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To the End of the Earth (36): Brotherly Love Strife

Series: To the End of the Earth

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Mar 18, 2007

Acts 15:36-41

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The Lord's Day Evening

March 18, 2007

Acts 15:36-41

To the Ends of the Earth

Brotherly Love Strife

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now turn with me once again to The Acts of The Apostles–or The Acts of The Holy Spirit, or even The Acts of The Risen Christ–because as we have been studying this great book together it is indeed what we have been discovering: that the Lord Jesus, though risen and ascended to the right hand of God, continues to exercise His ministry — that ministry declared so very clearly at Caesarea Philippi: “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

And as a consequence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (that event in itself as a consequence of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus), what we see in the successive chapters of The Acts of The Apostles is Jesus planting His church, spreading it from Jerusalem and to Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.

We followed Paul and Barnabas, and for a while John Mark and others, as they made that first foray into Cyprus, and then across the Mediterranean Sea to Pamphylia, and then upwards to the region that we now know as Galatia, to which Paul will write a letter — The Letter to the Galatians.

We've followed the apostles as they've made their way to places like Lystra and Derbe and Iconium, planting churches by the grace of God; watching as God the Holy Spirit pours out His blessing as tens and hundreds, and in some cases perhaps even thousands, are brought to saving faith in Jesus Christ. We've watched as the apostles carefully chose elders in these churches, because Paul will take at least a year — possibly a year and a half — before he will be back again in the region of Galatia, and they needed oversight. They needed encouragement. They needed instruction, and so elders were appointed to do that very task.

We've followed in more recent weeks something of a crisis that has developed…a sequence of events we've been trying to piece together, piecing together the information in Acts, but also information that Paul gives us in the second chapter of Galatians: the incident in the city of Antioch where dispute has arisen, the work of men of James, important men (probably in an ironic sense as Paul refers to them in Galatians 2). They've come up from Jerusalem. Evidently they've followed Paul and Barnabas in the regions of Galatia, too (we conjecture), as a result of which Peter, you remember, and also Barnabas, withdrew from table fellowship with the Gentiles. Peter, who had been given that vision, you remember, of the great sheet with all kinds of animals and being told so clearly by God that there was nothing clean or unclean…that the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament now were abolished, that the middle wall of partition that had divided Jew and Gentile has been broken down through the mediating work of Jesus Christ.

But all of a sudden that has come to a crisis point once again in Antioch, and into the mix came the issue of circumcision: Should Gentile converts to Christianity be circumcised? Because there were certain Jewish Christians who had long since given such significance to circumcision as something that identified them as covenant people of God that they found it now difficult to imagine that under the new covenant that this sign and seal of the covenant of grace was now no longer a requirement. We've watched as that has unfolded in a Council that took place in Jerusalem…a letter that was written…the immensely significant decision that circumcision is not to be required of the Gentiles. Four stipulations added…we looked at that last week. It was all terribly complicated. We aren't going to rehearse that again this evening, or I’ll never get into the sermon that I need to get into this evening.

But they've made their way back to Antioch. Judas and Silas have come up from Jerusalem. Evidently Judas and Silas have returned to Jerusalem. Some of your translations suggest that Silas never went back to Jerusalem. We’ll come to that in a moment. Bear with me; that's an issue of the text, and some of your translations have something in verse 34, and some of your translations have nothing in verse 34, and something by way of a footnote explaining that particular problem.

And then, another problem. Just when you think everything is fine and dandy and wonderful, and the roses smell beautiful in Antioch once more, and Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians have hugged (if I can take Brad Irick's talk a little further) and made up, all of a sudden another problem emerges. It's like that in church life, isn't it, that problems sometimes come in waves. Just when one thing has been resolved, another thing comes in its wake. It's like — oh, I'm not sure what metaphor to use — plastering Jell-O to the wall? Holding down a balloon? Whatever metaphor you want to use…but there are problems emerging. Now it's a personal problem once again, with Paul–not Paul and Peter, as it had been in Antioch, but now Paul and Barnabas. And we pick up the reading at verse 36 of chapter 15.

