Paul and Barnabas Split – Acts 15:36-41

Some time after that, Paul suggested to Barnabas “Why don’t we pay a return visit to the brothers [and sisters] in all the cities where we proclaimed the word of the Lord to see how they are faring. Barnabas was wanting to take John called Mark along with them, but Paul did not want to take with them [on this journey] one who had not carried through with the work when he [Mark] had resigned from them in Pamphylia. And that became a matter of sharp disagreement. That was when they went their separate ways, Barnabas taking Mark and setting sail for Cyprus. Meanwhile, Paul departed, having chosen Silas, and commended to the Lord’s grace by the brothers went through Syria and Cilicia in work that sustained the churches.

In a Nutshell
Paul and Barnabas separate over the role to be played by Mark. Barnabas took him back to Cyprus. Paul went off with Silas.

Think about the disagreement. What was it about? Do we know exactly?

Luke lets it all hang out. This is an upsetting passage isn’t it? From an early time there has been a lot of discussion about the exact original wording of this account here and what it referred to. And when you think about it, no wonder. Paul, the former student of Gamaliel, and Barnabas the Levite, parted company. They parted after a bitter disagreement over Mark. Think about it. Here it is straight after Luke’s account of a most important resolution about a truly daunting and difficult issue. There would be no separate Jewish and Gentile denominations. When the Lord’s Supper is celebrated Christians share together as One Body. They welcome each other unreservedly into each other’s houses. But now the former Pharisee and the Levite part company because they disagree about Mark’s role in their work. Paul felt that because Mark had left them in Pamphylia, it was not appropriate for him to be part of the return visit. He had assisted them on Cyprus and returned to Jerusalem soon after they reached Perga.

Luke may be suggesting that Mark was now free to return home after the death of Herod Agrippa? This reminds us of how Joseph and Mary and their first-born returned after the death of Herod, settling in Nazareth of Galilee (Matthew 2:19-23; see also Luke 2:39-40). The prevailing political situation that confronted those proclaiming the Good News should not be ignored in our interpretation of Luke’s account of these events.

Mark enters Luke’s story when we are told that James, the brother of John, had been killed. It is feasible that Herod was on the lookout for those who could receive his kind of special treatment. So might that not explain why Mark was in the care of his uncle? If then Barnabas, as Mark’s guardian, took the young man along when he and Paul slipped out of Jerusalem after Peter had miraculously escaped from prison and went into hiding, then Mark’s later departure from the mission of Paul and his uncle after Herod had died takes on added meaning. When news of Agrippa’s death reached Paul and Barnabas, Mark may have had to reckon the fact that he was no longer a marked man in Jerusalem. In the care of his uncle he rendered a service.

We have no more data to help us understand Paul’s attitude to Mark. Luke says it was contentious, and this is also Luke’s last written mention of Barnabas. Luke seems to avoid taking sides. We should not automatically assume that not going with them to the work meant that Mark lacked courage or that Paul thought he lacked courage. With matters like these we should keep in view that we are not criticising that person for recognising that he or she is not called to a particular task. Maybe God had not called Mark to that work. Would Luke be telling us of Mark’s weaknesses? If so, he is also emphasizing the inability of Paul and Barnabas to overcome their disagreement? What he might be telling us is that God knew the work He had called Mark to do – a task that nobody else could do. And besides, how could you tell the story of the part played by Mark in the furtherance of the Good News if you were to leave out the ‘barney’ between Paul and Uncle Barnabas?



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