“Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.” (Acts 15:37–39)
Paul and Barnabas had a long history together. It was Barnabas who first risked visiting Paul shortly after Paul’s conversion and return to Jerusalem. The church in Jerusalem was suspicious of the reports that Paul had become a Christian and kept their distance. Perhaps it was a trap to draw Christians out into the open so they could be arrested and imprisoned. But Barnabas entrusted himself to God, and went to visit Paul to see if his conversion was real, and if so, to welcome him into the brotherhood.
Later, Barnabas was sent by the Apostles to check on reports of Gentiles becoming Christians in Antioch of Syria. When he found a fledgling group of believers in need of instruction, it was Barnabas who went to Tarsus to entreat Paul to come and help him teach the new believers. They taught side by side for a whole year. After that, they traveled together with a benevolent gift from the new Gentile congregation to the mother church in Jerusalem, which was suffering from a famine. When the Spirit gave direction to send out a missionary team, it was Paul and Barnabas who went on the first overseas missionary journey. Their first stop was the island of Cyprus, Barnabas’ native land, and Barnabas led Paul from one end of the island to the other.
After leaving Cyprus, they sailed north to Asia (present day Turkey) and traveled together to Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, and Lystra where Paul was stoned and left for dead. After Lystra they went on to Derbe and then revisited all the new groups of believers in each of the cities of Asia where they had preached.
After returning to Antioch of Syria, Paul and Barnabas again conducted a team ministry “for no little time.” When a controversy arose, they traveled together to Jerusalem to seek the help of the Apostles and church leaders regarding the problem of the Jewish Christians who insisted on Gentile Christians observing the ceremonies of the Mosaic law as a requirement for church membership. They weathered that controversy together and both received the commendation of the Jerusalem council in the letter the council sent out, being referred to as “our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Then, at the start of their second missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas, who had been through so much together, had a falling out over whether John Mark should accompany them on their trip. John Mark had been with them on their first journey, but had left just after they entered Asia. We do not know why he left the mission, but Paul uses a word to describe his leaving that makes it sound as if he deserted the group. Paul no longer had confidence in John Mark, and considered him an unworthy candidate to accompany them on a second journey. They anticipated more hardship and persecution, and they needed companions they could rely on to remain steadfast and supportive. Barnabas disagreed and wanted to give John Mark a second opportunity to prove himself.
Who was right? We cannot tell. Barnabas was a risk taker and encourager. His name means son of encouragement. The name was given to him by the Apostles when he sold a piece of land and laid the money at their feet. Barnabas may have seen that John Mark had learned from his mistakes and was ready for new responsibilities. Or Barnabas may have been unduly influenced by the fact that John Mark was his cousin.
Paul had sacrificed and suffered much on their first journey. He depended a great deal on the help of those who were with him. If John Mark had failed him once, perhaps he would again. It is not unreasonable that Paul would not trust John Mark.
The fact that years later, Paul was reconciled to John Mark and spoke highly of him indicates that Barnabas may have been the better judge of character, but at the time, Paul may have had all the evidence on his side while Barnabas only had an intuition or family prejudice.
A dispute over the worthiness of John Mark – assessing his character – was what broke up the team of Paul and Barnabas. It is a black mark on the pages of church history – not of the magnitude of David’s adultery and murder or Peter’s denial of the Lord – but yet a sin that makes us all ashamed nonetheless. Paul and Barnabas should have had the spiritual resources to resolve their differences and be reconciled, but they did not – at least not for some time. The visible unity of the church is one of the things Christ prayed for, and is a sign to the world that the Father has sent the Son (John 17:21). Our disunity impedes the witness of the church.
What should we make of all this today?
First, we must recognize that even mature Christians do not always act as they should. If Paul and Barnabas could easily fall into such an unresolved dispute, who are we to think that we are immune from such sins. Their sin should humble us all, and cause us to seek to be reconciled with fellow Christians, living at peace with all men as far as it is within our power to do so. God has given us many spiritual resources, and we must not fail to employ them to get along with one another. Our witness to the world that the Father has sent the Son is harmed by every unrighteous division among us.
Second, we should be encouraged to continue working in the church despite our own weaknesses and sins. Paul and Barnabas were ordinary men, just like us, with many shortcomings. Yet God used them mightily both before and after their dispute. God employs sinful servants with all kinds of weaknesses and failures, and we should not shy away from the work of the Lord because we feel we are too weak or sinful to be of any use to God.
Third, we should praise God for the way He overrules our sinful behavior and brings good out of evil. Because of the split between Paul and Barnabas, one team became two teams, covering twice as much territory and making many more contacts. We may never use God’s sovereignty as an excuse for our sins but we are comforted in knowing that all things work together for good for God’s people, including their sins. We stand in awe of God and give Him praise for the mercy He shows to poor sinners like us, not treating us as our sins deserve and in all things bringing glory to Himself.
We are commanded to love one another as Christ loved us, to forgive one another as Christ has forgiven us, and to live at peace with one another, striving to be of one mind and heart. God’s grace is sufficient for our needs, so let us not give up until we truly live as members of one body, working and serving together for the good of all.
Rev. Ralph A. Pontier is the pastor of the Redeemer United Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.