Paul and Barnabas experienced a theological victory at Jerusalem when the Christian church gathered for the first international conference of Christians to decide a theological issue. We call this the first ecumenical council of the church at Jerusalem. Peter, James, and John agreed with Paul and Barnabas, and that theological victory followed their first missionary journey. That's chapter 15 of the Book of Acts.
The importance cannot be overestimated, because the attendees at the church council meeting at Jerusalem decided that the ministry to the Jewish world was the ministry the Holy Spirit had given to the church. It set the stage for the universal sharing of the gospel. It made the church clearly a missionary church. That was all settled at the council at Jerusalem.
Of course, the most important thing they accomplished was to clear the air theologically concerning the sufficiency and centrality of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, and him alone, is all you need for salvation. He fulfills all of the Law and the Prophets, and that was settled by the church at the first ecumenical council. Paul and Barnabas get a great deal of credit for bringing the issue forcefully to the church and meeting with Peter, James, and John to come to that agreement.
Following this Acts 15 council meeting, Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch feeling a sense of elation, and they make plans for the futurebold plans. Then something happens that shows us the human nature of the church.
There arose a sharp contention between Barnabas and Paul, and they separated.
In verse 36 of chapter 15 we read these words: "And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, 'Come, let us return and visit the brethren in every city where we proclaimed the Word of the Lord and see how they are.'"
You'll notice in that sentence there's a clue to how successful their missionary journey had been. Churches had been established in all the places they visited, and now Paul says to Barnabas, "Let's go back and visit all these churches to see what God has done."
"And Barnabas wanted to take with them John, called Mark." Who is this John called Mark? We know he traveled with Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey. He was probably a lad during the time of our Lord's life. He's probably the youngest in the apostolic group. We discover in the letter Paul writes to the Colossians that he's the cousin of Barnabas. We also know that later on this John Mark joins Peter, goes to Rome, and becomes Peter's disciple. In fact, this is the man who writes the Book of Markat least that's the traditional view of the church. Mark later becomes a great friend of Paul's and ministers to Paul in prison. We know about him through Paul's writing in his second letter to Timothy and in the letter to the Colossians, where Paul pays great tribute to this man John Mark.
It's all different, though, at this point. "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."
On their first missionary journey, when they got to Pamphylia about halfway through their journey, and pressures were really building up on Paul and Barnabas, and they were being persecuted and chased from city to city, for some reason (and Luke gives us no clue why) John Mark decided to leave. He went back to Antioch.
Well, as you can see from this passage, that did not sit well with Paul. He did not want to take Mark again, because, after all, he had quit on them. Now watch what happens: "There arose a sharp contention"Luke used a strong word in the Greek here to talk about a sharp disagreement"so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, and Paul chose Silas." Silas is a short form of the long name Silvanius. Silas will be a companion of Paul for the rest of the Book of Acts. "Paul took Silas and departed, being commended"the words being commended refer to both sets of men, Paul and Silas, Barnabas and Mark"by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. And Paul went through Syria and Cilicia strengthening the churches, and he came also to Derby and to Lystra."
Lystra was the city where Paul and Barnabas had been when some of the people thought Barnabas was Zeus and Paul was Hermes. They were going to build a temple around these guys. Close call. Lystra is now where we start the next big phase of Paul's life. He'll meet two friends, Timothy and a physician named Luke, who will be with Paul for the rest of his journey. But we'll save that for later. Right now let's look at this difficult passage that I just read to you.
After the heady string of positive successes, Paul and Barnabas and their church at Antioch now experience a jarring jolt with the sharp dispute between the two leaders, the heroes of the church of Antioch, Paul and Barnabas.
The situation is so human. I don't know about you, but to me it's disappointing to have this passage right here in the middle of the Book of Acts. It's so institutional. You know some people say to me, "I love the Christian faith, but I don't like the institution."
I feel like saying, "I have the institutional passage for you. They're having a staffing problem."
That's what most institutions suffer from. Whether it's corporations like RCA or Shaklee or you name the company, they have some sort of staffing problem: Who's to be vice president? Who's to be president? Who's to be our rep in the western division? You can't trust that guy. You have divisions. It's so institutional.
It's so interpersonal. I should think they'd be above this sort of thing. We should have theological discussions. Why this interpersonal controversy between two people? And that's what it is, between Paul and Barnabas.
I suppose you could even say it's so emotional. Because when you get right down to it, Paul doesn't want John Mark, because John Mark let him down. John Mark disappointed Paul. That's really an emotional issue. And it's in this passage.
And so the result is a division of leadership for reasons that are not founded theologically or founded in the gospel. That poses a problem in figuring out what you're supposed to do with crises like this. There is nothing in Holy Scripture to give you advice on what to do with a who decides to go home halfway through the journey. Is there a commandment on that, the 14th or 15th commandment? There's no guidance for us.
