child.  But eventually a child must grow up and come to face the facts of reality.  The tooth fairy doesn’t exist.  It was only a scheme created by mothers to help kids sleep through the night, giving them little coins every now and then to make them feel special.”  People who hold this view usually carry a sort of triumphalist mindset over Christians, because in their view they have “grown up” intellectually while Christians have remained intellectual children.  Are they right?  Is Christianity really a fairy tale?  Do you have to put your mind on the shelf to be follower of Jesus?  Paul didn’t think so.  Listen to what he says before Agrippa in Acts 26.

So, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.  For this reason some Jews seized me in the temple and tried to put me to death.  So, having obtained help from God, I stand to this day testifying both to small and great, stating nothing but what the Prophets and Moses said was going to take place; that the Christ was to suffer, and that by reason of His resurrection from the dead He would be the first to proclaim light both to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles.”  While Paul was saying this in his defense, Festus said in a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind!  Your great learning is driving you mad.”  But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, what I am saying is true and reasonable.

Paul, in sharing his own testimony to King Agrippa, claims that his Christian belief is reasonable and rational.  This means that it is rational to believe the gospel.  It is rational thinking to believe the gospel is greater than you could have invented, that the Bible always seems to resonate as true in your life, that you cannot deny the clear testimony of the gospel power in your own life, that you now know Jesus because of His work!  Bottom line?  I agree that Christian belief isn’t rational, it’s super rational, it’s beyond reason!  Take heart Christian, what you believe is true and reasonable.