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Two small and simple words that are big enough to stir up some palpable tension: “us” and “them.” In Acts 15:1-35, we see a significant instance of us/them in the early church. From this story of the council at Jerusalem, we can learn how to discern God’s will in the face of disagreement.

“No small dissension”

As we dive into the story, there is some important historical context we need to understand verses 1-5 and the mention of “no small dissension.” God’s covenant with Abraham was marked by circumcision. For the people of Israel, the law revealed how to be righteous (following the law, including circumcision), but the people didn’t have the power to live up to God’s perfect righteousness.

Generations later, God sent Jesus, the promised Messiah, who fulfilled the law. Jesus offers salvation and restored relationship with God, not just to the people of Israel but to anyone who believes in him.

Related: Why did Jesus have to die for us?

In the early church, as we read in verses 1-5, there emerged disagreement. The gospel is being proclaimed, and Gentiles are being saved. They’re coming to faith in Christ, but they’re not following all the laws of Moses—they’re not getting circumcised, they’re eating whatever they want, they’re doing things differently. Understandably, it gets a little confusing and a little frustrating. 

A group emerges within the church called the Judaizers, who start to spread the idea that while Jesus the Messiah is important for salvation, you also have to obey all the customs of Moses. In other words, they’re saying, “Before you walk through the door of Jesus, you have to walk through the door of Judaism. You have to become Jewish before you can follow Jesus.”

So, “no small dissension” is a really nice way of saying disagreement is brewing and things blew up a bit! This is the same church that in Acts 13 was so unified and praying. The Holy Spirit had so powerfully given them a clear mission and purpose in the gospel. Now there’s tension.

How will this be resolved?

As we read in verse 6, Paul and Barnabas lead the effort to address the disagreement through dialogue with the other church leaders. At the end of the day, there’s respect, setting aside personality, setting aside pedigree, and inviting God’s truth to speak God’s purpose, not their preference, as they submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Testimony: the importance of looking at what God has done and is doing

After “much debate” in an attempt to resolve the tension, Peter changes tactics and declares what God has done in the past. Verses 7-11 reference Acts 10, in which Peter has a vision of all kinds of animals on a sheet and is instructed to kill and eat. Peter declines, saying, “for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” (Acts 10:14). But the voice from heaven says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15).

Something else that Peter is recounting is his visit to Cornelius’s house, also told in Acts 10. Cornelius, a devout centurion, had been instructed by God to summon Peter. In expectation, Cornelius gathered his relatives and close friends—all Gentiles. And Peter, on the heels of his vision, says to them, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every people anyone who fears him and practices righteousness is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).

As Peter gives testimony and tells of what God has done, he emphasizes that it is the Holy Spirit who bore witness and that it is God who cleansed hearts—and that God has done so not by works, not by circumcision, not by being Jewish, but by grace through faith!

To add to the testimony, Barnabas and Paul declare what God is doing in the present: “all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the gentiles” (Acts 15:12).

Through these examples, we see the power of testimony during tension. We should lean on and learn from our lived experiences of what God has done and what God seems to be doing. 

Related: How hearts and attitudes changed during disagreement

Truth: the importance of Scripture

Testimony is helpful during disagreement, but neither experience nor tradition is our ultimate authority to discern God’s will.

James demonstrates this to us by what he does next. In verses 13-21, James tests the testimony against the truth of God’s Word to guide the future:

This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,

‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
    from its ruins I will rebuild it,
        and I will set it up,

so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—
    even all the gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.’

Only after the testimony has been tested against Scripture does a decision begin to form (to send a letter to their Gentile brothers and sisters). There is no decision-making or concluding the council until they hear from Scripture.

Discernment: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”

The council members include in their letter to the Gentiles this phrase: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials” (verse 28). This demonstrates the discernment that followed the testimony and truth, all in order to reach a decision.

And they’re already anticipating the next challenge, so they add some requirements. They call for obedience to two commands: avoid idolatry and avoid immorality (always evil in God’s sight, for Jews and Gentiles). And they agree on two concessions: abstain from eating blood and abstain from eating meat from animals that were strangled.

The good news for our discernment today is this: God has given us the Holy Spirit just as God did to them. Jesus is building and rebuilding us into his spiritual temple—the very dwelling place of God the Holy Spirit is in us!

Related: How to tune into the work of the Holy Spirit

What does Acts 15 mean for us today?

We live life at the edge of license and limitations, legalism and loopholes. But the gospel draws us out of begrudging obligation into joyful obedience.

When we do life our way and make decisions the way we want to, letting our preferences take priority over God’s purposes, the enemy sows disagreement, division, and “no small dissension” in the body of Christ. Differences become us/them or we/they. Whatever the difference—political, social, economic, racial, denominational, etc.—it can ruin faith, families, finances, and more. Because of pride and power, we separate, isolate, and condemn even by association. These are always evil in God’s sight, for Jews and Gentiles, and for us today.

“Christ who is our peace…has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.” –Ephesians 2:14

God makes no distinction between “us” and “them,” for all who are in Christ are one. God rebuilds the ruins in our lives to serve God’s purpose, not our preference. Jesus rebuilds our life better than we can imagine, but too often we say, “God, I want you to rebuild my life and it needs to look like this, or it needs to happen this way, or it needs to happen on my timeline.”

We don’t walk perfectly, so we need to walk humbly, seek counsel, and be a missionary wherever we are. This is the example of Paul and Barnabas at the beginning of chapter 15, as well as Judas and Silas at the end. Everyone is pursuing and proclaiming the purposes of God to transform hearts, lives, and communities. Don’t use freedom self-indulgently; use freedom self-sacrificially.

What’s the response? Real joy, real encouragement, and real strength for those following Christ and for his church.

>> Dig into the rest of Acts 15 with part 2: Parting to Pursue God’s Will

This sermon was originally preached in May 2021 at Massapequa Reformed Church in Massapequa, New York, as part of the “From the Upper Room to the Utter Most” series. Adapted with permission.

Joshua Scheid headshot
Rev. Joshua Scheid

Rev. Joshua Scheid is the pastor of Massapequa Reformed Church on Long Island, New York. He and his wife, Kathryn, have three daughters. Together they love to ride bikes, eat ice cream, and cheer for the UConn Huskies.