Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Act 15 is a key moment of the evolution of the Kingdom of Christ as it moves from
Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the Ends of the Earth. During the first 12 chapters of the story of Christianity’s introduction to the world it remains exclusively Jewish. Its traditions, leadership, central headquarters and audience is composed of people with like-minds, like-interests, and like-expectations. There is very low desire or need to change. The mindset of this church is to keep doing Christian things in a Jewish way.
Things begin to change in Acts 10. Acts 10 is the story of Peter being told by God that salvation through Jesus should be available for Gentiles such as Cornelius. It brings the early church to a place where, for the first time, they must stretch in their faith and in their vision. Up to this point, church life and practice had been much easier. Being a leader was much simpler. The “kingdom” was smaller in their minds. But when God begins to send a message to the leaders of Christianity that His vision for the church is greater, it truly causes them to have to realign their vision and expectations to the will and desire of God. Acts 1:8 (Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the Ends of the Earth) moves from theory to practice. Spiritual lactic acid prevails!
It is clear that the shift was not easy or smooth. Paul and Peter have already been in conflict regarding the proper way forward (Galatians 1-2). By the time the council gathers in Acts 15, sides have been taken and emotions are intense. The willingness of the early church to move into God’s vision and expand the mission is not done easily.
There are those present who perceive no value whatsoever in allowing Christianity’s vision to expand to the Gentiles (15:5 - Jewish law teachers who are also converts who are adamantly opposed to the idea of disallowing the practice of circumcision for Christian righteousness). There are those present who have personally gone out and experienced the massive dividends and growth when God sends them out (15:2 -Paul and Barnabas). There are those present who have bounced back and forth and created confusion both within themselves and others (15:7 - the Apostle Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius but was later rebuked by Paul for refusing to eat with Gentile believers).
So what does this Biblical account teach us, as leaders, right now? How can we glean some leadership models to help us in the difficult times that we are facing right now in the kingdom? Here are a few observations to see how we can embrace the vision and leadership of Acts 15.
We need the VOICE, STRENGTH, and SACRIFICE of PETER in this vision
I find it very important that God’s vision forward in the book of Acts is triggered by Peter’s model of leadership. Peter is a great example of a leader who is willing to step outside of his own comfort zone and embrace the vision that God has set before the early church. What does he do?
As the church gathers in Acts 15, someone has to go first. In Acts 15:7-9 Peter internalizes the belief that God’s vision was bigger than what he understood. Peter initiates the model. He publicly witnesses that he must continue to grow and walk within God’s vision. I would expect Paul or Barnabas to be the ones who influence the meeting - but that is not possible until Peter moves forward. He is someone trusted by both the mindset of the believing Pharisees and those who want to include the Gentiles. But he is NOT someone who plays one side against the other. He is not someone who attempts to shed blame or fault at the feet of anyone. Instead, he takes a high-road. He accepts God’s vision.
Acts 15:10 brings us to a place where we are able to see how Jesus has impacted the thinking and leadership model of Peter. He embraces the teaching of Jesus in Mark 9:38-41.
Mark 9:38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.
It is clear that he had been involved in this struggle before - but it is at this moment that he is willing to lift the yoke and demand of expectations on this new element (the expansion of Christianity to a greater reality). It must have been very difficult for him, but it is Peter’s personal example that moves the meeting into a place of being able to listen and work together.
HOW WE PERCEIVE EACH OTHER - The Ways We Share Together in ACTION are how to communicate
Peter’s courage and willingness to be transparent and changeable by God in his model of leadership moves the early church to be able to follow and consider the vision.
Acts 15:12 “the whole assembly became silent as they listened to Paul and Barnabas telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.”
The church is able to actively engage in LISTENING to the radical stories of Paul and Barnabas because of Peter’s leadership. Together, they open the ears and willingness of others. Paul and Barnabas are now able to share their role in God’s vision as something that is not a threat to the Jerusalem leadership - but as something that is an extension of it.
The cooperation and example shown by Peter gives ability to an antagonistic and fearful church to hear with a fresh set of ears. The church at Jerusalem is able to move from “this is not going to happen” to a state of “how can we help from here in Jerusalem?”.
HOW WE REINFORCE THE VISION TOGETHER
One of the more overlooked voices of Acts 15 is that of James. Acts 15:13 begins with James (of all people in this conversation) as the one who calls the church to work together, find a way to celebrate the mission to the Gentiles, and collaborate together. He empowers Peter, Paul and Barnabas so they can reinforce the vision together.
Without James’ voice and model, the church and collective leadership would have been overwhelmed and unheard. What is important as a leadership model is how ALL OF THESE LEADERS, regardless of their views, embrace God’s vision on the same scale. We are able to see three voices from three different historical perspectives and experiences all come together and reinforce to the church a willingness to move forward into God’s greater vision.
James is the half-brother of Jesus. History shares that he continues as one of the core leaders in the Jerusalem church. After Acts 15, The Jerusalem church and his leadership continued in a very Jewish-centered approach to Christianity. But it is here that James gives us a strong example of how great leaders move beyond their own context and church desires and push the believers into a greater mission. It is here that we see great models of leadership reinforcing each other and those around them and kneeling before God’s ultimate vision - the ends of the earth.
Our Leadership-Language and Model must echo that of these leaders in Acts 15. Jesus taught that “out of the mouth comes the overflow of the heart”. We must move our language, communication and collaboration to speak the concept of Acts 15 to our believers. Phrases such as “how can I be praying for you in this journey?”, “how can we grow God’s kingdom?”, and “I really hope that God is able to help us work together in His kingdom” must constantly fill our minds and our speech as we lead. Godly leaders must always be able to collectively model the leaders of Acts 15 as we help God’s church transcend into a greater vision than our own comfort zone. Great Christian leadership models a vision that is always able to embrace what is needed to help God’s kingdom continue to grow.