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The Paul/Barnabas Split


by Dennis Pollock

The Book of Acts is a great treasure for believers. It is our only glimpse of how the early Christians practiced their Christianity and exercised their ministry. The gospels tell us who Jesus is and what He said and did, the epistles define more clearly the nature of His redemption and how it applies to our lives, but only in Acts do we see Christianity in action. In the Book of Acts we see Christianity lived out by those believers nearest to the time when Jesus walked up and down the roads of Israel. We find in this book a vibrant, muscular Christianity, complete with miracles, angelic visitations, prophecies, healings, inspired and anointed preaching, and… problems! We do not see a perfect church, but one made up of flawed and imperfect human beings, yes, even after being saved by Christ and filled with His Holy Spirit. Those early Christians were just as human as we are, and for me, that is encouraging!

One important evidence of the humanity of the key leaders in the early church is found in the split that occurred between Paul and Barnabas. These two men had been on a wonderfully successful mission that resulted in many churches being established, many men and women being converted to Christ, and exposing the Gentiles to the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way no other men or women were experiencing in those days. The Paul/Barnabas ministry team was truly a powerhouse for Christ, and the fruit was abundant. As long as they could keep from being jailed or killed for their preaching, it seemed that the sky was the limit. And then, suddenly, the gears of their ministry together came grinding to a halt.

Mark’s Departure

On that first mission trip (historians call it a “missionary journey”) they had taken with them a young man who was a cousin of Barnabas. The man’s name was John, but most people called him Mark. Before leaving for this mission, Paul and Barnabas were teaching in the megachurch in Antioch and had quickly become known as outstanding teachers of the word of God. One day during a prayer and fasting time, a word from God had come to the group. It was probably in the form of a prophecy, and the word said this: “Separate unto Me Barnabas and Saul (Paul’s given name) for the work to which I have called them.” They didn’t need a second word, and after the group had prayed over them and commissioned them for this itinerant ministry, Paul and Barnabas set out to preach Christ to the nations. Barnabas thought his young cousin, Mark, could serve as an assistant to them, and Paul agreed.

We are not given the details of just why it happened or what Mark was feeling at the time. All we are told is that early in the ministry: “Now when Paul and his party set sail from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia; and John (Mark), departing from them, returned to Jerusalem” (Acts 13:13). The only real clue we have as to why Mark decided to leave the ministry team is the fact that later, when Barnabas wanted to take the young man along on their next journey, Paul absolutely refused to hear of it. Had this been a sudden emergency, such as Mark getting deathly sick, or getting word that his mother was dying, we would expect Paul to have been more understanding. But Paul’s irritation over Mark’s leaving suggests that young Mark simply lost heart for this traveling ministry, fraught with danger and hostility, and yearned for the comforts of home.

Mark had probably seen, at least initially, a journey with these two wonderful Bible teachers and church leaders as something glamorous and exciting. And he was no doubt honored that they expressed a desire for him to come with them. But what he, and millions after him, discovered is that, while ministry may appear glamorous viewing it from a distance, when you get in the midst of it, it is difficult, often scary, and not nearly so glamorous as most people think. And so, after just a short time watching Paul and Barnabas preaching, teaching, and being threatened and mocked, Mark had enough. He headed back to comfort and relative safety.

Assistant or no assistant, Paul and Barnabas continued with the work. And while there was more persecution and abuse, there were also great blessings and favor. Churches were established in many cities, great numbers of people came to faith in Christ, and the church of Jesus Christ took a quantum leap forward. By the time they returned to Antioch they were thrilled to report all that God had done with them and through them, and the believers rejoiced at the advancement of the Kingdom of God. When Mark heard of Paul and Barnabas’ safe return and of the great things God had done, he apparently began to have regrets.

Second Mission

After a season of recuperation and refreshing, Paul was ready to go at it again. This time there was no need for a dynamic prophecy or a dramatic word from the Lord. That initial word had been sufficient to get Paul moving in the direction of God’s calling, and for the rest of his life he could hardly keep himself from traveling, preaching, teaching, and establishing churches – at least until he was thrown into prison and such was no longer possible. Paul told Barnabas, “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing” (Acts 15:36). Barnabas thought this a capital idea, suggesting they take Mark with them once again. It seems likely that Mark had apologized to Barnabas and perhaps Paul as well for leaving them, and Barnabas was happy to give his cousin another chance.

Paul clearly was not. We find the heart of their disagreement summed up in the following words:

Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work (Acts 15:37, 38).

To Paul this was unthinkable. To take with them the same man who had previously left them was too much of a risk. Besides, Mark needed to learn that this kind of behavior was totally unacceptable. For Paul and Barnabas to turn around and take him on their next mission would surely send the wrong signal to him.

