In this look at the early church, Pastor Terry examines how the Apostle Paul was able to keep sustaining even when conflict is unavoidable. We can avoid having it defeat us.
We’re going to start with Acts 15 and use this as a beginning point. It’s about AD 50 when we come to this 36th verse. That’s a long time ago. Paul is speaking to Barnabas. Barnabas is his ministry associate. That’s his partner and friend in ministry. Barnabas was the one who, if you read earlier in the Book of Acts when everybody was against Paul, he was the one that befriended him. He was a leader in the early Church, the Church that emerged after Jesus’s resurrection in Jerusalem.
The most intense opponent of the way of Jesus was a man by the name of Saul of Tarsus, who became Paul. Saul opposed and hated Jesus. He hated anybody who followed Him and saw Him as a threat. Saul wanted to eradicate them, minimally have them dispersed. He says that he had a streak of violence in him. When that showed up, he went after the Church in Jerusalem, scattered the people who were followers of Jesus. They were known as Followers of the Way at the time, and everybody was afraid of him.
Of course, if you read the Book of Acts, you read that Saul has this moment where he’s on the road to Damascus to do some damage to this community of believers in a way that he thinks is false and a threat to his people. He’s confronted by what he calls clearly, Jesus. He sees a vision, but it’s so real. He calls it a real exchange, no question in his mind. In that conversation, Jesus says to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It’s hard to fight against me, kick against the pricks.” He talks about that.
There’s Paul smitten blind. His entire world is shaken. He’s reorders. He turns from a disbeliever to an immediate believer in Jesus. He becomes probably the most ferocious proponent of the way of Christ this world has ever known. Certainly, the most influential follower of Jesus in the history of our world is the Apostle Paul, no question about it. But at the time, remember, people didn’t believe in him. They thought the early Christians thought that he was actually trying to create a scheme that he was feigning conversion. That he actually was just trying to get into their network. Many of them didn’t want anything to do with them. They said, “That’s the same guy who’s killed people we love and who’s damaged our families. He’s playing a trick on us.”
No one believed him, but one of the men who stood up and believed in him was a man named Barnabas, an early leader of the Church. Barnabas put his arm around him and said basically, “I’ll be your sponsor because I believe in what God has done in your life.” Barnabas started bringing him in and introducing Paul. Paul begins to become recognized as a force. This former Pharisee of stunning intellect and organizational capacity begins to turn the collective forces of his personality towards the way of Jesus.
He’s the one along with Barnabas that felt moved initially to try to take the message of Christ into places where it had never gone. He had a particular burden for the non-Jewish people, himself being Jewish. At the same time, he wanted to see the non-Jewish population, as well as his own people, be given the message of Jesus as the Risen Savior, the Promised Messiah. So, he and Barnabas had this conviction. They’re supposed to take the message of Christ and take it into what had previously been a territory, an area of the world that had never heard it. Up to this point, the message of Christ had only been very much located in a very small area.
It’s very important to see that the Bible is not talking about places that are made up. There’s a historical record behind it. You see where Israel is. You see where Jerusalem is. That’s Israel. If I were to juxtaposition or place over this, a map of the real world today, that’s the Mediterranean sea. See where Jerusalem is. There’s a little area along the coast of the Mediterranean, that’s called Israel. You go up from Israel, you have what is known as Lebanon, Beirut, that whole area. You go up a little further, you have a part of Syria. If you were to go, see that big landmass up on the top? That’s today, modern-day Turkey, and there’s this little body of water there that separates that big landmass from the other one, and that is the Aegean Sea, and that other area is Greece.
That big swath of land is Turkey. That’s called Asia Minor in the scriptures. It’s where the early Churches were planted. At some point, you will see how this becomes the gateway to Europe and the message of Christ goes in every direction. Astonishingly, it had taken root in ways they could not have conceived. Pamphylia is part of modern-day Turkey, that’s where they stopped the first time around. They planted Churches there. They had suffered stiff resistance, but there had been a surprising receptivity to the message of Christ, especially among those who were non-Jewish. For the first time, the Church started seeing really significant coming together of Jewish and Gentile people in a common sharing of openness to the Lord. This was a big deal. It hadn’t happened before.
