36 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” 37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. 1 Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. 2 He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. 3 Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4 As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.
It is one of the truly ironic developments of the story of the early Church that immediately upon the heels of the masterful display of careful, reasoned, biblical conflict resolution demonstrated in the Jerusalem Council, two of the Church’s leading luminaries would have a personal falling out that would lead to them going separate ways! It is also oddly refreshing, for it humanizes these great men and reminds us that they were just that: men. It also provides us an opportunity to see how two committed followers of Jesus handled a division resulting from a conflict that they simply could not figure out how to resolve in the immediate.
In other words, while the ideal is and ever will be the visible unity of the Church, we must unfortunately also consider how Christians who are going to divide should do so with as little damage caused as possible. Such division is never desirable, of course, but it is likely sometimes unavoidable. Thus, while we should bemoan that Paul and Barnabas parted ways at the beginning of the second missionary journey, even here we can benefit from how they do so.
It is possible to disagree and even (unfortunately) to move on to separate ministries without wishing each other ill.
The first missionary journey ended with Paul and Barnabas returning to Antioch, then being sent to Jerusalem for the Jerusalem Council, then returning again to Antioch. It is here, in the undoubtedly heady days of the Church’s official embrace of Gentile believers that Paul proposes the next chapter of his teams missionary story.
36 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” 37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 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. 39a And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.
What has happened here? Paul and Barnabas have “a sharp disagreement.” Clinton Arnold points out that “the word translated ‘sharp disagreement’ (paroxysmos) is a rare and colorful word” that “is used only twice in the Greek Old Testament – in both instances to express ‘the furious anger’ of God.” Obviously, something has happened and something not good at all!
The roots of the problem can be traced to John Mark leaving the team in the first missionary journey. We read of this in Acts 13.
13 Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem, 14 but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia.
“And John left them and returned to Jerusalem.” He “withdrew” from them, Luke tells us in Acts 15:38. Why? We cannot know for certain, but, as was mentioned earlier, there may a clue in Luke’s reordering of the names in Acts 13. In Acts 13:2, the Holy Spirit said to the Church, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So originally the order was (1) Barnabas then (2) Paul. And this makes sense. Barnabas was a respected Christian leader, had been a Christian longer than Paul, had a track record of high Christian character, and actually was instrumental in getting the Church to accept Paul as a brother. So this ordering of words did not mean that Barnabas was more important than Paul. It just meant that Barnabas was the natural leader of this early missionary team.
But later in Acts 13:13, at the beginning of the verse in which we learn of John Mark’s abandonment of the team, we notice that the order has changed: “Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos…” While we should not read too much into this, it is significant and almost certainly signifies that somewhere along the way Paul assumed leadership of the team instead of Barnabas. There is no reason at all to think that this signifies a problem between Paul and Barnabas. For all we know, Barnabas, recognizing Paul’s amazing giftedness, might have even recommended that Paul take the lead. Or maybe it did bother Barnabas a bit. Who knows? All we know is that there is no evidence that it did, or that Barnabas took issue with it, or that he opposed it. Paul simply came to be acknowledged as the captain of the team, and that for good reason. But it was certainly no slight against Barnabas!
What is interesting to see, however, is that immediately after the order of the names changes, John Mark leaves the team and goes back to Jerusalem. Why is this interesting? Because John Mark and Barnabas were cousins. Many have theorized, on that basis, that John Mark took issue with Paul becoming the leader instead of Barnabas remaining the leader. Let us quickly acknowledge that we cannot know this for certain. What we do know is that Luke changes the order of the names, Paul is established as the key leader of the early missionary endeavor, John Mark leaves the team and goes back to Jerusalem, and this action irritated Paul to, obviously, a pretty significant degree.
There is no doubt that Paul saw John Mark as having needlessly abandoned the team. Thus, when Barnabas informed Paul that he wanted his cousin to rejoin the team, Paul had none of it. This gave rise to an intense disagreement that, in turn, gave rise to the two men going separate ways.
Who was right and who was wrong? Who knows? Likely they both had a point. Paul undoubtedly was hesitant to take back on board a man he perceived to be waffling in his commitment or maybe a man who had a personal issue with Paul. In Paul’s defense, let us remember that this was dangerous and potentially deadly work that required complete commitment and resolve. Paul was not being petty. Paul knew what lay before them. He himself had already been stoned almost to death. Could he really be expected to take along with him a man who might still be unsure of his or of Paul’s position on the team?
And what of Barnabas’ position? Had Barnabas not shown amazing grace to Paul and opened a door for him to be accepted by the Church after the early Church recoiled from him in uncertainty and fear? If Barnabas had given Paul a chance, why could Paul not give John Mark a chance? Did Paul not know what it was to have a significant change of heart? Could John Mark not have had a similar change of heart? Could Paul not have been more understanding, more compassionate of John Mark’s struggles, whatever they were? In discussing this, my wife reminded me that Jesus had reinstated Peter after his denials, so why could Paul not reinstate John Mark after his desertion? These are all good questions.
