Luke describes the incident between Paul and Barnabas as a “sharp disagreement” (Acts 15:39). I don’t know, but it may have sounded something like this:
“Paul! You’re being unreasonable. I know you’re a man of conviction, but for heaven’s sake ease up a bit.”
“I may be unreasonable in your estimation, Barnabas, but you are showing a distinct lack of wisdom. Don’t let the fact that he’s your cousin blind you to his failures. We need to think first and foremost about the welfare of this ministry God has entrusted to us.”
“I am thinking of the ministry. But Mark is a sensitive and loving young man. Your inflexibility could crush his spirit. Must you be so harsh?”
“Must you be so soft? I love Mark. Really, I do. But you’re letting your compassion override your convictions.”
“And you’re letting your principles override your pity.”
In any case, the split must have been painful for everyone involved. I suspect even Mark felt guilty for being the cause of a separation between these two friends and co-workers. But let’s learn from what happened. There are five valuable lessons we can ill-afford to ignore.
First, we mustn’t forget that Paul and Barnabas, not just Mark, are also human and prone to sin. I can’t get over the fact that two apostles, that’s right, apostles(!), are engaged in a verbal brawl. I’m not in the least suggesting this justifies such behavior in us or that what occurred wasn’t grievous to the heart of God. But it reminds us that no one in this life achieves perfection or rises above the promptings of the flesh. These two men had worked miracles by the Spirit of God. They had laid hands on the sick and healed them. They both prayed in tongues (at least Paul did). They both loved Jesus. Yet here they are shouting angrily at each other!
If you had witnessed this clash, what conclusions would you have drawn? Or let’s bring it into the twenty-first century. If you were a new Christian, visiting a local church for the first time, and you happened upon such an argument in the parking lot or even the foyer of the church, what might you think?
Perhaps: “These men obviously can’t be Christians.”
Or perhaps: “I won’t believe anything either of them teaches. They are obviously disqualified from instructing others when they can’t get along with each other.”
Or maybe: “Who appointed these guys to be missionaries? Someone needs to re-evaluate the screening process!”
Or again: “I’ll bet you God never blesses or anoints either of them again. No more signs and wonders through their hands!”
Or lastly: “Hypocrites! The church is full of them. I’ll never again darken the door of this place as long as people like that are around.”
If nothing else, we learn from this not to judge too quickly or draw decisive conclusions about the goodness of people from a singular incident.
Second, is there anything we can learn from Paul’s position? I think his decision reminds us that you don’t entrust the young and immature with major tasks (cf. 1 Timothy 3:10). Don’t push people into ministry or positions of leadership and authority who may not be capable of bearing the burden or dealing with the pressure. A proven track record and proven character are indispensable.
Can we learn something important from Barnabas? Certainly. We learn that even those who fail are not to be abandoned and forever spurned. They are to be lovingly rebuked and corrected and then encouraged until conviction grips their hearts and repentance is forthcoming. We learn that failure such as this is not grounds for permanent exclusion from ministry. More on this later.
Third, observe how God providentially brought good out of this tragic turn of events. With Paul and Barnabas splitting up and going their separate ways, two missionary teams instead of one are unleashed on the unbelieving world. Paul took Silas with him, while Barnabas took Mark. We must never justify our failures or sins by appealing to the overriding role of divine providence, but it is reassuring to know that God can redeem for his glory even the most petty as well as substantive clashes among his children.
Fourth, there are important lessons to learn from the experience of Mark himself. It would appear that although Mark abandoned them, he has returned on his own initiative. This was a courageous and humbling act on his part, demonstrative of the reality of his repentance.
Note also that Mark was not only received back by Paul, but was restored to ministry as well! In Colossians 4:10 Paul sends the church greetings from Mark and adds this comment: “concerning whom you have received instructions – if he comes to you, welcome him.” Evidently Mark’s restoration had not been fully acknowledged by all. I suspect that some in Colossae were suspicious of him, which is why Paul insists that they receive him warmly and wholeheartedly.
If that weren’t enough to restore confidence in Mark, Paul explicitly calls him his “fellow worker” in Philemon 24. Better still is what Paul wrote to Timothy in his second epistle. Remember, Paul is in prison in Rome, perhaps only weeks, at most months, away from execution. Virtually everyone had either abandoned him or left for other ministry opportunities (cf. 2 Timothy 4:9-10). “Luke alone is with me” (2 Timothy 4:11a), wrote Paul.
It’s a bit depressing, isn’t it? Paul is at the end of his life. His ministry is near over. Of all the people he could have asked to come and support and encourage him, guess whom he mentions? “Get Mark(!) and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11b). Mark? Useful? For ministry? Indeed! Isn’t God’s grace amazing?
Fifth, how was Mark restored to ministry? I suspect there were at least three human contributors through whom the Spirit worked. First, was Barnabas and his constant encouragement and friendship. Second, was Peter, Mark’s spiritual father (1 Peter 5:13). Peter knew a bit about failure himself! He knew the joy of restoration as well. No doubt his advice and prayers and support proved invaluable to Mark on his journey back. Finally, Paul’s principles, his rebuke, and the discipline on which he insisted must also have played a role (“Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy,” Proverbs 27:5-6). I suspect Mark would have been the first to say that all three men were indispensable to him.
Thanking God for strong and tender friends,