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Gospel Priorities: Reconcilable Differences
Sermon Recap | Acts 15:36-41

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

One needs only tune into the news or scroll through social media to begin to understand that there are many issues on which people disagree. What is more, these disagreements often lead to division and animosity. The church is not exempt from disagreements, Juan Sanchez says. However, what we see in Acts 15 is that “brothers and sisters in Christ can disagree yet remain brothers and sisters in Christ and these disagreements will never prevail against King Jesus’ church.”[1]

Dr. Sanchez provided five helpful principles from Acts 15 to help guide us through healthy, God-honoring disagreements.

The disagreement in this passage comes soon after the Jerusalem Council, a meeting between the leaders of the early church to refute a false teaching of the gospel that was being spread. In this case, Paul and Barnabas – men who are otherwise dear brothers – disagree over whether or not to bring John Mark with them on their next missionary journey. Essentially, Paul feels strongly that they should not bring John Mark because he had “withdrawn from them in Pamphylia” and Barnabas wants to give him another chance.

Dr. Sanchez points out that sometimes disagreements are due to personal sin. In these cases, we must follow Jesus’ words in Matthew chapters 5 and 18 and be reconciled to our brother or sister. However, there are other cases in which disagreements are not due to sin but a difference in preference. In these cases, in order to remain brothers and sisters in Christ, we must remember and apply five important principles, Dr. Sanchez says.

I. Our Unity Is Rooted in the Gospel

Peter makes this point earlier in this same chapter during the Jerusalem Council, Sanchez says. The issue facing the Jerusalem Council was that some people were saying that circumcision was necessary for salvation. Peter strongly refutes this, saying, “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:11). The “they” in this case is those who are not circumcised.

In other words, as Christians, our unity is not rooted in any describing characteristic other than our common faith in the gospel. When we experience disunity, Sanchez says, it is often when we cling to an identity outside of Christ. By clinging to this identity, we are shaped by it and it will divide us. In Christ, however, we will never face differences that are irreconcilable.

II. Our Call to Unity is Not a Call to Sacrifice Holiness

Sanchez makes this point from the resolution reached by the Jerusalem Council. After reassuring their uncircumcised brothers that circumcision is not necessary for salvation, they exhort them: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell” (Acts 15:28-29).

We cannot be brought into Christ and remain in sin. When we are brought into Christ, we are called to put off our sin and be at peace with our brothers and sisters, and these two are not at odds with one another.

III. Our Call to Unity May Be a Call to Sacrifice Personal Preference

While we are not called to sacrifice holiness in order to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters, we are called to sacrifice personal preference. At times, we can be guilty of demanding our personal preferences, Sanchez says. Instead, we must be willing to inconvenience ourselves for the sake of making others welcome. With this in mind, we must ask ourselves if the things we do in our church inadvertently communicate that some people are not welcome. When we honestly assess ourselves this way and are willing to sacrifice personal preference in order to become a place that is welcoming to all, we imitate Jesus.

IV. Christians Will at Times Separate from One Another

As in the case of this passage, there will be times when it is best to separate. It is helpful to make the distinction between sinful disagreement leading to separation and holy disagreement leading to separation. This passage provides a helpful example. Paul and Barnabas disagreed on something that was a matter of preference. They graciously reasoned with one another and ultimately decided to go their separate ways.

We learn another principle from this, Sanchez says: King Jesus will build his church and no human disagreement will prevail against it. In fact, Jesus even uses our disagreements to accomplish his mission and strengthen his church. What resulted in Paul taking Silas and going one way and Barnabas taking John Mark and going another way is that there were now two mission teams instead of one. The result, verse 41 tells us, is that churches in Syria and Cilicia were strengthened.

V. Leave Room for Relationships to be Restored

In the event that we are separated from one another, we must leave room for the relationship to be restored. Just as Stephen asked God earlier in Acts to forgive those stoning him and just as Jesus did not hold men’s sins against them when they crucified him, we must forgive our brothers and sisters.

Jesus has inconvenienced himself to come to earth that we might be saved from our sins. And even “while we were still sinners,” he died for us so that our relationship with him could be restored. And even now, he continually pursues us and graciously calls us back to repentance when we turn to sin. It is this gospel that creates unity among brothers and sisters so that no difference is irreconcilable.

Questions for Discussion/Reflection

1. What alternate identity might you be prone to cling to and be shaped by?

2. Are there personal preferences that you are unwilling to sacrifice in order to make others feel welcome? Are there preferences you may be prone to elevate into demands?

3. Is there anyone with whom you need to be reconciled? How does the gospel give you both the hope of reconciliation and the power to pursue that person in order to be reconciled?

[1]All quotations and illustrations are from Juan Sanchez unless otherwise indicated.