In Acts 13, God sends Paul and Barnabas out of Antioch into the wilds of the Roman empire in order to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to gather together and strengthen those who begin following Jesus. They took Barnabas’ cousin John Mark with them. They travel through Cyprus to the southern part of modern day Turkey and the cities of Attalia, Antioch (of Pisidia), Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Somewhere between Cyprus and Antioch (of Pisidia), John Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem. When they had been in Derbe for some time, Paul and Barnabas traveled back through those same cities before sailing back to Antioch.
They remained in Antioch for “no little time.” During that time, some believers from Judea began teaching that Gentiles must keep the law and be circumcised in order to be saved. So, Paul, Barnabas, and other traveled down to Jerusalem to find out what the believers (including the apostles and elders) in Judea were teaching concerning this matter. Once that was straightened out, Paul and Barnabas along with Judas and Silas (and probably others) traveled back to Antioch, and they all worked with the church to build up the believers there.
Eventually, Paul suggested to Barnabas that they return to the places they had visited in Cyprus and Asia. (Acts 15:36) Barnabas thought it was a great idea, and wanted to take his cousin John Mark along again. (Acts 15:37) Paul disagreed.
This is how Luke describes what happens because of their disagreement:
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 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.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)
Now, I’ve heard this “sharp disagreement” described in many ways today – usually in terms of modern denominational disagreements. But, there are some clues in Paul’s letters that the disagreement was not as disastrous as we might think.
Most commentators point out that Paul mentions John Mark in later writings (that is, after this disagreement) such as Colossians 4:10, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11. They conclude that Paul and John Mark had “made up” between the time of the disagreement and the times when Paul mentioned him in this letters.
But, what about Barnabas? Some point to Galatians 2:13 as an indication that Paul harbored some kind of resentment toward Barnabas. However, I noticed something interesting recently that may show that Paul and Barnabas remained in close communication, even though they were serving Jesus in different areas.
Consider this passage in Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth:
Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? (1 Corinthians 9:4-6 ESV)
In this passage, Paul associates very closely with Barnabas. He presents himself and Barnabas as examples for the Corinthians. Yet, Barnabas was not with Paul when Paul came to Corinth. Paul’s disagreement with Barnabas – and their separation – happened about 2 years before Paul traveled to Corinth, and the disagreement occurred 4-5 years before Paul wrote the letter that we call 1 Corinthians.
Yet, Paul knew Barnabas’ practices (i.e., that he worked to support himself), and he knew that the Corinthians would be familiar with Barnabas and his practices, familiar enough that Paul could use Barnabas as an example without further explanation.
While Paul and Barnabas certainly disagreed about whether or not to take John Mark with them, and they certainly began serving separately. But, I’m beginning to wonder if this “sharp disagreement” caused the same kind of break in fellowship that we often see today because of disagreement. To me, it seems more likely that Paul and Barnabas maintained fellowship and even maintained communication with one another in spite of their disagreement and in spite of deciding to continue their work separately.
What are you thoughts on this topic?