Acts 15:37-40 – A Parting of the Ways: Part 2

[This is another post by a student in my Advanced Acts Studies seminar class, Camron Befus. Camron prepared a lecture on the conflict between Barnabas and Paul, so I asked him to write two blog posts on the topic.]

Argument 2Barnabas wishes to take his cousin John Mark on a second missionary journey Paul has proposed. But Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had already deserted them in Pamphylia and not continued with them in the work. They had such a “sharp disagreement that they parted company…” (Acts 15:38-39). Luke uses the word παροξυσμὸς for “sharp disagreement,” which is an odd choice of words to describe Paul’s disagreement. The word most often is used as “to stir to anger,” “to be irritated,” to do something that causes a person to get upset at a person. This is exactly what happened to Paul, as he was “provoked to anger” by Barnabas request.

This word is used in the Septuagint to describe God’s anger or wrath when he is provoked:

Deuteronomy 1:34-35 “When the Lord heard what you said, he was angry and solemnly swore: “No one from this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your ancestors…”

Deuteronomy 29:27 “Therefore the Lord’s anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book.”

Jeremiah 32:37 (LXX 39:37) “I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety.”

Luke describes Paul as being very angry at Barnabas wishing to bring John Mark along, and we quickly see they even split up because of this disagreement. From Luke’s perspective Paul evidently believed he is in the right in this discussion. Luke chooses a word commonly used to describe the unfaithfulness of the Israelites towards God to describe Paul’s anger. Did Luke use this word because he was agreeing with Paul decision to be against John Mark coming on the trip? Or did Luke use this strong of a word for this disagreement because he was disappointed in Paul having such a strong reaction against his companion?

Some scholars believe Paul is the one who is in the wrong: he did not wait for the Holy Spirit’s leading to go on a second missionary journey. It was the Holy Spirit who had moved Paul and Barnabas to be commissioned and go on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-4). Perhaps God used Paul’s impatience to show him that good does not come from not waiting on God.

Paul was not going to change his mind about bringing John Mark and Barnabas must have felt the same way, so they parted ways. Their solution to the problem was to continue reaching the Gentiles, although they will no longer work together. Barnabas took John Mark to Cyprus and Paul recruited Silas and went to Derbe. They went to the towns Paul had visited on his first missionary journey.

What did Luke intended by using this particular word to describe Paul’s anger? Who was in the right in this conflict over John Mark?

16 thoughts on “Acts 15:37-40 – A Parting of the Ways: Part 2

  1. Perhaps, both were right and it was a means to an end. God had a specific plan for each of them and without the conflict they might not of divided and multiplied those they brought to the Lord. Thanks for posting.

    Jennifer

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    • Jennifer,
      Paul wrote:

      “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious… discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy….. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” [Galatians 5:19-21]

      “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father.” [1 Timothy 5:1]

      Do you think that Paul’s teachings apply to everyone EXCEPT Paul himself, because Paul is “special”?

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  2. You asked,
    What did Luke intend by using this particular word to describe Paul’s anger?

    Very insightful: You wrote, QUOTE:
    “….did Luke use this strong of a word for this disagreement because he was disappointed in Paul having such a strong reaction against his companion?
    Some scholars believe Paul is the one who is in the wrong: he did not wait for the Holy Spirit’s leading to go on a second missionary journey. It was the Holy Spirit who had moved Paul and Barnabas to be commissioned and go on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-4).”

    Barnabas was Paul’s mentor, and more mature. Let’s not forget that Barnabas went and found Paul and brought him into the ministry at Antioch in the first place. The Holy Spirit commissioned “Barnabas and Saul” [Acts 13:2] not “Paul and Barnabas.” Likewise the the Jerusalem Council, “the apostles and elders, your brothers”, affirmed the order stated by the Holy Spirit, namely “our dear friends Barnabas and Paul.” [Acts 15:25] (not Paul and Barnabas.)

