You Christians are such hypocrites – you talk about loving your neighbour and turning the other cheek, and servant leaders, but you don't practice what you preach. You say there's one holy, catholic church, but there's thousands of churches and you can't get along with each other so they're always breaking down into smaller and smaller splinter groups. Have you ever heard anything like that? It cuts close to the bone doesn't it?
The Bible says we're united in one body by the cross – but in practice it looks like there's not one body of Christ, but thousands of competing, arguing factions, all claiming to be the true heirs to Jesus. We've got factions breaking away from our factions breaking away from our factions. There's a dizzying variety of denominations and groupings of churches, not to mention the independent churches... And the conflicts just keep coming don't they? Only a couple of weeks ago we were asking about Rob Bell and the controversy over his new book. And we sit here in an Anglican church that's not properly recognised by the Church of England. How did things get so fragmented? Why are Christians always fighting among themselves? Wouldn't you love to have lived in the glory days of the Apostolic church where everyone was united and the gospel went out and people became Christians and everything was rosy?
But what we've seen in Acts is that it wasn't like that was it? We've been looking at various conflicts for weeks: first the fight just to preach the gospel in the face of violent opposition; then the conflict of theological difference in the church - when people publicly teach things that contradict the gospel. That kind of conflict is sadly unavoidable in a world where the truth of the gospel is constantly under attack. But today we look at a very different type of conflict – two of the giants of the church, the great leaders of the church of Antioch, the world's first missionaries – men commissioned by God himself to minister together – fall out with one another over who should be allowed to join their team – a difference of opinion, a personality difference; a needless argument that gets out of hand until they can't work together any more.
For the last two weeks I've been really struggling to work out what the teaching point of this passage is. I've come to the conclusion that this is one of the saddest passages in the book. It tells us how the men at the top still didn't get everything right and so it stands as a warning to us about the way we treat each other, and the way we cope with our differences.
But more than that this is just the latest in a long line of obstacles that the early church had to overcome – there were enemies without, confusion within and now we find even fighting at the top, even the leaders of the church made things difficult.
But this is the story of the unstoppable message remember – and this ugly incident is transformed by God into the start of Paul's second missionary journey, and used to produce a whole new group of missionaries and church leaders. So ultimately it shows us that the success of the gospel and the growth of the church was ultimately safe in God's hands, he was even able to use the failings of his people to bring glory to his name.
Problems with the passage:
The passage makes no clear judgements nor draws any clear conclusions. We are left to try and work out what the passage is about and how it helps us or instructs us without the assistance of the editor. There are no real clues as to who is in the right or what lessons we're supposed to learn from this episode.
The one clue we have is that Paul's mission is commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord, while Barnabas just leaves. But, on the other hand we have the evidence of the rest of the NT that Mark turns out to be an excellent missionary – helping both Paul and Peter, and eventually writing one of the gospels – yeah, it's that Mark! So Barnabas was right to see potential in him. So what are we left with? A fight between a couple of blokes who probably should have known better. The splitting apart of a gospel partnership that was ordained by God's leading. The undoing of a pair who were surely friends as well as colleagues.
And the start of the next chapter in the world conquest of the gospel – through the providence of God the mission goes on, God provides a new ministry partnership with Silas, and God provides for John Mark to go on a mission that it seems set him up for a lifetime of harder and more significant missions and eventually to penning one of the books of the Bible.
So we see again the unstoppable message – can't be stopped by the opposition of unbelievers, by violence or by counter arguments; can't be stopped by undermining and opposition from within, twisting and subtly changing the gospel; can't even be stopped by the folly and sin of the leaders of the church. God is able to use weak and even volatile men to further his kingdom – just as well too, because there aren't any perfect men available to take it forwards.
Let's have a close look at the text and draw out a few implications then try and make some conclusions about our disagreements and conduct.
First Remember the Context – the church in Antioch has been battered by this false teaching that they needed to become Jews and keep the law if they were going to be saved … they've had to send their leaders off to Jerusalem to make sure they'd got the gospel right, to get their gospel verified by the Jerusalem church; and to make sure the Jerusalem church wasn't sending people out with the wrong gospel.
That must have shaken the church. But now they've put it behind them. Paul and Barnabas are back, and things seems to have settled down. Verse 36 says 'some time later Paul said to Barnabas 'Let us go back an visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word oft he Lord and see how they are doing.'
