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What are we to do when Christians clash? I’m not thinking of momentary spats or minor disagreements, but of significant divisions and conflict grounded in equally sincere convictions about what is right and wise. If you’ve been a Christian for any period of time you’ve no doubt seen it or, sadly, been embroiled in one of your own.

Once again, one of the admirable things about the Bible is its often brutal honesty, its refusal to gloss over the glitches in believers’ lives. There are a number of examples I could cite, but none more pointed than the breakdown between Paul, Barnabas, and Mark, and their subsequent reconciliation. The latter two are mentioned in Colossians 4:10. I should also throw in a certain Demas, whose name appears in v. 14.

These men, together with Tychicus (vv. 7-8), Onesimus (v. 9), Aristarchus (v. 10), Justus (v. 11), Epaphras (vv. 12-13), Luke (v. 14), Archippus (v. 17), and one lady named Nympha (v. 15), are all included in Paul’s traditional closing list of those to and from whom he sends his greetings.

I will have occasion in subsequent meditations to say a brief word about a few of these individuals, but I want to focus in detail on the rocky relationship and the glorious reconciliation that occurred with Paul, Barnabas, and Mark. I’ll include the defection from Paul (and the faith?) of Demas and contrast this with the way in which Mark proved his faithfulness following a momentary lapse in judgment. There are countless practical lessons we can learn from these men and their struggles. So let’s begin.

If we are going to understand and learn from this “clash of Christians” we need to move outside of Colossians and take note of a story that is recorded for us in Acts 15. Our principal characters are Paul (who needs no comment), Barnabas, and Mark.

Barnabas was the kind of man whom everyone would want as a best friend. No matter how bad things got, no matter how low and lousy you might feel, no matter how badly you may have failed, when your world stinks Barnabas is the sort who brings a sweet aroma to life. You can always count on him being there. He won’t close an eye to your sin. In fact, he’ll rebuke you if needed, but you know it’s because he really cares.

Much is said of Barnabas in the New Testament, all of which is worthy of imitation. He is described as generous in Acts 4:36-37 (if you’re in financial stress, he’ll give you what he’s got, even if it isn’t much). He has an uncanny knack for encouraging others when they are in distress (“Barnabas,” as most of you know, actually means “Son of Encouragement”), as Acts 4:36 and 11:23 bear witness (cf. Acts 9:27). He was a “good” man (Acts 11:24; what a brief but glorious epitaph!). He was “filled with the Spirit” and “full of faith” (Acts 11:24; i.e., rock solid and spiritually steady, no matter the circumstance, always looking confidently to the trustworthiness and sufficiency of Jesus). He was a teacher, prophet, evangelist, and apostle (Acts 11:26; 13:1; 14:14; obviously quite gifted!). Perhaps best of all, he could be counted on, which is to say, he was reliable (see Acts 11:29-30; 12:25).

Our third character is Mark, called “John Mark” (it was common to have two names, one acceptable to Greeks and Romans and the other Jewish). He lived in Jerusalem with his mother, Mary, in his whose home prayer meetings were regularly held (Acts 12:12). We know he was the cousin of Barnabas (as Paul indicates in Colossians 4:10) and was selected by Paul (no doubt on Barnabas’s recommendation) to accompany them on their missionary journeys (Acts 12:25).

The problem, the “clash” if you will, was precipitated by something recorded for us in Acts 13:13-14 during Paul’s second missionary journey. There we read that “Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John [Mark] left them and returned to Jerusalem, but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia.” Luke doesn’t tell us at this point why John Mark “left them”, nor does he suggest at this stage that his decision was wrong or sinful.

Why did Mark leave? There are any number of possibilities. For example, he may have been homesick. Perhaps he missed his mother, their spacious home in Jerusalem, and the comfort provided by the servants present there.

Others believe that he had come to resent Paul for eclipsing his cousin Barnabas in importance and fame. Paul was now the acknowledged leader of the group. Was it familial jealousy that drove this young man?

The explanation could be as simple as physical exhaustion. Mark may not have been accustomed to the rigors of travel, or perhaps he was a bit lazy, as least by Paul’s standards. Was he having second thoughts about his calling as a missionary (“Did I really hear God?”). Was he discouraged (“This isn’t what I had in mind at all!”)?

When Paul reached the cities of south Galatia he was quite ill (see Galatians 4:13-15). He may have contracted malarial fever which could be reduced by leaving the climate of the low-lying coastal plain and going to the coolness of the Taurus plateau some 3,500 ft. above sea level. A few have argued that perhaps Mark thought Paul was foolish in making the decision to go north over the mountains and decided it was unwise to accompany him.

There is also the possibility that as a loyal member of the church in Jerusalem he disagreed with Paul’s policy of evangelizing Gentiles and granting them equal status in the church. Some suggest it was Mark who provoked the Judaizers in Jerusalem into opposing Paul (cf. Acts 15:1ff; but we have no explicit evidence to support this).

Other possible explanations are his fear of bandits, thieves, and muggers who infested the Taurus mountains into which Paul insisted they go (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:26), or perhaps his fear of persecution (cf. Acts 14:19).

Whatever the reason for Mark’s refusal to continue with Paul and Barnabas, whatever excuse he used to make a hasty retreat to Jerusalem and the comforts of home, Paul took it as a sign of weakness and immaturity and unreliability. So did Barnabas, I suspect, although later they would differ greatly on how best to deal with the problem.

Following the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), 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” (Acts 15:36). Barnabas wanted Mark to come along, “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” (Acts 15:37-38).

Note well what happened next: “And there arose a sharp disagreement, so 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” (Acts 15:39-40). It testifies to the historical reliability of Acts that Luke makes no effort to cover up this dispute. He’s not afraid to face reality or point a finger at warts on the face of the church.

Barnabas would not have disputed the fact that Mark blew it badly when he deserted them in Cyprus. Sin is sin. He no doubt agreed with Paul that Mark failed miserably on his first outing, but he also believed Mark had sincerely repented and should be welcomed back and given a second chance.

There’s no reason to think Paul doubted Mark’s sincerity in repenting. But the great apostle could not afford to risk the lives of others and the success of the mission on a man who, in his opinion, had yet to prove himself reliable and trustworthy in the heat of battle. Perhaps Paul said to Barnabas (using modern lingo): “When the going gets tough, the tough get going; but Barnabas, don’t you remember Cyprus? When the going got tough there, Mark turned tailed and ran away. It’s not that I don’t love the young man, but too much is at stake to trust him this early in his recovery.”

Who was right, Paul or Barnabas or both? Paul believed that Mark needed to prove his reliability before being entrusted with such an awesome responsibility. That’s probably true. But Barnabas believed he also needed encouragement and love and acceptance. Again, no argument there. But with neither man willing to concede, the split was unavoidable.

So what ultimately happened with Mark? How did he end up with Paul during his imprisonment in Rome? And how is it that Paul now commends him to the church in Colossae (Col. 4:10). And what lessons can we learn from it all?

To be continued . . .