Parting Company

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Tonight we carry on with our studies in the Acts of the Apostles. We have reached Acts 15.36-41 and the start of a new missionary journey; and my headings will be first, PREVIOUS PROBLEMS, secondly, PURPOSES and PERSONALITIES and, thirdly, PRINCIPLES and PROVIDENCES.


Let me remind you of where we are in the Acts of the Apostles. Verse 36 refers to “some time later.” So when is that?

After the death and Resurrection of Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, Jewish Christians began to spread from Jerusalem across the Roman Empire. Acts 11 tells you how some came to Syrian Antioch, the third great cosmopolitan city of the Empire – the other two being Rome and Alexandria. It was in Antioch you had Jewish believers preaching not only to fellow Jews about Jesus but also to some of the Greek-speaking Gentiles. This is something the Apostle Peter had already been the first to do. In Judea he had preached to Cornelius, a Roman centurion. However, the Jerusalem Jewish Christian leaders wanted to check up on what was happening in Antioch.

They, therefore, sent Barnabas, a believing Jew who found out things were going well. So he went to fetch Paul (still called Saul) from Tarsus in Cilicia, or as we know it, southern Turkey. Acts 11.26 tells us …

“when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people.”

And Luke (the author of the Acts of the Apostles) famously adds,

“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.”

Then after that year’s period of consolidating this new Jewish-Gentile Church in Antioch, Barnabas and Saul went off on the very first church-planting missionary journey. They started in the island of Cyprus and then went over to southern Turkey. But there things became really tough in so many ways. Overall, however, the mission was a great success. We’ve read all about it in Acts 13-14. When eventually they returned home to Antioch, Luke tells us in Acts 14.27-28:“they … reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” Luke underlines the fact of Gentiles coming to faith. And he adds: “And they stayed there [in Antioch] a long time with the disciples.”

Now this “long time” was a critical period. It seems, as we learn from other New Testament evidence, problems over Jewish and Gentile relations then really erupted. We heard last week how there was a resolution to these Jewish-Gentile problems at the Council of Jerusalem. But Luke doesn’t elaborate on any of the specifics of these problems. However, it seems some of the details are in one of Paul’s own letters. He writes this in his letter to the Galatians:

“When Peter [the Apostle] came to Antioch [probably on a visit to the church there during this ‘long time’], I [Paul] opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong” (Gal 2.11).

And why was that? Well, he explains (Galatians 2.12):

“Before certain men came [also on a visit to Antioch] from James [the leader of the Church in Jerusalem], he [Peter] 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. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.”

So what did Paul do? He tells us in the next verses 14-16:

“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? We, who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners”, 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.’”

Here is that great message of “justification by faith in Christ alone” and how you are accepted by God not because of any good works you do, but freely by God’s grace through faith. So you are not accepted as a child of God or saved or born again or any of those vital metaphors by good works, but for good works as Paul later explains in his letter. You come as a sinner to Jesus. Who needs to understand that great truth tonight? And you are never too bad to be saved or too good to need saving?

But Peter and then Barnabas were undermining that truth not by what they were teaching but by what they were doing. They were refusing to eat with the Gentiles. It was hypocrisy not heresy for them. However, from what we read and heard last week in Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem, Peter and Barnabas realized they had acted wrongly. They were again championing the Gentile cause. But the great Council of Jerusalem had to happen because probably there were regularly problems between Jews and Gentiles in this “long time” that Paul and Barnabas were spending in Antioch. So may be Luke is telescoping a number of incidents into verse 1 of chapter 15. This is where we started last week:

“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 brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.”

And we had an excellent exposition of the following verses and that first General Church Council in Jerusalem with its conclusions, last week. So on to verse 36 of chapter 15 and “some time later” than the conclusion of the Jerusalem Council …

… and my second heading, PROPOSALS and PERSONALITIES

Look at verses 36-37:

“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.’ Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them.”

The key proposal comes from Paul. It is to “go back” to the places where they had planted churches in that first missionary journey “and visit the brothers … and see how they are doing.” This was, of course, absolutely vital.

Such further follow up was essential then; and such follow up is essential in the 21st century. Two weeks ago we saw how Paul and Barnabas on that first journey returned to these churches they had recently planted to “strengthen the disciples”. Now they wanted another “church strengthening campaign”. So what sort of thing would they be looking out for this time? Well, there are some basic problems that always have to be addressed. Jesus warns you about them in his Parable of the Sower, that we had as our Gospel reading tonight.

For some the problem is that almost immediately the Devil takes away God’s word the Holy Spirit is bringing into their lives to change them. They are then back to square one. For example, you hear something in church that challenges you. But then you go back home and pick up a paper or watch TV that is utterly secular, less rational and positively unhelpful. And what Jesus predicts in Luke 8.12 comes so true. He says there:

“Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”

And for folk like that, Paul and Barnabas would be able to sow the seed again and then encourage them “to remain true to the faith” as they had done on their first follow-up (Acts 14.22).

Then there is the problem of being like the seed on the rock (Luke 8.13):

“Those on the rock [says Jesus] are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.”

There is a cost to discipleship. So they could remind people as they had emphatically done on that first follow-up visit (also Acts 14.22) that …

“… We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,"

And a third problem and a potential cause of spiritual drift for many people (and I expect for some people here tonight), are the things spoken about in verse 14 of Luke 8. This refers to “the seed that fell among thorns” which, Jesus said,

“… stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life's worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.”

Who tonight is having their Christian faith and their relationship to Jesus Christ choked “by life’s worries, riches and pleasures”?

Undoubtedly there would have been other problems. And Barnabas agrees to this second visit for “strengthening the churches”. He, however, has an additional proposal in verse 37 “to take John, also called Mark, with them.” And this is where the rubber hits the road and you have a problem over personalities, for as verse 38 says:

“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.”

