Acts 15:36-40 – Disagreement with Barnabas

After staying some time in Antioch, Paul suggests a return to the churches established in Galatia (15:36).  This tour of established churches is not unexpected since Paul has already made a return trip through Derbe, Lystra and Iconium for the purpose of continued development and encouragement of these churches.

The suggestion that John Mark re-join the ministry team results in a “sharp disagreement” (verse 37-38).  Barnabas wants to have John Mark travel with Paul once again.  Sometimes Barnabas is presented as acting like a protective uncle, hoping to give the young and inexperienced John Mark another “chance” to prove himself.  While this makes good preaching, that is not the way Luke describes the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas.

Paul “did not think it wise” (NIV) since John Mark has already abandoned them once.  The NIV’s translation is adequate, but the word has the sense of being  “worthy” or even “suitable to an activity” (BDAG).  This could be taken in a positive sense (Paul does not see John Mark as a good “fit” for his vision of the ministry team), or negatively, Paul sees John Mark as unworthy since he has already abandoned the ministry.

John Mark did not depart because he was afraid of the tough travels or potential persecution. Rather, Paul’s rather harsh words to the Jewish sorcerer Elymas on Cyprus was a bit of a shock and perhaps even the idea that gospel should go to a Gentile like Serguis Paulus was a theological error.  Luke uses the Greek word ἀφίστημι (afistemi, aorist participle).  This word can mean more than simply “depart,” it can have the sense of “fall away” or “become a backslider.”  The word appears in Daniel’s prayer of confession (Dan 9:9) and  LXX Jer 3:14 to describe “faithless Israel.”

More significantly, Luke used the word in the Parable of the Sower in Luke 8:13 to describe the seed which does not take root and “falls away” when persecution comes. Perhaps there is a hint here that John Mark was not quite “rooted” in Paul mission and when he experienced the theologically disturbing idea that Paul was going to turn to the Gentiles, he fell away.

The way Luke describes this disagreement is significant – Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp disagreement,” a word used for provoking one to “love and good works,” Heb 10:24, but also anger, exasperation, etc.  The word appears in the LXX for “furious anger of the Lord” in Deut 29:27 and LXX Jer 32:37.  Paul and Barnabas are in such a heated disagreement over John Mark that there is no solution other than to separate their ministries.

This is another chance to observe some diversity within the early church. Whatever the reason, John Mark disagreed with Paul and separated from him, then later Barnabas did the same thing.  If John Mark and Barnabas represent the “Jerusalem Church,” then I think there is a hint here of serious tensions between the Pauline Mission and the style of ministry happening in Jerusalem.

35 thoughts on “Acts 15:36-40 – Disagreement with Barnabas

  1. What, if anything, does this say to the church today? Is it OK for two parties to have ‘sharp disagreements’ and simply agree to disagree? Or do you think, if Paul or JM (not me or John Mayer. The other JM) had their way they would have preferred for the other to either a) completely agree with them or b) not be preaching/believing a different version of the gospel story?

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  2. I believe that this all comes down to, what does Paul and Barnabas want others to view the situation. If they allow John Mark back into ministry then there will be certain views, on the other hand, if they do not accept him what will be thought then? This is a great internal battle for Paul and Barnabas, espeically since there are a lot of people watching them and this is also the foundation of Christianity as we know it today, not to mention written in the Bible.

    I do feel like Paul and Barnadas need to look to God for an answer to this one. I feel like they are leaning onto their own understanding rather than calling on God for the decision. I also feel that Paul is not doing the right thing by thinking that John Mark is not a good “fit” for his ministry team. We all have spiritual gifts that God gives us to use for His glory. I think that Paul is selling John Mark short of his calling.

    I think that by doing this, Paul is setting an example that only certain people can serve the Lord in only what Paul does. I get the impression that Paul is saying “if you want to serve God you have to be in my ministry and follow my rules.” I do not think he is meaning for it to look this way, but that is what he is doing by not letting John Mark re-join the ministry.

