But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus. Paul chose Silas, and as he left, the believers entrusted him to the Lord’s gracious care. Acts 15:38-40 (NLT)
One of the arguments for the inspiration of the Bible is that it is one book that does not paint its heroes only in awesome colours. It tells us the stories of their lives (successes and failures). To even think that some of those books were written by the heroes themselves and that they never refrained from telling us their failures and struggles proves that only God could have made men write a book like that. This is one truth that stands out in the union between Paul and Barnabas. A union forged by the direction of the Holy Spirit was broken. Why? Because of a certain young man called John Mark.
Now, I had taken time to look at several arguments being proposed by several brethren as to who was right or wrong. Of course, since Paul was the celebrated Apostle of the New Testament whose every actions and movements were perceived to be right, many commentators sided with him, except few. However, the scriptures remark that it is only by pride comes contention (Proverbs 13 vs. 10). Wherever you see contention, pride is not far from there. It was many years later that Paul confessed to the possibilities of pride that was in his heart, and the extraordinary steps that the Lord had to take in order to help him (2 Corinthians 12 vs. 9). It is in my own opinion that this sharp disagreement and break-up happened simply because in this particular case, none of the parties walked in the Spirit. Barnabas, may have actually been moved by his familial relationship to John Mark, and may have wanted to give him another chance, after John Mark had deserted them earlier in their first missionary journey (Acts 13 vs. 13).
John Mark was a young man whose family was respected by the early apostles. His mother’s house was a natural meeting place for many of the disciples and it was there that prayers were made for Peter in the days of his incarceration by Herod the King (Acts 12). When Paul and Barnabas started the missionary journey, they took John Mark with them to serve them in the ministry. However, for whatever reasons not disclosed, John Mark left them at Perga in Pamphylia and returned back to Jerusalem. The refusal of Paul to take him back into the ministry showed the nature of his initial parting, that it was not cordial. Thus, Paul, being a man of action and a strong spirit, a man who was strong and sure of his consecration to God, and a man who at the same Antioch had even withstood Apostle Peter to his face in the midst of the Antioch brethren, felt that John Mark was not worthy to work with them again in the ministry.
Now, we must not accuse Barnabas solely of sentiment as if there was nothing ‘spiritual’ about his insistence to give John Mark another chance. We must remember that Barnabas, being a son of consolation, was used to giving men second chances. It was he who took Saul, when no one believed in him, and brought him into the fellowship of the Apostles at Jerusalem. It was him who gave Paul a chance for ministry by calling him out of Tarsus to come and labour with him in Antioch. Hence, it was not unlike him to give men second chances; and possibly, he felt that seeing that John Mark was his cousin, Paul would consider, but Paul did not. He insisted not to have anything to do with John Mark again in the ministry (at least at that point). There was a sharp disagreement arise because of their various opinions, and since none was willing to yield to each other, they had to part and follow different ministry routes. This had nothing to do with anyone of them missing the will of God or not following the Spirit of God, it was merely an issue of a clash of temperaments.
Now, some people have also posited that after this event, Barnabas, having missed God’s will for his life, fell out of Bible History. There is nothing farther from the truth. Acts of the Apostles was not really a book about the Apostles, but a book about Paul, the Apostle. Hence, it is normal that since Barnabas ceased to walk with Paul, he fell out of the story. Not only him, but many of the Apostles of the Lamb also fell out of the story- Peter, John, Thomas, etc. From after Acts 12, the Apostles of Christ were no longer mentioned except as it concerned Paul the Apostle. Does it mean that they became lazy, indolent and missed God’s will? Never! In fact, when we get to heaven, we will then know who among the Apostles laboured most. Because, what we had was simply an account of Paul, and that did not mean that Barnabas became ‘nothing’ in the service of God.
In fact, as a testimony to what happened, John Mark (whom Paul disregarded and refused to walk with) later became profitable to Paul in ministry (2 Timothy 4 vs. 11). In Colossians 4 vs. 10, we see Paul tell the Colossians to receive Mark whenever he comes to them. In Philemon 1 vs. 24, Paul listed Mark among his co-labourers. Mark became so important in the agenda of God that he was the one through whom the Gospel of Mark was written, and that Gospel was credited to be the first written Gospel before Matthew and Luke. History had it that the first Christian church in Africa (the Coptic Church) was presided over by John Mark; he became the first bishop of Alexandria. He was said to have died by being tied to a horse and dragged to death.
John Mark (maybe spurned on by Paul’s rejection of him because of his initial weaknesses) later became a veritable tool in God’s overall agenda for the early Church. His servant-heart (which Barnabas recognized early even in his days of weakness) made him to be a “son” and a beloved brother by all the then known Church, and especially, Paul, Barnabas and Peter (see 1 Peter 5 vs. 13).
AND SO? Though Paul and Barnabas disagreed and separated, they did not stop working for the Lord neither did they allow the flesh to get in between them. In the years to come, Paul kept on referencing himself and Barnabas as a special breed of sacrificial Apostles. We also saw how Paul recognized what God had done in John Mark’s life, and later took him in as a brother and co-labourer. Of course, years of maturity later taught him to be patient with men.
Secondly, permit me to say to anyone reading this who had felt neglected by the disciplers and more matured brethren due to (of course) a fault or weakness in your life: God is more patient than the most patient of men. If only you can see their rejection as a challenge, and rise up as John Mark did, to pursue God, to know God and to serve Him; then your life will not waste, but will count for a kingdom purpose.
Finally, I speak to encourage all who are called to be labourers over lives; though it is important not to lay hands suddenly on people, nor to trust people easily, it is also important that you are not in a hurry to pass a sentence over their lives and mark them as unprofitable. If we can learn from the life of our Lord Jesus, who bore with ‘weak’ Simon until he was turned into ‘a rock’ upon which kingdom doors were swung, then we will not be quick to throw away and condemn kingdom potentials who in the meantime are wrapped up in human frailty and stupidity. May the Lord help us.