One of the things I love about the Bible is its honesty. It doesn’t shy away from people’s faults and failures – or successes. It reports the good, the bad and the ugly. I can imagine many of the Bible’s characters, if they were alive today, cringing at what God allowed to be written about them. I mean we only want people to know the good stuff right? There’s Noah saying, “Really God, did we have to mention the drunk and naked in the tent incident?” Abraham would be concerned about reports of him lying – twice! David would be mortified over the adultery with Bathsheba. And I could go on about Moses the murderer, Paul the persecutor and Thomas the cynic but I’m sure you get the picture.
In its honesty the Bible never shies away from the conflicts that happen between people – even good people, Christian people. In fact most of the New Testament letters were written to help people work through conflict situations in local churches. One of the most helpful stories is the reported conflict between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41) because it helps us address the question: “Who’s right, who’s wrong?” Whenever there’s a conflict the temptation is for people to take sides (and sometimes one person is totally in the right and the other completely wrong). But more often than not we need to sift through details, personalities, points of view, previous experiences and a host of other variables in order to get clarity on the truth.
These two great men – Paul and Barnabas – had been on a missionary trip together, teaching the Gospel and starting local churches. They’d taken Barnabas’ cousin Mark with them but things had got too tough for the young man and “he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work” (Acts 15:38).
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing” (Acts 15:36). Barnabas wanted to take Mark with them, but Paul didn’t think it wise to take him, because of his fickleness on the previous trip. The result? “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:39-41).
On the surface it looks like the Bible sides with Paul, and Barnabas seems to fade from the picture. But is that the case? Who’s right, who’s wrong? Paul was right in that Mark was young and inexperienced and had left them in the lurch on the first trip. I understand his reticence to take him again so soon. But Paul was also wrong because – as we will see – he failed to recognise the potential in this young man. Barnabas was right because he did see the potential in Mark, but he was also wrong in that he most likely allowed the family relationship to cloud his judgment. Remember that “Barnabas” is just a nickname. His real name was Joseph but the apostles called him Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement.” That’s the sort of guy he was. You’d love to be around him because he always looked for the good in others – their potential rather than their problems.
The Bible eventually shows that both men were wrong and both were right. God blessed Paul and Silas’ work of strengthening and planting local churches, while He also blessed the work of Barnabas who is recognised in Scripture as an apostle, a good man, a prophet and teacher and one through whom God worked miracles. He faced persecution and risked his life for Jesus. He was the one who saw Paul’s potential and sought him out to help at the Antioch Church. And his ability to spot potential paid off when it came to Mark.
Later in the New Testament we find out that Mark eventually became part of Paul’s apostolic team whom he sent to help the Colossian church writing to them to “welcome him.” Sometime later Mark helped the apostle Peter who refers to Mark as “my son.” It’s likely that Mark was with Peter working as scribe for the Gospel that bears his name. Mark’s Gospel is widely believed to be Peter’s recollection of the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
At the end of Paul’s life he wrote to Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” Why was he helpful? Because Barnabas saw and developed Mark’s potential. So who’s right, who’s wrong? The answer is simple – both of them were. The wise person will learn this lesson.