Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers.
With them they sent the following letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul—men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements:
You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message.
– Acts 15:22-31
I have to start today’s post by telling you a bit about the context of this odd little episode in the book of Acts. Out of context it doesn’t make all that much sense! What has happened is that some Christian Jews have been telling the Gentile Christians in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia that to be ‘proper Christians’ they must be circumcised. This has caused such trouble in the church (not surprisingly!) that Paul and Barnabas have gone to visit the apostles and leaders in Jerusalem (including James, the ‘bishop’ of Jerusalem and the brother of Jesus) to explain the situation. They identify that these people who have been calling for circumcision were not sent from the Christians in Jerusalem and after much thought and prayer they send a practical letter, along with two of their trusted leaders to tell the Gentiles what is and isn’t required of them. Thankfully for the Gentiles they agree that circumcision isn’t necessary.
Right at the beginnings of the church there were disagreements about how things should be done and what was or was not permitted. We still have these disagreements a lot now. We all have our own idea of what church should look like and how Christians should behave. We also, I think, have our own ideas of what God likes and doesn’t like.
When faced with a Christian brother or sister or a whole denomination that you’re ‘not keen on’ it can be tempting to dismiss them out of hand as just ‘wrong’.
The best way to illustrate how we do this is by talking about Christmas.
When you get married, you find out pretty quickly that there are actually other ways of doing things than the way you were taught by your own family.
My friend experienced this in her first Christmas at her inlaws’. When it came to opening presents, the family took all the presents from under the tree. They then placed them in the middle of the room and then someone said ‘3…2…1… GO!’ and everybody started ripping into their presents, all at once, wrapping paper flying everywhere. The whole thing over in about 2 minutes!
Now if you’re anything like me, you were horrified by that description. That’s just wrong! That’s not how you do it!
Think about it. Is it wrong?
No, of course it isn’t. It’s just different.
That sense of horror and injustice is just what we feel sometimes when we see a fellow Christian or a church do something we think is ‘wrong’. It may be actually wrong but it’s more likely just a different way of doing something.
This is what the brothers in Jerusalem meeting with Paul and Barnabas were trying to work out – is it wrong or just different? How did they work out what to do?
- They prayed – as evidenced by the slightly odd phrase in the letter – ‘it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’. I actually like this odd phrase. It makes out that the Holy Spirit is a person among them (which He is). They talk to Jesus about it and to each other in prayer.
- Then they test what the scriptures say – finding a passage from Amos confirming the Gentiles’ place in God’s kingdom.
- Then they write it down – so that there can be no argument – so much so that we can read this now!
- Then they send two of their number to deliver the message in person.
What a helpful model for testing yourself when you feel that initial distaste at something someone has done that you don’t like!
I think it’s important that we are ready to be surprised by God. God is so much bigger than the little boxes we put Him in. Next time you see a Christian doing something you’re not sure about, pray about it and ask God to reveal something more of Himself to you. Our reaction has probably got more to do with our inadequate image or understanding of God than anything else.
Victoria Coren wrote a fantastic column in the Observer the other week about the importance of intelligent people of faith ‘coming out’ as believers. Someone on Twitter said ‘if you’re going to talk about God you must start by defining what you mean by God’.
A God that I could define, from where I stand, wouldn’t be much of a God.
The problem we often have, as Christians, is that we think we have God all wrapped up! We don’t! We live as if we know exactly what God is like and what God himself does and doesn’t like. We don’t. Our view of Him is always inadequate. As scripture says:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. – Isaiah 55:8
My friend has grown to love the way her inlaws do Christmas. Just as I have grown to love different aspects of different denominations over the years and different forms of worship. My experience of God always becomes richer when I embrace difference rather than fight it.
Be prepared to be surprised by God!