This past week in France we have seen immense destruction reportedly die to open borders. One journalist wrote, “Historic buildings in France that survived bombardment in WW2 can not survive the cultural “enrichment” of open borders. Tells you everything you need to know.” The country is not flourishing because it has lost its principles for flourishing as a society. God has ordained that the church will flourish by certain principles. There is no possibility of the church failing in this because of God’s eternal covenant of grace. Nonetheless he ordains means of flourishing. Our confidence is in Christ not the means but he informs us how we will do well and be made stronger as a church.
The text before us is placed in context with the most very important matter of all, the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ which alone saves sinners. They have renounced the idea that people are saved by their family heritage or history, I.e. the Jews, and all must be saved the same way, by the grace of God through faith in His only Son. God is building then a temple in this world which is called the church, which will succeed or flourish under Christ.
The question our text brings to us is— how will the church flourish exactly? The answer to this is in the two sections of our text. First there is the morality defined that will cause the gospel church to flourish (vv.22–35). And Second there is the morale described that will cause the gospel church to flourish (vv.36–41),
First, the gospel church will flourish by a biblically defined morality. The letter that the church sent with Paul, Barnabas, and the two other selected, prophets named Judas and Silas, established several things leading up to stating how the church will do well or flourish in this world. We see first that they establish that salvation is shared among them, as they repeatedly say, “brothers” of themselves and their audience (v.23). Second, we see that they make it clear they are against those who have troubled them and unsettled their minds about the gospel (v.24). Third, they make it clear that they have with unanimous consent sent forth their best servants showing importance and clarity on this matter of salvation (vv.25–27). And this all leads up to the fourth matter in vv.28–29 concerning what the Holy Spirit led them to decide to require of them. There were three things, all required of the believers in this time, but essentially they are to all times the lack of idolatry among the saints, the lack of murderous thoughts and actions, and the lack of sexual immorality. But specifically four things are stated which would later come up in context with meat sacrificed to idols. There is a sense of the temporary in relation to how this is applied in their time, just as in ours we have things that would be synonymous with idolatry, offensive if you will to the church as a whole in relation to that which we eat, drink, and purchase. That we might do well with if we abstain. But we must be careful that the binding matter is not related to meats, or to anything we purchase or eat, but to the heart. And if one will contest these are ceremonial, you have two problems: First, you have the problem that these show up in Leviticus 17–18 as moral commandments. Second, they appear before the law Genesis 9, as it is stated to Noah in regards to abstaining from blood, and in the same context the commandment to not murder. The moral tone of this text is clear, God has ordained the gospel church is to flourish with a certain morality. It is a morality that flows out of the gospel, so that the whole church in unanimous consent agrees of it, and does so with the utmost seriousness.
Things that some reformed Christians today get entangled with concerning morality like art in the church, candles, pants on women, etc. are not the matters that he law teaches are the problem necessarily. They can be a problem, and have been, but they are not the problem today and therefore are not how we as a gospel church will flourish. I take examples from Luther and his Karlstadt situation when he was off and returned to find him destroying the images in the church and created quite a drama at the loss of much; and the change in Calvin’s view on images later in life, as reformation examples that we can get off on the wrong thing. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17 ESV)
Second, there is another great things that is the matter of importance in the gospel church flourishing in all times, and that is the matter of morale. It is described in vv.36–41. It is proposed by Barnabas to go visit the brothers in every city where they first proclaimed the Word of the Lord and check on them (v.36). It is a pastoral thing, very noble. But it is noted by Luke that Barnabas wanted to bring with him Mark (v.37), the one who apostatized from the mission back in the beginning of their first missionary journey. It is stated clearly in v.38 this was the reason. And as a result, “a sharp disagreement” took place. Notice, the church is not disagreeing over morality, that is established. And the words used for “a sharp disagreement” are words of great wrath like that of the Lord removing or uprooting people out of the land for their disobedience (Deut 29:28; Jer 32:37). Paul is shown clearly to be in the right in the matter, as he alone is commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord in v.40. The church is doing well by v.41 because of it, noted well in the words “strengthening the churches.”
Now, there is good news in this scenario. R.C. Sproul describes it contemporaneously as Paul firing Mark. Most people are fired because of incompetence, and Mark was incompetent for the mission. It would have hurt the church, not helped her. To some these actions may seem unloving, but they were pivotal for the flourishing of the church in the world. Barnabas did not go back and cause dissension, nor did Mark write a scathing letter about Paul, but rather went eventually to study the gospel under Peter, and we have the letter he wrote in our Bibles of the gospel. We find in 2 Tim. 4 that Mark is re-hired by Paul after he proves himself competent for the work. So, it is a good matter we have hear that we may fail early in ministry of some sort, or we may fail in some work early, but in our later years prove ourselves competent if we will but give ourselves to learning what is necessary to do the work, in this case of the ministry. We may apostatize or give up on the mission field because we are not competent in the gospel, but we may surely not be apostatizing from the faith if we will give ourselves to learning that gospel well so we may be later more useful. Alls well that ends better, as Tolkien writes.