Acts Week 7
By Jack Levison
W. J. A. Power Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew, Southern Methodist University
Read this week’s Scripture: Acts 13-15
I owned a leather Bible once, its edges gilded in gold, Jesus’ words printed in red, and its pages crinkled from the dew that moistened it when I set the Bible down in the grass to jump onto the swing set, where I waited for my two older sisters to daub on their makeup before church. In the back of that tattered black leather Bible were maps of Paul’s three missionary journeys.
The sophisticated study Bible I own now, I’m disappointed to report, doesn’t have a single map of Paul’s missionary journeys in the back. Oh well. Things change, though I don’t know why we’re better off without tidy little maps of Paul’s journeys.
Deep down, I’m glad there’s no map of Paul’s journeys in my study Bible, because I think that where the journeys started is more important than where Paul went this first time around. Let’s head, therefore, straight to the starting point of Christian mission.
A Different Sort of Church
Last week we met the Antioch Christians — a remarkable group devoted to sustained learning, open to prophetic revelations, and generous to a fault. The Antioch church possesses still other virtues that make Antioch God’s perfect place for launching Christian mission. [Author’s Note 1]
A diverse leadership team. It doesn’t take much to notice that Antioch has no paid pastor. No senior pastor. No associate pastor. No youth pastor. The leadership team consists of teachers and prophets. This team is also culturally and economically diverse.
Barnabas, who hails from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, no longer owns what he once owned, since he sold his property and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet to distribute (Acts 4:36–37). Simeon, “who was called Niger” (the word “Niger” in Greek is borrowed from a Latin word that means “black” or “dark-colored”), is probably from northern Africa. Lucius is also from northern Africa — modern-day Libya, to be exact. Manaen is — or was at one time — wealthy, and Herod Antipas’ friend from youth. Saul, from Tarsus, a coastal city in Asia Minor, is a trained Pharisee.
Bottom line? This church has a diverse leadership team that makes it the perfect launching pad for mission. Antioch is itself a mission in nuce. I wonder whether this should be our model of mission now, rather than a model in which relatively homogeneous people visit distant homogeneous groups of people. I wonder if it’s time to modify our models of leadership and mission to match Antioch’s.
The right practices. The spirit inaugurates mission among the Christians at Antioch “[w]hile they were worshiping the Lord and fasting” (13:2). [Author’s Note 2] This little clause — “while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting” — lets us know that community disciplines provide the conditions for hearing a word of God. Remember Peter praying on the roof at lunchtime? Now the whole church engages in the community disciplines of worship and fasting.
Notice that these Christians don’t jump right on the command to ship Paul and Barnabas off somewhere. The Christians in Antioch return to fasting — now with the addition of prayer — before laying their hands on Barnabas and Paul and sending them off. This is colossal. If we are going to make room for revelation, we’ve got to be able to weigh the worth of prophetic words. That’s why the Apostle Paul wrote, “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:20). [Author’s Note 3] Where there is prophecy, there must be a discernment process to determine whether the prophetic word is true. Prophecy demands more prayer, not less.
Common sense. They also figure out what to do, because they possess something that may seem ho-hum but is indispensable to pioneering ventures — common sense. Barnabas and Paul travel 16 miles to a port, where they board a ship bound for Cyprus — an island that makes perfect sense because there is a well-established Jewish community there where Barnabas and Paul can set up shop (Acts 13:4). Important as well, Barnabas grew up in Cyprus, so they have an immediate inroad there (5:36). [Author’s Note 4]
The choice of Cyprus as the first stop on the journey tells us that a good dose of common sense is never a bad ingredient of discernment. Divine direction doesn’t have to be outlandish to be inspired.
A source of grace. Put all of these virtues together — a thirst for learning; radical generosity; an ear for prophecy; a multicultural leadership team; the practices of worship, fasting, and prayer; and common sense — and you’ve got the makings of a remarkable community into which the holy spirit can speak a fresh word.
