The Separation of Paul and Barnabas

By Wayne Jackson

Saul of Tarsus had been such a vicious persecutor of Christians that even
after his conversion the brethren were still afraid of him. When Paul eventually returned to Jerusalem following his conversion to Christ, Barnabas had to persuade the disciples to let the apostle fellowship with them (Acts 9:26). As a result of this intercession, a wonderful friendship between Paul and Barnabas was formed. It is, therefore, rather sad to note that they eventually had a “falling out” of sorts.

On their first missionary journey together, John Mark, the cousin of
Barnabas (Col. 4:10), accompanied them. Along the way, however, John Mark decided to return to his home in Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). The reason for his departure is not specified in the sacred text.

Later on, when a second campaign was planned, Barnabas proposed taking Mark as a helper, but Paul resisted the idea. The New Testament record indicates that a “sharp contention” developed between them (Acts 15:36-41). They could not reach an agreement, and so they split up. As far as the sacred record indicates, these two remarkable men never saw one another again.

The serious Bible student cannot read this episode and not be moved.
Nevertheless, there are some vital principles that one may learn from the dispute that developed between these Christian brothers.

Disagreements that Do Not Involve Doctrine

This dissension between Paul and Barnabas was not over a doctrinal issue. The rupture involved a personal dispute based upon a judgment call. To their credit, neither Paul nor Barnabas let the conflict distract them from their respective efforts of spreading the gospel.

Making application to Christians today, there will always be times when
good brethren will disagree in matters of opinion. The important thing is to keep focused on doing the will of Christ. That is what Paul and Barnabas both did. As a result, perhaps even more work was accomplished for the Lord because of the manner in which their disagreement was handled.

Who Was Right?

Was it Paul, or Barnabas? One simply does not know. Some, rather confidently, argue that Paul was just too stubborn to give in. Lloyd Ogilvie wrote:

“Paul had fought and won one of history’s most crucial battles over the
Gentile converts. He was not able, however, to apply the same truth to his relationship with John Mark” (Drumbeat of Love, Waco: TX: Word, 1976).

On the other hand, the church in Antioch “commended” Paul and Silas (Acts
15:40), but nothing is said about any commendation of Barnabas and Mark.
That circumstance may suggest how the matter was perceived by the saints in Antioch. Paul may have been guided by experience and cool logic, whereas Barnabas was moved perhaps by a kindred familiarity and a warm heart.

Many of us may be a bit drawn to Barnabas when we reflect upon the fact
that we too occasionally have needed a second chance. Over the long haul, the decision of Barnabas may have proved best – at least for John Mark. Years later, Paul finds the formerly useless Mark “useful,” as revealed in the apostle’s concluding epistle. “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministering” (2 Tim. 4:11). And in Colossians 4:10, one observes that the once-rejected young worker was commended, and the Colossian saints were asked to be receptive to him.

Other Observations

There are a couple of points that are worthy of consideration as our discussion is concluded.

  1. The segmentation of their work did not disrupt permanently the love and respect that Paul and Barnabas entertained for one another. Paul would later affectionately mention Barnabas as being worthy of monetary support in his work of proclaiming the gospel (1 Cor. 9:6).
  2. The fact that this personal conflict is openly displayed on the pages of the New Testament is evidence that the Holy Spirit guided the writer, Luke, in producing this narrative. Natural inclination would have led Paul’s friend to omit this potentially embarrassing incident!
  3. There are many wonderful truths to be learned from the various experiences of the personalities portrayed in the Sacred Volume. No account, however irrelevant such may superficially appear to be, is without importance. There are lessons to be mastered.
Small f26f621c f6aa 4d2b 853d 24e53c812a17

About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.