The second part of the book of Acts starts with chapter fifteen and the Jerusalem council being gathered because some Judaizers and Pharisees insisted that Gentiles must be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses in order to be saved (Vv.1-6).
Paul and Barnabus confronted this belief and thus engaged in “verbal combat”, they, “had great dissension and debate with them—[the men from Judea]” (V.2). When God’s word is being twisted to “mean” something its authoritative spokesmen never intended, its cause for intense debate. Essentially, these Jews wanted to add works of the Law of Moses in order for someone to be declared saved. When in the 21st century someone wants to skew scripture to mean something it never meant, and salvation is at stake, we’d better get in the fight for Christ’s sake and those who are entering into eternity.
After this debate had ensued for some time, Peter gives a mini-apologetic by explaining his account of how Cornelius a Gentile had received the Holy Spirit even as they had from the beginning (Vv.7-12). Then James speaks up assuring the Jewish hearers that God had through the prophets included the Gentiles in his scheme of salvation (Vv.13-20). It’s as if the notion of reaching the Gentiles with the gospel was a foreign concept to many Jews as Peter’s account revealed in Acts 10.
To the Gentiles a letter was then written by the council and they were encouraged to grow in God’s grace but to guard against idolatry and fornication, the contents of which were read in Antioch and much joy resulted (Vv.21-31). Paul and Barnabus continued in Antioch, “teaching and preaching with many others also, the word of the Lord” (V.35). But not long afterward, these two had a “sharp disagreement” over whether or not to bring John Mark along with them. Here, the “dynamic duo” parted ways (Vv.36-41). Here’s a reminder that no matter what quality work people do for the kingdom—and Paul and Barnabus did—issues arise and do separate ministry partners.
There are several things from this chapter we learn; first, doctrine matters and specifically what it means for one to be saved is crucial. There’s no casual approach here. Christ plus anything is a distortion of the gospel and thus damnable (see Galatians), thus verbal combat must be had for love’s sake. Today, this view of love is foreign to most outside the church and to many within her walls. Sometimes love requires for there to be dissension within the ranks in order to uphold the word of the Lord in truth when distortions are arising.
Second, note that no burdens were placed on the Gentiles to be circumcised but they were warned to guard against idolatry and fornication because these go contra what it means to be Christ’s disciples. When we say “Christ plus anything is a distortion of the gospel” it clearly does not mean that how we live is inconsequential. No, new life produces new desires and holiness of living where love for God and others is practically demonstrated, one such way is to not be an idolater or a fornicator.
Lastly, Paul and Barnabus show us that God will separate even the closest of companions for His names sake. Even though these two separated, rather than hindering the gospel, this propelled its propagation because now more ground could be covered than while they were together. This is ironic because I can imagine Satan thinking he’s won a victory by dividing this duo, but God was providentially using this friction to reach more Gentiles in darkness with the gospel of God’s light. Amazing! When we consider that God works all things together for good to them that love Him and are called according to His purposes, we should consider this account of Paul and Barnabus in order to derive hope, rather than sink into despair when we experience similar situations.