Today we begin a new sermon series on the Church. We’ve done this many times over the years as Christmas has ended and the new year begins. We’ve looked at the God who creates and loves the Church, the people who makeup the Church, the doctrines we hold dear as the Church, and on and on. This year we wanted to take a different angle on it.
It’s something of a no brainer to say that we’re living in a time where massive societal and global upheaval is occurring. Whether it’s the pandemic, political strife, or personal struggle, or even how these things relate to each other and build on each other, it’s becoming rare today to meet someone who’s not concerned about what’s going on. And even though we might think it would be different, it really hasn’t been much different in the Church. All the issues out there, sure enough, have become issues in here. So, some Christians today are living fearfully in isolation and some others are chalking up all the cultural upheaval to be a conspiracy, while most of the rest of us are caught somewhere in between. What has all this resulted in? Mental health, counseling, therapy, fear, depression, and anxiety have become more common place they’ve ever been before. Some of this is, be sure, just the therapeutic spirit of our age, but a great deal of this is reality for many Christians, even many among us here at SonRise.
Which brings us to our sermon series on the Church this year. With all these issues present and swirling around us, we (as your elders) desire to address this head on and talk about these issues. Maybe you’ve heard me say this, maybe you’ haven’t, but the last two years of counseling and discipleship here at SonRise have largely centered around five major issues: identity, relationships, money, anger, and anxiety. Each Sunday in January we’ll lean into these issues, one at a time.
What then are we doing today? Well today I’ll be introducing us to theme of ‘We’ve Got Issues’ generally by reminding you that the Church, as glorious and wonderful as it is, always has issues! This shouldn’t discourage us about the Church or cause us to leave the Church, but should encourage us. How? By learning for the first time, or being reminded for 100thtime, that what we’re experiencing today isn’t a new thing for the Church. Christians throughout history have been through much of the same, many times before. And God has been, is now, and will forever be strong, good, and faithful to His Church.
So open your Bibles, to Acts 15, where we’ll lean into v36-41 and see a major issue between two of the most prominent figures in the early church: Paul and Barnabas.
But, before we get into our text for this morning, allow me to bring us up to speed on the events that lead to our text.
The first time we hear of Barnabas is in Acts 4:36 when he sold his land and laid the earnings at the feet of the apostles. We learn in that passage that he was a Levite, who was also called Joseph. We do not hear about him or from him until after Paul comes onto the scene. The first time we hear of Paul (who at this time is called Saul) is, of course, in Acts 7:58 when he was in hearty agreement to Stephen’s death. Remember it? This is when he’s holding the coats of all who wish to throw a stone at him. Saul’s conversion is recorded for us in chapter 9, and afterwards he begins preaching Christ in the synagogues of Damascus. When he learned the Jews had a plan to kill him, he fled the city by being lowered in a basket through a large opening in the wall. And he went to Jerusalem to find solace with the disciples. But when he tried to associate with them, his reputation for ravaging the Church was hard to overcome such that most of the disciples were afraid of him and they didn’t believe he had actually been converted. So there is Saul, alone in Jerusalem. Barnabas, which means ‘son of encouragement’ makes his reappearance at this point in the story. He finds Saul, takes him into his care, brings him before the disciples, and he gives Saul’s testimony to the disciples himself. Because of this, Saul is allowed to move about and speak freely of Jesus around the city. But, as before, he got into a heated debate with the a group of Jews, and they tried to kill him. So, the disciples sent Saul off to Tarsus and Barnabas stayed behind.
Once we get to Acts chapter 11 a couple of years had gone by, and God was moving among the gentiles in Antioch and saving many of them. The leaders of the Jerusalem church heard about this, rejoiced greatly, and decided to send someone there to encourage them. Peter and John couldn’t go because they had gone off to Samaria to look after Philip. So the leaders chose Barnabas, and off he went. Once Barnabas arrives in Antioch the Acts 11:23-24 describes the scene saying, “When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.” What a testimony, right? Well, after Barnabas witnesses the grace of God among the gentiles, he encourages them to remain true to the Lord and he leaves for the city of Tarsus because he wanted to find Saul. We’re not told the reason why, I think perhaps, Barnabas needed help and could think of no one else better suited than Saul to come alongside him.