I suppose the forgiveness theology of the Bible would tend to favor Barnabas. If I were going to pick one of the two, I would pick Barnabas, wouldn't you? Paul comes off as so hard and severe, maybe even a little imperial, . Barnabas (after all, his name is Son of Encouragement) comes off milder.
But then is this nepotism? When we later discover that this young man is the cousin of Barnabas, then we wonder if Barnabas is really being so generous or if he is just favoring his relatives. So the whole thing is a tough passage.
What do you do with it? Here you have a division in the church with sharp controversy, and the whole thing is so human. Maybe some people wouldn't want to read the Book of Acts after this point. It's so human, so institutional, so interpersonal and emotional. It doesn't have any theological footing at all, this argument between Paul and Barnabas.
The first gift from Barnabas and Paul's contention is Luke's narration of the controversy.
And yet from this incident, as I see it, we gain four great gifts. Four gifts come to the Christian to us in the 20th century from this event. And therefore the event is terribly important.
The first gift is the fact that Luke narrates the controversy at all. That's a gift. Luke decided to narrate the crisis at First Church, Antioch. He does it in a spare and evenhanded way. In fact, Luke always writes in an understated way, and he continues to do it here. But nevertheless he lays out for you a crisis at Antioch between these two heroes of the early church, Paul and Barnabas. He puts it right out in the open. And I believe that's a gift given to us.
It helps us to upgrade in our own mind the importance of Luke as the historian. In other words, we know we don't have a propaganda document here.
Illustration: One of the problems with propaganda documents, with official documents that nations publish about their heroes, is you wonder how truthful they are. If you read a brochure about Chairman Mao or a brochure about Lenin or even some American history books about George Washington, you wonder, How truthful is this narrative? But Luke leaves it clearly before us that he is writing a historical document in which he fairly and evenhandedly portrays even these warts in the early church. That's a gain for us. It greatly upgrades Luke as a writer. And the importance of Luke as historian is terribly important for us as we continue to journey through this book.
The second gift from Barnabas and Paul's contention is the stance of the church at Antioch.
Now the second gift we have is the stance of the church at Antiocha valuable lesson for Christians and churches in every age. Again we have a spare account here, but we can observe some useful things about human relationships from the way the church at Antioch decides to relate to its two heroes.
First of all, note how they keep the controversy focused on just what it isan honest difference between two , an honest disagreement about whether John Mark should join them on their second missionary journey. They do not enlarge the crisis beyond its true dimensions so that they become confused.
Can I give you some advice for your families and for your church and for your relationships and for your work? You know, it's not bad for a family to have a crisis. It's not bad for a family to have an argument. It's not bad to have an argument in the workplace or in a church. That doesn't do the harm. What does the harm is when the argument gets out of focus, and when you become distracted and confused because a simple argument is made more significant than it really is. Then you cannot really see it for what it is, for it has now become inflated and out of perspective. When that happens in a family, harm happens. When that happens in a church or in a human relationship or in an office, then the harm takes place.
Though the controversy between Paul and Barnabas was sharp, the church at Antioch handled it correctly. They faced it for what it was, but they did not make more of it than it deserved. They didn't become involved in a power struggle over the Barnabas and the Pauline factions. Who's right, Barnabas or Paul? They're both right; they're both wrong. The church decides to leave it and to get on with their job.
As a matter of fact the church commissions them both to go on their mission. "Barnabas, you go to Cyprus. Paul, you go to Lystra. Maybe you won't meet for a while. By the time you meet, you'll be friends again." And that's exactly what happened. The church at Antioch handled it correctly. They did not . They did not overemphasize. They did not the crisis between their two leaders. They sent the missionaries off commended in the grace of God.
If this could happen in a family, then families wouldn't have to buffer so much from arguments. We need to learn to keep minor things minor, let major things stay major, and know the difference between the two. That's how the garbage is taken out, how the lawn is mowed, or how someone paints the bathroom, or the mistakes we make, like the gift someone forgot to give you at Christmas or a birthday. That can be faced for what it is. But when it is given great significance and symbolic importance far beyond what it really deserves, then the harm occurs.
The church at Antioch does not do that. The way they handled it is a gift given to us.
The third gift from Barnabas and Paul's contention is the Holy Spirit's attitude of acceptance.
These third and fourth gifts are the most important. I don't want to diminish the crisis; it may well have left scars, because human crises do leave scars. Perhaps the crisis even leaves a certain residue of contamination, pride, and anger. That happens in a family fight. It happens in a church fight or a disagreement in a workplace. There can often be scars. But what I want you to see in this passage is that the Holy Spirit does not seem to be too troubled by the whole thing. And that's another gift for us.
Barnabas and his cousin John Mark go off to Cyrus. Paul and his friend Silas, later joined by Timothy and Luke, go off to Europe. God honors both of them, and God doesn't seem to be as upset over the fight at Antioch as perhaps we are.
