Gospel Hope When Facing Conflict
Passage: Acts 15:36–15:41
The Church Facing Conflict
You know the feeling—the knot in your throat; the stomach churning; the tightness in your chest; the sweat on your palms; the knee bouncing rapidly under the table; the worry about what’s next; the fear of being misunderstood. That “pleasant” atmosphere of conflict!
Conflict. We all must face it, or we spend our lives dodging it. But conflict shouldn’t surprise us. As Christians, we believe the world is fallen. People are stubborn. Perspectives are limited. Relationships are complicated. So conflict is understandable on this side of Adam’s rebellion, and often unavoidable.
But that doesn’t mean we’re without hope. As we continue in Acts, we encounter a conflict between leading men in the church. This is a new obstacle. So far we’ve watched the mission of Jesus advance in the face of obstacles without and obstacles within. Satanic powers, enemy persecution, ethnic pride, idolatrous paganism—these outside obstacles threaten the gospel’s advance but with no success.
Yet far more dangerous have been those obstacles within the church. Moral rebellion: a married couple lies to the Holy Spirit about their possessions (Acts 5:1-11). Practical needs: some widows find themselves neglected in the daily distribution (Acts 6:1-6). Theological confusion: how does the Law function with all these Gentiles coming in (Acts 15:5-35)? But in each case, we’ve witnessed the Lord working, the gospel prevailing, the mission advancing, and the church growing.
Will all that gospel-prevailing activity continue when two of the church’s leading men butt heads? And if all that gospel-prevailing activity continues in the face of intense conflict, what hope might God’s word be offering us this morning? Before answering those questions, let’s read our passage beginning in verse 36…
36 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” 37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
A Concern for Strong, Healthy, Maturing Churches
The passage begins with a concern for strong, healthy, maturing churches. Both Paul and Barnabas share this concern. In chapters 13 and 14, they complete a mission through Cyprus, up through Perga to Antioch, and over to Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, and then back again. There’s a map on the screen of their missionary journey. They preach the gospel. They disciple believers. They plant churches.
But some time has passed since they’ve returned. In 14:28 they spent “no little time with the disciples” in Antioch. Also, with all the travel and debate at the Jerusalem Council, we’re looking at another four to six months on top of that. They don’t have phones and Skype and email, so they don’t really know how things are going. So Paul says, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are” (Acts 15:36).
Missionary work includes great concern for strong, healthy, maturing churches. You’ll find this all over the letters in your New Testament. Romans 1:8, “I long to see you, that I may impart some spiritual gift to strengthen you;” 1 Corinthians 4:17, “That’s why I sent you Timothy…to remind you of my ways in Christ;” 2 Corinthians 11:28, “There is the daily pressure on me of my concern for all the churches;” Colossians 1:28, “[Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” Maturity in Christ is the goal.
The apostles don’t just make converts; they make disciples. They gather believers into churches and labor to see the churches thriving in Christ. Part of laboring for their maturity includes delivering the results of the Jerusalem Council. They drafted a letter, remember? They wanted all the Gentile churches to know how the Law functioned and also how they should live in relation to idolatry around them.
This letter was to go to all the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (Acts 15:23). But to this point, only Antioch benefitted from the letter. They’ve still got to deliver it to the other churches they planted. So this is part of the reason they want to go, and need to go. “Come on, Barnabas, let’s go check on all the churches. Let’s be sure they too benefit from this letter, just like the church in Antioch did (cf. Acts 16:4).”
A Conflict: Should Mark Accompany Them?
But then we encounter a conflict. The conflict originates over whether Mark should accompany them on the next missionary journey. Now, let’s work through the backstory with Mark. And pay attention here, because it’ll influence the way we understand the conflict, as well as the decision in verse 39.
We first meet Mark at 12:25. He returns from Jerusalem with Paul and Barnabas. Mark then assists Paul and Barnabas in their missionary work through Cyprus. Look at 13:4-5, “So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John [that’s Mark] to assist them.” They went together through the whole island (Acts 13:6).
Now drop down to 13:13. “Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem.” John, or Mark, hung in there throughout the mission in Cyprus, but then he left. We don’t get the reason why, only that he did. The way Paul describes it in 15:38—it could mean he apostasized. The same language appears in Luke 8:13 about the seed sown among the rocks: these folks believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.