Notice the priority order here. It was important that they sorted out issues at home before they went back to re-visit the missionary churches. if the church at Antioch had gone under it would have had a massive impact on all the missionary churches. It would have been even worse if the church in Jerusalem had lost the gospel. So they made sure things were sorted in Antioch and Jerusalem before they went back to the church plants – but they didn't forget the church plants. I think there's an implication here for us about Jesmond Parish Church (and the CofE in a wider sense) – we rely on them, we should pray and work for their success and continued gospel focus, damage to them does damage to us too, need to support them in our prayers and do whatever we can practically to help.
But Paul very aware that even as all that is going on there are a bunch of baby churches he and Barnabas planted and then left under the guidance of young leadership, in the midst of hostile opposition. The time has come when there are no obvious threats at Antioch and they should go back to shore up the churches they visited. As well as the danger they faced from the people who persecuted Paul and Barnabas when they were there, we'd expect those missionary churches to have been in further danger of being disturbed by the things that have been going on at Antioch – they might have heard that Paul and Barnabas had been accused of getting the gospel all wrong, and that they had to become Jews as well as believe in Jesus. Obviously a re-visit would be a good idea.
So Paul suggests as much to Barnabas. And, verse 37, Barnabas agrees – what a great idea, let's take my cousin John, aka Mark with us.
But this is where the problems start. John, also called Mark, was a part of their team when they set out on the original missionary journey. But he didn't manage to finish the journey with them. He didn't manage more than the very first bit – he only got as far as Cyprus. In Acts 13.13 Luke simply says Paul and his companions 'sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem'.
It was after this that Paul and Barnabas faced the greatest struggles and the bulk of their mission work – without John aka Mark. I think we'll just call him Mark, that's how he's known in the rest of the NT...
So verse 38: but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.
Paul thinks it's a bad idea to take Mark with them. The issue is Mark's ability to stick it out, to be reliable not just as they set out, but for the whole of the journey. He didn't even make it to the site of the really hard stuff last time, what chance has he got if they meet with rioting and beatings and stoning and being left for dead as they did last time?
This is clear in the second part of the verse – Paul says that he deserted them and didn't continue with them in the work – that's the very phrase used throughout chapter 13 and 14 – or that's half of the phrase – the full expression is 'the work that they were committed to by the grace of God' – it's God's work and they had a divine commission to complete it – but Mark had reneged on that commitment, he'd left before the going even got tough. And it was God's work, under God's divine commission. How can we take him with us again?
Do you think Paul's being a bit harsh? Actually, he's got a good point here. Deserting the workers in the middle of the work, no matter how good the reason is, is a disastrous failure of service – he left them just when they needed him most – who could take his place when they were already so far from home?
There is a seriousness about this mission which calls for serious, tried and proven, servants. Remember Paul was stoned and left for dead, his body dragged outside the city and dumped as a dead man. And they're going back for more. Paul has got to expect there're almost certainly going to meet more trouble on the road. They're not taking one of those short term missions where you go to Kenya and live with appreciative locals doing a building project and then finish off with a few days of safari and trip to the beach. This could cost them their lives. If you're facing serious opposition you want to make sure that the guys by your side are reliable. You can't walk into an almost certain fire fight with a flaky wing man.
Besides, there is the question of the reputation of the missionaries – to have someone quickly re-instated into a very high profile ministry after a high profile failure puts the whole thing into disrepute. Paul is defending the honour of the role of public minister – it's not fitting that one who failed so publicly should be quickly re-instated into a position of great honour and significance. Remember Jesus said 'no one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is worthy of service in the kingdom of God' (Luke 9.62). And both times Paul gives instructions about elders - in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 – he says an elder must be 'above reproach' or 'blameless'; and in 1 Tim 3.10 a deacon must first be tested, and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons'.
Since Mark let them down on the first mission trip it's simply not appropriate to take him along for the second. Paul has a point, they shouldn't take him.
But Barnabas has a point too – from all that we know about him, Mark went on to become a great leader in the church. Paul himself lists Mark among his fellow workers in Philemon (vs23); in Colossians he tells the church that Mark should be received as a missionary (4.10), and in 2 Timothy 4.11 he says to Timothy 'Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry'! Somewhere along the line Mark came good!