Before we read the passage together, let's ask for God's blessing. Let's pray.

Father, we thank You again for the Scriptures–the Bible inerrant, Your authorative word, profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work. Help us, Lord, to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest by the help of Your Spirit and for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Hear the word of God:

“And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.’ And Barnabas was desirous of taking John, called Mark, along with them also. But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and departed, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”

“People who voluntarily punish themselves for their own offenses deserve gentle treatment.”

Well, that's John Calvin. He's quoting on this incident here. He's commenting on this incident here. He is alluding to John Mark, who evidently has shown, according to Calvin, a measure of repentance. He's come back evidently from Jerusalem where he lives with his mother in a house that's terribly significant for the apostles and disciples, and even at one point, I think, for Jesus: the place of the Last Supper, in all likelihood. And John Mark, having left, having abandoned the work in Pamphylia (he’d gone to Cyprus with Paul and Barnabas and then crossed the Mediterranean mainland), but there in Pamphylia, in that coastal town of Pamphylia, made a hasty retreat presumably back home to Jerusalem while Paul and Barnabas went on ahead on what we now know as the first missionary journey.

Well, he's now back in Antioch. He's probably traveled up with Paul and Barnabas and some others — Judas and Silas — following the Jerusalem Council and the decree, the letter, that had been written.

“People who voluntarily punish themselves for their own offenses deserve gentle treatment.” You get the impression immediately that Calvin is not on the side of Paul here. Calvin is suggesting (and we’ll come to some stronger words by Calvin in a minute) that Paul is displaying something of an error of judgment in regard to John Mark.

I. The conflict.

Luke tells us that it's a tense moment, just as the occasion that Luke doesn't record, but Paul records in Galatians 2, the occasion between Peter and Paul must have been a tense moment. You don't argue with the Apostle Paul. You need to be sure of your grounds to stand up to the Apostle Paul. Already he's not the Paul that he will be; he doesn't quite yet have the reputation and stature that he will have, but already he is certainly the leader of the Gentile movement. If James is probably the leader of the Jewish movement in Jerusalem, Paul by this time is by far and away seen as the leader, even from this point onwards outstripping Barnabas. (You remember how Luke had originally put “Barnabas and Paul”, but from now on it's always going to be “Paul” and no sign of Barnabas.) “A sharp disagreement” in verse 39…the Greek suggests a sickle, something sharp, something painful. Passions are aroused. You got the sense of that in verse 38 in the rendition of the New American Standard Version. Paul “kept insisting” — you have to read into that a little and see that there was a debate here. No, there was a disagreement here, a strong disagreement, and arguments on both sides were being leveled. Emotions got probably engaged, and Paul stood his ground. He “kept insisting” on his point of view with regard to John Mark.

Who was correct? Paul or Barnabas? We’re almost forced to ask that question. Luke doesn't tell us, you understand. You have to read hard into the text even to get a hint of what Luke himself thought. Now, Luke knew Paul. In a moment, in chapter 16 at the tenth verse, we begin those famous “we” passages. All of a sudden Luke is including himself in the journey. All of a sudden when the man from Macedonia–the vision, you remember, that takes Paul and Silas and others across the Aegean to places like Philippi and Thessalonica and Corinth–all of a sudden Luke is there. He's joined them. He's in the story. Luke knows Paul. He knows his temperament. He could tell you things about Paul that you don't even want to know! He knows Paul from the inside out. He's seen Paul at his weakest; he's seen Paul when he's tired. But Luke doesn't attempt here to pick sides. He just records the story. But it's sufficient for us, I think, to get the sense that this is a really tense moment in the church.

I've had tense moments in my thirty years of ministry in the church. I remember standing up one time to a deacon (not in First Pres!)…I remember one time standing up to a deacon, and I honestly thought for a minute he was going to punch me! It was that tense! I remember sitting in the car outside his house — it was nighttime — shaking like a leaf. It takes something to make me shake like a leaf, but I'm not ashamed to confess I was not fit to drive for about thirty minutes.

