Division & Multiplication

Read Acts 15:35-16:10.

If you had to name the greatest duo of all time, who would it be? This is a question that transcends genres. Many of us remember athletes that played together and accomplished great things: Shaq and Kobe, Stockton and Malone, Jordan and Pippen, Magic and Kareem, Montana and Rice, etc. Many actors have worked together frequently and produced iconic movies as a result: Matthau and Lemmon, Farley and Spade, Aykroyd and Belushi. Maybe your mind rushed towards other forms of entertainment and you thought of Penn and Teller, Donny and Marie, or Sonny and Cher. The common theme that we see in each of these duos is that eventually, for a variety of reasons (death, career paths, etc.), all partnerships do come to an end.

From a biblical perspective, it would be difficult to find a more iconic partnership than Paul and Barnabas. These men accomplished many great things together as they advanced the mission of God and took bold gospel stands while the church was still in its infancy stages. However, even they had reached a point where they could no longer possibly move forward together. In this specific instance, their separation was brought forth by a simple disagreement on whether or not Mark should accompany them on their journey. We see the disagreement and separation of these two take place in Acts 15:37-40.

“Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 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.”

Why would this subject be an issue? Wouldn’t it be helpful to have more people on the mission field? Paul says no. According to Paul, his concern is not about getting more people on the journey, but rather getting the right people on the journey. According to Paul, Mark failed the test and needs to sit this one out. But imagine being Barnabas. It’s commendable that Paul wants the job to be done well, but Barnabas is demonstrating so much more grace than Paul in this instance. According to Paul, Mark is a deserter. How can we trust him not to do this to us again? According to Barnabas, Mark was weak. Could you imagine having your weakest moment be what forever defined you to your spiritual leaders? Both sides can make an educated argument in stating their case.

One of the important things to consider here is that there was no wrong answer in this situation. At the same time, this is one of the more discouraging occurrences we see in Scripture. There could be times in your life where a strong point of disagreement simply prevents you from moving forward with other believers. On some issues, it could be that Scripture needs to be revisited and egos need to be set aside, but on other issues, separation could be completely justified. However, we need to understand what it means that these two figures had separated. In this instance, it seemed like Satan had finally put forward a stumbling block on the mission, but notice what happened. Barnabas took Mark with him and went one way while Paul took Silas and went another way! Suddenly there are two mission teams covering twice as much ground as before! This is a helpful reminder that when Satan attempts to derail the mission of God, he typically accelerates it. We know from the promise of Jesus as well as the end of the Bible that the mission will indeed advance. If division sets in, others gossip about you, those who should be building you up are doing nothing but tearing you down, be encouraged. It is nothing more than a temporary setback to an inevitable victory, even when it doesn’t seem like it.

One other encouraging point to consider with this passage is that it seems like Paul did not get along with Mark. We would be completely wrong to consider Paul’s attitude towards Mark and use it to justify any hard feelings we have with other believers. However, Paul’s feelings about Mark, though justified, did not remain the same. How do we know this? Let’s consider the final letter Paul wrote, 2 Timothy. As Paul is bringing his letter to a close, he writes in 4:11, “Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” The same guy who Paul was refusing to do ministry with is now the same guy that Paul is calling on to be ministering with him. The gospel empowers us to reconcile with others. Do not let temporary frustrations, weak moments, or miscommunications define who a person is going to permanently be in your eyes. I love the words of Tim Keller when he said, “You cannot stay angry at someone unless you feel superior to them. There is no bitterness without pride.” Is there someone God is placing on your heart to reconcile with? Make it right. The mission of God is more valuable than a prideful heart.

Following the split at the end of chapter 15, we follow the journey of Paul and Silas in chapter 16. They find themselves in both Derbe and Lystra where he found an individual that he spent a significant chunk of his ministry investing in, Timothy. Despite the frustrations of chapter 15, Paul is moving forward, finding others to invest in, and building up the church. We read in verse 5 that “the churches were being strengthened in the faith and increasing in numbers daily.” It is fine to grieve, but praise God that Paul did not sulk.
After they moved on from Derbe and Lystra, there seemed to be many closed doors from a ministry perspective. However, consider the pronouns being used by Luke in verses 1-9 compared to verse 10. Luke wrote how “they” did these things, but in verse 10, Luke wrote, “And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” Somewhere between verses 8 and 9 Luke had joined this team of Paul, Silas, and Timothy. He encountered their mindset and stories firsthand. I know personally that extended seasons of closed doors can be very frustrating, but what was their mindset? Verse 6 reads, “We were forbidden by the Holy Spirit” from moving forward there. Likewise in verse 7, “The Spirit of Jesus did not allow us” to move forward there. Perhaps you’re more like me and find yourself overly frustrated when you have no sense of direction of your life. Maybe you feel like God has abandoned you and has no plan for you. That was not the mindset of Paul’s crew. They were eager, but obedient; and when the Spirit spoke, they listened. So are you in a time of extended division, frustration, and lack of direction? Remember who God is. If only we could develop the mindset that many of our hindrances and frustrations are covered by the goodness and graciousness of God!