In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas decide they want to go back and visit all the churches they planted in their first missionary journey together. They agreed that this was a good idea, and started making preparations. Their problems started when Barnabas suggested that they should take Mark (also known as John Mark) along with them. This Mark had gone with them on their original missionary journey, but had flaked out, left the group, and returned home half way through the journey. In Paul’s eyes, Mark was just not reliable. He had quit on them before, so he had no reason to give him another chance. Barnabas who is noted in scripture as being an incredibly encouraging man, wanted to give Mark another chance. He saw something in Mark that Paul did not see at the time, and so here we have two of the most godly men in history at a loggerheads. Here’s the unedited version:
And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
(Acts 15:36-41 ESV)
We might think that two such godly men must have come to a consensus, that they perhaps would have decided to go on a retreat together and pray and work it out. Rather, their disagreement was so sharp that the duo of Paul and Barnabas split. What I find really interesting here is the unspoken sovereign hand of God working in all of this. Let me explain. Paul was as driven a man as ever existed. He was a nose-to-the-grindstone type of guy who pushed through unimaginable opposition and suffering for the sake of the gospel. I think that had Mark, who seems to have been a bit weak or maybe “sensitive”, may have been crushed by his inability to keep up with Paul’s demands.
Now, Barnabas, as mentioned, was the “son of encouragement”. He was the super patient, pastoral man who could help someone like Mark who showed spiritual promise, yet lacked strength. Barnabas took Mark with him on his journey, and I have to think that his encouraging nature helped to shape the character of Mark into something far more useful for the kingdom of God than he would have been if he had gone with Paul.
In the end, we know a bit of Mark’s story. He becomes a powerful man of God. After his time with Barnabas, he spends considerable time with the apostle Peter, and it is generally accepted that he wrote the gospel of Mark under Peter’s supervision. Paul also recognizes the change in Mark. In his final letter to Timothy, he makes a request:
Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.
(2 Timothy 4:11 ESV)
In Paul’s eyes, Mark had gone from someone who flaked out on his missionary responsibility, to a man who is very useful to him in his ministry. I think we must attribute this tremendous change to the disagreement of two godly men. Barnabas took Mark, encouraged him, built him up, put up with his weaknesses, and helped shape him for powerful ministry.
Though Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement, there is no indication of mud-slinging, party forming, or any other of the things we come to expect in such disagreements. They had a contrasting vision, and decided that they should simply split up so that they could each carry out their vision for the ministry. This is a disagreement between men who love and respect each other, and who only wanted what was best for the work of the Lord. Amazingly we get to see God working in each of their lives through this rift, especially because we are let in on how God worked that all for good. Though they parted ways, the churches were encouraged, two new missionary teams were created, and a future leader in the church (Mark) was developed. So ultimately, God is glorified even in the disagreement of two of his most gifted servants.