Sharp Disagreements
by Jack Wald | May 30th, 2010

Acts 15:36-41

You have probably noticed that I am a big Paul Simon fan. In my first years as a Christian, a speaker at our church suggested we pick someone famous and pray for them. So over the years, I have prayed for Paul Simon, some years more than others. Whenever he comes out with a new album, I examine the lyrics to try and discover what is going on in his spiritual life. It might be good for you to do the same, pick someone famous and begin to pray for them.

When I was thinking about the text for today in which Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement and wondering what I would use for an introduction to this sermon, this Paul Simon song came to mind:
You’re Kind
You’re kind
You’re so kind
You rescued me when I was blind
And you put me on your pillow
When I was on the wall
You’re kind, so kind, so kind

And you’re good
You’re so good
You introduced me to your neighborhood
Seems like I ain’t never had
so many friends before
That’s because you’re good
You’re so good
Why you don’t treat me like
the other humans do
Is just a mystery to me
It gets me agitated when I think that
You’re gonna love me now indefinitely

So goodbye, goodbye
I’m gonna leave you now
And here’s the reason why

I like to sleep with the window open
And you keep the window closed
So goodbye, goodbye, goodbye

This happens to be one of the discussion points for Annie and me. I like to sleep with the window open, especially when it is cold outside and I remember times when I had to go to the window with Annie’s complaints ringing in my ears, to reduce the tiny little slit of openness that I was allowed to have. Annie might have a different memory at this point but I am the one preaching.

It is very often little things like this that erupt into sharp disagreements.

A couple weeks ago Pastor Zak preached about the conflict in Acts 15 that precedes this sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas. Allow me to give some background to this conflict before we get to the sharp disagreement at the end of the chapter.

The early church was composed of Jews who decided that Jesus was the long promised Messiah and became his followers. At Pentecost the circle of the followers of Jesus expanded as Jews from around the known world believed and were baptized. So there were Greek-speaking Jews and Hebrew-speaking Jews which created tensions when the perception was that the widows of the Greek-speaking Jews were not getting their fair share of the food being distributed by the twelve apostles. This dispute was settled when the apostles appointed seven mostly Greek-speaking Jews to oversee the distribution.

The early church grew and there were occasional tensions, but the followers of Jesus were all Jews who kept the Jewish laws. They observed the Sabbath; their sons were circumcised; they kept the dietary laws.

There were significant exceptions to their obedience to the law such as when the Gentile Cornelius and his household believed and were accepted by Peter and later the Jerusalem council. But even Cornelius and his household adhered to the Jewish law. They were followers of Jesus but they followed through the law of Moses by becoming Jews to become followers of Jesus.

But then the Gospel expanded again. (Acts 11:19–21)
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

This was a major step as the Gospel moved away from Jews to Gentiles. To the Jews Jesus was the long promised Messiah, Jesus the Messiah. But now Jesus was presented to the Gentiles not as Jesus the Messiah but as the Lord Jesus. Gentiles did not understand the concept of Messiah but they did understand the concept of lordship so the gospel was translated into their culture so they could more easily understand it.

Then Barnabas brought Saul, not yet called Paul, to Antioch where together they taught and discipled these new believers. After some time, during one of their meetings, (Acts 13:2–3)
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

As they traveled it became clear that Saul was the one God used most powerfully and as Luke writes the history it became not Barnabas and Saul, but Paul and Barnabas. Note also that Saul took on his Greek name, Paul, as he moved into the Gentile world.

Paul and Barnabas returned from their first missionary journey and stayed for a long time in Antioch – perhaps Paul needed time to recover from being stoned and left for dead in Lystra.

At some point Peter visited and stayed in Antioch and here began the conflict of Acts 15. This visit by Peter is not recorded in Acts but in a letter Paul wrote to the Galatians. (Galatians 2:11–14)
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 12 Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

You have to understand that Paul was unique. I don’t know how many men there were (there may have been women but the culture did not allow them to lead) who were capable of understanding the implications of what Jesus had done. Paul was exceptional in that his mind and spirit led him to the full implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus and he was leading the followers of Jesus into this new understanding. Paul created the theology of the emerging church as his mind and spirit led him deeper into the truth of Jesus. Paul was leading and others were some distance behind.

Paul wrote that Peter was fearful. This does not sound like the Peter of the gospels so this may be Paul’s spin of the situation. It could be that Peter and Barnabas did not want to offend the men who came from James in Jerusalem. Maybe it was this that led them to stop eating with the Gentiles. Or maybe it was just that they slipped comfortably into old habits.

But Paul was so far ahead of them theologically and he thought things through so much more clearly he had to pull them to the implications of what Jesus had done in his death and resurrection. So Paul had to, in this case, lead Peter and Barnabas into the truth.