Yet Antioch is not just a church with a mission. Antioch is also a source of favor, of goodness, of grace. When Barnabas first arrives in Antioch, we are told, “he came and saw the grace of God” (Acts 11:23, emphasis added). Later, at the end of the road, with Paul and Barnabas’ mission complete for the time being, they “sailed back to Antioch, where they had been handed over to the grace of God for the work they had completed” (14:26, emphasis added). This church is a conduit of grace, a place Paul and Barnabas will naturally return to and kick up their heels for quite some time.
A Pioneering Pattern
On his first missionary journey, Paul does pretty much what Peter did earlier. In fact, Paul’s first missionary journey is a mirror image of Peter’s earlier missions, as this nifty chart shows [Author’s Note 5]:
|Condemning a magician||Acts 8:14–24||Acts 13:6–12|
|Commending a Roman official||Acts 10:17–48||Acts 13:7, 12|
|Commenting on Scripture||Acts 2:14–36; 3:12–26||Acts 13:16–41|
|Commanding the crippled to walk||Acts 3:1–8 (and 9:32–35)||Acts 14:8–11|
So much the same, so little changed … except everything has changed from the days of Peter to those of Paul, because this is now Gentile territory, and non-Jews are chomping at the bit to follow Jesus. The Jew first, but also the Greek.
Here’s how the pattern works:
- After they leave Antioch, Paul and Barnabas go regularly to their own Jewish people. At first, this strategy works like a charm. One Sabbath, Paul preaches in the Jewish synagogue, where “many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 13:43).
- The next Sabbath day, “almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord” (13:44).
- This, however, makes the Jewish listeners jealous, so “they contradicted what was spoken by Paul” (13:45).
- Paul and Barnabas chafe and say, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles” (13:46).
- The result? While the Gentiles “were glad and praised the word of the Lord” (13:48), Jewish listeners fight back, forcing Paul and Barnabas to leave (13:48–52).
That’s the original pattern of mission, more or less. Paul says it often enough in his letter to the Romans: the Jew first and also the Greek [Author’s Note 6]. And off they go, whether according to plan or because they are forced out. Either way, they won’t stop travelling, they won’t quit talking.
An Inspired Compromise
The flood of Gentile believers into the church changes everything. Lesslie Newbigin, a 20th-century missionary giant, captures this change in his comment about Cornelius in Acts 10:
Quite plainly in this case there is a conversion of the church as well as the conversion of Cornelius. It is not as though the church opened its gates to admit a new person into its company, and then closed them again, remaining unchanged except for the addition of a name to its roll of members. Mission is not just church extension. It is something more costly and more revolutionary [Author’s Note 7].
I love this statement: a brand-new band of spirit-filled Gentiles wasn’t admitted and asked to conform. Mission isn’t just church extension; mission is revolution, transformation of the church.
A flood of new believers demands a deluge of difficult decisions, the most important of them made during the Jerusalem Council.
The confrontation. The flood of non-Jewish believers raises an inevitable, intractable, impossible issue for some of Jesus’ followers, who argue, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). When they demand a second time, “It is necessary for them [Gentiles] to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses” (15:5), the hair on Peter’s neck stands up, and he protests:
And God, who knows the human heart, testified to [the Gentiles] by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will (15:8–11).
Unavoidable confrontation, to which James, at the Jerusalem Council, proposes a compromise, though one that leans in Peter’s direction: “Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name” (Acts 15:14). James concludes, “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God,” except for abstention “from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (15:19–20).
Whew! Conflict avoided. Schism averted. Yet it wasn’t that easy. Not at all. Let’s inspect the complex composition of an inspired compromise.
The power of experience. What changed Peter? His experience, or so he tells others at the Jerusalem Council. His vision on the roof during lunchtime (Acts 15:7; 10:9–23), which Peter realizes is about people, not pork. The way the spirit interrupted his speech in Caesarea to pour over Gentiles: “And God … testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us” (15:8; 10:44–48).
Paul and Barnabas join the crowd and narrate their own experience “of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles” (15:12).
What the Bible says is important, and certainly Peter’s and Paul’s and Barnabas’ Bible says that Gentiles who follow God should be circumcised. The entire weight of the Old Testament, which is the only Bible they have, tumbles decidedly down this side of the hill. Had you been there, in Jerusalem, and asked, “What does the Bible say about the circumcision of non-Israelites?” the answer would have been a no-brainer: “Circumcise them!”
