Acts 15:36-16:10

Acts 15:36-16:10

God Permits & Prevents

Sermon Text: Acts 15:36-41 to Acts 16:1-10

Sermon Theme:  Sometimes God permits odd things and prevents good things in order to clarify His will.

Sermon Reflections


Here we have a private quarrel between two ministers, no less than Paul and Barnabas, yet made to end well. Barnabas wished his nephew John Mark to go with them. We should suspect ourselves of being partial, and guard against this in putting our relations forward. Paul did not think him worthy of the honor, nor fit for the service, who had departed from them without their knowledge, or without their consent. Neither would yield, therefore there was no remedy but they must part. We see that the best of men are but men, subject to like passions as we are. Perhaps there were faults on both sides, as usual in such contentions. Christ’s example alone, is a copy without a blot. Yet we are not to think it strange, if there are differences among wise and good men. It will be so while we are in this imperfect state; we shall never be all of one mind till we come to heaven. But what mischief the remainders of pride and passion which are found even in good men, do in the world, and do in the church! Many who dwelt at Antioch, who had heard but little of the devotedness and piety of Paul and Barnabas, heard of their dispute and separation; and thus it will be with ourselves, if we give way to contention. Believers must be constant in prayer, that they may never be led by the allowance of unholy tempers, to hurt the cause they really desire to serve. Paul speaks with esteem and affection both of Barnabas and Mark, in his epistles, written after this event. May all who profess thy name, O loving Savior, be thoroughly reconciled by that love derived from thee which is not easily provoked, and which soon forgets and buries injuries.

Well may the church look for much service from youthful ministers who set out in the same spirit as Timothy. But when men will submit in nothing, and oblige in nothing, the first elements of the Christian temper seem to be wanting; and there is great reason to believe that the doctrines and precepts of the gospel will not be successfully taught. The design of the decree being to set aside the ceremonial law, and its carnal ordinances, believers were confirmed in the Christian faith, because it set up a spiritual way of serving God, as suited to the nature both of God and man. Thus the church increased in numbers daily.

The removals of ministers, and the dispensing the means of grace by them, are in particular under Divine conduct and direction. We must follow Providence: and whatever we seek to do, if that suffer us not, we ought to submit and believe to be for the best. People greatly need help for their souls, it is their duty to look out for it, and to invite those among them who can help them. And God’s calls must be complied with readily.

[From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary]