    Lastly, I think taht because Paul is doing this, he is also giving off the idea that people cannot be forgiven for their mistakes. That once you mess up and leave, you are out for good. This is not the mind-set of a born-again Christian.

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    • I disagree that Paul was wrong about John Mark at this point. Paul did not have time to “baby” John Mark. He had been given an assignment and it was obvious that John Mark was not ready to participate in helping him do this. He needed someone to assist him that was able to stand against the “wiles of the devil” and it was not John Mark. Paul was not dismissing John Mark forever. He is saying “you are not ready yet.” Later Paul wants Mark’s help and asks that he come to help him. A person may have spiritual gifts, calling, etc. but not be ready to use them in the way they need to be used. We have to be perfected first.

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      • Thanks Carol, you are right that Paul “did the right thing” although I did try to argue that John Mark’s defection from the mission trip was based on theology rather than the tough life of a missionary or a lack of giftedness / preparation.

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      • Good morning to all the believers that’s fighting the good fight of faith. I personally love how Paul handled the situation. He did the right thing. However, the majo word that’s not being added to summarize this sticky history between Paul and John Mark boils down to, (“John Mark’s perspective.”) Both, (mindset, how they (“we”) see/look at things from different angles), to be qualifie for their (our) calling here in the natural.
        In addition, when one person mindset isn’t fully equipped how and when GOD is ready to be a living witness, to release the gifts that he has stored inside of his chosen ones, there shall be no time for baby sitting. Simple reason being is because, living in a fixed mindset kill, steal, and destroy the growth mindset of GOD.

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  3. I think if two partners have a disagreement and they are able to work it out then great but if they aren’t able to work it out, then I think they should split up. No sense in staying together if you can’t work things out. As far as Barnabas bringing John Mark with them, I think it would be fine but yet again he did leave him and Paul, so that doesn’t make him look good.

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  4. Now I am always going to think of Barnabas as the protective uncle, but that’s okay. I bet that if we were actually there when Barnabas and Paul had their argument, it would have been intense. It had to be because in the end they ended going their separate ways. If I had to choose a side to take, I would choose Paul’s. If John wanted to come back, then he should not have left in the first place. I do not understand why John left in the first place, because he was not the one being persecuted. He should have guessed that sometimes words need to be said in order to make a point, like Paul did. Obviously, John was not “rooted” well. If John was not “rooted” well, then why did he go with Paul and Barnabas in the first place?
    I guess there is something good that comes out of Barnabas and Paul separating. That is them going off and doing their own ministries. However, both John and Barnabas did leave Paul. Ever since then, there have been disagreements within the church.

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  5. I don’t think Paul can be lumped in with quarreling modern church-goers. Paul was a no-nonsense guy, and he did what was necessary to get the job done. Most of the New Testament exists because God entrusted Paul with getting the job done. Jesus even told Paul that he (Paul) would suffer greatly for his name. Paul was not out to make friends, he was out to make history. Later when he was about to leave some friends, he told them that he would not see them again, and he had no problem dying for Christ. Paul had a fire that drove him, sometimes to the point of needing to be restrained. If there was a better way to resolve it, Paul didn’t wait to find out. I think (unfortunately) sometimes we just need to cut ties, if it means the bigger goal is being preserved, and God can help with the reconciliation, if need be, as something secondary to be hopeful for.

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  6. This disagreement is always interesting, and is defiantly abused when preaching, Barnabas the uncle trying to Mentor John Mark. John was with them the first time and then he left them, and Paul and Barnabas established the churches. I see Paul’s point of view and that is maybe that since we (Barnabas and Paul) established these churches, we want them to have a good set of leaders to look up to, and if John Mark comes, then the churches will look to him too, which is fine, but Paul does not know John. To Paul, John is a young cousin of Barnabas, who helped out but quit, with Paul probably sees this as a down fall to John’s character and maybe even wonders about how strong John is as a Christians. We hear it all the time, it is hard to finish well in ministry, and maybe Paul views John as not finishing well. We see it today, Pastor starting a ministry and quitting and now they want to be back in ministry, no way. The average youth pastor stay 18 months, the time needed to see any rewards from your work 3 years. Paul knows ministry is hard, and I think when we look at the case from this point of view, it makes sense that Paul wanted nothing to do with John.

