Paul and Barnabas Disagree on John Mark: Part 2 of 3
by John Lowe
So when Barnabas made his proposal, that Mark accompany them as he had on their first mission (13:5), Paul was instantly filled with negative thoughts, since he had abandoned them on their first mission (13:5). All he could see in his mind’s eye was Pamphylia, and Mark’s back as he walked away from the place of duty. Thus, when it came to planning the journey, they could not see eye to eye on whether Mark should go with them again. Barnabas wanted “to take” him, but Paul did not want “to take him,” because he had “departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.” It is thought that when Mark left them, it was “without” their knowledge and approval.
It is possible that there was an additional source of tension between Paul and Barnabas. Galatians 2:11-13 speaks of an incident that took place in Antioch, evidently after the Jerusalem Conference, in which Peter and Barnabas gave in to pressure from “certain men” from James and withdrew from table fellowship with Gentiles. Paul sharply confronted Peter on that occasion for his “hypocrisy” and was none too happy with Barnabas for following Peter’s example. Even though Paul had now been sufficiently reconciled to Barnabas to request his companionship on the mission, there may have been lingering wounds and possibly still some differences over Paul’s “law-free” Gentile outreach. Mark may himself have represented a more conservative Jewish-Christian outlook. However that may be, Paul did eventually become reconciled to Mark and mention him as a coworker in several of his letters (see Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24; 2 Timothy 4:11). Standing in the background was Barnabas, always the encourager, showing faith in Mark when others had lost theirs and eventually redeeming him—ironically, for Paul.
Frankly, I am glad these two brethren had this little altercation because it teaches me that these men were human and that even the saints can disagree without being disagreeable. We see that the best of men are but men, subject to like passions as we are. They didn’t break up anything. They did not split the church and form two different churches in Antioch. They just disagreed. Good and godly people in the church do disagree; this is one of the painful facts of life that we must accept. It’s all right to disagree with some of the brethren. We shall never be all of one mind until we get to heaven.
39 And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus;
“And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other.”
What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? What happens when two good men, two godly men, are equally convinced that quite opposite courses should be taken? In this case, the discussion grew heated. Barnabas presented all the positive reasons for including Mark in the new venture: he was young, he had promise, grace should prevail, and he deserved a second chance. “And don’t you forget, Paul, how I took up your case when you needed a friend,” Barnabas might have said. “Come to think of it,” Paul might have angrily replied, “you dissembled1 right here at Antioch when Peter and the others refused to eat with the Gentiles. I’m not sure about you anymore, my brother.” Paul presented all the reasons for NOT including Mark: he was unstable, he might fail again next time at an even more critical point, it was not fair to expose him to dangers (and dangers there would be) beyond his capacity to face, Mark had other talents, he had a way with words, let him be content serving the Lord within the framework of his talents and temperament. The weight of the evidence favors Paul’s decision, especially since he was an “apostle of Jesus Christ.” That alone should have caused Barnabas to submit to his authority.
“The contention was so sharp between them,” that in the end, two angry men faced each other, sorry that it had come to such an impasse but both were quite inflexible over the central issue—John Mark. There was only one thing to do. The two friends shake hands, part company, and go their separate ways. How sad! How true to life. So it was that two missionary expeditions instead of one
set out from Antioch. The work of visitation was divided between them, with Barnabas going to Cyprus and taking Mark with him. His concern in this incident was probably for Mark’s welfare; whereas Paul’s concern was for the work, and he was afraid that Mark might be a hindrance.
So, in view of all the background information, we have available, inquisitive minds might ask, “Who was really responsible for the break-up of this missionary team of Paul and Barnabas?” In some ways both men were right and both were wrong. Hind-sight is always good, but we also have the benefit of scripture and recorded history. There is another way to look at it—how effectively does the Lord “overrule” such differences in judgment and such manifestations of human weakness, by making them “turn out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel”; as in this case. It is eminently clear that the two missionary parties (instead of one), by dividing the field between them, were able to visit more churches and to spread the gospel in more places than one team alone could have done. I believe “the hand of God” can be seen in this division of labor. You can decide how to answer the question and you need NOT agree with me, since you may be right.
Another question arises, “Why, with all the places he could have gone, did Barnabas decide to go to Cyprus?” His home was in Cyprus and he had a desire to take the gospel to his own people. We know from tradition that he had a great ministry there, and from Cyprus, a great ministry was carried on in North Africa.
Happily, the breach between them was healed in time. Paul refers to Barnabas in friendly terms in 1 Corinthians 9:6 and Colossians 4:10 and in a way that implies that though Acts makes no mention of it the two men remained friends. Similarly with Mark: Paul later speaks of him with approval as one of the few who had helped him (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24), and it was Mark (together with Timothy) that he wanted close to him at the end of his life “Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).
“And so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus.”
Barnabas and Mark departed for further work on Cyprus. Though disagreements are regrettable, at least in this instance there was a fortunate outcome. They divided the field of the first mission between them. Now there were two missions instead of one. Barnabas, his mind made up, left Paul, picked up Mark, and went to Cyprus, where Mark, had been before; no doubt his sensitive soul was bruised by his quarrel with Paul. There is no hint that he even so much as waited for the blessing of the elders of the church. Perhaps he sought fresh commendation from Jerusalem. In any case, he sailed right out of the continuing story of the book of Acts as Luke kept his eye on his hero, Paul. Paul headed north to Galatia.
Paul needed a suitable replacement for a traveling companion and chose “Silas” (38:40). For this journey, Paul had pretty much made the decision on his own. Still, as with the first mission, he had the support of the Antioch church and was commended by the brothers and sisters there to the “grace of God” for his new undertaking.
Little is heard of Barnabas after this. He quietly went on serving the Lord, but the mainstream of events passed him by. He did a good job with Mark and eventually passed him on to Peter. Mark wrote the gospel that bears his name, but the personality of Peter is woven into its “warp and woof” (composition). But the hand of Paul is evident, too, for Mark wrote for the Romans; and later, when Paul was awaiting execution, he had so fully forgiven Mark and so greatly appreciated what he had finally become that he wrote for him to come to Rome, to the lion’s den, to the post of danger, to share his last few days. “He is profitable to me for the ministry,” he said (2 Timothy 4:11). Mark, like Barnabas, passes off the scene of biblical history at this point and little is heard of them; the same is true of Peter.