January 6, 2015


Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe



Topic #IV. The Church Advancing to the End of the Earth (Acts 13-28)   


Subtopic C: The Second Missionary Journey (15:36-18:22)                 



         Lesson: IV.C.1: Paul and Barnabas Disagree on John Mark (15:36-41)





Scripture (Acts 15:36-41; KJV)


36 And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do.

37 And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark.

38 But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.

39 And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus;

40 And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God.

41And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.






The outcome of the Jerusalem council (a decision in favor of accepting the gentiles without circumcision and adherence to Jewish Law) naturally gave added impetus to the spread of the gospel.  Paul and Barnabas would have had no doubts that their earlier decision to go to the Gentiles had been the right one, but to have the approval now of the other apostles and the elders of the church in Jerusalem must have been as encouraging for them as for their converts.  A “second missionary journey” was therefore proposed.  But they were destined not to make it together.  A difference of opinion between them lead to each going his separate way.  Barnabas went to Cyprus, and we hear no more of him in Acts.  Paul remains the focus of attention as he returns to Galatia and then embarks on a new enterprise.






36 And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do.


“And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas . . .”

Paul was a tireless servant of Christ; he and Barnabas had been preaching and teaching in Antioch after their return from the Jerusalem Conference (15:35).  We do not know how long he remained in Antioch after the reading of the apostolic epistle.  All we are told is “And some days after,” which was probably as spring approached and it again became possible to travel. Paul suggested to Barnabas that they should revisit “our brethren in every city” of their previous journey to tell them the good news of the apostolic epistle and to see how they were doing.  Nothing more than this is suggested, but it may already have been Paul’s intention to start a new work once this visitation was done. 


Like any good pastor, Paul wanted to go back over the ground which he had already covered. The Judaizing element in those churches had misled some of the converts with its false propaganda.  With the backing of the council, Paul was certain that he could lead the converts back to the truth of the gospel.  Good pastors know that you cannot convert a man and then let him drift.  The follow-up is perhaps even more important than the original contact.  Paul wanted to follow-up what he had done; he wanted to see “how they are doing.” People do not spring into spiritual maturity overnight.  Once the seed is planted it must be cultivated; once the life is undertaken it must be encouraged, confirmed, and trained.  The faithful pastor, like Paul, goes back again and again to see how his people are doing.  Sometimes they are not doing so well and they’d need his guidance or his warning; sometimes they are doing well and they need his friendly interest in their well-being and happiness.  Above all they need to be reminded that the Christian life is not something that can be developed in a two-year course and then dropped.  It is something that a person must go over again and again; going back over the same questions, the same affirmations, he can grow in stature and in spiritual wisdom. 


The expression “with many others also” (15:35), with which this verse is linked, leads us to the conclusion that Paul soon decided there were plenty of people able to carry on at Antioch.  They did not need him there.  There was a whole lost world waiting to be evangelized. 


A “new division” of the book of Acts begins at this point—Paul’s second major mission.  Actually, Paul did not fulfill in person his desire to revisit “all” the churches of their first mission.  He did not return to Cyprus.  As things turned out, however, all the churches were revisited, with Barnabas going to Cyprus (38:39).


The second journey, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was to open vast new areas to the gospel, mainly in Macedonia and Greece; but the original purpose was that of revisiting the churches already formed so that they might be strengthened in the faith.


“Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do.”

For a long time Paul’s heart had been with his Galatian churches.  He had prayed for them.  He longed to see them again.  What with the trouble at Antioch, the trip to Jerusalem, and the new tempo at Antioch, he had been kept busy.  But increasingly, now that things were so successful at Antioch, his thoughts had been on the mission field.  So few seemed to catch the missionary vision, and nobody else seemed to want to go.  Surely the best way to inspire others with missionary zeal was to go himself.


He would start by revisiting Galatia.  But what about the danger?  Paul was not concerned about the danger.  And Barnabas?  Barnabas must come, too.  Dear, beloved Barnabas.  He was the ideal companion.  He had been carried away by the false pretenses and distortions put forth by the Judaizers, true, but a good dose of pioneering would blow the last of those cobwebs away.  Barnabas must come too.  So he broached the idea with his old companion and friend.



37 And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark.

38 But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.


“And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark.”

