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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

The Majesty of Unity


“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Ephesians 4:3

The nature of the church of Jesus Christ is a complicated one. On the one hand it’s the spotless bride of Christ and on the other, it is a compilation of imperfect sinners who are all being transformed from one glory to another.

On the one hand the church is characterised by an inexpressible joy and on the other hand, it’s battling with residual sin and is often brought low by its own failings.

That means that the expectation of any believer within the life of a local church will be a mixture of progressive sanctification resulting in fruit for the kingdom of God, tempered with the knowledge that, often from within its own walls, the church will be tormented by setbacks.

In Ephesians 4, Paul exhorts the Ephesian church to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (v.3). That instruction comes at the end of a list of ways in which the believers are to live, so as uphold the worth of the calling they received.

In other words, God - the maker of heaven and earth, who lives in unapproachable light; before whom the angels veil their faces, singing ‘Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty, all the earth is full of his glory’ - stooped down from on high and concerned himself with me – calling me out of darkness into his marvelous light. Out of all the nations of the earth He called you to be a part of the expression of his own majesty and glory!

And Paul is saying there is a way of life that concords with, and celebrates, that calling. And, there is a way of life that diminishes and undermines the glory of that calling.

Anything short of making ‘every effort’ to keep the unity of the Spirit amongst the body of believers in the local church, Paul says is at odds with the worth of the calling you’ve received, and serves to diminish God’s glory.

So, waving like a flag over this whole message, is the truth that, striving for peace in the body of Christ is a quality Jesus is looking for his people to exercise in the local expression of his body - the church.

And yet, we know that, because of our residual sin and because of our shortcomings and failings, there will be disputes in the church. I choose the word ‘dispute’ because it’s the word that appears in our passage for consideration this morning - verse 2: ‘This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them’.


So, what’s going on in Acts 15? Well, the account concerns two churches - one in Antioch made up predominantly of gentile converts, and one in Jerusalem which would have been predominantly made up of converts from Judaism.

Both churches are true churches. Both churches are local expressions of the bride of Christ. Both churches are made up of blood-bought believers. The church in Antioch is the church that commissioned the Apostle Paul and Barnabas sending them off on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3). And the church in Jerusalem was where the Apostles Peter and James were located, who had been with Jesus before his death, resurrection and ascension.

However, some people - believers - came down from the church in Jerusalem to the church in Antioch and were teaching the gentile believers in Antioch that, unless they were willing to be circumcised according to the law of Moses then they could not be considered believers (v.1).

The reason I think the visitors from Jerusalem were believers is because the group that undoubtedly sent them from Jerusalem are called ‘believers’ in verse 5. And because, in the letter sent from Jerusalem, these people are referred to as those who ‘went out from us’ (v.24).

So, you’ve got a set of believers here asserting something very serious - unless you are circumcised, like we are, you can’t be believers. In other words, faith in Christ must be accompanied by circumcision for there to be true conversion.

Not only does that have gospel implications for these believers in Antioch, but it has implications for the way they were expected to live their Christian lives. Anybody who was circumcised was required to keep the whole law of Moses, which is why in verse 5 the party of the Pharisees in Jerusalem said, ‘The gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses’. Paul spoke the same thing later on to the Galatian church by way of warning: ‘Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is required to obey the whole law’ (Galatians 5:3).

Now Paul and Barnabas were opposed to this view and they could see that it would have both gospel undermining implications, and destructive implications for the church. Verse 2 tells us that Paul and Barnabas had ‘sharp’ disputations with these believers from Jerusalem and debated with them the things that they were teaching.

So, you’ve got a young church in Antioch and you’ve got believers on both sides of a serious question saying opposite things - who are you going to believe? Who are you going to follow? What is the truth - what is God’s will here?

Believers in Jesus don’t want to think things; behave in ways; adopt views that are at odds with their Saviour. They want to be aligned with him. They want to think his thoughts; walk in his footsteps; have attitudes that accord with his attitudes.

So, what will the church do to resolve this issue? What will the church do to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace? - that’s the question.

I see at least 7 things that they do which will be very good principles for us to adopt as we encounter similar challenging situations in the fledgling life of Riverside Baptist Church. I want to list them first and then expand them. Here are the 7 things:

1. 1. The church plays a role

2. The elders play a role

3. Communication is essential

4. The revelation of God is foundational

5. The gospel is the test bed

6. Love is the goal

7. Hard work is indispensable

There are probably others in there, but these seven at least will serve us well if we employ them faithfully.

The Body

So first the role of the church. What is particularly striking in the account is how prominent the church as a collective is in bringing about the resolution of the matter.

