Two Christian leaders were engaged in a heated conflict over a decision regarding their ministry. Years earlier, one of the men had been instrumental in helping the other gain acceptance in the Christian community, and they had been ministering together in the power of the Holy Spirit for some time, but now they were unable to come to agreement. They exchanged some sharp words, and finally one man said, “Fine¸ go ahead,” and the other said, “Fine, I will,” and they parted ways.
Maybe I’m being unfair to Paul and Barnabas, but this is the way I envision their conflict over whether or not John Mark should accompany them on their second missionary journey. John Mark had been their assistant on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:5) but had left them abruptly for an undisclosed reason and gone back to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). When it came time to go out again, Paul had no desire to take someone who had quit on them before, while Barnabas saw potential in him and wanted to give him another chance (Acts 15:36-38).
I find this incident troubling because it seems that they did not handle it in the most godly way. There is no indication that they prayed about the situation or that they sought out a mediator to help them resolve it, even though they were clearly having trouble working it out themselves or even talking about it. The KJV says, “the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other" (Acts 15:39). The NIV calls it a “sharp disagreement” that caused them to part company. The Message says that Paul “wasn’t about to take along a quitter who, as soon as the going got tough, had jumped ship on them in Pamphylia. Tempers flared, and they ended up going their separate ways.”
It seems that both wanted to get their own way: Barnabas insisted that they ought to take John Mark, and Paul’s attitude was “OK, it’s either him or me. If you take that kid, I’m not going with you. I can’t risk having someone along who needs to be babied or who might bail on us again.” When they couldn’t work it out, they split, and their partnership was severed.
Maybe the conversation should have gone something like this (maybe it did—we just don’t know):
Paul: I’m afraid John Mark is not mature enough or tough enough to handle the rigors of a missionary journey.
Barnabas: But I see potential in this kid, just as I saw potential in you. [Acts 9:26-27] Let’s give him another chance.
Paul: OK, I know that your gift is encouragement, so how about if he goes with you so you can work with him. Silas and I will go to Syria and Cilicia to minister to the Gentiles.
And they bless each other on their separate ways, trusting that God will do His work in and through each of their lives.
In any case, the bottom line is that God was in control of the entire situation. Though the men were both partly right and partly wrong, God absolutely knew what He was doing. Paul and Barnabas are shown as real-life, three-dimensional people; they had just helped to resolve a major controversy in the whole church (Acts 15), but then they had trouble working out their own personal conflict. However, God’s purposes were accomplished: The men ended up forming two teams instead of just one. Paul got the partner he needed in Silas, and their journey was an intense time of sharing the gospel with the Gentiles throughout Asia Minor and into Europe. John Mark got the mentor he needed in Barnabas, and he did indeed grow into a mature and respected believer. Perhaps his growth was even more solid under Barnabas’s encouragement than it would have been under Paul’s pressure. Later the men were reconciled, and Mark became Paul’s “fellow worker” (Philemon 24), ministering to and with him. When Paul wrote to the Colossians, he urged them to welcome his brother Mark (Col. 4:10). At the end of his life, Paul wanted Mark to be with him, “for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11). I think Paul fondly recognized Mark as being helpful not only in the ministry of the gospel, but also in ministering to Paul personally as he was in prison facing death.
Best of all, this same John Mark is the one who wrote the Gospel of Mark. God had brought him so far along that he had the wisdom and maturity to write the first record of the life of Jesus. He had studied hard and learned from Barnabas and Peter and others. Although he had been undependable and had experienced failure and rejection, he did not give up in despair, and God did not give up on him. With the help of a wise mentor, he grew into the man God intended him to be, and Christians throughout the ages have known his name and been blessed by his book.
This year we are studying the Gospel of Mark in Bible study. Knowing who Mark was and who he became helps me to see the power of God to transform. From an unstable kid he grew into a wise teacher of many. I also see God’s sovereignty in working through our sins and failures and self-centeredness. Paul and Barnabas experienced a conflict much like the ones we encounter all the time, and they muddled through it in a less-than-commendable manner. Both wanted their own way, but in the end God had His way, because He is able to use even our sins and failings to accomplish His sovereign purposes.