WHEN CHRISTIANS PART
Paul and Barnabas had been a team. It had been Barnabas who had first taken the young Paul under his wing. When everyone else in Jerusalem was afraid of the young Christian because of his history of persecuting the church, it was Barnabas who took him and who introduced him to the church. When Paul was sent home to Tarsus for a number of years, it was Barnabas who came and got him and brought him Antioch.
It therefore seemed only natural that Paul and Barnabas should operate as the first missionary team. They had been chosen by the Holy Spirit and commissioned by the prophets and teachers at the new Antioch church and they had been sent on their way. The ministry had proved to be an amazing success. The gospel had been preached throughout the cities and even before the proconsul of Cyprus. Churches had been planted in the face of persecution and had created rumblings as far back as Jerusalem.
A PLANNED VISIT
And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are." (Acts 15:36).
The days between the first missionary journey and this one had not been idle. Paul and Barnabas had been forced to travel to a council in Jerusalem to make a defense of the gospel before the church. The controversy had been sharp, but the church had come to the agreement that Gentiles do not need to become Jewish in order to be recognized as a part of the church.
Now that this controversy is behind them and they are back in Antioch, they begin to plan for a return trip to the churches they planted in the first missionary journey. They had preached the gospel and had planted these churches; now they wanted to make certain that the churches were growing properly.
This tells me something of the Christian life. The Christian life begins with a single step. It begins with faith in Jesus Christ and in the sacrifice that was made upon the cross. If you have never come to Christ, then you need to take that first step. But the Christian life doesnít stop there. The Christian life is likened, not to a single step, but to a walk. It consists of a continuation of steps.
A CAUSE FOR DISAGREEMENT
And Barnabas was desirous of taking John, called Mark, along with them also.38 But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. (Acts 15:37-38).
A problem arose when it became time to select the mission team for the return trip. The problem centered around a young man named John. Though his name was John, we are told that he regularly went by the name of Mark. John is a Hebrew name. Mark (orMarkoV as it appears in the Greek text) is the Greek form of a Latin name. It seems to have been fairly common for the Jewish Christians to adopt a Greek or Latin name so as to better reach out to those people groups.
John Mark had been a part of the first missionary team in taking the gospel to Cyprus. He is described in Acts 13:5 as their "helper." If Paul and Barnabas were the two lead missionaries, then he was the junior missionary. He was the assistant. The problem is that he had not completed his missionary assignment. He had gone with Barnabas and Paul through Cyprus, but when they had read the mainland of Anatolia, he had turned back. Verse 38 says that he had deserted them in Pamphylia. The Greek word used here isapostanta (aorist participle of afisthmi). It is the word from which we get our modern term "apostasy."
We donít know why it was that John Mark had turned back. He may have had reasons for doing so. But Paul did not think they were adequate. He did not wish a repeat performance.
Barnabas, on the other hand, felt differently. He wanted to give the young man another chance. After all, he had given Paul another chance. Why not John Mark?
Barnabas likely had another reason for wanting to bring Mark. It is not mentioned here in the book of Acts, but in Colossians 4:10, Paul refers to Mark as the cousin of Barnabas. John Mark was family.
There is a tendency for most of us to overlook the faults of family. Why is that? Perhaps it is because we know the background to those faults. Or perhaps we have just learned to live with that person, faults and all. Or perhaps it is because we see the ties of family as stronger than the faults.
God does the same thing with us. He sees us as family. And because we are family, our sins are forgiven via the shed blood of Christ. My mother used to say that blood is thicker than water. We are bound to the family of God by both blood and by water.
A CHRISTIAN SEPARATION
And there arose such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.40 But Paul chose Silas and departed, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:39-41).
The disagreement between Paul and Barnabas was not resolved. It served to drive a wedge between these two men of God and they ultimately parted company.
Who was right? Who was wrong? Luke does not say. There is no judgment given regarding the controversy. It is not a matter of one person sinning while the other was righteous. Rather, it involved two different philosophies of ministry.