This is a tense moment. Paul is resolute: Barnabas, the son of encouragement, is resolute. What are the circumstances of the conflict, first of all? Because what we have here is a conflict. It's an interpersonal conflict. It's a conflict between two men, two leaders, two gifted individuals, two men of enormous usefulness, and they are in conflict. They are in disagreement. And there are consequences concerning their disagreement — huge consequences, enormous ramifications will ensue (especially for one, I think) as a result of this conflict.

II. What are the circumstances?

Well, the circumstances are quite simple. Paul has returned to Antioch along with Barnabas, along with Judas and Silas. They've come to explain the Jerusalem decree. They've come to explain that circumcision is no longer required of Gentiles because it would be a violation of the gospel. It would be a violation of justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Paul had won this great and important victory for the gospel, for justification, for the place of works in justification. It has no place in justification. It's an important point, and Paul will make a great deal of it. He's already made a great deal of it as he’d written a letter to the Galatians, who are equally troubled about this issue.

But a year has gone by, maybe more than that (verse 36): “After some days….” You know, Luke's a historian, and he's not giving you precise details here. This suggests that perhaps the winter of 48 A.D. had given way to spring of 49 A.D., and spring is the time of travel. You didn't travel much in wintertime, but springtime has come, and maybe that's what Luke is suggesting here. If so, then 14-15 months perhaps have gone by since they were last in the province of Galatia. A lot can happen in a year, and Paul is concerned about the churches in Galatia. They had been ravaged by the Judaisers. It's all too possible that some of these Judaisers from Jerusalem had traveled in the region of Galatia insisting that the Gentiles be circumcised… undermining, in Paul's mind, the doctrine of justification by faith alone…undermining the gospel. That's why, I think, they had appointed elders, to ensure a certain stability for the church. But a lot can happen in a year. Were the churches growing? (Isn't that what we were thinking about this morning?)And Paul is thinking about that about the Galatian churches. Were they growing? Were they stable? Were they in trouble? Let's go back and see. It's not a divine revelation that Paul seems to have got. He's suggesting this to Barnabas as a sanctified good idea, to go back and visit the churches that they planted and to see how they’re doing. And Barnabas wants to take John Mark with him.

Evidently John Mark is there. He's come up from Jerusalem. John Mark, you understand, is Barnabas’ cousin…first cousin. John Mark has a mother in Jerusalem called Mary — Barnabas’ Aunt Mary. It was the house, in all probability, that they stayed in when they went to Jerusalem. It was probably the same house in which the Last Supper was held. If you take a tour of Jerusalem today, it's this house purportedly that you’re taken to in Jerusalem…the location supposedly of the Last Supper. Well, you Southerners understand this! It's family! Of all people, you understand this. I mean, no matter how wrong your children are or your cousins are, or your brothers or aunts are, they’re family, so you’re going to stand up for them. You’re going to say the best things about them. Barnabas wants to take John Mark.

You get the sense…Luke doesn't tell us…I'm reading into the text a little, but you can understand that maybe there's some pressure here. Maybe Mary has suggested to Barnabas, ‘Take John Mark back with you. Give him a second chance.’ She might have been eager for her son to be involved in gospel ministry — a laudable concern, a laudable ambition.

But Paul says no. Absolutely no way. He keeps on insisting that there is no possibility of John Mark going with them back to Galatia. You notice the language. Now, you remember in the original text when Luke told us that John Mark left them to go home, that's all Luke said. He never gave any comment as to why John Mark had gone. Now read verse 38. These aren't Luke's words, they’re Paul's words that Luke is reporting:

“Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.”

It's the language of desertion.

Well, now, that's loaded language in any language, in any context. In any sphere, that's pretty loaded language. John Mark is a deserter. John Mark had left them in the lurch. John Mark was a quitter. Let's take this to its limits. I'm not saying that this is legitimate, but this is how one renders this passage. It's not a translation, it's a paraphrase. It's Eugene Peterson's The Message:

“Barnabas wanted to take John along, the John nicknamed Mark, but Paul wouldn't have him. He wasn't about to take a quitter.”