And he didn't just help Paul out - when Peter wrote 1 Peter he lists Mark – among the people with him – calling him 'my son Mark'. According to the earliest traditions it was this same Mark who wrote down Peter's eyewitness testimony about Jesus – Mark's gospel.
So it seems that whatever his previous failings in the end John/Mark did prove himself worthy. Perhaps what he needed was more encouragement and training, training that he might have got on a missionary journey like the one they were about to go on!
So it seems they're both right to a degree, which just makes the whole argument all the sadder.
Both have a good point to make, but neither will listen to the other, neither will back down, and it turns into another fight.
Look at verse 39:
39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus,
Paul and Barnabas have been getting in fights for the last couple of chapters of Acts. But they've always been fighting side by side. From the first Barnabas was Paul's mate, in fact in the very beginning Barnabas was Paul's only mate. When Paul was first converted on the Damascus road, when he went back to Jerusalem no one wanted anything to do with him – they knew all too well that he was a persecutor and a violent man. It was Barnabas who brought him to the apostles so that he could join the believers.
When a church first sprung up at Antioch, Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem to oversee the new church (Acts 11.19-25). The first thing he did was he go and look for Paul to join him in leading. Later when they learnt of a need in Jerusalem the church sent Paul and Barnabas to take their contribution to Jerusalem in chapter 11.30 (incidentally it was on this trip to Jerusalem that they picked up Mark to join them in their ministry).
In chapter 13 they were set apart by God to go together as a missionary team to the work that the Lord had called them to. Where ever they went on that trip they faced serious and often violent opposition. But they never backed down, they preached fearlessly side by side. When they returned to Antioch they kept ministering together.
When the church was undermined by dodgy teaching that threatened the integrity of the gospel it was – you guessed it, Paul and Barnabas who first spoke out against this false teaching, and it was Paul and Barnabas who took another trip to Jerusalem to sort things out.
What I'm describing here is one of the great ministry double acts. They've been partners in ministry for years – probably something like 14-16 years. This is a partnership that has lasted through thick and thin. But it all comes to an end over this – a disagreement over whether they should take young Mark on their next trip.
Things come to an end badly – the language is of a real barney, not just a disagreement – this is almost like a marriage that breaks down – all fighting and bitterness. They had another sharp disagreement – but this time not with enemies who opposed their message, nor with false teachers who distorted the gospel, but with each other, the closest of gospel partners.
So they part ways – Barnabas takes Mark and sails off for a mission to Cyprus, the last place Mark ministered with them before he left for Jerusalem – a place where they met only success. Perhaps this shows he understood the wisdom of Paul's objections, he doesn't take Mark anywhere too difficult so he won't be put into the path of temptation to desert again. This is the last we'll hear of Barnabas in Acts, presumably he continues in ministry in Antioch and Cyprus – but the focus of Acts moves completely onto Paul and his ongoing missions, as we see in verse 40:
40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.
And so we end the chapter with Paul picking a new mission partner and heading off on what will become known as his second missionary journey. Three things to note on this journey
1) Silas is his new partner – Silas who came with Paul and Barnabas from Jerusalem with James' letter to the gentile churches. Some have tried to argue that Paul and the Jerusalem church, and especially Peter, never got on from this point in Acts; that Paul wasn't happy with James' letter and didn't get on with the Jerusalem church. But if that were the case it's hardly likely that he would have picked Silas – the representative of the Jerusalem church – to come with him. Rather it seems that Paul wants to add this re-assurance to his own return to the baby churches – Paul and the Jerusalem church are in complete agreement on the gospel, Silas represents the Jerusalem hierarchy and he fully supports Paul's mission and his preaching.
2) Paul and Silas mission is distinguished from Barnabas' and Mark's by being sent off by the church – they are explicitly commended by the brothers to the grace of God.
3) They go by foot through Syria and Cilicia – the opposite direction to Barnabas and Mark – but they are heading directly into harms way, back to Derbe and then to Lystra, where Paul was stoned, seemingly to death.
In Lystra they'll pick up another promising church leader – Timothy. As they go they'll encourage the brothers by reporting on the Jerusalem council and delivering their letter (but more on that next week) and, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, this journey will grow into a whole new missionary venture, planting even more new churches – but that's a message for another day.
