A reflection on Acts 15:36-41 for Sunday, November 22, 2020 at Mosaic Baptist Church.
After some time Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are doing.” Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus. Paul chose Silas, and as he left, the believers entrusted him to the Lord’s gracious care. Then he traveled throughout Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches there.
Acts 15:36-41 (NLT)
It is a difficult text to read. We are prone to place leaders on a pedisatal – hoping they will not fall.
They do, however.
Paul and Barnabas have been through so much. The Spirit set the two of them aside at the same time and for the same purpose. They walked all those roads. Witnessed all those miracles. Nurtured all those souls.
John Mark left soon after the team arrived in Perga. All the text tells is that “There John Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem.” (Acts 13:13). A brief description easily overlooked.
As they contemplate a second journey, however, it becomes apparent that more is going on. Here Luke – backing Paul’s argument – describes John Mark’s actions as desertion.
And no one like a deserter!
Except, it would seem, Barnabas. For the ‘Son of Encouragement’, offering a second chance is second nature.
We cannot say the same for the Paul. He ‘strongly disagreed’ with the proposal.
It all led to a ‘disagreement…so sharp that they separated.’
Barnabas and John Mark went to Cyprus – the only part of the previous mission that the young man was familiar with. Paul – taking Silas as a companion – stayed on the mainland travelling through Syria and Cilicia.
The text of Acts follows Paul and Silas. We know very little about the mission Barnabas and John Mark undertook.
Soberingly, the church seems to have only sent Paul and Silas with their blessing. Of course, this is not necessarily a comment on the legitimacy of the mission of Barnabas and John Mark.
Perhaps – as we have said – it is simply that Acts follows Paul.
There is another possibility, however. Disagreements – especially church disagreements – often highlight alliances and friendships. Perhaps the church sided with Paul. John Mark’s early return may have caused concern among the believers.
Could it be that John Mark’s story to the church was exposed by Paul’s return?
Of course, our speculation could go on endlessly. All Luke really tells is that there was a separation over whether to give the young man another opportunity. One does not need to have spent too much time in churches to find this both sad – and believable.
Perhaps the two apostles have simply followed their character. Barnabas has a reputation for investing in others. Paul – even by this stage in Acts – has revealed a zeal for gentile mission.
Barnabas seems to have put the person first. Paul, the mission.
Perhaps such a dualistic distinction is too harsh. After all, Paul’s mission is clearly about people.
I can’t help, however, admiring Barnabas’ zeal for the one. We believe John Mark became a significant partner to the Apostle Peter. If so, he almost certainly wrote the very first account of Jesus life – the Gospel of Mark.
Mark – with the encouragement of Barnabas – made a significant contribution to the church!
Even Paul seems to recognise this Over time. Paul names ‘Mark, Barnabas’ cousin’ in Colossians 4:10. There he instructs the church to welcome this young man. Perhaps Paul’s approval to be hospitable toward Mark is needed.
Mark is also named as one of Paul’s ‘co-workers’ in Philemon 1:24. Perhaps most revealing, in 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul asks for ‘…Mark…to come. For he will be helpful to me in my ministry’.
It looks like Paul – eventually – reassessed Mark – and welcomed him as part of his mission, asking the church to do the same.
And if that is the case, this short account in Acts is actually a story of profound hope!
What are the risks of being an encourager? What makes you wary of investing in other people?
Has zeal for mission ever caused you to leave others behind?
If the church in Antioch did side with Paul over Barnabas – and Paul later discovers his own need for Mark, what does this say about the care, responsibility, and humility leaders – and all in the church – are called to display in times of conflict?