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  7. I really like what Joe said in his post. A lot of what he stated was in my Paul paper. Paul was a very passionate guy, and had a very extreme personality. He reminds me of a drill instructor. Not that he was barking orders around and making people do ridiculous things, but he had that kind of toughness. I also think we need to find the good in this. So often when tragedy, or seemingly bad things happen, Christians will say, “God has a purpose”, or “There’s a reason for everything”. I believe this to be true, and you don’t need to look very far to see the good that comes from this disagreement. Instead of two or three men going out together to one place at a time, you have 2 groups of 2 men going out, covering 2 places at one time. They are getting more done, and reaching more people at one time. As ‘Boys Like Girls’ once said, “And I’m thinking two, is better than one”.

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  8. The missionary journeys of Paul are not looked at as easy and people pleasing trips. The missionary journeys were tough and grueling challenges for Paul and whoever came alongside him. There would be rejection and there would be persecution, and this is what John Mark was afraid of; this is why he left in the first place. Paul needed/wanted companions on his trips but he needed people that were, as P. Long said, “Rooted in Paul’s ministry” and he did not feel like John Mark was “rooted.” So when Barnabas comes with the idea of John Mark rejoining the team Paul “did not think it wise” (Acts 15:38) and disagreed with Barnabas. This caused an argument that resulted in a split between the two. I feel that i have been pretty angry in my young life and have had many arguments that I felt would ruin relationships but I have always come back and reconciled the issue. I don’t think i am some amazingly wise person and because of that fact i do think that Paul and Barnabas left on deceit terms. They went their separate ways because they saw the ministry suffering as a result of the staying together not personal problems being so overwhelming that they couldn’t stand each other. These were two grown men who knew that they would not be able to accomplish what they desired if they continued together so they decided to depart from eachother.

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  9. We were not there, I believe that we will never truly know what the disagreement was SPECIFICALLY about, all we know is what is conveyed to us in the passage. Like it said we know that their was a “sharp disagreement” but we we never understand the full story until we can ask the questions in person. I see Paul’s point in that it might not be a good idea for John Mark to come especially if he is just going to leave again. Whatever the reason for John Mark not coming, it was obviously significant in the story of Paul’s missionary journey. He did what he felt God called him to do.

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  10. Mcporter is right. We were not there and can not know what happened. However it is still good to search to see what it is that did happen, to the best of our abilities. I think this episode shows that people can do great things for God in different circumstances. Even though Paul and Barnabas separated they still committed to serving God. They may not have agreed on who should be with them, they could still carry the banner of Christ forward. Like Dunn said 2 people can cover more ground.

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  11. P.Long, I love your description of this situation between Paul and Barnabas regarding John Mark. Everything in me wants to understand this story as a Spirit-led parting of ways in a positive sense. And it seems that this is possible given your explanation and possible interpretations. If Paul had discerned that John Mark was not well suited for the work that Paul was pursuing and if this “sharp disagreement” could be explained as an impassioned challenge to one another for the purpose of each of their particular ministries, I would be content. But regardless, I recognize that Paul was human, zealous, and a strong leader, as was Barnabas, and this situation could very well have constituted a classic conflict when we find one too many cooks in one kitchen.
    However, I don’t find this too alarming. Maybe this is because church splits are so common today, but I guess more so because I see denominational differences as distinct fields of ministry, and this a providential thing. Of course, ideally each person of each denomination must understand that s/he shares a common Gospel with thousands of other people and see this unity to a greater extent than s/he sees the differences for these divisions to be more beneficial than harmful- and- this is far too rare a perspective.
    So as much as I wish the ideal were the case in Paul and Barnabas’ situation, I imagine that Luke would have likely communicated that rather than the tense tone that underlies this passage. And so, I accept that this disagreement saw mistakes by both/all parties, yet God again converted the less-than-ideal choices of men to fulfill His purposes.