But that’s not the only way it appears in the New Testament. It could also mean he simply didn’t find himself cut out for that particular work, and so he just left it—not that he left the faith, but just them. Whatever the case, months have passed since Mark left, maybe even years. And at some point Mark returns to Antioch. Silas is back as well. And Barnabas wants Mark to assist them on this next journey. Paul doesn’t like it. Verse 37, “Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best [or, he kept insisting] not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.”
To be clear, this is not a conflict over Mark’s morality or Mark’s theology, or even Barnabas’s theology. You’ll find some scholars thinking this is just carryover from the situation in Galatians 2, where Barnabas acts hypocritically with the Gentiles. They speculate that Paul is still upset about the whole ordeal. But that’s going well beyond what the text says. This isn’t a conflict over morality or theology—on those matters they agree. So we can’t use this to support the idea of just agreeing to disagree on matters of theology and morality.
This conflict is over strategy, or what’s most prudent. What’s best for the missionary work? Barnabas thinks Mark is an asset; and it might also help us to note that Mark is Barnabas’s cousin (Col 4:10). Paul questions whether Mark is fit for this particular journey. And Luke is very real about the nature of their conflict. He doesn’t whitewash the matter. Verse 39 says, “There arose a sharp disagreement.” It’s intense. It’s portrayed negatively. All the feelings that come with conflict, you feel just reading it. And it’s between two of the church’s best men. Will the churches get strengthened? Or will these guys keep butting heads so much that they neglect the mission?
It’s rather interesting that Luke never takes a side. I mean he’s the one who includes the conflict. Wouldn’t a little comment or two be nice? Something like, “Well, Barnabas certainly made a good case, but Paul was ultimately right here. Mark really wasn’t ready.” Or, “Well, Paul got a bit fussy and exaggerated the matter a bit; ultimately Barnabas was right. Give Mark another chance.” We don’t get anything like that. We’re just left hanging. Which means Luke has a different purpose.
We’re not supposed to figure that out; we’re supposed to see something else. One purpose he has is apologetic: his realism lends itself to greater credibility; and I’ll say more about that in a minute. Another purpose is literary: for the next three chapters, he follows Paul and Silas; and it’s not like he could just ignore how they ended up together. But the far greater purpose here is to display the Lord Jesus’ sovereign, gracious care for his churches, despite the failings of men, despite the limited perspectives of men, despite the stubborn, “we must do it my way,” insistence of men.
A Compromise to Divide the Work
That leads us now to the compromise they make to divide the work. Verse 39, “And there arose a sharp disagreement, [with the result that] they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”
What was their original concern? Verse 36, to return and visit the brothers in every city where they proclaimed the word of the Lord. They remain committed to that original concern. But the way the conflict happens to work out is not with one team covering all the cities, but with two teams.
Some of those cities are in Cyprus. And if you recall, Mark actually stayed with them throughout Cyprus. He didn’t leave until Paul and Barnabas advanced to Perga. What a kindness of the Lord, we see here! Barnabas takes Mark to visit the churches in Cyprus, where Mark had already been faithful before. More than that, Cyprus is where Barnabas grew up—we learn that from 4:36. So, it seems to be a most suitable context for them to serve. And if you read the rest of Acts, Paul never returns to Cyprus again; he knows Barnabas and Mark have those cities covered.
On top of that, Paul gets Silas, and they go to Syria and Cilicia to strengthen the churches. This is rather significant because Silas was one of the guys Jerusalem sent to Antioch with the letter. He’s one of the chosen men to give further legitimacy to the letter about the Law and Gentiles and so forth. The letter is specifically addressed to the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. If Paul’s going there, Silas is one of the guys you want; and the Lord works it out so that he goes with Paul.
In other words, even though Paul and Barnabas disagree to the point of separation; the Lord still works it out in the end to accomplish his purpose and he does so with utmost carefulness. Even more, the broader witness of the New Testament shows the Lord also worked in great ways between Paul, Barnabas, and Mark. With Barnabas, Paul speaks of him in respectful ways (1 Cor 9:6).
With Mark, listen to these verses. Colossians 4:10-11, “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me.” Wow. Paul could’ve kept Mark at arm’s length. Mark could’ve written Paul off for not considering him. But the Lord works such that Mark becomes a comfort to Paul while he’s in prison.
