Paul and Barnabas Split Up

Barnabas Curing the Poor, Paolo Veronese, 1566

As I mentioned yesterday, the early church struggled over what laws still apply to converts to Christianity, and we see that in the first chapter from this week’s readings from the book of Acts, chapter 15. Some among the Pharisees thought the Gentiles needed to first be circumcised, or in other words, the Gentiles had to become Jews first, to be followers of Jesus. The council in Jerusalem took time to decide matters and believed God was taking away any distinction between Jews and Gentiles and that all are saved by God’s grace, not the law.

The believers sent out delegates to bring this news to the early church, and this group included Paul and Barnabas (v.25). The news was met with rejoicing in the churches and Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch to continue teaching and preaching the word of the Lord.

Having just made a proclamation of unity to the churches that signified that the council was of one accord and that two groups who had been at odds were now being brought together, a sharp division arises. Paul and Barnabas intend to return to the churches they have ministered to, but Barnabas wanted to bring along John (called Mark), and Paul is not pleased by such a choice. Paul’s objection is that John has left them previously (Acts 13:13), so it would be better to choose another. We are not told explicitly why John left, but perhaps he returned to Jerusalem because he was uncomfortable with the mission Paul had to the Gentiles. This causes “sharp disagreement” between Paul and Barnabas, causing them to separate–Paul goes with Silas, and Barnabas with John.

Do we lament that division followed such unity? I don’t think that needs to be the response.

This was not a break over what the council had just decided. They do not disagree on their mission, just on the manner in which they will carry it out. Certainly it would have troubled these men to part over such circumstances, but even though they were divided, they still shared unity in their purpose. They both were committed to bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ wherever they went and continuing to care for his church. God may have even been able to use them for a greater good given that these two esteemed disciples divided their time and energies to reach different geographic areas. It also gave opportunity for Paul and Barnabas to take on new partners with whom to serve.

God is given glory in the unity brought about in the work of Jesus Christ to break down barriers that had once separated peoples. That good news is heard by the churches as the Jerusalem council sends word and the people rejoiced. But I do not think God’s glory is diminished when two faithful servants of the gospel part ways and divide to spread their ministries in new directions. God still worked great deeds in and through these early missionaries, and the story even has a happy ending. Paul’s letters reveal reconciliation with John (Mark), and he has changed his view of his role in the ministry. In 2 Timothy 4 Paul calls for him to be brought back because he believes that John is of great use to the work of God.

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