Do you notice something else? Do you see this city up there called Antioch of Syria? The Bible tells us that it became the base of the early Christian Church. In fact, it’s the first time in Antioch of Syria that people were ever referred to as Christians. That base is where the first missionary team was shot out from.
Now what has happened, time has passed. Paul and Barnabas are hearing about this remarkable growth that’s occurring and the fact that there’s actually a lot of people who are beginning to follow Jesus. These little Churches that they planted are starting to grow. The community is expanding. Paul gets a spark, something comes to him, “I think I need to go back.” He takes a step and says, “You know what? We need to form a team and return to these Churches up there.”
Paul’s first step is to think that and to step into it, and he says, “Barnabas, what do you think about us going back to the Churches that we planted and encouraging them. Seeing how they’re doing with our own eyes, watching and talking with them? How does that sound to you?” Barnabas probably would have said something like, “Well, remember it was pretty tough when we went there last time. You almost died more than a few times there, but yeah, I’m in.” Barnabas makes a suggestion that ends up creating a fissure that almost destroys their relationship.
Verse 36 says, “After some time, Paul said to Barnabas,” again as ministry associate, “Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the Word of the Lord. Let’s see how the new believers are doing.” Barnabas agreed, “Yes.” Barnabas says something else. He says that he wanted to take along, and now we’re given this name, John Mark. Now we’re told that Paul disagreed strongly since John Mark had deserted them. The last time they went in that area we talked about, Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. It started, the conflict started as most conflict does, so innocently.
Paul says, “I think we should go. I think the Lord wants us to go.” But Barnabas says, “You know what? I think you’re right. I’ll go with you.” Somehow, it comes up, “Well, who are we going to bring with us?” Barnabas says, “I think we should bring John Mark.” Paul says, “Are you serious? Are you serious? You’re joking, right? John Mark, the same John Mark, that when the heat was on, went home? That young man? You’re talking about that John Mark? Barnabas, “Yeah, I think he’s grown. I think he learned from that experience. The guy quit on us when we needed him most. Brother, this is about commitment. I appreciate the fact that you have compassion. You’re compassionate. In fact, I think that’s one of your great virtues, your compassion but we need commitment. Look at my face. You know what happened in Lystra. Do you see these scars? I almost died. In fact, I may have been dead. I don’t even remember. That riot came on me. You remember what happened. They stoned me. They left me with rubble and rock and I was a bloody mess. I was dragged out of the city. They put me outside the city thinking I was dead. You remember what happened. Everybody was around me.”
One of the people that was there was a young man named Timothy, but that’s a whole nother story. We are not told why John Mark quit, but in the middle, he had gone home. We’re not told why, but in Paul’s mind, it was desertion. When they needed him to hold, he had gone home. That’s all Paul needed to know and you know what it does reveal? It reveals one, that he’s hurt. He’s still angry, he’s hurt about the lack of commitment, but it also reveals how different he was from Barnabas. These are two very different kinds of ministry leaders.
Barnabas, I think, could say, “Paul, as you know, I believed in you when no one else believed in you, right?” Paul said, “Hey, I appreciate that. I really do. I know you meant it and you know what? You’re a good man. No one is more loving than you, but I’m telling you right now, this is serious business. I cannot afford to have someone who’s already demonstrated a tendency to quit when it’s hard. I cannot risk that. This means too much to me. We’ll find somebody else, not him.” “Brother no, no. John deserves a chance to be given another chance.” “No, I cannot take the chance to give him another chance.” It says, “The contention became so strong among them that they said, “Then we’ll go our separate ways.”
Look at what it says, “Barnabas agreed and wanted to take John Mark. Paul disagrees strongly and says, ”John Mark has deserted them in Pamphylia and has not continued with them in the work.” Look at what it says in verse 39. “Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated.” This is incredible. This is a spirit-directed endeavor. These are two great leaders, two wonderful men who not only love each other. They love God. They both love Jesus. They both cared about lost people, a lot, enough to put their lives on the line multiple times. Both of them did. They both cared about each other. No one could deny it. They were friends. They were brothers. They had been in the trenches together and they both were filled with His Spirit. So what happened? How does this happen?