We find the ultimate reason for the split of this amazing ministry team in two words: “determined” and “insisted.” Barnabas “determined” to take Mark, and Paul “insisted” that Mark should not be allowed to go. Both these words are strong words and allow little room for compromise. Had it read the following way, they might have worked things out: “Barnabas suggested that they take Mark, but Paul advised that Mark should not accompany them.” Then, they might have figured out something that would have kept these two anointed ministers together. But when one determines and the other insists on exactly the opposite outcome, they demolish any opportunity to heal the breach.

No Scripture to Settle the Matter

It is interesting that the Bible does not tell us who was right and who was wrong in this situation. All we get are the facts; no editorializing is done. The problem was, there was no Scripture to deal with the situation. Had there been some kind of Bible verse which declared, “If any man goes on a mission with others, and then loses heart and returns home before the mission is accomplished, let him never go on another mission,” then the case would be closed. But there was no Bible verse or passage to cover this dilemma. It was left to their personal judgment, and Paul’s judgment and Barnabas’ judgment on the situation were at the two opposite extremes. Both men were good men, godly men, praying men, anointed teachers and preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, both were certain they were right, and both believed the exact opposite from the other!

The result was exactly what one might expect. Paul chose another brother, named Silas, and went out to preach the gospel. Barnabas took Mark and went to a different place to preach Christ and establish churches. As far as we know, the two men never ministered together again. A powerful ministry team had split down the middle. The Bible tells us: “Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another” (Acts 15:39). This was not just a polite disagreement, this was contention, and it was sharp contention!

We don’t hear any more about this matter in the Scriptures. Paul never refers to it in his epistles, and Barnabas drops out of sight. The Book of Acts goes on to describe Paul’s amazing ministry which does not seem to miss a beat. As before, he still travels about, teaching, preaching, healing, casting out demons, and establishing churches, until the time of his arrest. We might prefer if this were wrapped up a little more neatly – if they ended up coming together again, profusely apologizing to one another, or if there were at least some comment in the Scriptures as to who was right and who was wrong. But no, things just move along, and the story is never referred to again.

Lessons Learned

There are a few conclusions and lessons we can reasonably draw from this event. The first, and most obvious, is that good men and women, strong Christians and church leaders can disagree – strongly. They can have not just little, polite, minor disagreements about whether the church carpet should be blue or red. They can have major disagreements and even passionate disagreements. This does not make them carnal or sinful; it simply proves they are human. In fact we can go further than this: not only can believers have disagreements, they almost certainly will have disagreements. These don’t always have to result in broken fellowship or split churches or ministries, but they will occur – just as sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. They will happen!

In an ideal world there would be no disagreements among believers. We would agree on all major issues and decisions, or if we did disagree, we would disagree so agreeably that sharp contention would never arise. But our world is not ideal, the church is not ideal, and, horror of horrors, you and I are not ideal either! Two of the greatest church leaders of the British spiritual awakening of the 1700’s, George Whitefield and John Wesley had a powerful disagreement over Calvinism and predestination. Whitefield had introduced Wesley to the immense crowds to which he had been preaching. He essentially opened the door for Wesley to be transformed from pastor of a small church to an international evangelist with an audience of tens of thousands. Yet while Whitefield was in America, Wesley became so upset with Whitefield’s Calvinistic doctrines that he began advising his crowds (which were really Whitefield’s outdoor congregation) to avoid Whitefield, suggesting that the man was a false teacher.

When Whitefield returned to England many of the people had been so poisoned toward him that they would cover their ears if they passed where he was preaching. The breach was eventually healed (not entirely, but mostly) yet for years these two good, great, and godly men hardly spoke to each other.

The Positive Side

There are a couple of positives related to this sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas. First, although we don’t know when or how, at some point Paul reconciled with Mark, and even partnered with him in ministry. In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he writes, “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).

The other positive is that Paul, Barnabas, and Mark went on in ministry. Sometimes when relationships are broken we have a tendency to want to retire to the farthest corner and lick our wounds. We suppose that we are no longer worthy to serve Jesus. But Paul and Barnabas went right on as they always had, albeit with different partners. And Mark proves a steadfast and faithful minister of the gospel as he matures. The gospel of Jesus Christ is far too valuable for us to draw back or give up every time we experience a hiccup or things don’t go so smoothly. When all is peaceful we will proclaim Jesus Christ. And when there are disagreements and conflicts, and when friends or coworkers or even spouses forsake us, deny us, or mock us, still we will follow Jesus and shine His light on our darkened world. We can do no less for the One who gave His life for us.



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