    Why do we constantly feel we need to correct the Holy Spirit and list Paul first before Barnabas? Do we know better than the Holy Spirit what the correct order is to list their names? In the text of the Gospels too, when the names of theTwelve Apostles are listed, Peter is always listed first. I know of no Evangelical Scholar who questions that order, or constantly, deliberetly tries to change it. Why do we elevate Paul and think Paul is a special “exception” ? (Perhaps Luke’s editorial comments have some influence on us.)

    It appears to me that Luke’s intention in using this word revealing Paul’s furious anger is to show us a glimpe of the evil spirit of Boss Paul the Pharisee manifesting itself in Paul, selfishly demanding to be in charge and have is own way, apart from God or any other authority.

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  3. When simply reading the text, it seems like Paul is in the wrong. It would seem from the outward prospective that Paul is harboring bitterness towards John Mark for leaving them early on. Perhaps it is the cause of John Mark leaving that would justify who is in the wrong or not. As we discussed in class, John Mark could possibly have separated due to the fact that he may have been an Judaizer and thus believed that Gentile converts to Christianity, still had to be circumcised. That being said, I find it harsh that Paul would have harbored bitterness towards John Mark for this belief. Is it important, yes, but worth burning as with the wrath of God, I’m not so sure.

    That all being said, it seems as though John Mark’s desertion is a matter of large proportion. Acts 15:37 says he had deserted them in Pamphylia and did not continue with them in the work. Somewhere in the mix, it’s clear that John Mark and Paul become unlike in their missions. It was this fact that led to the strong disagreement, which, though it may not be Christ-like, leads to God’s will being held out. I don’t think anyone was necessarily in the wrong or right–although personally I side with Paul in the discussion over Gentiles and circumcision, but that aside Paul and John Mark were both trying to proclaim the Gospel. It’s for this reason that they are reconciled later on, so that Paul counts him as useful. It’s a beautiful scene altogether, spanning many years, but still showing forth the roots of God and His sovereign plan for the spread of Christianity.

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    • You wrote,
      “it seems as though John Mark’s desertion is a matter of large proportion. Acts 15:37 says he had deserted them in Pamphylia and did not continue with them in the work.”

      Or the voice of Paul, speaking through the pen of his Gentile traveling partner Luke, wanted to make it appear to be “a matter of large proportion” because Paul wanted an excuse to break away and go do his own thing, take a road trip vacation and visit old friends and acquaintances, enjoy their hospitality and maybe collect some money too, because he liked to travel.

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  4. I honestly think that we may be missing some information on this topic. From what we know and read, it really seems kind of intense for Paul to get this upset about something we’re told very little about. For as strong of a word that Luke uses to describe the conflict, there must have been something else or some greater severity of actions going on.

    The idea of Paul’s impatience is also interesting here. I had never noticed the lack of Holy Spirit movement in this passage before and that may play an important role here. I find this interesting because, in the past week during the missionary conference, a common theme I noted from the missionaries was the importance of taking a step of faith, specifically in the area of raising funds–take a step of faith whether the money comes in or not. To be perfectly honest, that statement didn’t really sit right with me when I heard it, and seeing here that the Holy Spirit offered no direction towards this next journey doesn’t sit right with me either. From what we see here, it does look as if Paul is in the wrong. However, I’m pretty sure there’s some information withheld here to some degree.

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    • It’s Taboo to say “Paul was wrong.”
      So since we’ve been trained as Evangelicals with this Taboo, there are a number of classic ways we dodge the issue and never face the facts in the text head on.

      “we may be missing some information on this topic” is one of those ways.

      So we’ll toy with the idea “MAYBE Paul wrong….but, but, we really don’t know enough and we shouldn’t judge and Paul was the world’s greatest missionary and his heart was in the right place and he was doing it for the gospel, etc. etc. etc.”

      We can’t bring ourselves to say, or even think “Paul was wrong. Period.” We always have to back peddle, and pull our punches, and rationalize, and justify, and excuse, and offer plausible explanations for everything Paul ever said, did, and wrote. It’s a spiritual issue – the evil spirit of Paul the Pharisee.

