Sermon for Sunday Evening, March 26th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
[Act 15:36-41 ESV] 36 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.” 37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
I. Disagreements and Departures
It seems to me that often too much is made of the departure of Mark from the work in Cyprus.
The usual story — the way many people read this account — Mark has totally abandoned Paul and is no longer trustworthy in the least. Well, I think that is being read into the account. Mark very well may have abandoned Paul and Barnabas, but that is not made explicit in the text. All we know is that Mark left them. It may have been for some good reason. And Paul’s opposition to taking Mark with him on the next missionary journey is not necessarily because of abandonment, but could be for some other reason. It could be that Mark was timid. The reason simple isn’t stated.
We must realize the fact that there are multiple disagreements between theApostle Paul and others in the New Testament.
There is the departure of Mark. We read about this back in chapter 13. And this can be a little confusing because he is known as John Mark and so there is called John. In 13:13 Paul and Barnabas to to Perga in Pamphylia, but John left them and returned to Jerusalem. Remember Paul and Barnabas had been commissioned by the church at Antioch to their evangelistic work among the Gentiles. John Mark is not mentioned as being commissioned by that church. So he, traveling with them, was more like an assistant. When he left, he wasn’t shirking his responsibility to the church at Antioch because he was never commissioned by them. For some unknown reason he decided to depart. Now we hear about John Mark again in chapter 15, but it is not a disagreement with him. Rather it is a disagreement about him between Paul and Barnabas.
Barnabas wants to take John Mark with them, but Paul does not. Now, it does say the reason Paul didn’t want to take John Mark is because “he had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.” I’m not convinced that this means Paul is upset with John Mark. It may be just a practical matter; John hadn’t gone through what they had gone through so he wouldn’t have the context or experience to continue in the work. I don’t think John Mark’s decision to leave was necessarily nefarious.
So the disagreement is now between Paul and Barnabas.
Paul doesn’t want Mark to join them. Barnabas does. And perhaps Barnabas shared Paul’s concerns but wanted to give Mark a second chance. Or perhaps Barnabas simply didn’t share the concerns of Paul.
And it is a “sharp disagreement.” It even caused them to go separate ways. But it doesn’t mean one person was a Christian and the other not, or that one was right and the other wrong.
Well, I mentioned that Paul has a number of disagreements with other disciples in the Scriptures. And this doesn’t mean that one person is sinful or no longer a brother. Another disagreement or confrontation is of Paul with Peter. We read about it in Galatians.
[Gal 2:11-14 ESV] 11 But when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
And, we know from Peter’s speech at the Jerusalem council that he straightened out his thinking.
Well, our text is on the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas. Through the whole first missionary journey they were together. Now they will separate. From now on it will be mostly Paul with Silas or Paul with Timothy. Barnabas will go with John Mark.
So there was a “sharp disagreement.”
And Paul with Silas is again “commended by the brothers.” They are commissioned by the church at Antioch. The text doesn’t say the same about Barnabas and Saul. But “absence of evidence” is not “evidence of absence.” Barnabas and John Mark may have also been approved by the church.
We don’t hear of Barnabas or John Mark in the rest of the book of Acts.
But, Paul, in one of his last letters (2nd Timothy) is on good terms with Mark. (2 Timothy 4:11.)
And in Colossians (4:10) and Philemon (1:24) Paul also mentions Mark being with him.
Whatever issues had come between them, it seems likely that they had reconciled.
Then 1 Corinthians 9:6 has a mention of Barnabas, and there Paul speaks of him as another laborer in the Lord.
So there has been a disagreement, but they are all brothers in Christ.
And we see that such can happen, even to “the best.” And therefore it can happen to all, and to us included.
Disagreements, divisions, departures are unfortunate things in church history and church today. Sometimes the disagreement is so sharp that people go their own ways, for a time at least.
The disagreement between Paul and Barnabas proves — if we even needed such proof — that such can happen in the church. We’re not all perfect saints (none of are yet) and so the troubles that beset other people beset us as well.
And, of particular note, you’ll see that the author (Luke) never tells us that Paul was right or Barnabas was right. He simply reports the facts of their disagreement.
