My pastor, Bill Cook, recently preached on one of the saddest chapters in missions history. He recounted the time when Paul and Barnabas disagreed so vehemently that they parted ways. His sermon on this very familiar passage touched me deeply because some dear, and I believe godly, missionary friends of mine have recently done the same painful thing. It is often said that your biggest problem on the mission field is not the language, government red tape, culture shock, or stomach bugs; it’s other missionaries. Something about putting visionary, passionate, self-denying, radically committed men and women in close proximity for long periods of time is like putting tin foil in a microwave; sparks are going to fly. Sadly, I have known of many missionary teams through the years that have parted company and broken fellowship, and sometimes amid accusations or harsh insinuations that resulted in long-standing bitterness.
Returning to the sermon, of all the events that the Holy Spirit could have inspired the biblical authors to include, here we have this story of committed co-laborers parting ways, and at least in the biblical record never speaking or serving together again. Try to imagine the close bond of their friendship. Remember how Barnabas sought Paul out when no one else believed in him or knew where he even was, how he included him in the work, and traveled with him in the very beginning of pioneer missions? Their separation was tragic and should move us to tears. Was Barnabas trying to do the same for John Mark that he had done for Paul years before? Couldn’t Paul see that or at least give him the benefit of the doubt?
The Greek word that the Holy Spirit used in Acts 15:39 to communicate the separation, ἀποχωρίζω, means “to rend apart or sever,” and has the connotation of ripping away. It signifies a painful, tragic, and apparently bitter breaking of fellowship between them. While the Bible does not specifically say whether the sin or fault was Barnabas’ or Paul’s, it seems that Paul is the one who came around later . . . but maybe as long as 15 or 20 years later.
Their sharp disagreement was over whether to continue taking John Mark with them as a member of their mission team after he had deserted them during their first missions trip. Their positions were so extremely opposed that Barnabas took John Mark with him and went his way, while Paul took Silas and went another. God does not tell us why John Mark had returned home during the missions trip, nor what Barnabas later saw in him that made him argue so strongly for his reinstatement (or perhaps saw of himself reflected in John Mark). Neither does God tell us why John Mark even sought reinstatement to the team, nor why Paul was so adamantly opposed to the idea. All we know is that it was a bitter disagreement that separated the members of the first missionary team. Sad. Tragic. Painful. But not the end.
Paul wrote many years later in Col 4:10 and Philemon 23-24 that Mark “the cousin of Barnabas” had regained his confidence. Peter also counted on John Mark in later years, calling Mark his “son” in the faith (1 Peter 5:13). You will remember that Peter painfully knew what it was like to sin greatly, humbly repent, and be graciously restored. Finally, as Paul nears the end of his life in prison he writes his last letter to Timothy and tells him, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” They are friends again. Missionaries and co-ministers on the same team again. What amazing grace!
May I speak for a moment to my missionary friends? I know that you see what you believe to be sin in the life of some around you. I know you see them as sandbags keeping your ministry from getting off the ground and soaring with eagles. They may be. But please be patient. Remember that while we see in this passage the beautiful story of John Mark’s restoration, we never clearly see Paul and Barnabas reconciling and embracing as friends again. There is much speculation about whether they decided to forgive and forget or simply appreciate one another from a distance. Please don’t let things end that way on your team.
Our Lord Jesus prayed in John 17
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
Jesus prayed that we would be one. No, not uniformity but unity, so that the world would know that the Father sent Him. The world is watching, and they will know we are Christians by our love.
When I was a young believer we used to sing a version of Ephesians 4:32, “Be ye kind to one another, tenderhearted forgiving one another, even as Christ also has forgiven you.” Stay together. Forgive, reconcile, restore, and try again. Missions’ advance needs the powerful testimony of your forgiveness and unity.