Paul and Barnabas Split!

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Just before Paul's second missionary journey a controversy erupted in Syrian Antioch regarding whether new gentile converts should be circumcised or not. Paul and Barnabas, as well as others, are sent to Jerusalem to settle the split in the church. The entire matter is debated, a decision is arrived at, and the two evangelists return home to Antioch in late autumn of 49 A.D. with what was decided. Please see the article in this series entitled "Controversies in the Church" for more information.

Paul begins planning his second missionary journey in late autumn of 49 A.D. It originated in a desire expressed by him to Barnabas, that they should revisit all the cities where they had preached the Gospel and founded churches (Acts 15:36). He felt that he was not called to spend a peaceful, though laborious, life at Antioch, but that his true work was "far off among the Gentiles" (Acts 22:21).

The Apostle Paul knew that his campaigns were not ended. He knew that, as the soldier of Jesus Christ, he must not rest from his warfare, but must "endure hardness," that he might please Him who had called him (2Timothy 2:3 - 4). As a careful physician, he remembered that they, whose recovery from sin had been begun, might be in danger of relapse.

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The words actually recorded as used by Apostle Paul on this occasion are, "Come, let us turn back and visit our brethren in every city, where we have announced the word of the Lord, and let us see how they fare." We notice here, for the first time, a trace of that tender solicitude concerning his converts, that earnest longing to behold their faces, which appears in the letters which he wrote afterwards, as one of the most remarkable, and one of the most attractive, features of his character.


Paul and Barnabas

Paul was the speaker and not Barnabas. The feelings of Barnabas might not be so deep, nor his anxiety so urgent. Paul thought doubtless of the Pisidians and Lycaonians, as he thought afterwards at Athens and Corinth of the Thessalonians, from whom he had been lately "endeavoring to see their face with great desire" (1Thessalonians 2:17, 3:10). His wish was to revisit every city where converts had been made.

This plan by Paul, however, of a combined visitation of the churches with Barnabas was marred by an outbreak of human nature. The two apostolic friends were separated from each other by a quarrel, which proved that they were indeed, as they had lately told the Lystrians, "men of like passions" with others (Acts 14:15).

Barnabas was unwilling to undertake the journey unless he were accompanied by his relation Mark. Paul could not consent to the companionship of one who split from them, just a few years prior, at Perga in Pamphylia. Neither apostle was willing to yield his opinion to the other. This quarrel was much more closely connected with personal feelings. There is little doubt that severe words were spoken on the occasion.

It is unwise to be over-anxious to dilute the words of Scripture, and to exempt even Apostles from blame. By such criticism we lose much of the instruction which the honest record of their lives was intended to convey. Without attempting to balance too nicely the faults on either side, our simplest course is to believe that, as in most quarrels, both Barnabas and Paul were to blame for the split.

Barnabas was determined to take with them John who was called Mark.

But Paul did not think it good to take him because he had departed from them at Pamphylia, and did not go with them to the work. As a result, such a sharp contention arose between them that they parted (split) from one another (Acts 15:37 - 39, HBFV).

Paul's natural disposition was impetuous and impatient, easily kindled to indignation, and overbearing. Barnabas had shown his weakness when he yielded to the influence of Peter and the Judaizers. The remembrance of the indirect censure he then received may have been perpetually irritated by the consciousness that his position was becoming daily more and more subordinate to that of the friend who rebuked him. Once he was spoken of as chief of those "prophets at Antioch," among whom Saul was the last. Now his name was scarcely heard, except when he was mentioned as the companion of Paul.

In short, this is one of those quarrels in which, by placing ourselves in imagination on the one side and the other, we can alternately justify both, and easily see that the purest Christian zeal, when combined with human weakness and partiality, may have led to the misunderstanding. How could Paul consent to take with him a companion like Mark who could prove an embarrassment and a hinderance? Such a task as that of spreading the Gospel of God in a hostile world needs a resolute will and an undaunted courage. And the work is too sacred to be put in jeopardy by any experiments.

Mark had been tried once and found wanting. And Barnabas would not be without strong arguments to defend the justice of his claims. It was hard to expect him to resign his interest in one who had cost him much anxiety and many prayers. His dearest wish was to see his young kinsman approving himself as a missionary of Christ. Now, too, he had been won back to a willing obedience, he had come from his home at Jerusalem, he was ready now to face all the difficulties and dangers of the enterprise. To repel him in the moment of his repentance was surely "to break a bruised reed" and to "quench the smoking flax" (Matthew 12:20).

It is not difficult to understand the obstinacy with which each of the disputants, when his feelings were once excited, clung to his opinion as to a sacred truth. The only course which now remained was to split and choose two different paths and to labor independently. We cannot, however, suppose that Paul and Barnabas parted, like enemies, in anger and hatred. It is very likely that they made a deliberate and amicable arrangement to split the region of their first mission between them, Paul taking the continental, and Barnabas the insular, part of the proposed visitation.

One stream of missionary labor had been divided, and the regions blessed by the waters of life were proportionally multiplied. Apostle Paul speaks of Barnabas afterwards as of an Apostle actively engaged in his Master's service (Colossians 4:10). We know nothing of the details of his life beyond the moment of his sailing for Cyprus, but we may reasonably attribute to him not only the confirming of the first converts, but the full establishment of the Church in his native island.

At Paphos, the impure idolatry gradually retreated before the presence of Christianity. And Salamis has earned an eminent place in Christian history, through the writings of its bishop, Epiphanius. Mark, too, who began his career as a "minister" of the Gospel in this island (Acts 3:5) justified the good opinion of his kinsman Barnabas.

The severity of Paul, however, may have been of eventual service to his character, in leading him to feel more deeply the serious importance of the work he had undertaken. And the time came when Paul himself acknowledged, with affectionate tenderness, not only that Mark had again become his "fellow laborer" (Philemon 1:24) but that he was "profitable to the ministry" and one of the causes of his own "comfort" (Colossians 4:10 - 11).

It seems that Barnabas was the first to take his departure. He decided to split with Paul and take Mark with him to revisit their labors on the island of Cyprus (Acts 15:39 - 41). Paul took Silas with him to Tarsus and officially started his second missionary journey.

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