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37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.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. (Acts 15:36-41 (ESV)
Paul wants to touch base with the congregations of inner Asia, congregations such as those that he started among the Galatians, now that the council is over and things have settled down in Antioch. He may have good reason for this. Many speculate that his letter to the Galatians was written before the council in Jerusalem. If this is so, then you can see what was troubling the congregations Paul wanted to visit. It’s always better if you can handle issues face to face. Now he could also bring them word of the council and use the ruling of the council with those who are commanding circumcision and the like.
However, the plans lead to a riff between Paul and Barnabas. Barnabas wants to take his cousin John Mark, and Paul doesn’t trust him because of the way John Mark abandoned the earlier mission trip. The details of this are not all shared. It does show though the human side of the apostles. Barnabas seems to be the more patient of the two, yet perhaps hard headed in his own way. It was he who went and found Paul to bring him back into service of the church, when the apostles had thought perhaps it would be better to put him on ice for a while until things calmed down in Jerusalem. Now it is Barnabas standing up for John Mark. It is Paul who is not budging.
Today there can often be much disagreement in a church. At times one thinks of Christ’s words, “They shall know you by your love.” And it can cause despair. Can the true church live amongst such strife? Can these be true Christians who seem to be ready to smash chairs across backs at the voters’ meeting? How is all this possible amongst those who are supposed to lover even their enemies? And it can be even harsher than all that. People see families torn apart. It isn’t just over the budget that people are upset, but about gossip and backstabbing over personal matters. Christians feeling betrayed. Have we lost our way? Perhaps. Obviously, God does not want such turmoil in his church, but such turmoil does not put an end to the church, it does not destroy his church against which not even the gates of hell shall prevail. No, his church would be a rather impotent thing if sin could destroy it. And make no mistake, what we are talking about here in this strife between Paul and Barnabas, the suspicion against John Mark on behalf of Paul, the impatience and unwillingness to compromise on both sides, the short comings of John Mark that have led to this, all of this is because of sin, fuelled and propelled by sin, and very ugly sin. Perhaps it is Christian charity gone awry that wants to pass over this and not quite recognize it as sin the same way we would look at people whose sin manifests itself in thievery, murder or adultery, but this sin is perhaps even more destructive for it. I’m tempted to think it is because we are unwilling to judge others for sinning the same way we do, it would mean self-judgment. But then the measuring stick we use, will always be used against us. And to label something as sin, is not quite the same as judging. This sin here between Paul and Barnabas, this sin has more potential to ruin the faith of young and tender believers than does an adulterous affair. It can absolutely bog down a congregation and consume it with its own bile as it stops looking outward to the community and begins to look inward. It’s something we as Christians must always be on guard against in our own lives. Constantly trying to find reconciliation with those whom we find ourselves at odds.
Yet, I find some encouragement here. It’s the amazing thing about God is that he works through weakness. He chooses the weak things to shame the strong. Here are two sinners that he makes to be pillars of the church, through whom he lays a foundation with Christ as the cornerstone. And that is the key, the keystone, Christ the rock. He doesn’t build his church on anything but forgiveness. It was dirty sinners like Paul and Barnabas, so incapable it seems to rise above their pettiness, so bound by their sinful natures even as Christians baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, it was sinners like that for whom he died, that men like this would have eternal life in him. And because he died for them, he will work through them, and use even their weakness to bring about his will. Paul and Barnabas part ways. In doing this the work is carried out on two fronts, the gospel is proclaimed to even more people. And Paul and Barnabas, living in the forgiveness of sins, remaining bound to Christ will later find reconciliation with each other. Paul greets both Barnabas and Mark in later letters, showing good will and encouraging them in their work, even working with them again. That is the power of the gospel, the forgiveness of sins and the love of Christ, it overcomes even the nastiest of sins.