Acts 15 Part 3

30. So when they were sent off, they came to Antioch; and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter.

So Paul and Barnabas are dismissed from Jerusalem. The word for “sent” here is neither pempo nor apostello, but the word apoluo, which means “to be loosed from” something. It can be used for a divorce, or for sending someone away, but has to do with being dismissed from an obligation or a gathering. In this case, they were sent off from the counsel once it was completed.

Thus these two return to Antioch. There, they gather the multitude of believers together, and in their presence they deliver the letter to them with the decision that the Jerusalem leaders have made, at the direction of the Holy Spirit.

31. When they had read it, they rejoiced over its encouragement.

When the believers in Antioch had all read the letter, they rejoiced over the encouragement it offered them. They now knew that they were indeed safe in Jesus Christ. They need not be circumcised and keep the law. Their faith in Christ was truly all they needed. This was encouragement indeed!

The word “encouragement” here is the Greek word paraklesei, again related to the paraclete, or the one who comes alongside to help. This letter and the word from God it represented was indeed a help to encourage all these earnest believers.

32. Now Judas and Silas, themselves being prophets also, exhorted and strengthened the brethren with many words.

Judas and Silas now step in and do their part. For the first time, we learn that these two were not just messengers of the leaders in Jerusalem, but also were prophets themselves. Thus, they now speak words from God to the believers, giving them encouraging (parakaleo) words, and words to strengthen them. What these words were we are not told, but since they were words from God, we can be sure that they were right, and that they accomplished what God intended for them to do.

33. And after they had stayed there for a time, they were sent back with greetings from the brethren to the apostles.

Judas and Silas remain there for a time, continuing their work to encourage and strengthen the brethren. However, at last their mission is complete, and they are sent back with greetings from the brethren in Antioch to the apostles in Jerusalem.

The word for “sent back” here is again the Greek word apoluo. These two men were obligated to the mission the leaders in Jerusalem had given them. Now, however, they have completed that mission, and those to whom they were commissioned loose them from their obligation. They are now free to return to those who sent them with greetings.

34. However, it seemed good to Silas to remain there.

Judas apparently avails himself of the opportunity to return home. Silas, however, is not ready to leave Antioch, in spite of the fact that his mission there is complete. Therefore, being free from any obligation to return to Jerusalem, he decides to remain in Antioch. We are not told that this was any direction from God more than a whim, but certainly this all worked out for the best in the plans of the Lord, for then Silas was present in Antioch when Paul was seeking a new companion, and so was able to join him on his next mission, as we are about to see in the following verses.

The modern Greek texts omit this verse. Yet if this statement is not here, then every indication would be that Silas returned to Jerusalem with Judas. How, then, was he around for Paul to choose to accompany him in verse 40? The passage is turned to confusion without this verse. To us, this is the strongest of recommendations in its favor.

35. Paul and Barnabas also remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.

Paul and Barnabas stay in Antioch as well, continuing their work of teaching and proclaiming the word of the Lord with many others who were there also. We learned the names of some of those others in Acts 13:1: Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen. No doubt there were others there as well. Thus Paul and Barnabas are back home, their mission completed, and they return to their roles in the ekklesia in Antioch. This will not continue for long, however, for the Lord has more work for them elsewhere. They will not be able to stay home in Antioch, for there is much the Lord still has for them to do.

36. Then after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.”

After some days have passed since Judas departed, Paul makes a proposal to Barnabas. He suggests that they go back and visit their brethren in every city where they had proclaimed the word of the Lord previously, and see how they are doing. No doubt He hopes by doing this to help strengthen them in their faith, and to encourage them in their service to the Lord. Notice that he is not proposing that they go out and evangelize in these places again. The people in these towns have heard the Word of God from His appointed apostles, accompanied by signs, and the confirmation of the Holy Spirit. At this point, they either heard and believed, or heard and refused to believe. There is no point in bringing the gospel to them again. What must be done now is to strengthen those who believe.

37. Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark.

Apparently, John called Mark has returned from Jerusalem to Antioch. Remember, he had gone with Paul and Barnabas the first time, but something had soured him on the work, and he had returned to his mother’s home in Jerusalem. Now, he has come back to Antioch, and apparently has changed his mind about traveling with Paul and Barnabas. He wants to join them once again.

Barnabas is willing to take John with them, ready to give him another chance. Part of the reason for Barnabas’ indulgence may have been that Mark was related to him, as we learn from Colossians 4:10, where Paul calls him Barnabas’ cousin.