Barnabas had evidently made up his mind about that.  When back in Jerusalem he had doubtless renewed his contact with Mark.  More than likely he stayed in the home of Mary, Mark’s mother, his own sister.  Mark would have expressed his regrets over his past failure, apologized, and asked his uncle to give him another chance.  The thrilling stories told by his uncle only fired the fervor of the young man.  He pleaded to be included again the next time.  We can picture it happening.  Perhaps Barnabas allowed his judgment to be swayed by genuine affection for Mark. Barnabas had said, “We’ll see, Mark.  I’ll give it much thought and I’ll pray about it, but I’ll have to talk to Paul.”


Barnabas had a shepherd’s heart, and probably had personal reasons for knowing better than Paul the depth and sincerity of John Mark’s repentance.  On the other hand, Paul—also a spiritual shepherd—was concerned with the spiritual success of the “second journey” in which much depended on the help they might receive from younger men.  These must be “tried and proved” in a public fashion, and it could not be said that John Mark had been so tested since his defection


“But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.”

Perhaps Mark had tentatively tried out his proposal on Paul at Jerusalem.  Perhaps he had wisely left the matter with his uncle.  Perhaps Paul had heard via the Grapevine that Mark was putting out feelers to see if he could come again.  Perhaps the proposal of Barnabas took Paul completely by surprise.


Whatever the case, Paul did NOT agree with Barnabas. All Paul could think of was Mark’s failure at a critical point in their previous enterprise.  Was it the danger?  Was it the drudgery?  Was in the displacement of Barnabas as a leader?  Mark had let them down, whatever the reason.  Whether it was a lack of courage, lack of conviction, or lack of commitment was beside the point.  Mark had failed, and Paul had little patience with failure.


So when Barnabas made his proposal, that Mark accompany them as he had on their first mission (13:5), Paul was instantly filled with negative thoughts, since he had abandoned them on their first mission (13:5).  All he could see in his mind’s eye was Pamphylia, and Mark’s back as he walked away from the place of duty.  Thus, when it came to planning the journey, they could not see eye to eye on whether Mark should go with them again.  Barnabas wanted “to take” him, but Paul did not want “to take him,” because he had “departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.” It is thought that when Mark left them, it was “without” their knowledge and approval.


It is possible that there was an additional source of tension between Paul and Barnabas.  Galatians 2:11-13 speaks of an incident that took place in Antioch, evidently after the Jerusalem Conference, in which Peter and Barnabas gave in to pressure from “certain men” from James and withdrew from table fellowship with Gentiles.  Paul sharply confronted Peter on that occasion for his “hypocrisy” and was none too happy with Barnabas for following Peter’s example.  Even though Paul had now been sufficiently reconciled to Barnabas to request his companionship on the mission, there may have been lingering wounds and possibly still some differences over Paul’s “law-free” Gentile outreach.  Mark may himself have represented a more conservative Jewish-Christian outlook.  However that may be, Paul did eventually become reconciled to Mark and mention him as a coworker in several of his letters (see Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24; 2 Timothy 4:11).  Standing in the background was Barnabas, always the encourager, showing faith in Mark when others had lost theirs and eventually redeeming him—ironically, for Paul.


Frankly, I am glad these two brethren had this little altercation because it teaches me that these men were human and that even the saints can disagree without being disagreeable.  We see that the best of men are but men, subject to like passions as we are.  They didn’t break up anything.  They did not split the church and form two different churches in Antioch.  They just disagreed.  Good and godly people in the church do disagree; this is one of the painful facts of life that we must accept.  It’s all right to disagree with some of the brethren.  We shall never be all of one mind until we get to heaven.



39 And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus;


“And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other.”

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?  What happens when two good men, two godly men, are equally convinced that quite opposite courses should be taken?  In this case the discussion grew heated.  Barnabas presented all the positive reasons for including Mark in the new venture: he was young, he had promise, grace should prevail, and he deserved a second chance.  “And don’t you forget, Paul, how I took up your case when you needed a friend,” Barnabas might have said.  “Come to think of it,” Paul might have angrily replied, “you dissembled[1] right here at Antioch when Peter and the others refused to eat with the Gentiles. I’m not sure about you anymore, my brother.” Paul presented all the reasons for NOT including Mark: he was unstable, he might fail again next time at an even more critical point, it was not fair to expose him to dangers (and dangers there would be) beyond his capacity to face, Mark had other talents, he had a way with words, let him be content serving the Lord within the framework of his talents and temperament.  The weight of the evidence favors Paul’s decision, especially since he was an “apostle of Jesus Christ.”  That alone should have caused Barnabas to submit to his authority.