And the result is in verse 39:

“They had such a sharp disagreement that they [Paul and Barnabas] parted company.”

So, look at verse 40 and after “they parted company …

… Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.”

Note, the omission of “the brothers” commending Barnabas and Mark “to the grace of the Lord”. It looks as though there was some reserve over the programme of Barnabas and Mark on the part of the Church in Antioch. Mark, already, has somewhat of a bad press for that previous desertion. In Acts 13.5 at the start of the first missionary journey, we read that John Mark was with Paul and Barnabas “as their helper”. He was a mission assistant on that first journey. But then in verse 13 of chapter 13 we read that “from Paphos [in Cyprus], Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia [in southern Turkey], where John left them to return to Jerusalem.”

Just when the going was going to get tough, John decides to leave the mission. Luke doesn’t comment. He just states it as a fact. However, here in Acts 15 that desertion by Mark, in Paul’s estimation, was a clear “No!” to taking him on another mission. But Barnabas totally disagreed. The original word, translated as “sharp disagreement”, is very strong. So what is going? Well let’s look at these three personalities.

First, Barnabas. In Acts 4.36 Luke tells us that his real name was Joseph, a Jewish Levite from Cyprus And he tells us that Barnabas was a fine Christian man in five ways.

One, he was generous. When there was a serious financial need he sold some property and made the proceeds available to the church.

Two, he was so positive. The other Christians saw him as a great encourager. So they nick-named him “Son of Encouragement” (Barnabas, in the Aramaic). There are some who are always complaining and grumbling and never constructive over problems. But Barnabas was not like that. I was once told on a church leadership course to “avoid negative people”. Well, Barnabas was not a man you wanted to avoid.

Three, it was Barnabas who took Paul (Saul as he then was called and a new convert) under his wing and helped the other early church leaders realise that Paul was not a spy but genuine (Acts 9.27).

Four, Luke describes him in Acts 11.24 as “a good man full of the Holy Spirit and of faith”. And it seems many were converted though his ministry.

Five, as we’ve seen, Barnabas was positive with regard to new Gentile converts when he first went to Antioch as a Jerusalem envoy. But his failing was that he was too nice.

It seems he found it hard upsetting people as you sometimes have to do. And he too easily followed the crowd. As we’ve seen, those were his problems at Antioch when men visited from James and Jerusalem. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians that Barnabas followed Peter in being afraid of those anti-Gentile Jerusalem Jewish Christians …

“so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas [previously a champion of Gentile believers] was led astray”.

That is true to life. There is a great danger for some kind, caring, pastoral people. They find it hard saying “No!” to people. They find conflict so difficult. And when they do find themselves (sooner or later) in conflict situations, they handle things badly as Barnabas seems to have done here with Paul. So today some caring, pastoral type Barnabases, find it hard taking a firm stand on issues that mean or imply others are wrong and have to be opposed. Today that will often be over sexual morality, greed, the uniqueness of Christ and the foolishness of modern secularism, to name some issues that are cropping up not only in the world but even in the churches. Well, so much for Barnabas.

Then there is Mark. What we do know about Mark? Not much, except that he was Barnabas’ cousin according to Paul’s letter to the Colossian Christians (Col 4.10). And, as we have seen, he seems not to have had the bottle for the hardships of southern Turkey.

Then, Paul! Well, we know so much from his amazing correspondence. He is obviously one of the greatest Christians ever. But Paul was not perfect. He makes that clear in Romans chapter 7 and in many other places. But what Paul could do, was say “No!” to what is wrong when necessary. How in this relativistic world we need men and women like that who can be in a minority of one. Yes, Paul was a great pastor as you can see from his letters. He was concerned for people. He was so concerned that he was prepared to sacrifice a personal desire to be liked for their long term good. So much for the personalities.

Finally, and briefly, PRINCIPLES and PROVIDENCE

Paul saw that you need to have only the right people on your team to achieve your goals. Paul knew that on these missionary journeys your life was often under threat. And Jesus had taught that …

“No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God" (Luke 9.62)

So Mark, in Paul’s view, had yet to prove himself. No doubt Barnabas felt you had to be kind to Mark to bring him on. But, as we’ve noted, the judgment of the church at Antioch was that Paul was right and, with his new colleague, Silas, was “commended … to the grace of the Lord”. Barnabas and Mark, were not reported as being similarly commended. However, as we can learn from other parts of the New Testament, before long Paul is on good terms and evangelising again with Barnabas (1 Cor 9.6), and Mark later is an appreciated helper for Paul (2 Tim 4.11). Such is the providence of God.

Even when we do what is wrong, he can bring good out of it. But - and this is a huge “but” - that never justifies doing wrong in the first place. So great good came out of Peter and Barnabas compromising in Antioch and not eating with the Gentiles. That was so wrong. The good, however, was Paul’s great letter to the Galatians which, literally has brought life and eternal life to billions and has changed the world.

In a totally different area there are people (no doubt some here tonight) who have been mixed up maritally or sexually. And they now know that what they did was so wrong. But God has subsequently blessed them and they praise him for it.

And in a parallel area to our incident. Donald McGavran begins his seminal work on Church Growth called Understanding Church Growth by describing how there was phenomenal growth in the Presbyterian Church in Korea in all sections when there was a split. But that doesn’t justify all Church splits. And so here the providence of God - the fact that he is mysteriously sovereign over everything - brought good out of bad.

This row between Paul and Barnabas led to two missions instead of one. Paul went with a new mission partner, Silas, while Barnabas no doubt taught Mark lessons on their much easier mission in Cyprus. But that doesn’t justify the row. As Paul says in Romans 3.8, we must never say:

“Let us do evil that good may result.”

But God in his goodness can turn even evil to good.

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