The third leader in this conflict was James, the leader of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and the half-brother of Jesus. James led the mostly Jewish followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, including those who had been Pharisees and as you remember, the Pharisees strictly followed the law of Moses and carried this with them when they became Jesus followers.

So you have three leaders of the followers of Jesus in this conflict of Acts 15: Paul who had moved into the Gentile world and taken on his Greek name, James who was firmly in the Jewish camp and Peter who was wavering between the two.

What started the conflict was this: (Acts 15:1)
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”

This is what James was teaching in Jerusalem. Yes, Gentiles are accepted into the family of God but they must become Jews in order to do so.

Paul strongly refuted this. In writing to the Galatians who were being exposed to the same teaching he wrote: (Galatians 2:15–16)
“We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ 16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

Peter was trying to be in both camps. He ate with Gentiles when he was in Antioch but when the Jews from Jerusalem came he stopped eating with Gentiles.

This was a huge issue that threatened to split the church wide open – churches have split over far less significant issues.

Paul and Barnabas traveled up to Jerusalem to meet with the Jerusalem council and in this meeting after members of the Jewish camp made their complaint, Peter stood first to speak and revealed that Paul’s rebuke of him had hit home. (Acts 15:10–11)
Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.

Paul and Barnabas then spoke making their case and finally James spoke. (Acts 15:19)
It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.

The process that was followed is a model for all who seek to resolve theological differences and it is a testimony to the work of God in their lives that James was able to yield and support Paul and Barnabas in their ministry to the Gentile world.

A letter was written to be sent to the Gentile followers of Jesus accompanied by two men to communicate what was in the letter. Everyone shook hands and hugged, the unity of the church was maintained and everyone went home. This was a huge victory for the church.

But then in the least expected place conflict once again erupted. (Acts 15:36-41)
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.

Isn’t that frustrating? It was a masterful display of wise and humble leadership as a potentially divisive conflict was resolved and then from where it was least expected, another conflict erupted that split the leadership.

What was the issue here?

On the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas, John, also called Mark, traveled with them as a helper. He was a young man, a cousin of Barnabas, and he sailed with them to the island of Cyprus, the birthplace of Barnabas. They then sailed north to Perga, on the coast of what is today Turkey and then Luke records: (Acts 13:13)
From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem.

Why did John Mark leave? Was he homesick? Was he upset that his cousin, Barnabas, who had been the leader, was now being overtaken by Paul? They started out as Barnabas and Saul and now it was Paul and Barnabas. Was he fearful of the dangers they could encounter? For whatever reason, he left and it is this desertion that caused problems for Paul.

The conversation started out fine.
Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.”

I imagine they became excited and talked about their route, what churches they would visit, the people they would see, how they would travel. And then came the detail that split them apart.
Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.

“You want to have Mark come along? Are you kidding? He deserted us when we needed him. No way!”
“But Paul, he was a young man and he’s older now. He has matured and deserves a second chance.”
“What we are doing is far too important to deal with second chances. Remember that I was stoned and left for dead in Lystra. I need someone I can count on, not someone who will run away as soon as it gets difficult.”
“Paul, please, he is my cousin. I know him. I am sure he will not make the same mistake again.”
“No, absolutely not!”

There were family issues involved. It may well be that there were personality differences between Paul and Barnabas. There are personalities that prefer justice and others that prefer mercy. Some personalities do not make exceptions to their rules and others think rules are made to be broken for the sake of relationships. For whatever reason the argument went on and on and became increasingly emotional. I imagine that voices were raised. I imagine that some things were said on both sides they later regretted saying. This is how arguments go.

They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.

They split with Barnabas and Mark heading west and Paul and Silas heading north.

Was their argument worth a split?

I began looking at this argument as an expression of sin but in talking with Tracy and Zak and then reading the commentaries more closely, I came to the conclusion that this was an example of two people with two different perspectives that forced them to part ways.

There are times when we argue our position with all the integrity of mind and spirit we have and disagree with someone else also arguing with integrity of mind and spirit. We come to a point of irreconcilable differences and the only solution is to separate. There are other times when selfish agendas, the lust for power or control or money drive the argument. I am not talking about that. This is specifically about sharp disagreements between people who argue with integrity but cannot agree and separate.

This text offers some healthy ways to do this.
Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left

Note first that Barnabas and Paul both continued to work for Jesus.

Barnabas did not sulk. Paul did not campaign to give Barnabas a bad name. Neither one of them went home to lick their wounds. Barnabas took his young cousin and left for Cyprus, the same first destination for he and Paul on their first missionary journey. Paul met Silas in Jerusalem and then Silas was chosen to accompany the letter the council wrote. He had impressed Paul with his ministry in Antioch and so Paul chose him as his companion and they headed north to Turkey.