Then, the pace quickens in Acts 11, Barnabas finds Saul in Tarsus, he brings him back to Antioch, and they begin teaching side by side with great success, so much success that the citizens of Antioch began to notice these people always talking about the Christ, so they began to call believers “Christians” in Antioch. From this point on, Barnabas and Saul, who comes to be known as Paul, take an offering for the believers in Judea, return to Jerusalem and pick up a man named John Mark to accompany them.
Then the three of them left on the first missionary journey, which took them to Galatia and back. But it wasn’t long into the trip before John Mark left them (more on this in a moment). After the journey, once Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, they spent a large amount of time with the disciples, and it was during this time they told them how God had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. There are a ton of details I’m skipping over here, just trying to give you the general gist of what’s occurring.
After many more events both wonderful and difficult, we’re introduced to a group of Jews in 15:1 who were teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved. Paul hears about this, and he and Barnabas have “no small dissension” and debate with them. Eventually it was such a big issue that a council was convened to resolve the matter. At the council there is more debate, but eventually James makes the final decision about the issue stating that the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised to be saved. After the council Paul and Barnabas, who are called beloved brothers in Acts 15:25, were sent back to Antioch where they stayed there teaching and preaching.
Now at last, we’ve come to our text. Acts 15:36-41, “And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 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. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”
Yikes. It’s pretty straightforward here isn’t it? If the text ended in v36 it would’ve been great, right? Paul and Barnabas both have a deep desire to go back to the churches they visited to see how they’re doing, to encourage and strengthen them. And not only so, they likely desire to share the decision they’ve come to in the Jerusalem council about what to do with Gentile converts. All in all, Paul and Barnabas have labored together, they’ve preached together, they’ve seen God do wonderful things together, and they’ve almost died together a few times. Yes and amen! Great friendships and bonds are built doing ministry together, v36 is evidence of both their great hearts for gospel work. But, there’s much more to this passage than just v36. In v37-41 we find that while they both desire to see the gospel expand, they disagree as to how that’s to be done. And in the end, they don’t come to agreement, so they part ways.
Now, I think a few things stand out clearly here.
First, the sadness. This passage does not make for very pleasant reading does it? Acts 15 in general is a chapter normally celebrated for the great unity it displays in the early Church. And yet, how ironic that in this very chapter we find serious disagreement as well. The issue between Paul and Barnabas is clear and large. So large in fact that they cannot reconcile, or decide the only way to reconcile is to part ways. The very fact that Luke includes this incident is something worth noticing as well. Perhaps its very presence teaches us that conflict and issues will be something present in every church in every age. So, as much as some of us might seek to avoid it, you can’t. Issues always come. Why? Because as great as the Church is, it’s full of one kind of person: sinners. And what happens when sinners do life together with sinners? Sin.
This passage also makes for sad reading because it marks a big shift in the book of Acts. We will not hear of any of the other apostles or of Barnabas from this point forward. We only hear of Paul and his journeys from now on.
Second, the clarity. Paul wants to retrace his steps and go back to the churches they’ve planted to see how their fairing. As we’ve mentioned, Barnabas agrees with Paul, but v37 tells us his desire to take John Mark with them again and Paul doesn’t think it’s a good idea. It’s not quite clear why Barnabas wanted his younger cousin John Mark to come with them again, even though he left them on the first journey. Why did Barnabas want Mark to come? Perhaps it’s because they’re family and he was struggling between his devotion to the apostolic mission and his own family loyalties. What is clear is Paul’s reason for not wanting him to come along. v38 says it, Paul views John Mark’s earlier departure from them in Pamphylia as a desertion. After all, they had been commissioned by the Church on this mission, and he leaves? I think Paul thought John Mark’s desertion revealed a character defect, or sinful streak, or lack of courage which made him unfit for this kind of ministry. And this makes sense, doesn’t it? Paul doesn’t want his companions to leave; he wants someone who’ll stay, no matter the cost.
