Paul and Barnabas Split Up

(Acts 15:36-41)

Usually I post every third day or so, but it has been more than that since my last post here. The reason why is because I am baffled as to what to write since this section of scripture concerns the split in the partnership of the apostles Paul and Barnabas.

One of the great partnerships in the bible was the partnership of Paul and Barnabas. They had been brought together through a prophecy to do a work for The Lord.

Why did this happen?
Why did this happen?

And now we see in this section that a sharp contention arose between them and the partnership ended.

Why? What went wrong? Why did they split up? What was the argument all about that would cause these two great men of God to separate and go their separate ways?

Well I have to say…I don't really know! Yes that's right, I don't know, so everything I will have to say in this post is pure speculation. Let's have a look at what went on and see whether we can work this one out. Please if you have any insights into this one…email me. Better yet, put up a comment so we can all discuss it and learn something from each other.

The Argument

What the scripture says here is that Paul and Barnabas were going to return to the churches they had established to encourage and upbuild. This is what the scriptures then have to say.

37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.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 went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

So the argument was all about who they intended to take with them to visit the churches. Barnabas wanted to take John who was also called Mark, but Paul did not want to take him because John had withdrawn from them earlier and not gone onto the rest of the work.

Now I have heard some people say they believed that John Mark had withdrawn because he was weak or could not stand the heat. But the scriptures do not say that. If we look at when John withdrew there is no suggestion that he could not handle whatever was going on. Acts 13:5 and Acts 13:13 shows us the work and the withdrawal of John Mark when it says,

5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them.

13 Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem.

So what we know is that John was assisting them and it was during a particularly difficult time in the ministry. But it seems he went through that and then decided to return to Jerusalem. No reason is given and no suggestion that he could not handle the situations they were in. Rather the scripture shows that John Mark was a help to the two apostles as he assisted them in the work.

John Mark

What we know about John Mark is that he worked with the early apostles and the church. He was the son of Mary and was part of the early church. It was to the house of John Mark's mother Mary that Peter went went he was escorted from prison by the angel of The Lord, so it is fair to think John Mark was a disciple from the very early days of the church.

I am also led to believe that it was John Mark who was the author of the gospel of Mark, although I cannot confirm that to be the truth or not. However if that is so, then it is evident he was one of the early disciples who followed with Jesus.

We do know that John Mark was a cousin of Barnabas for we are told this in Colossians 4:10-11 which says,

10 Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions-if he comes to you, welcome him), 11 and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me.

Now what we can deduce from this scripture is that while Paul clearly did not want to take John Mark, he must have changed his opinion of him at a later stage for the scripture above shows that he was a comfort to Paul at a later date.

So knowing all of this puzzles me and I seriously do not know what the reason was for this contention between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark that caused them to split.


The one thing I can say, and I must state this is only an opinion, is that Paul and Barnabas both had very different personalities.

Barnabas was noted to be generous and was a good man well thought of by the apostles, elders and the disciples of the church. He seemed to be a man of peace and principles and it was he who first took Paul's side when he had just been converted to Christianity and came amongst the church. No one trusted Paul until Barnabas stood up for him. Barnabas was clearly a strong personality although he was not as forceful as Paul.

Paul on the other hand was noted early on as being a fiery character. He raged against the early church and pursued Christians to other cities to bring them back to be imprisoned and sometimes stoned, as happened with Stephen. Of course he went through a dramatic change after The Lord appeared to him on the Damascus Road, but how much did his basic personality change? Any changes take time as The Lord works with any person, so he quite possibly still had the same fire although it was now directed for The Lord rather than against him.

These two men had strong personalities and it may have been the two of them pushing their own views as to who they wanted to go with them that caused the division. It was not an issue of doctrine or teaching, but just a viewpoint that differed between them and neither was prepared to give any ground on the matter.

Maybe Barnabas dug his heels in for the sake of his cousin John Mark. Maybe Paul did likewise because John Mark had left them earlier, perhaps when they could have used his help.

Whatever it was, it was not a matter of doctrine and so I feel it was more a personality or preference issue.

What we can learn from this is not to allow minor things to get in the way. As Christians we are learning how to live together as a family of God. Our aim is to find a path of peace in Christ Jesus and with each other. It is all about relationships, first with God and then with each other.

It is evident that Paul and Barnabas struggled at that time to find the path of peace, and it is a good example of how being pig-headed can cause problems. I am not saying this was the case and this is just my opinion, but if it is then there is a lesson for us in their example.

I am open to any thoughts on this matter so please feel free to comment or add any ideas you may have. Perhaps you too have been in a situation where you came head to head with someone over what really was not a very important issue. How did you deal with it? How did you overcome it?

You might also like:

The Conversion Of Saul
A Chosen Instrument
Expression Of True Love

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