What do we learn from it? Shows we can trust Luke to tell us what really happened – he's not sugar coating the story and hiding potentially embarrassing bits. Paul was probably the greatest missionary and most significant influence on the early church after Jesus. But Luke doesn't pretend that Paul was perfect, he tells is like it is. Paul and Barnabas were only human – they had their disagreements the same as we do. We don't recommend fighting with our co-workers in the gospel, but it does happen that we come up with different strategies and take different approaches, not always a matter of right and wrong, sometimes a matter of just different – doctrine of 'adiaphora' – matters indifferent… I think we need to conclude that Paul and Barnabas should have found a way to back down and agree to disagree without the sharp disagreement. But we need to notice that God still used them – even in their sinful mistakes – to bring glory to him. That's why the church keeps growing, because God uses us, with all our faults, even our sinful acts he turns to good for his glory. That's why the church was unstoppable – because God made the message powerful, not because the church was perfect! Personally we can see an application of guarding our hearts against sin always, and especially when we can't see where trouble might come from. Paul and Barnabas had no trouble getting along when they were facing opposition from violent enemies, and dealing with false teaching, but it was when things finally settled down that they fell out. It's often the way that following great triumphs or great difficulties we can be undone by small things – the danger seems to have passed and we let our guard down, and that's when things go wrong. Shows the importance of good ministry selection criteria – James 3.1 says not many should presume to be teachers; Paul reflects the same thing here – this mission work calls for real backbone, real commitment, he can see the dangers of elevating someone with less than total commitment. Also shows the need for training and nurturing of gifted individuals – rather than expecting people to be able to arrive fully formed to do the job. Barnabas was able to design a mission that made use of Mark's skills without overstretching him, and later he was able to do greater and more difficult things. But I haven't really addressed the issue I started with. I think this disagreement teaches us a lot about our modern disagreements.
Firstly it suggests that it's not a bad thing to have a whole lot of different churches doing things a little bit differently – like Paul and Barnabas going on different missions. The fact that there are different denominations with different emphases and patterns and styles isn't a problem in and of itself. We need to remember that we're brothers in a common cause, but don't always need to agree on manner and method. Difference isn't always a problem.
But we also need to remember that some matters are so important that we can't just agree to disagree. When the men from Judea said you can't be saved unless you are circumcised – they were directly contradicting the gospel. If Paul and Barnabas hadn't responded – publicly and forcefully – people could have been robbed of the certainty of salvation.
Of course the difficulty comes in working out what things need to be publicly corrected and what things are matters we can agree to disagree on. This passage reminds us that we need to be careful to watch our hearts whenever we find ourselves in disagreement. We may have disagreements, but we need to be very careful to examine our own hearts before we go too far in argument. It's not always clear cut. So we need to be continually examining our hearts whenever we find ourselves in any sort of conflict – are we fighting out of stubbornness and pride? Has the argument developed into a bigger problem than the thing we originally disagreed about? And, where ever possible we need to find ways to disagree without fighting if the area of disagreement isn't significant.
Having said that we need to know that right now there are very real issues of disagreement about the gospel itself. There are a range of issues like the continual push for acceptance of homosexual practice within the church – gay ministers, gay bishops, etc. that aren't just a matter of difference of opinion. We can't agree to allow things that the bible clearly rules out – to do so would be to undermine the gospel which calls us to repent from sin and submit to God. While the Church of England continues to um and ah about these big theological issues we need to maintain a clear witness that they are standing outside the authority of the bible and undermining the gospel. Same while the Roman Catholic church continues to teach that we need to add our good works to the completed work of Christ. And the same goes for times when Rob Bell or Steve Chalk or other apparently evangelical leaders begin subverting or undermining, or even outright denying and mocking the clear teaching of the Bible.
We don't want conflict, and we shouldn't go looking for it. And when we find ourselves in it we shouldn't rejoice and we need to be very careful to conduct ourselves in a way that doesn't dishonour God and bring disgrace to the gospel. But we can't avoid conflict when the truth of the gospel is on the line. We must stand for the truth, and that always includes pointing out and correcting error so that people are not led astray.
And over and above our disagreements God is faithful. No matter how hopeless our situation, no matter how powerful our opponents, no matter even how badly we've messed we know that God will keep building his church. So we must live with integrity, but we don't need to feel the pressure that it all stands on our shoulders – because God holds the outcome in his hands.