The Main Thing
We come today to a few situations that threaten the main mission Jesus has given us as Christians: To take the good news of His life, death, and resurrection to the end of the earth, so that a people for His name would be formed from all the peoples of the earth. There is a sharp disagreement, a question of cultural norms, and directions given from God that were contrary to what the people involved were trying to do. In all these things, the example of the early Christians teaches us to Keep Jesus’ mission the main thing. Here’s how it shows us to do so: Don’t get bogged down in disagreements, consider your context, and follow God’s leading.
The leadership expert and author Stephen Covey once famously said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” In life as an individual or especially in an organization, it’s easy to lose sight of the main thing we set out to do, especially when disagreements arise, cultural differences create tension, and honestly, when the main thing just conflicts with what we want in a given moment. As we continue our series through the book of Acts, we come today to a few situations that threaten the main mission Jesus has given us as Christians: To take the good news of His life, death, and resurrection to the end of the earth, so that a people for His name would be formed from all the peoples of the earth. There is a sharp disagreement, a question of cultural norms, and directions given from God that were contrary to what the people involved were trying to do. In all these things, the example of the early Christians teaches us to Keep Jesus’ mission the main thing. Here’s how it shows us to do so: Don’t get bogged down in disagreements, consider your context, and follow God’s leading.
Don’t get bogged down in disagreements
Our passage begins with Paul suggesting to Barnabas that they return and visit the brothers in every city where they’ve proclaimed the word of the Lord to see how they’re doing. Barnabas is down with that, but he wants to take with them John called Mark. Mark however had abandoned them earlier in their mission, so Paul no longer wanted to take him, while Barnabas did. There is no indication that either of them were thinking sinfully or foolishly; both probably had good, godly reasons for their conclusions and therefore verse 39 tells us there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark to Cyprus, but Paul took another guy, Silas, and went throughout Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
When issues like this one come up where the Bible doesn’t obviously yield one answer, Christians will from time to time disagree on what decision is most pleasing to God. Now you can say, “Well they should have just gotten over it,” but which one should have gotten over it? Mark was either coming or not, both felt in their conscience like they were right, and in Martin Luther’s words, “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” So you can’t just pick a winner, but they also didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives debating it, or else they’d never do what they originally agreed needed to be done: Visit the brothers to see how they are doing. Instead, they keep Jesus’ mission the main thing, go their separate ways, and in the end, Jesus’ mission goes forward as Cyprus, Syria, and Cilicia, all get visited.
We can see, then, in Acts 15 alone, three orders of issues on which people might disagree. There are what we could call first-order issues that are definitional of what it means to be a Christian. As we saw two weeks ago in Acts 15:1, there were those who said you needed to be circumcised according to the custom of Moses, or you cannot be saved. That’s a contradiction of the gospel. The church got together and ruled on that one; every Christian could see that God’s Word yielded a definite answer in this case, so there was no “let’s just go our separate ways” there. If you keep teaching or believing that, you aren’t a Christian. The Mormon Temple on 17th and Vine, they teach that Jesus isn’t God there. I love them, but they aren’t Christians. It’s important that we not be afraid to say that.
Then there are second-order issues, about which Christians who believe the same gospel can disagree, but probably can’t do so while remaining together. Paul and Barnabas’ issue here is a good example. Another would be baptism. If you really believe to be obedient to God you need to have your child baptized, and I really believe to be obedient to God I should only baptize people who make a credible profession of faith, which I do, we can’t be in the same church. But here’s the beautiful thing: About 8 blocks from this building a church which I love ordinarily assembles called Liberti Fairmount. They baptize babies there. I think they’re wrong to do so, but I understand it’s an issue on which genuine Christians have disagreed. So instead of Scott Crosby, the pastor over there, and I sitting down every week to hash out the same issue Christians have debated for hundreds of years, we spend our weeks praying, preaching, caring for Christians, leading our churches to love our neighbors. Doesn’t that seem better for the mission of Jesus?
Some ministry method decisions would fall here too: At Citylight we preach through books of the Bible; getting through Acts is going to take us like 38 weeks or something. Epic Church, which has a Fairmount location that ordinarily meets up the street from this building, would never do that. They do more like 4-week topical sermons series. I think that’s not a good way to lead Christians to all that God says in Scripture or proclaim all of God’s Word to those who don’t yet believe, but instead of spending my weeks arguing with Kent and Isaac over it, we each just get after Jesus’ mission where He’s placed us, and we even work together on Saturdays to deliver meals to our food insecure neighbors here.