  • Do we have the right passion for lost souls? Paul’s passion was the result of love for God and commitment to obedience. It led him to write, “I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). No one who lacks that concern for lost souls will ever be effective in evangelism. Such passion comes from knowing and loving Christ so deeply that some of His love for lost sinners becomes our own. And knowing Christ comes from studying His Word. It is through that study that “we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). In 2 Corinthians 5:14, Paul talks about Christ’s transforming love saying: “Christ’s love compels us.” It would be important for us to go into all the world with the gospel if for no other reason than Jesus has told us to do it. But it would be sad if the only motivation we had were mere obedience. We would be saying, “I am here to preach the gospel. I don’t want to be here, but I have to be. Jesus told me to do it. So here I am.” Paul, who understood the marching orders of Jesus Christ, also understood the compulsion of Christ’s love, saying, “Christ’s love compels me.” For Christ’s love involves the love of Christ for the lost. But it also involves our love, as the love of Christ works its way out through those who know him. Paul loved those to whom he was sent. So must we. In fact, there is nothing that so commends the gospel to the lost as love for them by the one who proclaims it.
  • Are you being cautious that your greatest strengths are often the area for your greatest weaknesses? So, the lesson is, know yourself. Where, by God’s grace, are you strong and gifted? Exercise that strength for His glory. But also, be careful, because your strength may lead you into sin if you are not on guard. A man who is strong in discernment can easily become judgmental. A man who is strong in accepting others can easily err by tolerating serious sin or doctrinal error. Consider what happened to Paul and Barnabas whom you cannot find two more godly, dedicated servants of Jesus Christ and yet here they are, clashing with one another. Both men were right. But, also, both men were wrong, and it seems that they fell into sin in the way they dealt with this disagreement. They both stubbornly dug in their heels and refused to give in at all to the other man’s point of view. They both probably would have said that they were standing on a matter of principle. But they could have graciously agreed to disagree and have parted ways in a spirit of mutual respect. Instead, they had a “sharp disagreement.” At the very least, Paul and Barnabas were very provoked with one another. You might say that both men crossed the line into sinful anger. Neither man was following Paul’s later directive, to put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience toward one another (Colossians 3:12). It may have been God’s will for the two men to separate, but it was not His will for them to separate through a heated quarrel. What are the abiding lessons we see in all of this? The point here is, they all succeeded for Jesus — Barnabas and Paul and their companions. God can use unhappy, perplexing failures to bring fresh purpose and direction to our lives. Even when we are at fault, God will use our failures to bring greater blessing. God will lead us according to His own perfect plan for our lives and ministries. The most important thing by far is our attitude. Why God directs us west when we want or expect to go north, we do not know. Why he did not give Paul a vision at the beginning instead of the end, we cannot fully explain. But this we know: God directs us through every situation, the apparently good and the apparently bad. We need to yield to his caring hand. In G. Campbell Morgan’s words, “It is better to go to Troas with God, than anywhere else without Him.”
  • When you face a personality clash with another Christian try to disengage your emotions and objectively think through the answers to these four questions: 1) What is the real nature of the difficulty? 2) Is there an important biblical principle at stake? 3) What godly character qualities is the Lord trying to develop in me through this clash? 4) Would the cause of Christ be furthered or hindered by my continuing to work closely with this person? When we face personality differences in the church, we need to be diligent to guard the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We need to seek to work out our differences if possible in a spirit of love and kindness. If we must part ways, we should continue serving the Lord and not let the enemy get us to attack those whom God has given different personalities than He has given us. Consider when your personality clashes with someone else’s, how do you know when you cross the line into sin? For relationships do not happen by chance. The Lord knows that we need fellow Christians of a kindred spirit to encourage us and to work with us in the cause of Christ. Ask the sovereign Spirit to lead you to the right people to be not only your friends, but also your co-workers in the cause of Christ.
  • Do we have the right priorities in establishing the Body? Paul saw his responsibility as not only proclaiming the saving gospel but also establishing churches and maturing the new converts in their faith. He understood clearly that the ultimate priority in evangelism is discipleship — teaching believers to obey all that Christ has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). What motivated Paul, apart from his desire for their maturity, to revisit the converts from the first missionary journey? He loved them as his spiritual children. He expressed that love to the Philippians when he wrote, “God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:8). He told the Thessalonians, “We, brethren, having been bereft of you for a short while—in person, not in spirit—were all the more eager with great desire to see your face” (1 Thessalonians 2:17). That is an element frequently missing in contemporary evangelism. There is too often failure to show enough love to those led to Christ. As a result, the evangelist does not accept responsibility for them. Paul’s evangelism suffered from no such lack of love, however. To the Corinthians he wrote, “If you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15). Paul viewed himself as a loving father, responsible for the spiritual well-being of his children. For Paul was committed to the most effective evangelistic strategy of all — building mature believers, not spiritual infants, who are capable of reproducing. Paul’s commitment to maturing believers mirrored that of our Lord, who spent most of His time with only twelve men.
  • Are we using the right presentation in the right place to reach the lost? Ultimately the key to effective, biblical evangelism is the right message. That message is the truth that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and it was that message Paul, Silas, and Timothy loyally proclaimed. The goal of evangelism is not to rack up huge numbers of converts. Yet it is true that strong churches, established in the faith, will increase in numbers. Paul’s missionary team’s experience illustrates a basic principle of knowing God’s will: to move ahead and allow Him to close doors until the right opportunity is reached.
  • Do we have a keen sensitivity to the guidance of the Spirit of God whether it be negative in closing doors or positive in open doors of opportunity? However that guidance is conveyed — by prophetic utterance, inward prompting, or the overruling of external circumstances — we must be sensitive to the Spirit of God whether it be negative guidance or positive guidance. In our lives we often speak of “closed doors.” Generally we do not like closed doors. We find closed doors frustrating. We pray, “God, what do you want me to do?” But when we look in what we think is a rather promising direction, God closes the door. We ask again, “God, what do you want me to do?” We look in another direction, and God closes that door too. Then we get depressed. We think God is not answering us and that he doesn’t care what we do. Sometimes if this goes on long enough, we even get angry at God. We need to understand that “closed doors,” though they are a type of negative guidance, are nevertheless true guidance. If we can learn anything from the apostle Paul here, we learn that negative guidance merely keeps us from where we are not called in order that in God’s time we might come to where God is calling us and will provide blessing. When God closes doors, it is not because he has nothing for us to do — He does not want us to quit and take a vacation. It is to keep us from getting into a work to which we are not called in order that we might be saved for a work to which we are. For God’s timing often differs from what we would have planned and often makes little sense to us. Of course, our reasoning, so dimmed by sin and the limitations of mortality, has no way to grasp the historic impact of immediate decisions. Like Paul, we must trust the leading of God’s Spirit day by day in living our lives, raising our children, making decisions for a business or ministry. In every arena of life we must serve him with a constant alertness to the Holy Spirit’s leading.
  • Are we using the right precautions and the right approach when evangelizing? From Paul’s actions concerning his two companions an important principle becomes evident. Missionaries must be sensitive to the unique characteristics of the cultures in which they work. As Paul did in circumcising Timothy, they should avoid giving any unnecessary offense. But like Paul in refusing to circumcise Titus, they must not compromise any of the timeless truths of Scripture. Far from lapsing into legalism, Paul was being consistent with a principle he would later express in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.”
  • Are you seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness? If not, you need to do some serious thinking about your priorities. What if God decided to see which Christians were living in dependence on His Holy Spirit, and which ones were just depending on their own intellect and human plans to live the Christian life. So, He completely withdrew His Holy Spirit from the earth for the entire week! Think about it — would you notice the difference? It is so easy to fall into routine Christianity, where we function in the flesh instead of walk in vital dependence upon God’s Spirit. One of the main lessons of the Book of Acts is that the expansion of the early church was due to the working of the Holy Spirit. He was directing, moving and empowering the apostles as they responded to His leading. If we want to see God working today in a similar fashion, we need to fight routine Christianity and we must seek to follow the sovereign Spirit as we labor for the Lord. If you are not living with that focus, you need to stop and confess it to the Lord, and yield yourself in obedience to His will for your life. For the Holy Spirit is sovereign over His work.
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