He wasn't about to take a quitter…. So you've got all the makings of a great brouhaha in the church. Two leaders of the church in a logjam. They've locked horns on John Mark. He's a deserter, Paul says. He's a quitter. He lost his nerve.

I don't know what John Mark saw in Pamphylia; he seemed to have been all right in Cyprus. Perhaps he saw something in Pamphylia of what being a missionary actually meant.

What was the nature of the disagreement? What was the nature of the conflict?

Well, Luke says two interesting things. He says first of all something about its severity. He says “there arose a sharp disagreement.” A sharp disagreement (verse 39).

Now, commentators are all over the map. I mean some of them are on Paul's side, some of them are on Barnabas’ side, and some of them are somewhere in the middle. On those who are definitely not on Paul's side — let me give you a couple of examples:

“Paul had fought and won one of history's most critical battles over the Gentile converts. He was not, however, able to apply the same truth to his relationship with John Mark.”

Ooo! Ouch!

Listen to Calvin. Calvin is commenting not so much about John Mark, but about John Mark's mother, Mary, with whom Barnabas would have, of course, somewhat of a loyal familial relationship:

“Allowance [Calvin said] might have been made for John Mark's youth and inexperience, giving in at first onset of trouble. That did not mean that he would be a cowardly soldier all his life. Surely Paul ought to have borne with such a high and good-hearted woman, and not alienated her by being so harsh. She wanted her son to be devoted to the preaching of the gospel. It might have been a great sadness to have her son's help spurned for one small fault.”

That's pretty straightforward. Calvin is definitely not on the side of Paul here. Paul is being stubborn. Paul is saying you desert once, and it's over. You cannot come a second time.

Now others take a very different tack. Some take a kind of mediating position. Some are suggesting that what you see here is a legitimate concern on both sides. Paul has concerns about John Mark. Maybe concerns about Barnabas, too. You remember Barnabas, along with Peter, had refused to eat with the Gentiles in Antioch. This same problem is likely to develop back in Galatia again. It's perfectly understandable that Barnabas, this warm-hearted, good-natured man, this Levite from Cyprus, would urge that John Mark be given a second chance. Who doesn't deserve a second chance? Everybody deserves a second chance.

And then others are on Paul's side. Others — they’re reading into the text…there's no evidence for it — but they’re a little suspicious that maybe the incident in Antioch had been brought about by John Mark. Maybe it was John Mark's vacillation that had encouraged the situation in Antioch that had led Peter and Barnabas, his cousin, to make this stand. Maybe Barnabas himself is to blame. Maybe what lies behind this is that Paul doesn't think that Barnabas - not just John Mark, but Barnabas - shouldn't go back to Galatia, because having vacillated in Antioch maybe he's going to do it again in Galatia. It's a sharp disagreement, and who knows who's right here. It will be interesting to do a straw poll: Who's on Paul's side? Who's on Barnabas’ side here?

You know, we don't know the facts. That's how conflicts begin, by the way, when we don't know the facts. When we make judgments and we don't have all the facts and figures. All that we're told is that there was a conflict, and it was severe.

And it was unresolved. Don't you think that when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the church in such blessing and revival, as is obviously taking place here in The Acts of The Apostles, that tensions like this and conflicts like this would be resolved? I mean, isn't that what Christianity is about? Isn't that what being in the church is all about? Evidently not. We’re sinners still. We live in a fallen world still, even in the church. I mean, I know First Pres is perfect, but every other church has these problems! They agree to disagree. The best of Christians can disagree, and disagree on a personal level, and disagree in their evaluation of others, in their evaluation of the stability and usefulness of others. They can disagree about who's to be an elder, and who should be a deacon, and who should teach Sunday School. There's a disagreement here in their evaluation of the stability of this man. It's an unresolved issue. It's an unresolvable issue, at least at this stage.

