From Antioch, the gospel had gone out in many directions. With the first missionary journey complete, Paul and Barnabas returned there, and a gathering was convened to recount the details of their labors. That event gives Scriptural support for the modern missionary report meeting (Acts 14:27). Their prolonged furlough was punctuated by two disturbing events. First, preachers had arrived from Judaea insisting that circumcision was necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1). That had to be confronted, and at Antioch and Jerusalem Paul and Barnabas stood firmly together in opposition to the error.
When they returned from Jerusalem, their routine of teaching the Word resumed and others were involved with them (Acts 15:35). There had been five teachers in the assembly (Acts 13:1); God had removed these two, but gift had been developed, and by the time they returned, “many” were capable of instructing the saints. In that, there is a pattern for assembly life today. Something that distinguishes New Testament assemblies from denominations is a willingness to use various teachers and preachers; many organizations have vested one man with the whole responsibility of instructing the congregation. Events at Antioch show how unscriptural that “one-man ministry” is. Similarly, what was in place there shows that an “any-man ministry” is equally unbiblical. The teachers were all named (Acts 13:1). Only brothers who are gifted by God should be responsible for the preaching.
A second wave of unpleasantness was occasioned by a visit from Peter (Gal 2:11-21). His interaction with Gentile believers was disturbed by the arrival of others from Jerusalem. Peter had had problems with these men before (Acts 11:2-3), and he shied away from another confrontation. Paul branded his performance hypocrisy, but what hurt him most was that Barnabas had capitulated to this charade: “even Barnabas was carried away with their dissimulation” (Gal 2:13, RV). Possibly that event was a catalyst in the ultimate rift between the two missionaries.
The converts from the first journey were tugging at Paul’s heartstrings. His desire was to see “how they do” (Acts 15:36). We might ask ourselves, “How am I doing?” Is there progress or regression, growth or reduction? We could ask further, “Am I concerned about how others are doing?” Joseph was sent by his father to “see whether it (was) well with (his) brethren, and well with the flocks” (Gen 37:14). In particular, elders should note Solomon’s instructions, “Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds” (Prov 27:23). Timothy was credited with “genuinely” caring for the state of God’s people (Phil 2:20, RV Marg). This was the concern that motivated Paul to suggest the second missionary journey.
Tragically, his proposal gave rise to a quarrel between the two companions. They had been in harness since the early days at Antioch, pioneering with the gospel in heathen territory, sharing privations and persecutions (Acts 13 and 14). They had shown solidarity in opposing the false teachers at Antioch and Jerusalem (Acts 15). To read now about “contention” that was “so sharp” that “they departed asunder one from the other” is heartbreaking, and one of the great disappointments that we encounter when reading Holy Scripture (Acts 15:39). God never whitewashes Bible heroes and the picture is painted “warts and all.” We must be grateful that our failures are not publicized for the critical scrutiny of an unsympathetic readership. Their shortcomings are exposed as a warning to us all, like Old Testament history, “written for our learning” (Rom 15:4).
The cause of the dispute was the determination of Barnabas to take John Mark on this new venture. Mark’s rehabilitation would come in due course and Paul urged the Colossians to receive him (Col 4:10), indicating at the end that he was “profitable to me for the ministry” (2Tim 4:11), but in his opinion, the moment for reinstatement had not yet arrived. It has often been stated that God used a failing servant to write of His perfect servant and Mark’s history emphasizes that failure need not be final. Jonah is another case in point: “The word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time” (Jonah 3:1). To the weary Elijah, “the angel of the Lord came again the second time” (1Kings 19:7). For His people, God is the God of the second opportunity. If there has been a breakdown in service, be encouraged, lift up your head, and anticipate fresh opportunities to be useful. But be patient – trust has to be rebuilt over time.
Perhaps the word “work” (Acts 15:38) gives a clue as to why Mark had defected. Possibly the lure of the comfortable commodious home back at Jerusalem had been more appealing than “the work.” More likely, the mention of Pamphylia has significance. At that stage in the first journey they really were penetrating raw Gentile territory with the gospel, and it may have been too much for Mark’s Jewish sensibilities. If that was the case, it is hardly surprising that with the recent events at Antioch Paul was reluctant to take him.
It would appear that Barnabas’ determination stemmed from a family connection (Col 4:10). Nepotism should never feature in the things of God. It was that tendency that stumbled Samuel. In his old age, he promoted his sons, men who were neither spiritually nor morally qualified to be leaders among God’s people (1Sam 8:1-3). We can be judgmental of other people’s families and blind to the faults of our own. It is crucial to be even-handed.
Barnabas and Mark sailed for Cyprus and it is heart rending that, as we watch their retreating figures, we are bidding Barnabas adieu. Noble man that he was, the final chapter is distressing, a lesson for us all.
Paul chose Silas, whose credentials were outlined previously. He had been one of the “chief men among the brethren” at Jerusalem (Acts 15:22), the same word as “them which have the rule over you” (Heb 13:7, 17, 24). He had also been a New Testament prophet (Acts 15:32). Now, he was to be a pioneer missionary. God can redeploy His servants as He will, so they departed with the necessary recommendation of the local assembly and a new work was begun (Acts 15:40).
– To be continued