The decision is taken that in order for there to be a binding and decisive word on this matter, somebody needs to go to Jerusalem to see the apostles and the elders there about it. Verse 2: ‘So Paul and Barnabas were appointed - we might ask, by whom? - along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way’.

So, the church it seems chose these men; the church gave them their instructions; and the church sent them on their way expecting them to return to them with an answer from the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.

And when these men arrived in Jerusalem notice that they were welcomed by the church (v.4). Not only that, but the whole assembly in Jerusalem seems to have been gathered to hear Paul and Barnabas’ testimony (v.12) from their missionary journey. And after the decision had been reached, it was the church that chose some of their own men to send back to Antioch with a letter (v.22).

Then, when these men, sent from Jerusalem back to Antioch, arrived with their letter, it was the church who read it and were gladdened by its encouraging message (v.31). And finally, it was the church in Antioch who sent the men from Jerusalem back to Jerusalem with their blessing (v.33).

Given how we are about to see the elders functioning, it would be an overstatement to say that the church is the decisive player in the resolution of this debate - I don’t think that’s the case. But the church plays a significant and vital role in the resolution process.

I do think that the role that we see the church functioning in here, is a role that is borne out in the rest of the New Testament and one which applies to the general operation of the church.

The members of the local church have a function to operate as a body. In other words the picture of the local church in 1 Corinthians 12 emphasises the members of the body working in unison together.

If you want to move your body from here to there, you can’t afford for one leg to go in one direction and the other in another direction. They must work together to move forward. The members in both Antioch and Jerusalem had put in place ways of bringing a diverse set of personalities together to move the body as a whole in a direction. And because they were able to do that, they were able to arrive at resolution to this problem.


Secondly, the role of elders. We’re not told about the elders at Antioch, all the references in the passage are references to the elders in Jerusalem. I think it’s likely Paul and Barnabas, who were counted apostles by now (Acts 14:14) and who had been appointing elders in all the churches during their missionary journey (Acts 14:23), were acting elders in Antioch at this point. But regardless of what the set up at Antioch was, the role of elders in resolving this issue is really very key, and it should not go unnoticed.

According to Titus the elders of the church must hold firmly to the trustworthy message; they must encourage others in sound doctrine; and they must be able to refute error. And according to 1 Timothy 3, elders must be able to teach, and to keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. And, Acts 20:28 makes it clear that this gift is unique to elders - the Holy Spirit is the one who makes a person an overseer to ‘keep watch over the flock’.

There is no requirement for a deacon to be capable in this kind of teaching. Now that doesn’t mean that others in the life of a church won’t be gifted in teaching, but it does mean, that the gift to be able to handle the whole of the scriptures and defend the faith - to be able to discern error and root it out, is a unique gift of the Spirit given to those tasked with protecting the spiritual welfare of the church.

So what we find here in Acts, is that when Paul and Barnabas arrive in Jerusalem, they’re met and welcomed by the church (v.4), but the consideration of the question in hand is not taken by the church, it’s taken by the elders (v.6). And the decision that is arrived at, and the conveying of that decision, is also undertaken by the elders. In verses 7-11 Peter contributes, in verse 12 Paul and Barnabas contribute, in verses 13-21 James contributes. All are in agreement. All are saying the same thing. All are elders. And the church abides by their decision as those whom God has appointed to rightly handle the word of truth.

We shouldn’t conclude from that, that elders don’t make mistakes or that there might not be occasions where we should question their decisions - 1 Timothy 5:19-20 would be the balancing text there. But it does mean that the role of the elders is distinct from the church at large, and vital to the functioning of the church.

Based on the wording of the letter in verses 24-29, it looks like the elders are the one’s writing to the church in Antioch: ‘We have heard that some went out from us without our authorisation and disturbed you’. So, the elders assume the role of authority in the life of the church, and the people who had gone down to Antioch should not have done so without the permission of the elders in Jerusalem.

That allows the elders to write to the believers in Antioch to say, ‘whatever these people from our camp have been saying to you, we - the elders of the church - certainly did not send them to you with that teaching’.

Therefore, the elders are responsible for arriving at and communicating the decision with careful attention to the truth of God’s word, and with protection for the flock paramount in their minds; and with authority.

What is really encouraging here is that the decision the elders in Jerusalem arrive at, does not support the teaching their own people had been spreading in Antioch. In other words, the elders are careful not to have a party spirit in favour of their own people, but to remain true to the word of God above all.


Thirdly, the place that communication plays. Oh, that we would all communicate better! So many church problems could be avoided with open and honest and brave communication; because people’s minds fill in blanks where communications go down.

This account is laden with examples of good communication:

Paul and Barnabas communicating their disagreement with the people who had come from Jerusalem (v.2).

Paul and Barnabas spreading the good news about how gentiles had come to faith in Christ which strengthened the believers (v.3).

