Why is the foot jealous of the hand?

You’ve most likely read or heard about Paul’s illustration of how the church is the body of Christ. We are the body which, while made up of many parts, is one. While it is one, it has many members. The problem that Paul sees in the church is that some parts are thinking of themselves as lesser than others (or being made to feel as though they are less). Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

His illustration makes sense to us without any further cultural insights, but his point is even stronger when we learn how certain body parts were viewed. His example of a foot is not chosen randomly. The foot, being the very bottom of the body, was (and still is in some cultures in the Middle East) seen as dishonorable. It would be offensive to show the sole of your foot to someone if you were to travel to certain countries. So what Paul is doing here is picking the part of the body that would most likely be seen as a lesser part and using it as the example of that which should be kept in high esteem.

But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.

Using the foot Paul makes his point that even those that may be seen as the lowest should be valued in the church body. There is no exception. The body is one and should live with unity, not stratification or divisions.

Paul and Barnabas Split Up

Barnabas Curing the Poor, Paolo Veronese, 1566

As I mentioned yesterday, the early church struggled over what laws still apply to converts to Christianity, and we see that in the first chapter from this week’s readings from the book of Acts, chapter 15. Some among the Pharisees thought the Gentiles needed to first be circumcised, or in other words, the Gentiles had to become Jews first, to be followers of Jesus. The council in Jerusalem took time to decide matters and believed God was taking away any distinction between Jews and Gentiles and that all are saved by God’s grace, not the law.

The believers sent out delegates to bring this news to the early church, and this group included Paul and Barnabas (v.25). The news was met with rejoicing in the churches and Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch to continue teaching and preaching the word of the Lord.

Having just made a proclamation of unity to the churches that signified that the council was of one accord and that two groups who had been at odds were now being brought together, a sharp division arises. Paul and Barnabas intend to return to the churches they have ministered to, but Barnabas wanted to bring along John (called Mark), and Paul is not pleased by such a choice. Paul’s objection is that John has left them previously (Acts 13:13), so it would be better to choose another. We are not told explicitly why John left, but perhaps he returned to Jerusalem because he was uncomfortable with the mission Paul had to the Gentiles. This causes “sharp disagreement” between Paul and Barnabas, causing them to separate–Paul goes with Silas, and Barnabas with John.

Do we lament that division followed such unity? I don’t think that needs to be the response.

This was not a break over what the council had just decided. They do not disagree on their mission, just on the manner in which they will carry it out. Certainly it would have troubled these men to part over such circumstances, but even though they were divided, they still shared unity in their purpose. They both were committed to bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ wherever they went and continuing to care for his church. God may have even been able to use them for a greater good given that these two esteemed disciples divided their time and energies to reach different geographic areas. It also gave opportunity for Paul and Barnabas to take on new partners with whom to serve.

God is given glory in the unity brought about in the work of Jesus Christ to break down barriers that had once separated peoples. That good news is heard by the churches as the Jerusalem council sends word and the people rejoiced. But I do not think God’s glory is diminished when two faithful servants of the gospel part ways and divide to spread their ministries in new directions. God still worked great deeds in and through these early missionaries, and the story even has a happy ending. Paul’s letters reveal reconciliation with John (Mark), and he has changed his view of his role in the ministry. In 2 Timothy 4 Paul calls for him to be brought back because he believes that John is of great use to the work of God.