When you look at it, it’s almost stunning. It’s almost stunning. The verse says, “Barnabas takes John Mark with him and sails for Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and as he left the believers entrusted him to the Lord’s gracious care.” Go back to the map one more time. I want you to see where Cyprus is. So Barnabas says, “Fine, I will take him with me.” He heads off to the territory that’s familiar to him. See the island there, Cyprus? You see where it is right off the coast. That’s where Barnabas heads with John Mark. “I’ll take John then.” Paul says, “Fine. I’ll take Silas. We’ll go and head up what we were planning on going.”
Barnabas and John Mark head to Cyprus and almost off the pages of Scripture. There’s a mention later on ironically by Paul saying, “You know what? Bring John Mark.” Later on, Paul gains a love for John Mark. Barnabas and he will still be friends as the years go by, but they’re never going to be working that closely together again. Paul then heads a little bit up and west. What he is about to do is embark on one of the great movements in the history of the world, where it will literally change the world.
His experiences there, that we’re going to examine and look through, both learn from and then learn about our own faith with God and how to discern His will for our lives, and how to know the difference between when God is opening a door and when that door is shutting. How do we know these things? We’re going to learn a lot. We’re going to wrestle with these truths, but the main thing I wanted us to see is the conflict.
As I look at this, I think, “From the very outset, there is conflict.” The first thing that has to be managed in his spirit-inspired endeavor, is relational conflict. When you have relational conflict, that usually involves internal conflict. Did you notice that? Some of us may have relational conflict right now, maybe at work, in our homes, with our friends, at Church at times, or it could be someone we care deeply about, but there’s disagreement. When we have relational conflict, it usually shows up in internal conflict. We’re not at peace. We’re not good. It’s hard.
I’m looking at these guys and watching because I look at this and say, “Wow, You cannot miss it.” I’m looking at this, and I’m saying, “Okay. Lord, you are in this, and yet at the same time, the very thing begins with conflict.” Here’s what I’m trying to get at. One of the keys for sustaining long-term sustainment in our faith is going to be connected to learning how to get past conflict, to accept it, and not be defeated by it. One of the keys to sustainment then is to refuse to be defeated by conflict. Look at this. Contend for peace, but accept that some conflict is inevitable.
If it could happen with these men at the beginning of one of the most amazing movements of God, and the Lord is clearly in the middle of it because they’re human beings with different temperaments, dispositions, and different ways of seeing things. By the way, who’s right? Somebody will say, “Oh, Paul was right.” I’ll just say no, “Barnabas was right.” Paul would say, “Yeah, it’s about the mission.” Barnabas would say, “That’s true, but it’s also about the person.” Where do we fall? Who’s right?
I could tell you where I would fall, but I won’t do that, because I’d be giving away my perspective on this. Every one of us tends to relate to one of the two, Barnabas and Paul. Who was right? Who was wrong? Not sure either of them was wrong or either was completely right. I don’t know. What I know is they had such a conflict that these wonderful friends couldn’t move together. So they ended up with a philosophical fissure that divides, maybe it’s part of the skills. They should’ve been able to figure it out.
One of the things we noticed is, “If I was running this.” The Bible is showing the flaws and all from the very beginning. It’s not like they’re trying to pretend, “Oh, this was perfect. They just love each other in every way. They just saw everything completely together.” No. The Bible doesn’t try to hide flaws. It’s not trying to pretend. It’s not writing a fairy tale or a nice tidy little thing that everybody is super holy. It shows us that they’re real people with real feelings, differences, and different temperaments. Do you know what? I love that about the Bible. The Bible is not Instagram. It’s not trying to curate only the best world. I will show you this part.
The Bible shows everything that it can, the strengths, weaknesses, flaws, and the sins of even its greatest people. People that are human beings like you and me. It shows people growing and becoming. It’s real. It’s honest. It’s authentic. It’s raw. It still speaks so loud. The Lord is there. Later on, they still pursued peace with one another. All indications are that they remained friends and brothers after they got past this. But one of the things they were forced to do because of it, was to form separate teams. Some people have said, “In a way, God actually used it for good.” Remember I talked about how Barnabas heads up with John Mark to Cyprus. Paul, who’s with Silas, heads north and then west. Look at what it says, “Barnabas took John Mark with him, sailed to Cyprus.” Verse 40, “Paul chose Silas. As he left, the believers entrusted him to the Lord’s gracious care. Then he traveled throughout Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the Churches there.”