“The contention was so sharp between them,” that in the end, two angry men faced each other, sorry that it had come to such an impasse but both were quite inflexible over the central issue—John Mark.  There was only one thing to do.  The two friends shake hands, part company, and go their separate ways.  How sad!  How true to life. So it was that two missionary expeditions instead of one set out from Antioch.  The work of visitation was divided between them, with Barnabas going to Cyprus and taking Mark with him.  His concern in this incident was probably for Mark’s welfare; whereas Paul’s concern was for the work, and he was afraid that Mark might be a hindrance. 


So, in view of all the background information we have available, inquisitive minds might ask, “Who was really responsible for the break-up of this missionary team of Paul and Barnabas?” In some ways both men were right and both were wrong. Hind-sight is always good, but we also have the benefit of scripture and recorded history. There is another way to look at it—how effectively does the Lord “overrule” such differences in judgment and such manifestations of human weakness, by making them “turn out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel”; as in this case. It is eminently clear that the two missionary parties (instead of one), by dividing the field between them, were able to visit more churches and to spread the gospel in more places than one team alone could have done.  I believe “the hand of God” can be seen in this division of labor. You can decide how to answer the question and you need NOT agree with me, since you may be right.


Another question arises, “Why, with all the places he could have gone, did Barnabas decide to go to Cyprus?” His home was in Cyprus and he had a desire to take the gospel to his own people.  We know from tradition that he had a great ministry there, and from Cyprus a great ministry was carried on in North Africa. 


Happily the breach between them was healed in time.  Paul refers to Barnabas in friendly terms in 1 Corinthians 9:6 and Colossians 4:10 and in a way that implies that though Acts makes no mention of it the two men remained friends.  Similarly with Mark: Paul later speaks of him with approval as one of the few who had helped him (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24), and it was Mark (together with Timothy) that he wanted close to him at the end of his life [“Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).].


“And so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus.”

Barnabas and Mark departed for further work on Cyprus. Though disagreements are regrettable, at least in this instance there was a fortunate outcome.  They divided the field of the first mission between them.  Now there were two missions instead of one.  Barnabas, his mind made up, left Paul, picked up Mark, and went to Cyprus, where Mark, had been before; no doubt his sensitive soul was bruised by his quarrel with Paul.  There is no hint that he even so much as waited for the blessing of the elders of the church.  Perhaps he sought fresh commendation from Jerusalem.  In any case he sailed right out of the continuing story of the book of Acts as Luke kept his eye on his hero, Paul. Paul headed north to Galatia.


Paul needed a suitable replacement for a traveling companion and chose “Silas” (38:40).  For this journey Paul had pretty much made the decision on his own.  Still, as with the first mission, he had the support of the Antioch church and was commended by the brothers and sisters there to the “grace of God” for his new undertaking.


Little is heard of Barnabas after this.  He quietly went on serving the Lord, but the mainstream of events passed him by.  He did a good job with Mark and eventually passed him on to Peter.  Mark wrote the gospel that bears his name, but the personality of Peter is woven into its “warp and woof” (composition).  But the hand of Paul is evident, too, for Mark wrote for the Romans; and later, when Paul was awaiting execution, he had so fully forgiven Mark and so greatly appreciated what he had finally become that he wrote for him to come to Rome, to the lion’s den, to the post of danger, to share his last few days.  “He is profitable to me for the ministry,” he said (2 Timothy 4:11). Mark, like Barnabas passes off the scene of biblical history at this point and little is heard of them; the same is true of Peter.



40 And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God.


“And Paul chose Silas.”