III. What is the outcome of the conflict.

But in the third place, and this is perhaps the most important thing, what is the outcome of this conflict? The outcome of this conflict is that Paul went one way and Barnabas went another. Barnabas took John Mark, and took him to his home in Cyprus. Actually Barnabas is still remembered in Cyprus. If you visit Cyprus today, in the Orthodox Church Barnabas is still a great name, of course. But you know, we never hear about Barnabas again. You can rifle through all the pages of Acts, and Barnabas disappears now. The focus of attention is entirely that of Paul.

Now don't be jumping to conclusions. I don't think we're meant to jump to conclusions and say, well, therefore Paul was right. But there were consequences, because at least in some sense the work continued, but the conflict between Paul and Barnabas at least for the time being was unresolvable.

Paul took Silas. We’ll hear more about Silas in the coming weeks. But what happened to John Mark? I mean, don't you feel sorry for John Mark? Don't you feel a little sympathy for him, this young man who had failed? I mean... Hands up here, somebody who has never failed, ever, as a Christian, about anything. I mean, where are the perfectionists here? Don't you feel some sympathy for John Mark? It took some courage for John Mark to come back to Antioch, to be there perhaps beside Barnabas and to offer himself, with Barnabas’ encouragement, to go back on something in which he had failed. It takes some courage. That's why Calvin says people like that should be dealt with gently.

The next mention of John Mark occurs in the epistle of Paul to the Colossians. In chapter 4 at verse 11–it's written roughly A.D. 60, so maybe 10-11 years from now–and Paul is evidently in Rome, but so is John Mark. At the end of Colossians, he gives greetings from three Jewish converts and three Gentile converts, and among those six people is Mark. Mark is in Rome, and Paul says (referring to all six of them, including Mark), “They are a comfort to me.” Aah! The fences have begun to be mended, then!

The next reference to John Mark is in Paul's last letter, in II Timothy in chapter 4 and verse 11. This is the swan song of the Apostle Paul. These are his closing words. And Mark — John Mark — is with Paul in prison. Paul is waiting. As far as he knows, he's waiting his execution. It's from here that he will be taken out and executed. And he says about John Mark: “He is very useful to me for ministry.”

Now, there was a Dutch jurist by the name of Hugo Grotius who said that his usefulness to Paul was that he spoke Latin. Isn't it incredible? Isn't it a wonder? You know, years later John Mark and Paul are side by side, and this man who had stood firm and resolute and said no way was John Mark going on that second missionary journey, he's saying about John Mark, “He's very useful to me.”

The next reference to John Mark is in Peter, in I Peter 5:13, where Peter refers to John Mark as “my son.” It's a little hint. You all know the story, of course. What was John Mark's greatest accomplishment? The writing of The Gospel of Mark. It's this man: this failure, this deserter, this quitter, this man who deserted us in our hour of need. And that's the man God chose to write The Gospel of Mark.

You see, my friends–and of course the tradition is that it is Peter who is whispering in Mark's ear the contents of The Gospel of Mark, as Papias and Josephus and others relay–you see what this is saying? Some of you are John Marks, and you have failed–and maybe failed publicly. I've had my share of failures…one that I will remember for the rest of my days. I know what it is to knock on someone's house and ask for forgiveness, because I behaved in a terrible way…said something that was completely inappropriate. And to knock on the door and to be told, “You are not welcome in this place,” and the door slammed in your face, and [knock-knock-knock] knock the second time, and have it occur a second time. And knock a third time, until eventually I was asked in, and went on hands and knees (not literally, but spiritually and internally) begging for forgiveness, because I was utterly in the wrong. And here is John Mark, and God uses him.

You see, maybe you’re saying to yourself, “Can God use me? Can God use me, a failure?” And the answer is, of course, “Yes. Because there's grace with God. But there is forgiveness with God, that He may be feared (Psalm 130).” Isn't that the most beautiful thing in all the world, that there is forgiveness with God, that He may be feared?

Out of this little text of great conflict, you know, there blossoms a rose. It's the rose of what the gospel of God's sovereign grace can do in the lives of His people.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You that we are living and abiding in powerful words. Hide it in our hearts, that we might not sin against You, and give us hope in believing in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.