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  5. It seemed that John Mark was not as serious as Paul about doing mission work. Paul obviously was intentional about where he went to preach the gospel, but John Mark does not seem to have the same motivation as Paul does. It was interesting to see the different reasons as to why John Mark did leave the group from Pamphylia. I think that Paul was afraid of having someone weigh him down from doing his work, and he did not see that John Mark had it in him to be a missionary to churches. Obviously these are guesses because the bible is not very clear as to the reasons that Paul and Barnabas split. Paul would have good intentions of splitting instead of just giving up on Barnabas.

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    • You don’t hesitate to tear down John Mark, his attitude, motives, gifting and calling, and you imply that Barnabas was a problem person that someone might feel like “giving up” on….
      Yet you are so sure that “Paul would have good intentions.”

      May I ask why you are so quick to make insinuations and negative comments about everyone around Paul, while you elevate Paul and his intentions without any Scriptural basis?

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  6. I am in agreement with Sydney on this one, it really does seem that we, as readers, are missing information on this disagreement. If Luke used the most severe word he could to describe the conflict, there was likely something much more in depth than a reader can glimpse simply through what is recorded. Of course, it is difficult for me to think that Paul may very well have been in the wrong, or they both could have been wrong. Thus, my own thoughts might even be biased on this passage, with a natural tendency to paint Paul as the incredible man of God that he was – thought maybe not ALL the time.

    Paul and Peter’s ministry or lifestyle tendencies seem to both be to rush into decisions, passionately defend their positions on theological points, and to zealously step into each and every circumstance that God placed them in. While this again may not point to Paul in a rose colored light, perhaps God was using this instance to push Paul out onto his own, away from a wise older companion, to mature in the ministry. Whatever the case, it seems to be fairly apparent that neither man walked away from the ministry as Paul (in Acts 15:41)“…went…strengthening the churches.”

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    • patiencejoy,
      Thanks for your honesty, QUOTE:
      “it is difficult for me to think that Paul may very well have been in the wrong, or they both could have been wrong. Thus, my own thoughts might even be biased on this passage, with a natural tendency to paint Paul as the incredible man of God that he was – thought maybe not ALL the time.”

      All Evangelicals would agree IN THEORY that Paul wasn’t perfect, and Paul “may very well have been in the wrong.” But we need to move from theory to practical application – not keep doing the Evangelical Mexican Hat Dance around Paul’s sins.

      https://readingacts.com/2011/09/07/paul-at-the-feet-of-gamaliel/#comment-12425

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  7. I think that this topic is so interesting, if only because it reminds us of a very important fact about the early church leaders: they were human, too. Paul never claims to be perfect, or to have arrived at a point of complete spiritual maturity. In fact, in a letter Paul wrote to Timothy, he counted himself as “the worst of sinners” (I Tim. 1:15). While I’m not saying that neither Paul nor Barnabas had a good reason for being so passionate about their own perspective on John Mark, I do think it’s important that we don’t discount the fact that pride, selfishness, anger, and resentment are all issues that we struggle with and fight against, even (read: especially) in the context of ministry. But just as it is critical that we recognize the errors to which we are predisposed, it is also necessary for us to recognize how God can work through our sinfulness to bring about His intended ends. Although Paul and Barnabas had a falling out, God used their split to bring glory to Himself – instead of one team going out to share the message of Christ, now there were two!

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  8. I think the shortness of this disagreement leaves a lot to speculation. In one sense, Paul had fair grounds to disapprove John Mark’s service with them. Since he had already deserted Paul once, it seems completely reasonable for Paul to be unsure about his commitment to the work this time around. I do, however, think that the text also has the possibility of leaving Paul in the wrong. As far as being “fit” for the service of preaching the Gospel, Paul was not at the top of the list himself based on his track record. I think if anyone, Paul should have been gracious and trusting that John Mark could have been changed and made fit for the work. So from this discussion alone, either Paul is being overly untrusting, or Barnabas is trusting too much.

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