Today’s rather brief passage is one of those where we would wish to have a few more details about exactly what transpired between Paul and Barnabas. In writing this account, Luke is working to tell the beginning of the story of the Second Missionary Journey of Paul. And so it is necessary for him to explain why Barnabas did not participate, but rather, a new figure by the name of Silas becomes Paul’s travelling companion.
In short, Paul and Barnabas had a disagreement of significant proportions. It was all over John Mark (yes, the guy who would later write the Gospel of Mark), who had abandoned them on the first journey – apparently in some moment of personal weakness. Here is today’s reading:
Disagreement between Paul and Barnabas – Acts 15:36-41
36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
When it says in this text that it was a “sharp disagreement,” there is no way to get the original Greek words to water it down – this was a significant conflict, enough to cause them to part ways and work separately.
Paul was standing on principle. Though we don’t know the exact reason why John Mark departed, it was a scar that Paul could not get past. Maybe it was a personal failure? Or perhaps it had to do with John Mark’s possible discomfort at the Gospel going to the Gentiles? Maybe he even caused some of the trouble in Jerusalem by being an eyewitness reporter of these events? That would certainly rile a person of principle like Paul, for in this scenario, John Mark would have been challenging the core of the Gospel message of grace.
On the other hand, Barnabas was standing on the value of personal restoration. Some might argue that this was because John Mark and Barnabas were cousins (Col. 4:10); though being a person of grace and encouragement of others fits the entire Scriptural portrait of Barnabas. Paul himself could not have originally been aligned with the early church leaders apart from the gracious, visionary intervention of Barnabas. Barnabas saw the potential in John Mark, whereas Paul could not get beyond the problem.
I reconcile this as simply the outworking of two very different personalities with differing gifts. Though Paul had certainly a large compassion for lost people, he was a fellow who particularly highly valued truth, hard facts, and principles. Barnabas, while standing for truth repeatedly in biblical passages, valued people so highly – having a heart for seeing believers restored and reused in greater capacities than ever before.
These personalities sometimes have difficulties working together. As I’ve written previously, I relate to Barnabas most especially among biblical characters. And in my ministry life, I have a number of times had conflictual issues most often with other leaders who lean in the opposite direction toward the hard line on principle. I have sometimes been the last person standing in defense of someone – a couple of times when there really was no substantial defense remaining.
The fact is this: each of these personality proclivities needs the other. The “truth first people” need to be challenged that we are all such a mess saved only by God’s great grace, that none of us have much merit apart from Christ. But the “people-oriented, gracious types” need to be reminded that there are hard principles that genuine believers must honor in order to walk rightly with the Lord in the light of truth.
The fact is that all of these guys went on to serve the Lord well. We see Paul sending greetings to John Mark later on; and this passage in Galatians (2:12-13) shows the high esteem Paul had for Barnabas: (writing about a time he confronted Peter) … For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
God has a place in His vineyard for all of us to work for Him with the gifts He has given each one. And we need to value one another, even if we are not always working side by side.