38. But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work.

Paul is not so ready to forgive John Mark. He remembers how Mark departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the hard work the Lord had for them to do. Apparently, Paul does not believe that Mark has truly learned his lesson. He thinks that when the going gets rough, Mark will just desert them again. Therefore, he is unwilling to take him along.

39. Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus;

Now this matter turns into a very sharp argument between the two apostles. In fact, their disagreement is so strong that they are parted one from another. Barnabas leaves Paul and takes Mark with him to Cyprus.

40. but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God.

Paul, finding himself bereft of a partner, chooses Silas, the faithful messenger of the ekklesia in Jerusalem. Him he takes with him, and departs from Antioch. Paul and Silas receive the commendation of the brethren in Antioch, who let them go to the grace of God.

Now many have noted this unfortunate story of the split between Paul and Barnabas. This was a sad disagreement between two faithful men of God, and a most regrettable chapter in the history of Acts. The Lord apparently did not step in to stop this breach of friendship, and so it continued to its sad conclusion. As far as we can tell, this break was never repaired, for we do not read of Paul and Barnabas being together ever again.

Now as we examine the story, it is inevitable that we would try to determine who might have been at fault, or who was more in the right. I suppose it is impossible to answer this with 100% certainty. Perhaps neither Paul nor Barnabas were completely as they should have been in this. Yet it seems to me that many in modern times tend to side with Barnabas in this. They point out Barnabas’ attitude of encouragement, and how he had taken Paul’s side when the others in Jerusalem had been unable to overlook Paul’s past wickedness and persecutions against them. Should not Paul have been willing to overlook John Mark’s fault, and accept him back into their company, even as Barnabas was willing to? And so they accuse Paul of a fault in forgiveness, and suggest that he should have listened to Barnabas.

Well, to this we could answer several things. First of all, what was good about Barnabas siding with Paul in Acts 9 is that Paul truly was changed. He no longer was the persecutor he had been in the past. Now, he really was a faithful follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. Whether or not John Mark had truly changed, however, is not so clear. If Mark was now on fire and ready to go through anything to serve the Lord, then of course he should have been forgiven. However, if he was just half-heartedly trying his hand at accompanying his cousin Barnabas again, and was still ready to bolt if the going got tough, then he had not really changed, and to accept him into their company again was more akin to foolishness than to forgiveness.

This is a fault that many believers display today. Finding a fellow believer in a fault, such as when an unmarried girl, supposedly a believer, is found pregnant, they believe that it is incumbent upon all who truly follow Christ to immediately forgive her. However, there may be no indications in this girl’s life that anything has changed for her. If she were put in the same situation again, she might sin the same way, and desecrate the name of her Lord in the same manner as the first time. What right, then, have her fellow believers to absolve her or to proclaim her as untouchable regarding blame? Until they are satisfied that a change of heart has taken place, it is in fact an excusing of sin to accept her with open arms when she has demonstrated no change of heart whatsoever. It is sad that we have degraded “forgiveness” to mean an overlooking of sin in the heart and unfaithfulness to the Lord. We are under no obligation to accept a person back until that person has demonstrated a change of heart. To accept one who is still set on sin is a sin itself. It is just as grievous as it would be to refuse to accept or forgive one who had truly changed and had an alteration of heart. To refuse to accept one who has changed is to deny the reality of the forgiveness that we ourselves have received. Yet on the other hand, to accept one who has not changed nor submitted is to deny the reality of the sin which separated us from God, and therefore the necessity of the sacrifice which removed it from us. Both are serious errors.

The question then is who was making the error here, Paul or Barnabas? Had Mark truly had a change of heart, or hadn’t he, but was just looking for acceptance while his heart was still not right?

Well, the Lord makes no comment on this, so we really cannot say for certain. However, I would suggest that we look at what we know of John Mark after this. How do we learn anything about the career of Mark after this? Well, we know that he wrote one of the gospels, which certainly indicates that he became a faithful prophet of the Lord. Yet that book really isn’t about him, and tells us nothing about his future history. No, for that we must look to the words of Peter and Paul.

First, in Colossians 4:10, we read of Mark, as we mentioned above. There, Paul states:

10. Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, with Mark the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him),

So Mark was actually part of Paul’s company, and was with him at this time! Clearly, Paul had changed in his attitude towards Mark. We see again that Mark is with Paul in Philemon 1:24.

23. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, 24 as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers.

Mark must have left Paul for a time, however, for we read that he was with Peter in Babylon in I Peter 5:13.