Finally, there are third-order issues, over which Christians may disagree, but still should remain in the same churches. In Acts 15, this would be something like whether to eat food sacrificed to idols, something forbidden in the law of Moses, but not sinful under the New Covenant. For a more contemporary example, we have members in our church who disagree on politics, each of whom draw their conclusions from Scriptural principles. This often comes out in discussions around race like the ones we’re having now. What we can’t as Christians disagree on is whether black lives matter or whether racial prejudice is ok; that’s a 1st order issue. Churches may come to sharp disagreements on what the church should do about racial injustice; that’d be more of a 2nd order issue. But as to which laws and policies do the best job of promoting the dignity of black lives, we understand that Scripture doesn’t spell that out for us, and that we as a church don’t have to cast our vote together. So, we’re free to debate with one another lovingly, then each hit the voting booth and cast our own vote for what and who we genuinely believe promotes justice, while remaining in the same church. Sometimes the policy is clearer and we may end up all voting very similarly, but other times it’s not, and that’s ok.
Disagreements happen; we can’t pretend they don’t, but what we can do is not get bogged down in them. If you sense a disagreement between yourself and a fellow church member or even your pastors, consider which order of an issue it is. In many cases, it’s probably a third order issue and we can and should remain together in love while debating it or letting it go. If you sense it might be a second or first order issue, talk it out with whomever you disagree and make sure it really is a sharp, irreconcilable disagreement before you’d consider parting ways. But, if it comes to that, it will probably be better for Jesus’ mission to do so. Keep Jesus’ mission the main thing, secondly, by considering your context.
Consider your context
So the beginning of chapter 16 tells us while Paul’s out he meets this guy Timothy whose mom was Jewish but whose dad was a Gentile. He’s now become a Christian, which means of course he’s now part of Jesus’ mission, which includes fellowship with Jewish Christians and sharing the gospel with Jews who haven’t yet believed. But Jewish law stated that if you were the child of a mixed marriage, Jew and Gentile, you should still be circumcised. If the Jews meet Timothy, then, and he’s not circumcised, they’re going to view him as disobedient to God. They’re not going to trust him as someone with anything worthwhile to say. So, verse 3 tells us that Paul took him and circumcised him “because of the Jews who were in those places, because they all knew that his father was a Greek.” They realized Timothy’s uncircumcision would be a barrier to the Jews in those areas hearing the gospel, so they kept the mission of Jesus the main thing, and Timothy got circumcised.
Considering your context, then, means considering both who you are and who the people you’re trying to reach are, and then stewarding that for the sake of Jesus’ mission. Paul doesn’t circumcise Timothy because they’re afraid of the Jews and feel a need to fit in; in fact, verse 4 of chapter 16 tells us they’re carrying around the letter from the Jerusalem council, in which it’s clear that no one has to get circumcised. If they really feared the Jews and just wanted to fit in with them, they never would have distributed that letter. But Paul also doesn’t refuse to circumcise Timothy out of pride, just because, “I shouldn’t have to.” I mean you can think about this from Timothy’s angle too: Adult circumcision in an age without anesthetics would have been painful. It was also obviously contrary to Timothy’s father’s wishes, who never had him circumcised. If anyone could say, “I shouldn’t have to,” it’s him, but he has a new Lord now, so he chooses, not out of fear of the Jews, but out of obedience to Jesus, to give up his foreskin for Jesus’ mission. He neither assimilates out of fear, nor does he refuse to adapt out of pride.
Let’s consider our context then. At this time there was an obvious division between Jewish and Gentile people groups. What’s one of the obvious dividing lines of people groups in America? Race, and the last few weeks have only served to remind us of that fact. Though there is diversity within each racial group, there are also identifiable norms in majority white culture, black culture, Asian culture, and Latino culture, and guess what? In the neighborhoods surrounding where our church gathers, all 4 of those broad racial groups live. The latest demographics I’ve seen suggest the area around us is 40% black, 43% white, 10% Asian, and 5% Latino. That’s our context, and so we each need to consider ways our cultural norms may hinder or help the people around us hear the gospel.
