Solving Problems the New Testament Way

The Acts of the Apostles records the triumphant progress of the gospel in Jerusalem, chs. 1-7, in Samaria, chs. 8-12, and finally unto the uttermost parts of the earth, chs. 13-28. But what is equally clear on a careful reading of Luke’s narrative is that the early church had to face several grave and contentious problems. These problems were of various sorts — social, personal and doctrinal. It is instructive for us to notice the way in which they were dealt with and overcome.

In Acts chapter 6, Luke gives an account of a potentially damaging social problem which arose because the Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews) claimed that their widows (or poorer members) were being treated unfairly in comparison with their Hebrew (Aramaicspeaking) counterparts in the daily distribution of food. Here was a problem of such magnitude that it could easily have destroyed the unity and evident purpose of the young church. That it did not do so was due to the wise action taken by “the twelve”. By what principles did they proceed? Firstly, they faced the problem directly and resolutely; there was no attempt to bypass the issue or allow it to linger on. Prompt action was vital. Secondly, they asserted that their prime function was spiritual, meaning here the proclamation of the gospel, and the worship of the believing community. Thirdly, they put forward a sensible and practical plan of action. This plan involved appointing seven men who were of “honest report” and “full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” to supervise the distribution of goods to the poorer members of the community. In this situation grace clearly prevailed because, despite the fact that the men appointed may all have been Hellenists, no protests were forthcoming from the Aramaic-speaking Jews. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the decision of the leaders had three remarkable results: (1) The Word of God spread; (2) the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and (3) “a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith”. Thus the unity of the community was preserved intact; growth and development followed; and the authority of the leaders was confirmed in a remarkable and significant way . Godgiven wisdom and God-given grace, exercised by resolute and wise leaders, triumphed over rather limited social interests.

In Acts 15. 1-35, the council of Jerusalem met to consider a doctrinal problem, which, just like the first problem, could have had a harmful effect on the walk, worship and witness of the early church. The council was convened basically to discuss two issues: (1) whether salvation depends entirely upon grace or whether there is something additional we are meant to do — in this case it would have meant circumcision; (2) the whole question of the relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers. The apostle Peter’s attitude was of fundamental relevance to this question, (although later he would enjoy free and happy fellowship with the Gentile believers in Antioch, and would then withdraw from them having fellowship only with the Jews. Consequently Paul had “withstood him to the face”, Gal. 2. 11-14). As the Jewish and Gentile believers had to coexist daily, the question before the council was one of tremendous practical importance. How then were the two problems faced?

We can notice the following aspects: (1) The whole matter was examined with great frankness. (2) It was discussed in detail, no important point being left out, thus showing the seriousness with which they viewed the two problems. (3) A spirit of friendliness prevailed throughout the whole discussions. There was no personal animosity. (4) There was no sacrificing of principle. (5) The ultimate decision was accepted amicably and willingly by the whole council. (6) The representatives allowed the Holy Spirit to speak, “it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us”. The Holy Spirit was the “Author of their decisions”, F. F. bruce. As a result there was unanimity about the decisions reached. The council asserted that Christianity is concerned with the outworking of the grace of God, and thus that legality, which clearly can deny and obstruct the work of God, must be avoided at all costs. The council proclaimed the glorious liberty of the gospel message, but in a conciliatory and loving manner. (7) The members of the council were also guided in their deliberations by the words of Scripture; see, for example, the speech made by James, vv. 14-21. So again we see a difficult problem overcome simply because the people concerned approached the matter in a spiritual and balanced way, and were led and guided by God through the operation of His Word and the Holy Spirit. There was no jumping to hasty judgments; rather the council waited for God to speak and He did in sure, unmistakable tones.

In Acts 15. 36-41, we see a problem of a personal nature involving Paul and Barnabas. They disagreed over the suitability of John Mark for missionary activity. Barnabas wanted to take him with them on their second missionary journey. Paul, however, felt that, as Mark had defected from them on the first missionary journey, it would be better to leave him behind on this occasion. Regrettably the disagreement “was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other”. Tactfully, they agreed to go their several ways and not to aggravate the already unpleasant situation. What is, however, heartening is to see the divine operation of the Holy Spirit. In the short term God intervened and Barnabas and Mark went to preach the gospel in Cyprus whilst Paul returned to Anatolia and then went on his second missionary journey with Silas. In the long term Paul came to appreciate the sterling worth of Mark — see 2 Timothy 4. 11. Here then was a problem that only the divine work of the Holy Spirit could solve, and in His time He did. Perhaps this is a salutary reminder to us that some problems are best left to God and without human intervention.

To conclude, what lessons can we learn from the above situations? When problems occur they must be dealt with courageously and with resolution; they cannot be allowed to fester on, thus causing untold damage to the local testimony. They are to be looked at honestly, frankly in an attitude of prayer and humility. They should be analyzed in the light of the Word of God. The question of personal dignity must not be allowed to influence the decisions reached. When a problem arises which seems to have no solution even after prayer, meditation and reading of the Scriptures, it is wise to admit our own inability and let our great God solve it in His time. Finally, as with all activities in the local assembly, problems are to be dealt with in such a way that God is glorified.

GLORY

  • The God of glory, Acts 7. 2; Psa. 29. 3.
  • The Father of glory, Eph. 1. 17.
  • The Lord of glory, 1 Cor. 2. 8. The King of glory, Psa. 24. 7-10.
  • The Spirit of glory, 1 Pet. 4. 14.
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