There will be times when there are irreconcilable differences and it will be necessary to part but separating from each other does not mean we separate ourselves from Jesus. We are still called by Jesus to work with him. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, this is our key, central calling.

Work to resolve differences. Work hard to reconcile differences, but when you reach an impasse, agree to separate but keep on working with Jesus.

This sharp disagreement and separation must have been upsetting to the followers of Jesus in Antioch. Remember that it was in worship and prayer that the Holy Spirit spoke to them (Acts 13:2)
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

The church in Antioch was personally involved in the sending out of Paul and Barnabas and they still carried the responsibility of supporting and encouraging them.

Luke wrote that
Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.

Who did the brothers commend, Paul and Silas? Also Barnabas and Mark?

Luke is recording Paul’s story so it is likely he is referring to Paul and Silas, but I imagine the fellowship commended both to the grace of the Lord. It does not seem that the church took sides in this argument.

So secondly, when you have friends who separate because of irreconcilable differences, it is your responsibility to bless both groups.

A few years ago a friend in the church told me that if there were a Pentecostal church in Rabat, he would go to that church. I told him that if this happened, I would miss the Pentecostals in our congregation and it would hurt me that they would want to leave RIC and my preaching. But, I told him, if you did leave to start up another church, I would send you out with my blessing. I would want to continue to encourage and support you.

It is all about Jesus! Have you ever heard me say that? It is all about Jesus. It is not about us. So when we have legitimate differences and cannot be reconciled, we continue to focus on Jesus, continue to work for Jesus and give our blessing to both sides that separate.

What was the relationship like between Paul and Barnabas after this?

In II Corinthians 8:18- 24 Paul spoke of Titus being accompanied by a brother most commentators say is Barnabas
who is praised by all the churches for his service to the gospel… [and] who has often proved to us in many ways that he is zealous … Therefore show these men the proof of your love and the reason for our pride in you, so that the churches can see it.

In I Corinthians 9:6 and Galatians 2:13 Paul refers to Barnabas with respect.

In short, although he and Barnabas separated, Paul did not lose his respect for Barnabas. They had a severe difference of opinion but they continued to respect each other.

So thirdly, when you separate with someone else, resist the temptation to justify yourself. Resist the temptation to make yourself look good and the other person look bad. If you have difficulty doing this, chances are that your pride has been involved and you will need to reflect and look for the sin in your behavior.

One last lesson comes from the fact that John Mark was later restored to Paul as a friend and trusted colleague. At the end of his letter to the church in Colosse, Paul wrote (Colossians 4:10–11)
My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)

Apparently Mark’s reputation had suffered and he was being restored into ministry as one of those who worked with Paul.

At the end of his life, when Paul wrote to Timothy, he instructed him (2 Timothy 4:11)
Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.

Paul and Mark were reconciled before the death of Paul. Mark became a trusted colleague and developed as a powerful leader in the church. Mark was led into a ministry that eventually took him to Egypt where he was the first bishop of the church in Alexandria.

So fourthly, in relationships, when someone shuts the door on you, do not shut the door on them.

Sometimes in hotels there are adjoining rooms with interconnecting doors, one on each side of the doorway. This allows you to rent both rooms and go back and forth without having to step out into the public hallway.

Relationships are like this. You each have a door and you pass back and forth in your friendship. When someone becomes upset and shuts and locks their door, you have a choice. If you slam your door and lock it, what happens in the future when the other person decides they want to open their door? They will open the door to the relationship and find a locked door. If you keep your door open, then at any time in the future when they decide to open their door, they will find you ready to enter again into a relationship with them.

This means you need to try to understand why the other person in the relationship has acted as he or she did. Clement of Alexandria, leader of the Jewish school in that town who knew Mark, wrote, “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle.”

If you can understand why it is someone has acted as they have, it helps to keep the door to the relationship open. When you understand why the other person acted as they did, it makes it easier to forgive the other person for what they have done.

Keeping your door open is not easy. There is one person I have known for ten years who has repeatedly hurt me by her actions. It amazes me that she has such power to hurt me, but it is because I will not shut the door that I continue to be vulnerable to her actions and when she does not trust me or believe what I say, I am hurt.

But that is the price we pay to keep open doors in our relationships with others.

How open are the doors in your relationships? I am talking here particularly about relationships with other Christians. When you think of sharp disagreements, does anyone come to your mind? I would encourage you to pray for these people who come to mind. There is a long path ahead and God will be at work in both of you so future reconciliation is always a possibility.

You will both one day be side by side in heaven; it is good to work now toward the unity of mind and spirit you will have on that day.