Now there is something of good that comes out of this division between Paul and Barnabas. It produces more “teams” of disciples going out. Paul and Silas are one team, Barnabas and Mark are another. Now they can “make disciples of all nations” as two different missionary teams. For the Lord’s own reasons we have much information about Paul’s missionary journeys in the book of Acts, but essentially nothing about the later work of Barnabas and Mark.. But we can see now that Paul wasn’t the only evangelist. Barnabas and Mark were evangelists. And certainly, in time, many would labor in this work without being recorded to history.
We may all find ourselves in a similar state. Our work may not be recorded in history. But that should not be a major goal for us. The Lord knows our work. Our treasures are in heaven. We don’t need fame among men.
Before we move on, one other thing to note. Though Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement over whether to bring Mark with them, they both apparently agreed to continue on with missionary work. They just came from the council meeting a Jerusalem and were encouraged to continue in the work of bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. God opened the door to that ministry, it was not shut by the council of Jerusalem, and now the work continues with additional missionary journeys.
II. Checking Up on the Churches
So there is the disagreement and departure of Barnabas and Mark from Paul and Silas, but this passage also tells us something else. It both begins with and ends the idea of going to visit the new churches to check up on them.
Paul said to Barnabas (before they split from each other) “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the work of the Lord, and see how they are.”
And at the end of the passage, we find that Paul and Silas “went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”
So we find the importance of encouraging new Christians, and checking up on them.
I try, here at our church, to follow up with visitors, frankly with anyone who shows the slightest amount of interest in the church. Perhaps some find this to be too much, but I figure it is better that we care too much than not enough.
Where you plant, you go back to water. And there also is the harvest.
And the Christian church is connected. It is not just isolated people or isolated churches, but is to have contact, brotherhood, fellowship among the many churches.
This really opposes the idea of “independent churches.” Some go by that name. I suppose they are not also so independent. They likely have (as they should) friendship with other church, even if it unofficial.
But having official connections is a good thing. Our culture has come to despise anything of formality and officialness. Few people want to actually join a church; they’d rather visit. And many Christian churches, ironically, so dislike the state of fractured denominationalism that they separate to become independent churches. Well, the book of Acts teaches otherwise. In the early church there were official connections. The missionaries were not independent in their work but were commissioned by a church. The churches were not independent in their decisions but came together for the Jerusalem Council. And the newly planted churches were not left on their own to “sink or swim.” They were part of the greater Christian Church, and so Paul and Silas go to check up on them. To see how they are.
We learn so much about the church in the book of Acts, about “polity” – how a church should be run. It is to have multiple elders. It is to be connected to others through council meetings when necessary. And Christians, like Paul and Silas, are to care enough about one another to check up on them.
And so when we check up on others, we are to see if they are living for the gospel. Do they know the gospel? Does Christ guide their life? We hope the report comes back positive.
What are some things we can learn from this passage:
There is much that can be learned about disagreements.
1. Disagreeing nicely.
I don’t like the word nice. But maybe here is a good chance to use it. Paul and Barnabas disagree nicely. Their disagreement is sharp, but they don’t take it to any other level. They don’t recruit people to their sides, or try to ruin one another, or take out one of those tv ads that shows the other side frowning in black and while and the good guys smiling in color while kissing a baby.
2. Christians don’t always agree on every point.
There are just too many points, whether biblical, political, or cultural that we each have. No two people will share all of the same opinions, short of brainwashing or the slavish following of one person by another.
There are disagreements even between people who share much in common. Where are the greatest disagreements? Often between neighbors, between neighboring countries, and between brothers.
I’m a Michigan football fan, so who is my biggest enemy? Some far off college? No, Michigan State. We just don’t like them. They are basically us, but not us.
Similarly, one story goes that The British admiral, Lord Nelson, once came on deck and found two of his officers quarreling. He whirled them around, pointed to the enemy ships, and exclaimed, “Gentlemen, there are your enemies!”
3. Separation may be preferable to continual disagreement. But reconciliation should always be sought.
It is really sad when such is the conclusion. But we know it to be so.
When it does happen, it should be done with anger and bitterness. If you have to leave a job, for reasons of conviction, don’t burn the bridge when you leave.
Now, as for reconciliation, I believe Paul and the others must have reconciled, as I noted in some passages earlier.
4. God’s plan goes forward despite disagreements among man.
Finally, God’s plan goes forward despite disagreements among man.
And let us conclude with this. While men sometimes get agree with one another and sometimes disagree, God’s plan continues forward regardless. The word is preach. People come to the faith. The church grows. All by the power of God and for His glory.