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

Sermon by Derek Thomas on March 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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