In fact, let me tell you something. If you're an ecclesiastical idealist, this passage may shatter you. You may decide not to read any further in the Book of Acts if you're a person looking for a perfect church. After all, the early church is so wonderful up to this point. There are so many marvelous things happening. Paul and Barnabas are getting such high scores. They resisted the temptation to become Greek gods down at Lystra, and we were cheering them for that. They go off to Jerusalem, and we cheer them for their theological victories in Jerusalem. Now they have a big fight over John Mark. On the one side it may be nepotism. On the other side it may be kind of a , imperial, Paul. (Believe me, Paul will mellow later.) But we look at these two men and we say, "Well, is this the Christian church? Is this the church that's supposed to be the bearer of the Good News for the world? Well, I don't want anything to do with that." If I'm an ecclesiastical idealist, this passage might be a shattering passage.
For instance, if you joined First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley or you joined a Christian church because of all the wonderful people and the wonderful things the church is doing, when you see the clay feet of leaders and people like Barnabas and Paul that you'll meet, you may want to throw in the towel and have nothing more to do with the church.
Sometimes parents or friends will do this. When someone lets you down, you decide to write that person off: "Well, I'm not going to trust you anymore." These kinds of terrible statements we make to each other are where the harm occurs.
But notice the Holy Spirit doesn't act that way toward the church at Antioch. The Holy Spirit doesn't act that way to Paul or Barnabas, though perhaps both of them were and both of them deserved a good kick in the pants. The Holy Spirit doesn't treat them that way. The Holy Spirit continues to use their ministries.
I think this is a gift you can give your children. I'm not talking about making light of sin. No, that's cheap grace, what Bonhoeffer calls the justification of sin instead of the justification of the sinner. I'm not talking about that. No, we believe in costly grace. But sometimes one of the gifts you can give to your children or your friends or colleagues is when you can let them know that when they failed or sinned, it's no big deal. We all sin. God is not so disappointed in our sins as we are. The Holy Spirit is able to cope with his church.
Illustration: In fact, there is a quotation from Chesterton's book Everlasting Man that I love. He's the master of , and in 1925 when he wrote this book, he was commenting on the fact that a lot of people, when they saw war break out in Europe in World War I, were terribly disappointed in the church. They felt that proved the impotence of the church and that it had totally failed. The gospel the church preached had no meaning, because otherwise why would war have broken out in Europe? Chesterton says: "As for the general view that the church [and the gospel] was discredited by the war, they might as well say that the ark was discredited by the flood."
No, the church isn't discredited by the war. The gospel isn't discredited by the war. The church is verified by the war. That proves how much we need forgiveness, and that's what we have to sell. The gift we have to give the world is forgiveness.
And the ark is not discredited by the flood. No, the ark proves that without the ark, we would all be in the flood. The church is like an ark. The church is like a hospital, and sick people are supposed to be here getting well. You cannot blame the church for having sick people in it. If it doesn't have sick people in it, it's not the church. Of course, they're supposed to be getting well.
If the ark is not discredited by the flood, neither is the church discredited by the sinfulness of Paul and Barnabas. It just proves that we need the forgiveness the church's message is proclaiming. Even Paul and Barnabas needed it.
The fourth gift from Barnabas and Paul's contention is that people will become Christians because of Christ and the gospel, not because of the church.
There is a fourth gift that I think comes from this passage. It's a subtle one, but it's importantmaybe the most important of all. Up to this point in the Book of Acts, we may have said we wanted to become Christians because of the church, or because of heroes like Paul and Barnabas. But now, after Chapter 15, we'll not say that anymore. And that means that if anybody is going to become a Christian through the rest of the Book of Acts, it won't be because of Paul. He's tarnished. It won't be because of John Mark. He quit at Pamphylia. It won't be because of Barnabas, and it won't be because of the church at Antioch. It will be because of Jesus Christ and the gospel.
You're going to have to become a Christian in spite of the church from now on in the Book of Acts. And that is a gift. That is a wonderful gift from the 15th chapter. It clears the air, because now, in spite of the weaknesses of Christians, we're going to find the strength of God all the more important. That will be the appeal; that will draw us.
No, as a matter of fact, what we see here in this 15th chapter is the visibility of the churchreal people in a real place discovering God's love, discovering the Good News in their lives. But they're going to need continually that Good News in their lives, or they cannot make it. Paul is going to need that Good News in his life. He's going to need God's love to mellow him, and that happens as these chapters unfold.
And we who are looking at this church and looking at Paul and Barnabas and looking at the message they preach are going to be drawn to the gospel of Jesus Christ, not because of the church of Antioch, as much as we may admire them for their strengths. We now see their weaknesses, and we'll become Christians because of the Lord to whom they belong. And that's a gain. It's still a gain.
Earl Palmer is pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Washington. He has written a number of books and commentaries, including Signposts: Christian Values in an Age of Uncertainty and Mastering Teaching.