Or this one, 2 Timothy 4:11. Paul is in prison. He’s at the end of his life. And he says this: “Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” Again in Philemon 24, he calls Mark a “fellow worker.” And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Mark ends up writing one of our four Gospels.
The separation wasn’t one in which they remained bitter rivals. It wasn’t a separation where the grace of God never worked anything new. Rather, the separation became the occasion for the grace of God to shine even more, despite the weaknesses of men. That doesn’t mean we pursue separation. But only that separation between men didn’t ultimately compromise the gracious purposes of God.
Here we see God’s gracious work in the midst of conflict. And the hope is that his gracious work continues to prevail as the church commends Paul and Silas to the grace of the Lord. If the mission of the church is to succeed, it will only do so by the grace of the Lord Jesus. We’re utterly dependent on him to work despite our weaknesses and sin.
Isn’t this what we see in the cross? God graciously working for our good despite our weaknesses and sin. We raged against his will. We raged against each other. We were enemies of God and enemies of each other. If there was ever a conflict raging, it was the cosmic conflict caused by our sin. Yet, the Lord graciously worked in and through it all to bring us the Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave himself to reconcile us to God and to one another; and Jesus rose from the dead to bring us into a New Heaven and Earth. If the greatest, cosmic conflict is no match for God’s sovereign grace, then neither are these petty conflicts that happen now. He will achieve his purpose.
Luke’s realism supports that Acts is a trustworthy account
So what does this passage mean for us? I’ve got six takeaways for you to consider. One, Luke’s realism supports that Acts is a trustworthy account. Sometimes historians would bypass things that could reflect more negatively on the movement they belonged to. An example is Josephus. Josephus was a Jewish historian in the first century, but his history writing became incredibly biased when things got tense with Rome. In his work Antiquities, he exaggerates the good qualities of Jews while ignoring their historical failures; and he does it to promote the Jewish agenda.[i]
That’s not how Luke operates. He points to the ideal, but doesn’t ignore when the church doesn’t live up to that ideal. He’s very real about the obstacles that arise; and then uses them to glorify the grace of God and the power of Jesus, and also help us learn from the negative examples. Good biography will do that. It will commend the positive. But it will also help us learn from the negative.
Make strong, healthy, maturing churches a priority
What can we learn from the positive? Well, that brings me to number two: make strong, healthy, maturing churches a priority. Paul and Barnabas share this concern. God shares this concern as we see him guiding the apostles throughout Acts. And we should have this concern. Do you have this desire, this passion? “I’ve got to see how my brothers and sisters are doing?! Are they walking with Christ?! Is he still precious to them?! What are their needs?! How can I help?!”
Look, that doesn’t mean you need to be directly involved with every church you know of. But it should at least be the concern you have for this one—the one you committed to and covenanted to serve. Are you seeing this church onto maturity? Do we share this concern for one another: “Let’s see how they are!” Or, do we let weeks and months go by with little investment, with little concern, with minimal attention to the care structures we agreed to like corporate worship, care group, and members meetings?
There are people in this body hurting, some needing discipleship, others needing just a friend who consistently cares. Don’t assume that’s just going to happen. Don’t assume the elders can just handle that all. We can’t. We can do some. But we need you involved too. We need you on the phone, you face to face, you seeking the Lord, you holding each other accountable, you speaking truth to each other.
God uses broken and limited people to achieve his mission
What can we learn from the negative here? God uses broken and limited people to achieve his mission. As Derek Thomas puts it, “The best of men are men at best.” Sometimes we get this idea like the apostles were some kind of super Christians who were always strong and never erred. But passages like this correct that notion. God uses limited and broken people. You are limited. We are broken. But praise God that doesn’t disqualify us for the work. In his grace, he chooses us to participate in his work. He doesn’t need us whatsoever, but he chooses to use us still. And at the end of the day, we get the joy of belonging to his kingdom, and he gets the glory for advancing the kingdom despite our limitations and brokenness.
God is sovereign to use apparent setbacks to carry out his purpose
Something else we see here is a picture of God’s sovereignty in using apparent setbacks to carry out his purpose. Again, Luke portrays the disagreement negatively. But in the end, God will accomplish his purpose. One team becomes two in accomplishing the shared goal of strengthening of the churches. We’ve seen similar aspects to God’s sovereignty as Ben walks us through the reign of Saul. Saul is terrible. The people are terrible too. Yet, in God’s grace he delivers them, he gives the Spirit. He’s still as work in the worst of times. His will won’t ultimately be foiled by our failures.