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  12. I like the point that McPorter made about not being there so we will NEVER know what the argument was actually about. I am not going to lie, one thing that kind of bugs me is when people try to focus on the small details like what the argument was about. We know that Paul talks about not wanting John Mark to come along because he is not sure if he will stick around or just leave, but were not sure if that is the cause of the argument, but why is that important? It isn’t. We will never be able to know for sure what the argument was about and that is the final answer. 🙂

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  13. I would agree, that it can’t be known for sure why John Mark had left,becuase the text doesn’t state it specifically.
    I also wonder why Barnabas would have put his nephew before the ministry, especially if John Mark could be potentially detrimental to the ministry or at least not very effective in moving the gospel along. It seems that either John did not have good reason to desert them, so Paul was right and Barnabas just wanted to ‘redeem’ his nephew, and let him “prove his worth”, becuase they were family. But if the reasoning behind Mark’s desertion was a legitimate excuse(I can’t think of one now), then maybe Paul was just being proud…
    From the text, it appears to me that Barnabas was being unreasonable, quite unlike the spirit led Barnabas that we have seen up to this point…He is of course human and to be human is to not be perfect. But I still get the feeling that Paul was the one more concerned about the ministry at this time…And Mark was not prepared/ his heart was not in it…

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  14. ALL SCRIPTURE IS INSPIRED OF GOD AND SO WAS WRITTEN : THOSE EVENTS THAT TOOK PLACE WERE NOT ORCESTATED BY PAUL IT WAS BY GOD HIMSELF ,GOD SITS IN THE HEAVENS JUDGING WHAT IS
    RIGHT WHO CAN SAY WHAT ARE YOU DOING.

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  15. I think this is an important piece of scripture and must be understood clearly as so many in the church use it for an alignment of their situations. I find it incredibly interesting that Mark is considered the same John Mark who wrote the book of Mark. Perhaps this was the spiritual ground that was plowed for Mark’s spirit to prepare him to write the scriptures we all love and want to manifest in our lives.
    We are all people on a journey of working out our salvation and having the difficulties of journeys is presented for us shows that we deeply are in need of a savior no matter who we are.

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  16. Our first allegiance is to God and the ministry of reconciliation…..everything else is secondary. I feel Paul’s passion–in that he did not want to jeopardize ministry for a good friend’s, nephew….and I feel Barnabas…give John Mark a second chance….he’s developing, growing, learning. I won’t pick sides….but I truly believe that when we as Christian’s can’t get along….it is better for the sake of the gospel to separate in order to stay focus on the real mandate which is to win the world for Christ.

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  17. We see that the Best of Men are men. And God gave John Mark a second chance to prove himself. Thank God he has given each of us a second chance after we have “fallen away” from him.

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  18. If Barnabas had not believed in John Mark, and not taken him under his wings and shepherded and guided him, and not had their journeys together, would we have the same man of God in Mark, and same gospel of Mark?

    Would any of us be who we are today, if someone dear hadn’t believed in us, after our many failures in life?

    If Paul had not split with Barnabas, and had been dragged down by a still developing or untrustworthy John Mark, would Paul’s ministry have been as effective?

    The gospel was spread, the church prospered and grew in number…….

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    • Thanks Joe, that is all certainly true. I suspect that Paul’s ministry would have prospered regardless since that was God’s plan and God is certainly capable of overcoming a “untrustworthy” person on the mission team.

      I guess my main point here is that John Mark was not necessarily untrustworthy in his character, he was not a “bad person” or even sinful in his defection from Paul. He was in sharp disagreement theologically with Paul about the nature of Gentile salvation and did not agree with Paul’s “missions strategy” for reaching Gentiles who were not like Cornelius, God-Fearing Gentiles already associated with synagogues.

