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Discernment is an area that takes careful cultivation. Most of us grow into it and mature with time and experience, even though culturally we have a tendency to force ourselves into the instant-pot crucible of decision-making. Such is the discipleship journey in the twenty-first century! Discernment is especially important in times of division. Looking at the last few verses of Acts 15, we can learn from the early church leaders about times of parting to pursue God.

Recap: the Jerusalem Council

Last week, we read about and learned from the Jerusalem Council, as recorded in Acts 15:1-35. This was a huge victory for the church. Yes, there was disagreement and division, but their attitude and approach toward resolving the conflict involved standing on shared convictions about the testimony and truth of God’s Word and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Everyone was encouraged and strengthened. There was great joy.

So it must be smooth sailing from here on, right? Not quite.

Following the council, you can imagine Paul’s eagerness to get back to gospel ministry and mission. Barnabas has been his coworker, so Paul says to him, let’s do it again. Paul wants to go back to the churches in Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and Cyprus. The last time they were there, there was all kinds of trouble and persecution, so Paul wants to check on the churches, see how they’re doing, and strengthen them.

Barnabas agrees with the idea, but he wants to bring John Mark. This is not unusual because that’s what they did on the first missionary journey. However, that trio didn’t work out so well. Luke tells us in Acts 13:13 that John Mark quit. He just abruptly abandoned Paul and Barnabas part way on the journey. Paul now says, “I don’t trust him.”

So even after this great victory in the church, differences arise again—this time among the very best of friends.

A sharp disagreement

When reading these verses, people often look critically at Paul and Barnabas. There’s definitely an issue here. Barnabas wants what he wants, while Paul says, “We got burned last time. We’re not taking John Mark with us again.”

So who was right, and who was wrong?

I don’t know what Barnabas has seen in John Mark. They’re cousins, so there’s a sense of family loyalty. Maybe he knows John Mark has changed. Maybe he hopes that by going on the journey, John Mark will change to become more like Christ.

We don’t know their mindset, but we know this was Paul’s plan—to go without John Mark. Maybe Paul was convinced that bringing John Mark with them would be a hindrance to accomplishing the purposes that God laid on his heart for this journey.

For whatever the reasons, Luke reports there was a sharp disagreement, and Paul and Barnabas are going to go their own ways as a result.

This seems like a terrible episode, but God is going to multiply the missionaries going out. God is actually using their parting for God’s purpose and glory.

What can we learn from this parting?

Despite this very sharp disagreement between very spiritually minded friends, God uses this episode for them, for the spread of the gospel, and even for us today. We can learn from a few observations.

Difference can be a good, necessary thing

While we see disagreement between these two apostles, we also see their minds and giftedness for ministry.

Barnabas is known as an encourager. He was always going and getting somebody. Paul knew that. It was Barnabas who gave Paul a chance in Jerusalem when the disciples would not (Acts 9). It was Barnabas who then went and found Paul in Tarsus and brought him into ministry in Antioch (Acts 11). Barnabas was always the one nurturing someone else, encouraging them, giving them a chance. If anybody should have known that, Paul should have.

And Paul had a very strong sense of people’s giftings. He literally writes the New Testament Scriptures on this, e.g., 1 and 2 Corinthians and Ephesians. The Holy Spirit gave Paul the spiritual ability to know who needed to be networked and how to build the right team to strategically accomplish God’s gospel purposes.

So, different people with different predispositions and different gifts are going to look at situations differently. They might even do ministry in different ways, and that’s actually necessary for the health of the whole body, so that the church builds itself up in love, as Paul says in Ephesians 4:16.

Related: How to create a sense of belonging and invite everyone to contribute their spiritual gifts

We see similar differences throughout churches still today. For example, people have different mindsets about who should go on a mission trip. Some people share Paul’s perspective: Look, this person can’t be a mission field themselves; if they’ve proven they’re going to walk away in the past, we’re not going to trust them on this mission. They’ve lost the privilege, and it’s certainly not a right. They need to be already on fire for God.

But other people have a mindset more like Barnabas: Well, we can (and maybe should) take someone with us who needs to be built up, who needs an opportunity to demonstrate their teachability or an opportunity to grow and mature in Christ, and to fan the flame of faith that dwells in them (see 2 Timothy 1:5-6).

So Paul would say, “He hasn’t changed, so he can’t come,” while Barnabas would say, “Coming with us will change him.” It’s a different perspective. And the perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive; in this case, both of these views can be true.

The truth is, there are men and women who have different minds and different ways of how they do things in ministry or in the Christian life. There is a diversity of gifts within the church. The Holy Spirit gives different gifts to different believers; often there’s more than one way to do ministry.

Related: Conflict is part of our witness to the world

Division can lead to multiplication of the gospel

The result of Paul and Barnabas’s disagreement is that they part ways: Barnabas and John Mark sailed to Cyprus, while Paul and Silas went to Syria and Cilicia. It is clear that Paul still trusts Barnabas to go strengthen the churches that he himself was not going to be able to visit.