Redeemer, for those who’ve been here long enough, you’ve experienced a measure of setbacks. From our limited perspective, you’ve wanted things to look different from time to time. You’ve wished we didn’t encounter some of the things we encountered. You’ve wished friends stayed and didn’t leave. You’ve thought it better others stuck it out here in Fort Worth but they decided to move away for ministry in another state. And sometimes you even encountered conflict through it all.
But the grace of God has never failed us. In fact, the Lord has used many of those occasions to reveal sin and pride and lovelessness, and to prune away in each of us those branches that weren’t bearing fruit. The conflicts became occasions where the Lord’s grace prevailed such that our weaknesses were felt, our idols were exposed, and our pride was cut down.
Again, that’s not to say we just throw up our hands and go our separate ways at the slightest whiff of conflict. No, the apostles repeatedly tell us to make every effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit, to have the same mind in Christ, to agree with one another. All I’m saying is that even when conflict does rise, even when it seems like we’re at a stalemate in meetings, even when we choose to pursue the mission with a little different strategy than others would prefer, we can still trust the Lord to preserve his church and finish the mission well and in his timing.
Eckhard Schnabel says this: “While disagreements may be painful and the resulting separation less than ideal, God’s sovereign plan can still be at work, provided that the reasons for the separation are not personal prestige and power, but considerations connected with the proclamation of the gospel.”[ii]
Never allow our conflicts to compromise the mission
That leads us to number five. We must take responsibility. We must never allow our conflicts to compromise the mission. Barnabas and Paul eventually reach a compromise, because they share the same goal. That goal involved re-visiting all the churches they planted. While they couldn’t agree on Mark, they could agree that visiting the churches was of utmost importance. They found a way to do it; and God used it for the good of the churches in Cyprus and the churches in Syria and Cilicia.
We must pursue hearty agreement on matters of theology and morality; but we should be careful not to become so consumed with differences over lesser matters that we end up neglecting what God has made explicit: our care for each other in the church and our mission to reach the nations. Far be it from us to bicker over matters of less importance while countless multitudes perish without Christ. Among the seven things the Lord hates in Proverbs 5:19 is, he who sows discord among his brethren. We can’t allow conflict to sow discord, bitterness, rivalry. We must work toward those solutions that will best benefit the gospel and represent Christ. We’re for his kingdom, not our own.
So when you encounter conflict, ask whether you’re keeping the main mission of Christ central. Ask whether your insistence is so all-consuming that it’s actually undermining the mission to keep yourself on top, to keep you as the ‘know-it-all.’ Humble yourselves before each other, and together count Christ’s kingdom greater than your own.
Make the grace of the Lord Jesus your hope in moving forward
Finally, make the grace of the Lord Jesus your hope in moving forward. After the conflict between Paul and Barnabas, the church commends Paul and Silas to the grace of the Lord. Based on 15:11 and 26, that’s referring to the Lord Jesus there. Our Savior is alive. He is the risen Lord Jesus, and he continues to build up his church.
We must make his grace our hope in moving forward. We need his grace for life, for godliness, for showing charity to each other, for believing the best when misunderstandings occur, for words that are clear and true, for patience when folks don’t do things like we think they should be done…we need grace for everything. This separation may have been something Luke wished never had happened. But he’s quick to highlight that there’s grace for the future. Walking through conflict doesn’t mean it’s just all over, it’s just all a waste, it’s just all not worth it. Wrong! There’s always more grace for those in Christ.
Even in the disagreement here, and the resulting compromise, God’s grace was poured out for both teams, and their lasting impact for the Gospel is felt even today. There’s more grace for you and for me, brothers and sisters. The good work the Lord began in us, he will bring to completion for the day of Christ Jesus. Set your hope there, and pray for more grace to sustain us in the mission and to finish it well.
[i]I’m originally indebted to Dr. John Mark Yates for this observation in a research seminar on Second Temple Judaism. For a summary of the idea, and which I chose to use here, see https://answersingenesis.org/bible-history/is-josephus-reliable/
[ii]Schnabel, Acts, 671.