Sunday, September 08, 2019

Stepping Up

“Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them …”

“Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.”

It doesn’t always work this way in church. There are no guarantees. Sometimes the person who has done the hard work of contending for the faith in a particular area steps aside or is overshadowed by others who come along at the right time with the right gifts, experience and skill sets to be involved in the next step of any particular initiative.

And that’s okay when it happens. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth,” says the apostle. That’s the right perspective to keep about such things.

False Teachers in Antioch

In this case, however, men who had come to Antioch from Judea were teaching salvation by circumcision, something both Paul and Barnabas knew to be terribly wrong. It was a false gospel. So they engaged in “no small dissension and debate with them.”

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in those discussions. Paul had quite a way with words when contending for the righteousness that is by faith, as we discover in his letter to the Galatians. Among the Galatians, Paul called those who accepted the same false teaching as was being preached in Antioch “deserters”. The preachers of this heresy were troublers of churches, distorting the gospel, in danger of being accursed. This was serious business, and Paul and Barnabas attacked the incursion of false doctrine with all the seriousness it deserved. There was no shortage of verbal clarity, I’m sure.

To Jerusalem on a Mission

Accordingly, Paul and Barnabas received an “appointment” from the church in Antioch to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders there, in order that the question might be settled once and for all. As I say, this is not always how it goes. It is surely possible that had the needs of the moment been different, Simeon, Lucius or Manaen may have made the trip, or perhaps others entirely. That sort of thing can always happen when the Holy Spirit is calling the shots. But then again, who better to take the controversial question to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem than two men who knew the issue inside out, who had formulated and articulated the arguments for salvation by faith, and who had demonstrated their fearlessness and commitment in the face of intense opposition?

As it turned out, their testimony in Jerusalem was pivotal. First, Peter took the floor and laid out the argument against creeping legalism and the Judaification of the gospel. Paul and Barnabas followed him by providing the supporting evidence, demonstrating that the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church was undeniably an act of God. They had been at Ground Zero in the work of taking the gospel to the Gentiles, and they were able to relate “what signs and wonders God had done”, not just through Peter at the house of Cornelius, but through them too.

Truth Wins Out

The account of their missionary journeys would have provided a powerful testimony to God’s concern that no unnecessary barriers be placed in the way of Gentile salvation; one that nobody else in Jerusalem that day could possibly have provided, and one that met the threshold for evidence-giving among Jews: the testimony of two or three witnesses.

After Paul and Barnabas had finished, James quoted from the prophets to affirm that God’s plan of salvation had always included the Gentiles, and that the Jewish members of the church should in no way hinder the realization of that goal.

So what was it that persuaded the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to reject imposing the rite of circumcision on Gentile believers? Was it Peter? Was it James? Was it Paul and Barnabas? Was it the combination of their voices and arguments? We cannot say for sure, but it is plain that the testimony of Paul and Barnabas had some bearing on a critical decision that impacted not one but many churches, and which surely resulted in the salvation of millions who might not have been reached by a gospel that came buried beneath layers of legalism and tradition.

Big Things from Small Beginnings

What can we take from this? Well, for one thing, when Paul and Barnabas first contended for the truth in Antioch, they cannot have had the slightest idea they would end up in Jerusalem or that their words would ever influence so many. They were not gunning for the job of special emissaries to first century ‘church headquarters’. They were not looking to make their names among the Jews or establish themselves in any way. They were simply arguing a theological point, and one they believed really mattered.

What they were doing was not an easy thing, and it is not evident from the text of Acts that many in Antioch were up to the task. With the spiritual authority teachers from Judea were assumed to possess, taking them on publicly was not everyone’s cup of tea. Finding himself in a similar position where “men had come from James”, Peter himself faltered for fear of the “circumcision party”.

Standing for the Truth

We too have very little idea how important any individual attempt to stand firmly for the truth may ultimately turn out to be. We may not view our small efforts to contend for the faith at the local level as anything particularly significant compared to the grand dramas of church history, or even compared to those being currently acted out across denominational evangelicalism. Nevertheless, the first move toward being used by God in a greater way is always stepping up whenever and wherever the truth of God is challenged. That need not be done in a pulpit, at a conference, over the internet or by writing a manifesto; more often than not it may take place in what seems a comparatively pleasant discussion between meetings over coffee, or in a church parking lot. What is important, though, is that men and women who intend to carry false doctrine into our churches find their way in choked with enthusiastic contenders for orthodoxy strongly and cheerfully making their cases.

Who knows? They may decide the pickings are easier elsewhere. And everyone would prefer that.

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