Paul knew that Barnabas loved God and that Barnabas wanted to reach people. He had great confidence in Barnabas. Indeed, God used Barnabas greatly, both in these churches and also in John Mark’s life.

Even if there are people that we may not join together with to do ministry—maybe some legitimate reasons arise to split away from each other—that doesn’t necessarily mean the other person is a bad person who doesn’t love God or won’t serve God.

Related: How do you know when it’s time to end a relationship?

Sometimes division is actually the way God multiplies the movement and mission of the gospel. At the end of Acts 15, there is not one group going out on missionary journeys, but two groups—not just two people going but four! There’s a kind of exponential blessing there.

Spiritual discernment is essential when disagreements arise

This is where the work of spiritual discernment is so essential. It’s no coincidence that Luke records both episodes of disagreement back-to-back in Acts 15. So what’s the difference when disagreements surface?

While the reasons for and the results of disagreement may change, the principles of resolution—of knowing God’s will so we can pursue God’s purpose—remain the same. Listen to testimony from experience, but ultimately let the truth of God’s Word and Spirit speak into it.

Related: How to hear God more clearly with listening prayer

Luke spends only six verses on this disagreement because it is simply about how best to pursue the gospel. In contrast, the 35 preceding verses on the conflict of circumcision are important because the essential truth of the gospel itself is at stake.

And the result—whether to stay or separate—ultimately depends on that reason and whether it is resolved. The best way to think about the gospel is organically, not institutionally. Think about cells. Our cells split/separate all the time. Most of the time, it’s life-giving multiplication that leads to healthy growth. But there are times, as you know, when the splitting of our cells leads to bad growth—to a tumor, to cancer. Discernment between the two is essential.

Alignment with God’s will is key

Notice verse 40: “But Paul chose Silas and set out, the brothers and sisters commending him to the grace of the Lord.” It seems Barnabas and Mark go quietly to Cyprus, but Paul chooses Silas, and they are sent commended by the believers to the grace of God. There is something beautiful here: God is aligning the right people and building the right team to accomplish God’s sovereign purposes.

This is God working all things together for good (Romans 8:28). We have no reason to doubt that any one of these people in these verses isn’t pursuing the will of God. We know where Paul’s journey is going from here, so we can see how God is choosing the right partner for Paul. If you’re going to be on a mission through the Roman empire, facing government opposition, it’s very helpful to be a Roman citizen. Silas was.

If you’re going to be announcing in the synagogues that the Jerusalem church has confirmed salvation by grace alone—that you don’t need to become Jewish before following Jesus—it’s helpful to be Jewish and from the Jerusalem church. Silas was.

If you’re going to be preaching and proclaiming the gospel, it’s helpful if you’re a disciple and a prophet. Silas was. In every way, God provided the right person for God’s purpose.

Division does not rule out spiritual growth

If we look in other New Testament accounts, we see that spiritual growth followed this disagreement and division. It is evident in a few cases, both in Paul and John Mark.

Over the years, Paul grew and gained some maturity. He says in Philippians 1, “I’m going to rejoice that Christ is being proclaimed, even if I don’t entirely understand what someone else’s motivations are” (Philippians 1:15-19 paraphrase).

But there’s also the fact that John Mark grew, and that he and Paul grew together as coworkers for the gospel. In fact, in 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul writes to Timothy (who we meet in Acts 16), “If there’s any way you can bring Mark with you when you come, please bring him; he is helpful to me in my ministry.”

In Colossians 4, Paul mentions Mark positively, including instructions for the church in Colossae to welcome him. Paul also records that there are only three Jewish believers with him; John Mark is one of them. Yes, there were others with Paul who were Gentile believers, but isn’t it interesting? Paul is commending John Mark for faithfulness!

So Barnabas did a good job on Mark, really helping him to grow spiritually. In the end, Paul loved him.

It is amazing how the Spirit works! It’s wonderful to know the early church had differences. It’s wonderful to know that they were human. It’s powerful to know how they trusted God and how they forgave and restored relationships with one another.

Satan tried to bring a rift and what happened? Instead of one missionary team, there’s two. Instead of two people proclaiming the gospel, there’s four—and that’s not the end. In the rest of Acts, we see Paul’s mission team grow and the gospel advance.

This sermon was originally preached in June 2021 at Massapequa Reformed Church in Massapequa, New York, as part of the “From the Upper Room to the Utter Most” series. Adapted with permission.

Joshua Scheid headshot
Rev. Joshua Scheid

Rev. Joshua Scheid is the pastor of Massapequa Reformed Church on Long Island, New York. He and his wife, Kathryn, have three daughters. Together they love to ride bikes, eat ice cream, and cheer for the UConn Huskies.