Third, the separation. In v39-41 we see them separate. Remember, when no one was there for Paul as a new believer in Jerusalem, it was Barnabas who sought him out. It was Barnabas who stepped in for him before the Apostles. When he was shipped off to Tarsus, it was Barnabas who came after him, pursued him, and brought him back into Antioch for ministry. They opposed Bar-Jesus and were persecuted together in Paphos. They were almost stoned in Iconium. They were called Zeus and Hermes in Lycaonia. They rejoiced together in Antioch about the Gentiles coming to faith. They opposed the zealous Jews and their ideas of circumcising the Gentiles together in Antioch and Jerusalem. They were immensely close.
If you’ve been a mission trip, or if you’ve done ministry with someone side by side for an extended amount of time you know what it’s like to be co-laborers together. You get close with those around you because they’re with you in this venture. I will never forget the moment Mike Joas, Lasita, and Abe and I were served crickets for dinner in northern Vietnam. I’ll never forget watching Andrew, Walter, Joel, and Ross Floyd encourage a struggling church plant in Belfast. These are things that stay with you! All in all, we know that these two men were knit together in soul and to separate had to hurt both of them badly. Barnabas chose his cousin John Mark and went off to minister in his hometown of Cyprus. While Paul chose Silas and left to encourage the churches in Syria and Cilicia.
There we have it, issues in the church was a reality for the early church, and history has proven it to be a reality ever since. What can we learn from this story about our own issues? Many things, here are a few of them.
First lesson. Notice how Luke retells this event without assigning blame to either Paul or Barnabas. Notice that? Many throughout Church history have sided with Paul because he’s, well, Paul! That the rest of Acts is all about Paul and not Barnabas proves that Paul is right, right? Maybe. But many others have sided with Barnabas, and those who do view Paul as something of a difficult man to work with, a rigid, stern, and overbearing man, who had a singular vision for the Kingdom of God and no time for underachievers like John Mark. But notice Church, Luke doesn’t give us any hint who is right and who is wrong. From this passage it just seems that they’ve reached different conclusions about John Mark. I think Luke does this to show there were plenty of opportunities for the cause of the gospel in both directions. And while there should never be diversity in our message as we go (it must be the gospel!), there will be diversity in our methods as we seek to reach the world for Christ.
Second lesson. Yes they parted ways, but because they did, there were now two missionary parties going out rather than one. Which meant two groups of people would hear the gospel, not just one. They had an issue, but the issue didn’t stop Paul and Barnabas from doing ministry (opposed to the ‘debilitating’ mentality today). So Church, we will have issues. But have we forgotten that God is sovereign? God is sovereign, wonderfully so! Even over the past two years and all the upheaval we’ve seen and felt. In His sovereignty God has ordains whatsoever comes to pass. Our issues haven’t surprised Him or caught Him off guard. Rather, God intends to use all He allows into our lives for our good and His great glory.
Third lesson. I’ve said a few times Luke never again mentions Barnabas in Acts, it’s just about Paul after the incident. That’s true. But we do have a record of their reconciliation later in Scripture. It is found at the very end of Paul’s life, in the very last chapter, of his last letter (never too late huh?). Paul’s closing words to Timothy are in 2 Tim. 4:11, where he says, “Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.” Timothy will come to Rome, but he’s not to come by himself. He’s to bring John Mark with him. Why? Because Paul has need of him. There once was a time when Paul had no use for John Mark in the mission field, but that has changed now. John Mark has matured, and perhaps Paul has too.
Church, we’re now ending a year we were all glad to welcome. 2021 was thought to be the end of 2020, but things have continued on. And more so, we’re now heading into another new year where it seems like much of the same.
Many of you are facing issues you never thought you’d face. And those issues are causing all kinds of other issues. We need to face it. Issues will always come. Where can we find true peace? Not in the absence of issues, but only in the presence of Christ.
As we spend the next five weeks looking into these things, that’s really what we want to get at. Issues have a way of narrowing our focus so that we only see ‘the issue’ plaguing us. Church, as the new year begins, look higher, look to Christ.
 Ajith Fernando, Acts – NIVAC (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998) 430.
 Hamilton Jr. James M., Jay Sklar, and Brian J. Vickers, eds., ESV Expository Commentary: John-Acts (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2019), 489.
 Derek W. H. Thomas, Acts – Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2011) 438.
 Ibid., 443.