Paul and Barnabas reporting the matter in question to the church in Jerusalem (v.4).

The Pharisees presenting their position in verse 5.

The council of apostles and elders in verse 6 and how they interacted.

How Peter communicated his own experience in the case of Cornelius - a gentile whose whole family received the Holy Spirit.

How Paul and Barnabas conveyed their witness of events on their missionary journeys (v.12).

How James communicates his insight into the prophecy of Amos in verses 15-18.

And then how he communicates his judgement on the matter in verses 19-21.

And of course, the letter communication from Jerusalem to Antioch.

In all these communications words are not overly multiplied; the tone of each is considered and kindly; and even where you might think it sounds sharper - the very word that is used in verse 2 - no one is too proud to defer to another. You don’t get the impression that any party is being obnoxious or unkind.

The question is clearly an important one and one that needs robust consideration, but people are willing to esteem each other as brothers and sisters in the lord and to communicate their positions and the reasons for their positions with kindness and clarity.


Fourthly, if elders were operating in the decisive role, then the revelation of God is the decisive authority in deciding this matter. This is so crucial.

If the church resorts to opinion in deciding matters of contention then there is no hope of unity. The revelation of God is the only abiding, unerring and decisive source of resolution on any matter of dispute.

In the case of Peter’s contribution, his is a revelation by virtue of what he received in a vision - which is not how we receive God’s revelation now.

For Paul and Barnabas, it was a witnessing of the work of the Holy Spirit in the mission field.

And in the case of James it was a Holy Spirit inspired revelation of the meaning of Amos 9 in its gospel age fulfilment.

In so far as the scriptures are faithfully interpreted in light of the rest of scripture - not making them mean what we want them to mean, but letting them mean what they actually mean - then we have all the revelation and interpretative means contained for us in one book, which will be the decisive arbiter in all matters of doctrine and practice.

The Gospel

Fifthly, the preeminence of the gospel. Many, if not all disputes perhaps, could be solved by asking the question where does the gospel find its greatest expression?

So, in this situation, to ask the question: is the gospel characterised by works or grace? The answer is grace. So, if we listen to these teachings telling us we need to keep the law of Moses to be saved, then where will grace be? And, if grace is demoted and works are promoted, then does that sound like the gospel? Then we’ll probably be able to figure out the right answer.

Peter’s argument in is grounded in the gospel. The gospel has come to the gentiles (v.7) and they have believed. Then he says in verse 8, they received the Holy Spirit. Then he says in verse 9, the gentiles were purified by faith. And then in verse 11, he says we Jews were saved by the grace of Jesus - not Moses - and the gentiles are being saved in the same way. Therefore, the gospel proves to be the ultimate test bed for any argument. If the argument looks at odds with the gospel then it’s probably not right.


Sixthly, love each other. James’ judgement on the matter in verses 19-21 has a two-pronged emphasis. The first is: let’s not make it hard for the gentiles (v.19). And secondly, let’s encourage them to do a few things which will ensure that the Jewish believers, whose faith might be weak, are not stumbled into sinning against their own consciences (v.20).

There were Jewish believers whose consciences wouldn’t allow them to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols - even though an idol is nothing (1 Corinthians 8:4-13); or the meat of strangled animals; or meat with the blood still in it. And James is saying that whilst none of those things present a problem to gentiles, the gentiles should take care of their brothers and sisters from Jewish backgrounds who might be tempted to do the same, and so be enticed to sin against their consciences.

James wants the Jewish believers to love the gentile believers enough not to place unnecessary burdens on them. And, he wants the gentile believers not to exercise their liberties, without considering the impact on the consciences of the Jewish converts. This is how the church proceeds in love.

Hard work

Finally, seventh, the matter is resolved with hard work. Resolutions don’t come about by passivity or an unwillingness to engage. Resolution comes by devotion and commitment.

Just think of the time and the travelling to resolve this matter in Antioch. At least four people travelled from Antioch to Jerusalem. The journey presumably took some time; the conference and resolution must have taken some time too. At least the four from Antioch plus two from Jerusalem, went back to Antioch which meant more travelling. How did these people earn a living whilst they were gone? - the churches must have supported them. The two from Jerusalem stayed for some time verse 33 says, until eventually they were sent back.

So, the whole thing sounds like a costly affair. It sounds like hard work. It sounds like it might have been the kind of issue that could have caused some people to ask if it was worth it, or to suggest an easier way out. But the fact is, that maintaining the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace is going to be hard work - we know that because Ephesians 4:3 says ‘make every effort’.

Resolution of unity-destroying disagreements is going to take gutsy hard work, but it is what we are called to do as a church, because peaceful unity compliments the unparalleled worthiness of the call we’ve received.


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