Missions and Irreconcilable Differences (Acts 15:36-41)


Some days have passed (Μετὰ δέ τινας ἡμέρας) since the conflict concerning circumcision was resolved with a word from Jerusalem (Acts 15:30-31). The contention was settled with a letter from leadership delivered by four men: Barsabas, Silas, Barnabas, and Paul. The former two, Barsabas and Silas, are leading men from among the disciples of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:22); they were selected by the Jerusalem apostles, elders, and brethren to accompany the letter. The latter two, Barnabas and Paul, are leading men from among the brethren of the church in Antioch (Acts 13:1-3; 14:26). They had been sent earlier to Jerusalem to get clarification concerning the circumcision question (Acts 15:1-2).

The letter revealed that the commotion-causing men who came trying to compel the Gentiles to be circumcised were not official. They had not been sent – they just went (Acts 15:24).

Not Sent, Just Went (Acts 15:24, NKJV) — 24 Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law”—to whom we gave no such commandment

(Deuteronomy 13:13; Acts 15:24; 1 John 2:19)

More important than the going is the order to go (Matthew 28:18-20). Those that went because they were sent were apostles and the effect of the Spirit through them was apostolic; foundation was laid through their labors. Those that went without being sent were authors of confusion, antagonists of the faith, and always advancing an agenda that ultimately did not bring the kingdom.

And so it is today. There are some whose going is an obedient response to the mission given by the Master. They are surrendered to the Spirit and examine everything in light of His word (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Their program is not their own; They are sent.

And there are some who have not been called or dispatched. For all their fine-sounding words they are false prophets. There is no anointing on their preaching and no power in their service. Though they use many self-given titles they are without authority and work assiduously to undermine the will of God in favor of their own program. Who are they? Those that just went.

Just Went (1 John 2:19, NKJV) — 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.

But now the commotion has been removed and thoughts of missions and discipleship begin to take precedence again.

Missing / Not Missing Mark (Acts 15:36-38)

Having fought successfully against the false doctrine that threatened their fellowship Paul now proposes something in line with the mandate to make disciples: “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.” After all of the distraction brought on by the legalists, the trip required to quell the trouble, and the glad resolution to have the Gentiles remain as they are in Christ, the idea of going on a plain old missionary journey sounds pretty good. Barnabas is in support of this idea and was determined to take with them John called Mark (Acts 15:37). He is a young man that had accompanied them on their first missionary journey out of Antioch on the Orontes; Mark is Barnabas’ cousin (Colossians 4:10).

Paul’s determination to not take Mark is as strong as Barnabas resolve to have him in their company. I can imagine Paul’s words:

“When we were in Pamphylia this young man left us. He did not continue beyond the island of Cyprus for the real work that would lay ahead. Don’t want him on the trip. Can’t use a man like that.” (Acts 13:13)

Luke is careful not to give his readership a side in the relating of the history. No indication is given that he favored Barnabas’ position or Paul’s position.

The Better Plan (Acts 15:39-41, NKJV)

39 Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Although Barnabas is characterized as being Spirit-filled and meek he is not week. The suggestion that Mark not make the trip was not okay with him and the old friend of Paul stuck to his position – Mark should go! The former pharisee was not a weak-willed man either; even stoning could not break his commitment to preaching the word of God. He stuck to his position – Mark should not go! And the disagreement (παροξυσμὸς) between godly men became discord. And at last it led to a decision to part ways.

The story of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas does not make pleasant reading, but Luke’s realism in recording it helps us to remember that the two men, as they themselves said to the people of Lystra, were “human beings with feelings like” any other. Luke does not relate the dispute in such a way as to put Paul in the right and Barnabas in the wrong. In view of Luke’s restraint, it is idle for the reader to try to apportion the blame.

Bruce, F. F. (1988). The Book of the Acts (p. 301). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Barnabas would take Mark and go back to Cyprus. He would hold on to Mark return to the place where formerly the young man had not been able to hold up. Paul would choose someone else to travel with him in the work of strengthening the churches: Silas. His traveling companion would preach with him, be beaten for doing right with him, go to jail with him, and sing songs with him as they sat in the shackles of a jail in Philippi.

But who was right? The fellowship that heard the matter did not have a problem supporting Paul and Silas on another journey. And Barnabas’ decision to keep discipling Mark would later become a blessing to the body of Christ.


Mark was probably not ready for the rigors of another journey with Paul. It was the right decision, in light of recent history (Acts 13:13) and subsequent trials (Acts 16:16-24), for the Pharisee-turned-Jesus-follower to cut him from the team. And yet John Mark was not a lost cause; he was a young man who was yet to bear much fruit. Under the encouraging tutelage of Barnabas and Peter the apostle he would eventually be used by God to make the gospel of Jesus Christ easier to share. Mark’s reoccurring name in the New Testament is an ongoing reminder of what can happen when we stay the course in walking with someone who has fallen short.

  • Mark is Regarded as Worthy of Welcome (Colossians 4:10, NKJV)
  • Mark is Mentored toward Maturity (1 Peter 5:13, NKJV)
  • Mark becomes Useful for Ministry (2 Timothy 4:11, NKJV)

The differences between Paul and Barnabas concerning John Mark could not be resolved. But if I learn anything from this passage I am made to see this: The irreconcilable differences of important individuals cannot derail discipleship, dispense with disciples, or distract from the mission of making Jesus known. And we must not overlook the fact that when Barnabas and Paul went their separate ways the number of experienced missionary teams going out of Antioch was doubled. What looked at first like a setback was actually a setup for the springing forward of Christian mission. In the irreconcilable differences of Paul and Barnabas was birthed the indisputable benefit of a division of labor for a vast harvest (Matthew 9:37).

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. 36 But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. 37 Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. 38 Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:35–38)