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  19. This is my point of view paul felt that mark and john was not true to the ministry becaue they was not ready to accept the gentiles so he could not get them to see that. It was part of god plan for paul to teach preach the gospel to everyone. The mission paul was on he need john and mark to have a true heart and to be able to reach all peoples. When you have been chosen to do the work of god you not going be in agreement of doing was not pleasing to god.

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  20. Paul has gotten into trouble with the Church at Jerusalem, which is lead by the Apostles. They had repremained Paul for teaching against Moses. Acts 21:17-26. Paul was teaching that the Jewish Christians need not follow the mosaic by not circumsizing their children nor walk after Jewish custom.

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  21. 3/13
    Acts 15:36-41 displays a sharp argument between Paul and Barnabas over if they should bring John Mark or Silas with them on their next missionary journey. It is important to realize that Paul does not want John Mark to come with them because he in the past has abandoned them. This is a good indicator that Mark was not sufficiently rooted in Christ and was not completely ready spiritually if he faltered. It is vital that as Christians we are constantly growing and being guided by the Holy Spirit so that we can stand strong in hard times. The result to this argument causes both sides to split up. In ministry there will always be problems and disagreements. What is interesting is to see if one should split up or stay together. Maybe the split up because of their different ideas of what ministry looked like and how to follow through with it. It could have been a bigger issue that having John Mark come and that was just the “straw that broke the donkey back”. It is good to take a look that even Paul had disagreements and that we are all human and in the case for Christ we will come across hard times and problems. We need to realize that we are all at different level spiritually and sometimes it important to take a step aside. This is sad because both had the same common goal and yet they could not get over their disagreement.

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  22. Paul and Barnabas come to the argument based on whether they need more helpers to join them and if they need more individuals to be present with them. Barnabas leans towards more of the favor of having John Mark walk alongside them during this journey. But Paul, who reflected on who the man and reflected on if he would bring more good or bad, did not want John Mark walking alongside them. Their disagreement lead to them splitting and going there on ways. It is important to note and understand the man reason that Paul did not want John Mark was the fact that he fell to the issue of not being properly right in his relationship with Christ. Paul viewed him as not taking his “relationship” with Christ seriously and also did believed that Christians and believers should constantly pursue their walk with Christ and not fall and be half hearted in it.
    One thing that I thing this disagreement portrays is the importance of friendship and the importance of pouring into others. Barnabas and Paul disagreed on a specific situation. Because of it they lead away from each other instead of coming together and brainstorming the best way that both individuals could come out and be successful. It is a personal encouragement to not turn away from each other but to walk together hand in hand.

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  23. Paul understands the seriousness of his journey. It is not for the faint of heart. Paul sees that John Mark needs to take time to strengthen his relationship with the Lord. I think both parties needed to see the other side of their argument. They did ministry in different ways and it is important to look at the pro and cons of teaching in different ways. God does not call us to preach in one way but instead gives us the Holy Spirit to help reach more people.

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  24. This is an interesting passage to me personally. I think it really shows the humanity in these people. I think when interpreting the actions of these men, it is important to look with a bigger perspective. From what we know of Paul, I think it is safe to say that he is a passionate man. He seems to be a doer, and when he focuses on a task, he is relentless. Paul also seems to be a little harsh. He is honest, and he is fierce. I think this is the reason why he reacted the way he did to John Mark. Paul may have seen a lack of full commitment, or a clinging to previous ideals. Paul may have seen this as a potential impediment on his ministry or as the first step of John Mark leaving the ministry. Since Paul doesn’t want anything to get in the way of spreading the Gospel, he cuts this potential risk down at the source by trying to get rid of John Mark.

    Barnabas, on the other hand, seems to be more forgiving compared to Paul. I think the description of a protective uncle may not be far off. Though Barnabas may see weakness in John Mark, Barnabas thinks that he isn’t a lost cause, and wants to teach and to grow him spiritually. Barnabas obviously doesn’t feel the same way towards Mark as Paul does, which is why they got in a heated argument which caused them to split. Paul didn’t want the risk of Mark and cut him off. Barnabas saw potential in Mark causing Barnabas to leave with Mark.

