TODAY’S READING: Acts 15–16
Missions involves great dissension (Acts 15:2). Men and women who leave home and hearth to herald the King in the most difficult places of earth tend to be hard-headed and opinionated. You don’t make it in North Korea, Yemen, Libya, or Somalia for years if you’re a spiritual or emotional pansy. The trick for missionaries then is to stay soft-hearted and to pick their battles, making sure if they go to blows, it’s for the defense of the gospel. Which is what made the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 so tricky, for both sides felt they were defending the gospel.
After testimony, James stood up to summarize the consensus of the elders. James was not making an arbitrary decision. He had listened to the give and take, discerned the unified agreement, and articulated it; this truly was an eldership that discerned the way forward together with the Spirit’s help. Importantly, James framed the decision in light of Old Testament scripture, quoting Amos 9. The prophet Amos spelled out that when the kingdom of David was reinstated, it would include men and women of every nation. James made the link (my paraphrase): “Brothers, we understand that Jesus is the Son of Abraham, the Son of David. Jesus is God made flesh, the Messiah who will rule over all nations, who died that all peoples may be a part of His Kingdom. Now that Jesus has conquered sin and death, we must wholeheartedly engage in His missions heart for all the nations. We cannot make it hard for the people groups of the world to come to Jesus. Let’s open the doors and let the peoples in!”
It’s an astounding moment in the history of missions. The elders of the church affirm what the missionaries out on the extremities have long ago understood, and while councils can’t really save anyone or start much, they sure can restrict and inhibit. Thankfully, James and the elders recognized what God was doing and opened the gates for the flood to continue to rush into salvation’s house. And the boundaries they set under the aegis of the Holy Spirit are just as important (vv. 28–29). The doors were thrown open, but they were doors with boundaries—it was not a syncretistic free-for-all. What was explicitly forbidden were the religious practices of Roman idolatry. The council welcomed the nations, but they had to come in as the new Israel. They had to leave all false religions, and their allegiance was to be fully and only to Christ and His body. All nations were welcome, but all other religions and false worship were to be checked at Christ the door. Jesus still says no to some things (and sometimes to some places at certain times). The Spirit is the executive of missions, and He still gives orders and boundaries (16:7).
Not everyone is ready for missions or called to go. Paul and Barnabas, long-term friends, could not settle their dispute over John Mark (15:36–41). The text does not vindicate either brother directly, but the fading of Barnabas from the scene would indicate Paul made the right decision. While all should have a missions heart, not all should be missionaries, and the only thing worse than no missionary team members is having the wrong ones. Even in this we must follow the Spirit’s lead. Sometimes the best thing for the gospel is for those not ready to not go, lest they do more harm than good. The same Paul who argued for the Gentiles to be let in argued for John Mark to be left out. Both hard arguments seemed to be of the Spirit. We do the nations no favors when we export our problematic and immature people.