Peter, Paul, and Barnabas can’t fall in line, however, because they’ve seen firsthand that Gentiles received the holy spirit without first being circumcised. In this instance, at least, experience trumps the plain interpretation of Scripture.
The detonation of debate. Competing experiences ignite an explosion in the church: “And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with [the believers who championed circumcision], Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders” (Acts 15:2). The word dissension (stasis) is later used in Acts to describe Ephesian riots (19:40) and a rigid division between Pharisees and Sadducees that turns violent (23:7, 10). “No small dissension” in Antioch that pitted Peter and Paul against the Pharisaic followers of Jesus, therefore, is not civil debate. It is aggressive and vicious conflict.
This dissension joins with debate, which begins in Antioch and continues in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2, 7). Notice this word, debate, because it tells us that the church is committed, even in the midst of explosive arguments, to intelligent investigation. Later in Acts, Festus tells King Agrippa about Paul’s case: “Since I was at a loss about the investigation [zētēsis] of these questions, I asked whether [Paul] wished to go to Jerusalem and be tried there on these charges” (25:20). Debate, zētēsis, is not argument for argument’s sake, but the intense investigation of a particular question. The churches in Antioch and Jerusalem apply their prodigious educations to intense debate over an intractable question: are Gentiles who follow Jesus obligated to observe the commands of Torah?
The appeal to Scripture. When James proposes a compromise, he appeals to experience to make his decision. He sides with Peter by agreeing that God has looked favorably upon the Gentiles (Acts 15:14). Yet he then turns to Scripture to support this decision, citing Amos 9:11–12, followed by a snippet from Isaiah 45:21 [Author’s Note 8]. The point he makes, on the basis of Scripture, is that the nations, the Gentiles, are part of God’s rebuilding of Israel.
The presence of the spirit. The monumental decision in Jerusalem to include Gentiles without circumcising their men has emerged from a combination of experience, violent but intelligent debate, and Scripture. When James communicates this compromise in a letter to the people of Antioch, he also says that this decision “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). His statement, brief as it is, captures the relationship that exists between the holy spirit and the tough, gritty work of conflict resolution.
Challenge and compromise. At this decisive moment, James connects the work of the holy spirit with a triangle of ingredients — experience, ruthless deliberation, and Scripture — which brings about the most significant decision in church history. At the heart of this tense triangle, James discovers the work of the spirit in the bruising battle to reach a compromise.
We face, of course, analogous challenges today. Many, for instance, are asking how the church can come to an inspired compromise — one that seems good to the holy spirit and to us — about the presence of gays and lesbians in the church. The church is deeply and dangerously divided over the answer to this question. Yet from the Jerusalem Council we can garner a model for answering this question through compromise:
- We must listen extremely hard to others’ experiences, especially new and surprising ones
- We must argue ferociously, since the stakes are so high
- We must delve into Scripture
In this gritty process, certainly not in the pleasant confines of amicable conflict-avoidance, we discover a rich vein of the holy spirit. How? We learn how to arrive at a wrenching compromise, which, ironically enough, leaves us off-kilter yet brings us together in a common cause.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Dr. Levison highlights four conditions in Antioch that contributed to its role as the hub of mission for the early church. Of these conditions, which is the most surprising (or challenging) to you, and why? What implications might it have on the contemporary church?
- Antioch is particularly noted for having a diverse leadership team. Why is this important to the health of a ministry or community? How might this model challenge how those of us in the North American church view mission?
- Chapters 13–14 re-count the first stages of Paul’s missionary journey. What stands out to you from these accounts, and why? What things do you still have questions about?
- The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 represents a turning point in the life of the early church. Dr. Levison notes three key factors that contributed to a positive outcome amid the conflict. What are these factors? Would you add anything else to the list? How have you seen these attributes modeled in conflicts that you’ve been a part of?
- The letter recorded in 15:23–29 notes that the decision not to circumcise Gentile believers “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (15:28a). What is your reaction to this phrase? What does it mean to listen and respond to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in your own life but also in communal settings?
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