It’s sad. I know too many people who are living with broken and estranged relationships. There are aging parents whose adult children have cut them off from the grandkids. From the other side, some parents treat their adult children as if they didn’t exist; the message is, “You’re dead to me.” And of course, there are friends and siblings who fall out over a misunderstanding and give each other the cold shoulder for years.
It’s nice to think that none of this would happen between Christians, between people who profess to follow a Savior who was God’s living and tangible demonstration of love to a broken world. But no; Christians know all too well the sting of anger and rejection. In fact, Christians in conflict with each other can take on self-righteous airs, each confident that God is on his or her side alone.
Was it that way between Paul and Barnabas? The two served together in the same church; they faced danger together on the mission field. In the book of Acts, at least for a while, they seem like brothers, with the elder Barnabas nurturing the potential he sees in his younger, brasher companion.
But then comes the fatal argument over John Mark (Acts 15:36-41). It’s not a minor tiff; they don’t amicably “agree to disagree.” Luke’s language suggests something more like a shouting match, after which both men walk away from the relationship. Barnabas takes his cousin John Mark and heads west to the island Cyprus, their home; Paul chooses Silas and heads north. And after that less than ideal parting, Barnabas disappears from the story.
That’s definitely not the ending we might have hoped for. But it’s the one we’re given.
We don’t know for certain, of course, what happened after the split. As Paul would later write to the church in Colossae, “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received instructions — if he comes to you, welcome him” (Col 4:10, NRSV). If Paul and John Mark were on good terms by then, Paul would presumably have mended fences with Barnabas too (assuming Barnabas was still alive). The rift was not a permanent one. I like to imagine that they once again embraced as brothers, and laughed together over their former differences.
My point, however, is this: though things should never have come to such a pass between Paul and Barnabas, though the two men should have known better, their conflict did not derail God’s mission.
After the conflict, Paul chose Silas as his new traveling companion, presumably getting a message to him in Jerusalem. Silas, you’ll recall, was one of the two men sent by the Jerusalem council to accompany Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch with the council’s letter. There in Antioch, Paul had ample opportunity to observe Silas’ gifts of prophetic teaching and encouragement among the Gentiles. Silas was also a Roman citizen, as was Paul — a fact which would soon turn to their advantage as missionaries (Acts 16:37).
The story, in other words, continues without Barnabas. Paul takes on Silas, then Timothy, then Luke, and the Spirit-led mission spreads.
Should we, as believers, strive to resolve our conflicts in as loving and peaceful a way as possible? Absolutely. We do so because we are called to embody the character of a loving God, to show the world what our Father is like and what it means to be his devoted children.
None of this, however, should be taken to mean that God won’t bless the work of our hands unless we have our act completely together. Yes, our goal is always to grow and mature, to be more like Jesus. But meanwhile, we can take encouragement in the fact that our gracious God still uses broken, sinful, shortsighted people — people with both gifts and character flaws — to accomplish his will.
In the book of Acts, Luke makes it clear: God is the hero of the story. Not Paul. Not Barnabas, nor Peter, nor anyone else. And let’s face it: if that weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell.