This chapter is an important point in the history of the church. It’s the first doctrinal challenge to the gospel and it will affect the dynamics within the church for the rest of Acts and beyond. The struggle is this: “What must I do to be saved?” Some thought you need Jesus + circumcision (the law), others taught Jesus only. The way this was resolved is interesting. It wasn’t resolved by power plays by the apostles or some prophecy/revelation by God. The apostles submitted to one another and the church in a discussion of what God’s will was. Submission to one another is vital in ministry and is a repeated call in the epistles. Do I have an attitude of submission as I serve?
The result of the discussion was a clear delineation that the Gospel is a message of belief in Jesus only–that the Holy Spirit was given without the need of the law. At the same time, the testimony to the Gospel in the mixed Jew/Gentile communities was important as well and so the apostles urged certain practices in order to be a good testimony to the Jews. It wasn’t a matter of law- being right before God- but a matter of testimony – how to present the Gospel without stumbling blocks. This is also vital in ministry. Am I sensitive to the stumbling blocks to the Gospel others may have based on my behavior? One of the greatest excuses people use in not believing the Gospel is the hypocrisy of Christians. May I be sensitive to other people’s consciences as I seek to introduce them to Christ.
The church is built up and encouraged by this solution. The Gospel goes forth with even more strength.
The last story illustrates a counterpoint. Even though Paul and Barnabas submitted over doctrinal issues, they still had their individual consciences before God as to how to serve Him. They split over how to deal with John Mark. Some try to blame Paul or Barnabas for this. The truth is, as you seek to do ministry before God, people will have disagreements. Submitting to one another is important, but it is also vital to have a clear conscience and sometimes separation for the sake of ministry is necessary. Notice that this wasn’t done harshly or bitterly as Paul eventually wanted John Mark on his team (2 Timothy). Encouraging one another to serve our only Master by faith is the key.