There are some lessons that we can take away from this passage.
Paul and Barnabas did not have to be in competition with one another. Paul went in one direction while Barnabas went in another direction. There were plenty of ministry opportunities in both directions.
I hear a lot of people arguing today about what type of church service is better; whether we should have seeker-sensitive churches or whether our primary focus should be upon building up believers. I believe the mission of the church is large enough for both types of methods to be utilized.
We live in a day and an age of multiple denominations. There are Baptists and Presbyterians and Lutherans and Methodists and Independent Bible Churches. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. mobilization of the church is diverse enough for different sorts of people to be utilized and it is diverse enough for the different denominations to be enjoyed. Indeed, I think that, in the long run, we may find that the various denominations are a wonderful gift to the body of Christ as each one is able to come and to contribute its own special blessing.
While denominationalism has served to fracture the church, it could be that God is able to overcome that damage and turn this into a wonderful blessing for the church as re recognize that the diversity can be used for great good.
The efforts of Paul and Barnabas would be doubled in the ensuing ministry. What had started out as an uncomfortable division was turned into something wonderful for the kingdom. Instead of the gospel going in one direction, it now went in two directions.
Even though there was a difference of opinion and even a division between Paul and Barnabas, that division did not stop them from doing ministry. Were it not for Lukeís account of this division, we would know nothing of it from the epistles of Paul. He continues to speak of Barnabas in the highest terms.
I think that, too often, Christians get sidetracked onto side issues and start fighting each other instead of focusing upon the proclamation of the gospel. That does not mean we should never disagree. It does mean that we should never let our disagreements take center stage. They should always come second place to the proclamation of Jesus.
Luke does not tell us that Paul was right or that Barnabas was wrong. Neither do either Paul or Barnabas continue to ride this question as a hobby horse. These two men were very different in their personalities and in their gifts and in their philosophy of ministry. They were so different that the best thing they could do was to divide from one another and to do ministry separate from one another.
We face a danger. The danger is that, in the midst of our differences, we will let those differences impede our ministry rather than allowing those differences to multiply our ministry. What makes the difference? It is a matter of focus. If I continue to focus upon other Christians and the disagreements I have with them, then I will impede my ministry. On the other hand, if I focus upon serving Christ in accordance with the personality and the gifts he has given me and let others do likewise, the ministry of the kingdom will grow.
Do you remember the story of Joseph? He was the sibling who received the ultimate hand-me-down from 10 older brothers. They thought to murder him, threw him into a pit, and eventually sold him into slavery. The intentions of those brothers were not the intentions of God. And yet, years later Joseph said to his brother...
And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. (Genesis 50:20).
The brothers of Joseph were not trying to do God's will. And yet, the actions of those brothers were in accordance with the plan and purpose of God.
This is the doctrine of PROVIDENCE. It is the opposite of Deism. Deism says that God created and then went out for a long walk. Providence says that God is intimately involved with the running of His creation. With respect to the issue of divisions in the church, this doctrine tells us that the Master of the church is great enough to overcome the obstacles of our divisions.
When we look at this incident in the light of the providence of God, then we will see that instead of two missionaries, there will now be four.
The ultimate manifestation of God's providence was the cross. The event that looked to be the greatest tragedy was turned into the greatest victory for us.
THE REST OF THE STORY
Lukeís account follows the further travels and ministry of Paul. There is little or not further mention of Barnabas and John Mark for the time being. But I want you to know that there would come a time when a reconciliation would take place. It would be seen at the very end of Paulís life and alluded to in the very last chapter of the last of his epistles. As he writes his closing words to Timothy, he gives these final instructions:
Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service. (2 Timothy 4:11).
Timothy is to come to Rome, but he is not to come alone. He is to bring Mark. Why? Because Paul has need of his service. Whereas there was a time when Paul had no use for Mark in the ministry, that has now changed. Mark has grown. And it is possible that Paul has grown, too.
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