Bryan Loritts, a black Pastor now in North Carolina who has pastored in multi-ethnic areas, wrote a book called Right Color, Wrong Culture that provides a helpful way to think about this. He explains cultural flexibility for the sake of mission using a C-scale: A C1 is a person of one racial group who has assimilated entirely into another, and the examples Loritts uses are the Hellensists in Acts 6, or Carlton Banks in the show Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, who was ethnically black but adopted white cultural norms. A C3 is a person of one racial group who is so enmeshed in their own culture that they can’t flex at all. This would be like those in Acts 15 who insist on circumcision for salvation, or like Will Smith in Fresh Prince, who was ethnically black and fit like a glove with black cultural norms. It’s not wrong per se to be a C1 or a C3, but in a multicultural context, it’s important to be aware of it so you can see ways your cultural norms may be hindering others hearing the gospel. A C2 is someone who isn’t ashamed of their native cultural norms, nor are they bound to them. They can press further into their cultural norms or lay them aside if it will help others hear the gospel. That’s what Paul and Timothy were, and what all of us who are on Jesus’ mission in a multiracial context like ours should aspire to move towards.
So don’t be ashamed of your racial group or native culture; lean into it even where it helps build bridges for the gospel. God may use it to reach neighbors who share that culture and who don’t yet believe, neighbors who might not listen to someone else who doesn’t share that culture. But don’t get so stuck on it either that you can’t lay it down in cases where it will be a barrier to someone hearing the gospel. Where might your cultural norms help you reach people with the gospel, and where might they hinder it? Keep Jesus’ mission first by not getting bogged down in disagreements, considering your context, and finally, by following God’s direction.
Follow God’s direction
So Paul takes Timothy with them and after strengthening the churches as they planned, they start travelling around the region to preach the gospel, but then we read in verse 6 that they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. Then in verse 7 we read that the Spirit of Jesus didn’t allow them to go into Bithynia. Then finally in verse 9 we read of a vision of a man in Macedonia asking for help, and in verse 10 they go, having concluded that God called them to preach the gospel there. In each case, they follow God’s leading. When the Spirit forbids them to go a couple places, they don’t go. When God calls them to preach the gospel to a certain place, they go. Since Jesus’ mission is the goal, they don’t set their own agenda. They follow God’s direction.
Now the text doesn’t tell us how the Holy Spirit forbid them, so once again, Acts is not a manual on how to tell when the Holy Spirit is telling you to do one thing or another. The leading of God through a vision is also not common in the Bible, so this isn’t setting up norms for us. What it is showing us is that when God clearly leads, we go. The question, then, is how God clearly leads today. For one thing, we do have Bibles, full of God’s Words, that tell us Jesus’ mission. We have prayer, through which we ask for God’s wisdom. Then, along the way, as God makes us more like Christ, He opens our eyes to see opportunities in that mission, and closes others. As far as I’m conscious, that’s why I’m a pastor in Philadelphia at Citylight Center City, and I know it’s why many of you live here and have joined this church.
Now there are times where I think to myself, “Well but, is there somewhere even better for me to live, an even better pastoral job, for me to be in?” but as best as I can tell, this is where God has directed me now. There are even times when I visit my hometown, a strange place no doubt, but a place I really love, and I think, “Man I could live here,” but I honestly feel forbidden by the Holy Spirit. I can’t totally explain that, but that’s where I’m at. No doubt God will lead some of you in different ways; the point is, don’t waste your energy always self-analyzing whether you could be doing something slightly better. Load your mind and heart with Jesus’ mission, pray, see what opportunities God opens up, and get after them.
Because let’s face it, when I’m thinking, “Maybe I should do something else,” is that really about Jesus’ mission? Sometimes I think yes, but often not. When we feel like we have to agree on everything as Christians, is that really about Jesus’ mission, or about avoiding conflict? When we hold tightly onto our cultural norms out of pride or assimilate out of fear, who’s that about? Our biggest problem in keeping the mission of Jesus the main thing is that by nature we tend to keep ourselves the main thing. But you know, this is a mission for which Jesus gave up more than even His foreskin. Colossians 2 speaks of the “circumcision of Christ”; you know what that was? It wasn’t when His foreskin was cut off; it was when he was “cut off” from the land of the living on the cross. He gave all of His skin to be torn to pieces in our place. As He was going to the cross, He prayed for God to direct Him otherwise, but God forbid Him, and He willingly went there for us, before we called out for help to Him. Our salvation was the main thing to Him, and He accomplished it, bearing our sins and rising from the dead so that there would be a gospel to preach, a gospel through which everyone who believes is saved.
Believe that gospel today. Follow Jesus, and He’ll send you on His mission. Don’t get bogged down in disagreements; the mission is too important. Don’t despise your native culture, but don’t get stuck in it either; use it for the sake of Jesus’ mission. And wherever God directs you to play your part in the mission, go. There are people everywhere who need help, and God has given us a gospel to preach to them.