It was NOT wise to travel alone in those rough and ready times, so, now that Barnabas was gone, Paul turned his attention to who should accompany him.  Several people came to mind, but he chose “Silas,” one of the official representatives from the Jerusalem council in taking the council’s decrees to Antioch (Acts 15:22), one in good standing with the mother church in Jerusalem, and with the churches blessing (compare verse 40 with 14:26), they set out by land for the cities of southern Galatia. Silas was mentioned in the Jerusalem letter, so his presence would give added weight to it as he presented it to the Galatian churches. His ministry at Antioch had been much appreciated by the church there and had given Paul an opportunity to size up the man.  Then, too, Silas seems like Paul to have been a Roman citizen, something well worth considering in the light of official opposition that might be encountered.  He could claim the same protection as Paul if the occasion demanded it.  Being a Jew gave him access to the synagogues.  In the end, Silas proved to be a wise choice.  Silas, whose Roman name (in Greek) is Sylvanus (2 Corinthians 1:19), now assumed the role of “supporting cast” that Barnabas had played, though he would never attain the stature of Barnabas.  He is never called an apostle (14:14), but he was a prophet fully capable of preaching and teaching the scriptures.  He may have commended himself to Paul for four reasons; his readiness to deal sympathetically with the Gentile believers, he was well known in Antioch, his possession (implied in 16:37) of Roman citizenship and because Silas served as Peter’s amanuensis[2] it may be concluded he was skilled in the Greek language.  That no mention is made of Barnabas and Mark being similarly sent out with a blessing means nothing except that Paul is now the center of Luke’s attention.


“And departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God.”

As at the commencement of the first missionary journey so now at the beginning of the second, Paul sought the blessing and prayer fellowship of the church before leaving.  In some things Paul could be fiercely independent.  However, he never set himself up as a free-lance missionary.  Though called and commissioned by the Lord, he did not act in isolation and independence from his brethren.  All Christian workers need the support, fellowship, and prayers of the church.  We are members of the Body of Christ, after all, and members one of another.  Then, too, Paul must have been scarred by his recent quarrel with Barnabas.  He needed to know that his brethren still had full confidence in him.  They did.  They commended him to “the grace of God,” and Silas, too.


God changes his workmen, but His work goes right on.  Now there were two missionary teams instead of one!  If God had to depend on perfect people to accomplish His work, He would never get anything done.  Our limitations and imperfections are good reasons for us to depend on the grace of God, for our sufficiency is from Him alone [“Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.” (2 Corinthians 3:5)].



41And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.


As they journeyed to Galatia, Paul and Silas had the opportunity to visit as many churches of Syria-Cilicia as lay on their route.  Though we are told nothing in detail about the founding of Christian churches in these districts, verse 23 implies their existence, and Paul himself may have had a hand in establishing some of them.  Luke again uses the word that suggests that this was a “preaching tour,” and in this way (together with the reading of the letter from the council) these churches were strengthened (15:32; 14:22). 


The emphasis is now obviously on Paul.  He is now clearly in command.  Paul was a born leader, and, like many other such men, impatient of those who questioned his authority.  Silas was a patient follower.  The church needs both.


They went northward through “Syria and Cilicia,” visiting the churches along the way. Since the “apostolic decrees” were originally addressed to all the churches in “Syria and Cilicia” (15:23), one would assume that Paul and Silas shared these with them.  This is all the more likely since Silas was one of the two originally appointed by the Jerusalem church to deliver the decree’s (15:22).  It would seem that they passed through Paul’s hometown of Tarsus in Cilicia, though nothing is said of that.  But what thoughts and longings must have been in Paul’s heart as he trod the familiar streets of his own boyhood town!  Then on into the rugged interior, crossing the Tarsus range by way of the Cilician Gates.  At length they arrived at Derbe and then at Lystra.  A glance at a map will show that Paul was following quite a different route than the one taken on his first missionary journey.  He now visited in the reverse order the cities to which he had been before.  Everywhere he went he found the churches are thriving.  There was little reason for him to stay.  His goal was to encourage and exhort.  No doubt copies of the Jerusalem letter were left with each church, and Silas added his own confirmation of the decision of the council.  We can well believe that any Judaizers in the area kept a very low profile at this time.


The subject of supreme interest in the second missionary journey of Paul is the invasion of Europe.  Once again, the circle widens, and we see the apostle crossing the boundary line and going into Europe.  The call of the “man of Macedonia” was answered, and the gospel of Jesus Christ carried “to the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  The invasion of Europe was not in the mind of Paul, but it was evidently in the mind of the Holy Spirit.




[1]Dissembled. Disguise or conceal ones true feelings.

[2] Amanuensis. A literary or artistic assistant, in particular one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts.