God's word often exposes the sins of God's people. In that way, the Bible is a tremendously honest and forthright book. Even in the case of heroes and giants in the faith, the reality of failure or unfortunate behavior is recorded.
I'm thinking specifically here of Paul and Barnabas. They were old friends – Barnabas brought Paul into the church in Jerusalem (Acts 9:27). They worked together in the church in Antioch (Acts 11:25–26). They had been companions in missionary labor, with its attendant hardships (Acts 13–14). They fought together against doctrinal error (Acts 15:2). And yet these two had such a strong disagreement that they had to go their separate ways.
When Paul proposed visiting the churches they had started before, Barnabas wanted to take his nephew, John Mark, with them (Acts 15:36–37). Paul was opposed to that, because John Mark had flaked out on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:13). Neither one would give in, things apparently got heated. "The contention became so sharp that they parted from one another," Acts 15:39), and they each set out in a different direction.
That's a sad, though very common and realistic story, as far as that goes. It teaches us to be humble and not to think that arguments and disagreements can never come to ruin our relationships, even with those who are close to us and with whom we have a long history.
This is a tough conflict because both parties also had a point. Paul was going out to the front lines of missionary endeavor. He and Silas would wind up in prison, before all was said and done. He needed team members he could count on. But Barnabas wasn't just blinded by family ties. John Mark was a person worth investing in for the future.
In this unexpected story, there are at least three blessings:
1) At the time, Paul took Silas and went west; Barnabas took John Mark and went south (Acts 15:39-41). The conflict between laborers meant there was more labor done, in more directions. Blessings resulted from both.
2) For us now, the lessons about conflict and disagreement are still important. There is a time to strike out in different directions; but there is room in the kingdom of God for different kinds of work. Not everyone is suited to the "front lines." But that doesn't make them useless.
3) Years later, Paul would write that Mark was profitable to him (2 Timothy 4:11). Barnabas's investment in his nephew paid off. The guy who chickened out became really useful, even to Paul. History tells us that he labored with Peter, and ultimately wrote the Gospel of Mark.
What an encouragement, that God's grace doesn't leave us where we were!
Rev. Ruben Zartman has been the pastor at Ebenezer Reformed Church in Shafter since 2017.