There is another principle for sustainment. When it comes to conflict, we are to seek to be at peace. There is no question, the Bible places a premium on peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said. “If as much as it lies within us to be at peace with all people,” the Scripture teaches us. But there are also times where we cannot avoid that conflict. I cannot control not another person. That other person cannot control me. You could do everything right and there is still going to be a conflict. No, it’s real. That’s real. But again, I still see something good coming out of this. They didn’t walk away cursing one another. There was none of that. It was, “You know what? We have to agree to disagree on this agreeably. Maybe the Lord will bless it both ways.”
What follows is something of a principle for me. They both form teams. Here’s something I want to submit. When it comes to long-term faith sustainment, find your team. Never ever go alone. Some of us may not even be a follower of Jesus yet. The first thing I would say is, join Team Jesus. That’s the first thing I would say. Number one, join Team Jesus. He’s ready if you’re ready. He paid it all, did it all, opened the door.
You’re so close, come. That’s why we have baptism. That’s why we have people giving their lives to Jesus, to follow Him because we’re taught, join Team Jesus. Not just that, join your faith community. Find your Church, home. Now I’m biased. I want you to be here. No question. I’m being honest and I think this would be a wonderful place for you to grow, contribute, be a part of and engage in a community. The fact of the matter is everybody needs a local team, everybody needs a local place where you are known. You need your community. You need your people within the largest section of the people of the Lord. We all do.
We have this thing in our Church called, The Journey with Pat, that’s been going on right now. There’s a group of people that are going through it. If the next one you can see on the back of your handout there, it’s in November, it’s limited. There are only so many people who can get into there per session. This one is filling up, but in November, we’ve got one coming up. If you’re at a point in your life where you want to seriously grow as a follower, get engaged in a community, get engaged into our community, you want to learn about that, and you want to make that journey, this is how you do it. It’s something you sign up for and become a part of something. Not only finding your Church home as a team, finding your group. That’s another thing.
We talk about this all the time. When Jesus was training His disciples, His apprentices, the way He did it, is He set up community in a small group context. He had this idea based on human nature, that we are best. We also need to have small group expressions, where we have the opportunity to know one another. Sometimes, best of all, having people who are not exactly like us in the group. We learn to love and work through things. Sometimes, yes, in awkward ways, sometimes in hugely meaningful ways. Jesus set it up that way. We weren’t supposed to be alone. Join Team Jesus. Find your Church. Find your group. It could be a ministry group, a place where you can be known by name, where we can pray for one another. That leads me to the next piece, which is to find your partners in ministry.
Find your ministry partners. Never do this alone. The Christian life was never meant to be done alone. In fact, you know why I love it partly here? Even when they split, they don’t say, “Okay. You go your way. I’ll go mine.” They both say, “You know what? We need to reform a team. We’re not going alone.” You don’t go alone. Jesus said, “Never go alone.” He never sent His disciples out alone ever. Always minimally by two, never alone. Within the framework of ministry groups and within the framework of small groups, one of the values of being able to be engaged in community life, which I’m totally advocating as a key to sustainable faith because we will not always be on our game. The Bible says, “Pray for one another, that you may be healed.” The Bible says, “Help carry one another’s burdens.”
How does that happen? It happens in community. Community requires intentionality on our part. It doesn’t just happen. We have to choose to do it. I’m really advocating. I’m a big advocate. I’m not only advocating something from afar. I’ve been doing these things for years because it’s a very biblical thing to do. Jesus set it up this way. That’s how we grow, that’s how we sustain. I’m not always on my game. None of us are always on our game in the Lord. There are times where our faith is weak, where we’re under fire, when we’re really hurting, when we’re depressed. In those places, we better not be alone.
The value of community shows up when we need it most. What happens is when we don’t invest in it when we’re doing well, when we really need it, we don’t have it. The Bible makes it really clear, this was a huge part of our sustainable faith. That’s one of the ways faith strengthens itself, stays, holds, endures, and sustains. The last thing I’ll say around that is, Jesus made it clear that the Christian life is to be communal and interdependent. Something we’re to get involved in, be able to work together in team-ship with others, strengthening one another. The last thing we’ll connect to is this. Be a receiver and a giver of blessing. That’s a principle of sustainability.
What am I talking about? Look at that last verse, “The believers entrusted them to the Lord’s gracious care.” So the Church commended blessing and grace upon Paul. You and I are to be a receiver of blessing, it means that we’re going to need community. I call that a communal grace. Again, faith sustainment is closely intertwined with Church life and Church life requires presence and intentional investment. There is something about being here in the Lord’s house. David said, “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go to the house of the Lord.” “Jesus,” it says, “Went to the synagogue as was His custom.” He modeled consistent coming to the Lord’s house. If the Lord of Glory models that, we who follow in His steps must follow as well.
We live in a cultural age of dis-personalization, where so much of the amazing advancements of our technology has actually created a relational degeneration when it comes to actually engage real people. Someone said, there’s power in face-to-face situations. It’s power. It’s even more powerful than FaceTime. Face-to-face, being present, coming with my presence, just like what we’re doing here. It’s huge, it even means more, I think now.
We started to participate by helping to create a live stream. We were part of our Church, just trying to start a live stream service. We wanted to start an online service. We tried to use the medium of live stream that has already been essentially working now for a number of years. When we started that, it was for the purpose of people who were either moving away and wanting to stay connected to the Church. Or people who were away on business and couldn’t get here, and they wanted to stay connected with a series. We were so excited about doing that. Or people who maybe are sick and couldn’t come, but they wanted to stay connected. Or maybe at a certain point of health-wise could get there. We were all excited, but you know what? Here’s the thing.
It took a lot for me to say this last service when I was talking directly to all those who were on live stream. Live stream is not a substitute for face-to-face. It was never meant to be that. There is something about the planting of my intention into community face-to-face. The effort involved, the engagement involved the very presence. So again, I’m not putting something down as much as I am saying, this is the higher expression. It is the right thing. It costs us something and it’s an investment. Now I’m clearly advocating way more than just attending. I am, but I’m going to say that that does mean something, especially in this era.
The whole idea of getting connected to people face-to-face. Remember we talked about relational giving, giving, and receiving. It says, “they blessed Paul and sent him.” Then, it says, “Paul and Silas, they went and they themselves blessed, they strengthened the Churches.” Do you see that? Receive the blessing, give the blessing. Give the blessing, receive the blessing. It’s the rhythm of the Christian life.
Look at this verse in Proverbs, “Whoever brings blessing will be enriched. One who waters will himself be watered. The one who refreshes will be refreshed.” Look at what it says in Acts 20. It quotes Jesus saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Do you want to know the secret of happiness? Have a suspicion right there, because blessed means happiness. Happy is the one who understands this. The principle of Christian life is the rhythm of giving and receiving. We give, we receive, we receive, we give. It’s about blessing in every dimension. It’s what we do and how we live.
Let’s pray. Lord, I want to ask again for this word to settle into our hearts, as you choose to send it, let it go. Maybe some of us connect with the idea of conflict, that could be very real. It could be very hard. Lord, maybe some of us are in it right now, and we do need your peace and wisdom, we do. Help us to understand it, not fight it. Do our best to solve things, but be able to move on as well. Also, pray for some of us who you’re calling into a higher level of commitment into community. It’s for our wellbeing and for our growth. Our sustainable faith is connected to our willingness to connect to community. I ask that you would speak to our hearts about that and then of course teach us how to be a giver and a blesser. I pray for your blessing, even over these closing minutes that we’re about to share together. Let some of these words settle in. I don’t know where we’re supposed to hold onto the Titus, but I suspect that there was something here you wanted us to hear, and so we choose to open our hearts towards it. Stir us, call us, call us together, call us in the community. I ask for your blessing, in Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.