    I’m curious what anyone else thinks about this interpretation. Am I reading too much into it, or do you think it may be correct?

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    • I think this is a real possibility. Aside from Barnabas helping out his nephew, he does seem open to working with people who are not quite on the same page as him (for example, when he gets Paul to come to Antioch). Paul really thought Mark had “defected” from the truth, at least in Acts 15:36-40.

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  25. Paul and Barnabas have an argument in Acts 15:36-41 over the idea of bringing John Mark or Silas with them on the missionary journey that they are planning on taking. Paul did not want John Mark to accompany them on this missionary journey because of the past experience they had with him leaving or abandoning them. Paul could have been worried about John Mark not being spiritually ready for this journey if he was not ready for the one they took him on before. Maybe the two, Paul and Barnabas, struggled with the idea of staying together or separating on their missionary journey for a while when this argument came up. This may have been a deciding factor for the two on their decision of splitting up or remaining together. This decision to separate makes me wonder what their missionary journey would have been like if they had worked through the disagreement and remained together.

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  26. I think that we can see this in the light of the Jerusalem Church, or in our churches today. There are disputes all the time that we either choose to ignore, or split the church in half and go our separate ways. Their decision to not continue together, could have been the most healthy decision, as sometimes a church deciding to change pastors, or split is the most healthy. It is interesting what Alex said, I am also curious what would have happened if they continued to work together on their ministry, it could have gone either way I think.

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  27. For a GGF dispensationalist who holds Paul on a rather Large pedestal this passage of scripture may be one of the more humanizing moments in scripture as it shows Paul in a position where he may not actually be correct in his frustration. Paul is uninterested in having John Mark him and Barnabas because he left before. Although Paul is upset this hardly meant that John mark would have been of no use and it would seem that Barnabas was able to see this truth while Paul in his frustration could not. One might be able to see that even Paul later came to the conclusion that John Mark had value once his anger passed because in both 2 timothy 4:11 and Colossians 4:10 Paul speaks well of him suggesting both that he is useful and should be treated well. Perhaps Paul and John Mark were not able to see eye to eye at first but over time and once the initial issue had passed the two were able to see the other in a better light that allowed them to have reconciliation and a ministry at a later point.

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  28. I find both parties point of view here very interesting. First off I think it shows even more how radical Paul’s theology was compared to the Jerusalem church. Honestly it seems to me a little start to different denominations. People today get so bent out of shape over what other Christian’s believe or don’t believe and it ends up separating the church. I can understand why Paul separated from those two, for not having the same theology and for John Mark to have already fallen away once. But this is already starting separation among the church. Maybe if they went with Paul they could have better understood why he believed what he did, and the way that God was working through him to not only reach the Jews but also the Gentiles, which was so controversial back in Biblical times.

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    • Interesting view and point Ren about denomination possibilities in the beginning stages of the early church becoming what we see as the modern church with hundreds of different denominations. In the same way, should Paul show grace to John Mark and allowed him to understand the theology and heart of God’s desires to unite Jews and Gentiles together or is it that John Mark won’t change his mind or heart on a position that makes rational sense to himself. Does John Mark seek the truth of teaching others or does that mean within his comfort zone of people like-minded that Christ is the Savior and Redeemer to the church of Jerusalem in their ideology? Furthermore, the question forms around what could have caused the two to be reunited in there mission. I believe that we all want to claim to be right and we all have something theology that we claim as sound, yet we all strive to serve Christ and we all desire to reflect Christ as Christians. In different denominations, we have varying opinions that we try to live out the truth in sound theology beliefs. Yet we focus on our own personal beliefs more than God’s. The odds that one denomination has the perfect denominational structure without error or flaw. Like Paul and John Mark we have to understand we are one body that meets people and individuals in ways that look and are articulated differently that still strive to present the gospel to others.

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