A.T. Robertson has offered a nice summary. After pointing out that “Paul felt a lively realization of the problem of having a quitter on his hands,” Robertson said this:
No one can rightly blame Barnabas for giving his cousin John Mark a second chance nor Paul for fearing to risk him again. One’s judgment may go with Paul, but one’s heart goes with Barnabas.
That is a nice way of putting it, and Robertson is likely correct: most of us can probably see some truth on both sides. Even so, Paul and Barnabas conflict and they conflict in no small way. The conflict so much that they separate. What is interesting, however, is what Luke tells us about their separation.
39b Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
They separate, but their (now) respective ministries move forward for Kingdom advancement. There is no evidence here or elsewhere that Paul or Barnabas wished each other ill or harm. On the contrary, it is almost certainly the case that two men wished each other all the best. They simply did so after concluding that they could no longer work together. This is sad, but not as sad as it could be. It was unfortunate, but it did not turn vicious and ugly.
There is a point here for us: if you must part ways with another believer over an issue that appears unresolvable, do so in the best good will possible, cheering one another on as you go. God, who is always able to bring some good out of bad situations, appears to have used the division for the furtherance of the gospel throughout the world as the two teams went in separate ways.
We would be remiss, however, if we did not mention a very important fact. Later on in his life, Paul, in 2 Timothy 4, says something very telling to Timothy.
9 Do your best to come to me soon. 10 For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. 11 Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.
Did you catch it? “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” Beautiful! Here we see the reconciliation of Paul and John Mark. We should not miss this. It is a critical fact: the division was not permanent. It did end. They separated for a season but not forever. In the end, they came back together.
Perhaps you have seen this before in your own life. Perhaps you have had to part ways with a brother or sister in Christ for a season. But then God brought you back together. You had both grown to the point where you could again work together. Do not act in the moment in such a way that future reconciliation will be highly unlikely! Do not burn bridges! Always remember that your immediate division need not be a permanent division. Keep ever before you the words of David in Psalm 133:
1 Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!
3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.
If handled rightly, temporal divisions in ministry do not have to mean that the ministries fail to prosper, grow, and advance the Kingdom.
After this unfortunate division, we see Paul and Barnabas move on with their new teams. We do not hear about Barnabas’, but we do get a glimpse of Paul’s. It is a picture of continued effective and strategic ministry.
1 Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. 2 He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. 3 Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4 As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.
Paul picks up Timothy in his travels. This would be one of the most significant relationships in both men’s lives. Interestingly, Paul circumcises Timothy. This may strike us as odd, occurring as it did in the immediate aftermath of the Jerusalem Council’s decision not to require such external observances for a person to be saved. However, Paul did not circumcise Timothy in order to secure his salvation. On the contrary, Luke tells us that Paul circumcised Timothy “because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.”
In other words, Paul did not circumcise Timothy with the traditionalist Jewish converts to Christianity in mind. He circumcised him with the non-Christian Jews whose synagogues he hoped to enter and to whom he hoped to preach the gospel in mind. Though Timothy would have been considered Jewish because his mother was Jewish, he would not have been considered anything like a faithful or good or devout Jew because, undoubtedly under his father’s Greek influence, he had not been circumcised. And if a failure to be circumcised was a problem for some Jewish converts to Christianity to handle, how much more so for non-Christian Jews! His lack of circumcision would therefore be a huge impediment to the missionary task, and so Paul had him circumcised. Paul would lay out his philosophy of avoiding offense in missions work in 1 Corinthians 10:
23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. 25 Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 26 For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— 29 I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? 31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
Seeing the Jews saved was Paul’s great passion in life. So he removed a possible offense by having Timothy circumcised. Then, they pressed on. They ministered in the synagogues and proclaimed the gospel. They also reached out to the existing churches, informing them of the Jerusalem Council’s decisions.
Our text ends on an encouraging note:
5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.
Sometimes divisions happen. It is unfortunate when they do! But the presence of a division does not necessarily have to mean the derailing of ministry if all involved commits themselves to not seeking to destroy each other in the process. We do not know a whole lot about the division between Paul and Barnabas. We have clues, but that is all. What we do know, however, is that they proved that principle that divisions, if handled rightly, do not have to mean that the ministries fail to prosper, grow, and advance the Kingdom.
Fight for unity!
Fight for peace!
Fight for visible unity and peace!
But if, in the course of your journey, you and another Christian must part ways, do so firmly committed to lifting up the other, to guarding the unity of the Church, and to not attacking one another as enemies. And do so ever hopeful for a reunion one day. For whether we reunite here or in glory, we will be together again.
Let us strive to live out that glorious fact here and now.