13. She who is in Babylon, elect together with you, greets you; and so does Mark my son.

In fact, some have speculated that Peter was Mark’s primary source for his gospel, and that that book is in fact the gospel of Peter as much as it is the gospel of Mark. This, we cannot really comment on, having no evidence either way from the Scriptures.

The final time we hear of Mark is again in the words of Paul, for he wishes Mark to rejoin him in II Timothy 4:11.

11. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry.

So Paul has definitely changed in his attitude towards Mark. Now, he proclaims that he is “useful to me for ministry.” Certainly this is a change, for he deemed him not useful in Acts 15:38. Yet the question is, was it the heart of Paul that had changed towards Mark alone, or had Mark truly undergone a change himself since Paul had so stubbornly refused him?

We cannot answer this for certain, for Scripture does not tell us in so many words, yet I think we can get a clue if we consider, not the perspective of Paul, but rather the perspective of Mark. Remember, he had asked to rejoin Paul and Barnabas in their work on their second journey from Antioch. Paul had stubbornly refused, insisting that he lacked dedication to the work, and would abandon them as he had the first time. Barnabas had insisted that Paul was wrong, and that Mark should get a second chance. We can see how Mark, whether he was serious about the work or not, would side with Barnabas at first, and so he goes off with Barnabas to Cyprus.

However, Mark must have thought about Paul’s rejection a great deal, especially once the heat of the argument was over, and he was alone off with Barnabas. If the Lord was working on his heart, he may well have been led to consider what Paul said. Had Paul been right? Was he really not as serious or as dedicated to the work as he should have been? Was he really not taking service to the Lord nearly seriously enough? He must have carefully considered these things as time went by. And, as the Lord worked to change Mark’s heart, perhaps he came to see that Paul had been right.

Now if Mark came to see the truth of Paul’s argument, and if his heart truly was changed later on, we can see no more likely scenario than that he would in the future seek Paul out, apologize for his previous lack of dedication, and admit that Paul’s assessment of him had been correct. Paul, seeing that Mark was serious now about serving the Lord and that his attitude had truly changed, would be very likely to admit Mark back into his company. Finding him truly dedicated, he would then proclaim Mark as now useful for ministry.

However, if Paul was wrong, if Mark really had changed when Barnabas had insisted that they bring him along and yet Paul refused to accept him, what motivation would Mark ever have had for returning to the man who had refused to see the reality of what was in his heart? Why would he seek out the man who had unfairly rejected him? And if Paul had not believed in the seriousness of Mark’s dedication before, what would have led him to believe in it later? We can see no likely possibility of the reconciliation between them if Paul had not been right, and if Mark had not realized it himself later on. This, then, would lead us to believe that Paul really had had a point, and that Mark himself realized it later on, and worked to repair their relationship.

Another thing that would lead us to believe that Paul may have been right is the attitude of Barnabas. Remember, when he and Paul started off on their ministry the first time, Barnabas had been the leader. However, while they were on Cyprus, Barnabas’ home island, a strange leapfrogging took place, and Paul suddenly became the leader of the company. Barnabas may have accepted this with good grace, but it could not have exactly made him happy. It may well be he did not want to follow Paul’s leadership on this matter of Mark, in spite of the fact that he should have. He thought that he should at least be allowed to make this decision, since Mark was his relative, as so was unwilling to accept Paul’s authority in the matter. If Paul was now the leader, he really should have acquiesced to Paul’s choice.

Moreover, we should consider the outcome of the whole thing. Barnabas takes Mark and goes to Antioch. Some have suggested that this was a good outcome, and resulted in not just one company of apostles going out to spread the word, but rather two companies, one with Paul and one with Barnabas. However, this suggestion is pure imagination. We have no indication that Barnabas did any kind of work for Christ from this point on. At the very least, we know that the record does not follow him. And most seem to forget that Barnabas was from Cyprus. Instead of Barnabas striking off on his own to pursue an apostolic journey, there is every likelihood that what he really did was return home in a huff!

On the other hand, we have Paul. He is the one that the Scripture record follows. He is the one who is recognized by the brethren in Antioch, and commended by them to the grace of God. He is the one whose work is so successful from this point on. Moreover, the Lord goes with Paul and works with him. Yet is there anything like this that can be said about the future ministry of Barnabas?

On top of this, as we have already noted, we see that Paul and Mark worked out their relationship, and later on were working together. Barnabas, on the other hand, we never see again. He drops out of the Divine history of the Word completely at this point. We have no indication that he ever mended fences with Paul, or that he ever rejoined the work. Is this not at least some indication of who might have been the stubborn and unreasonable one in all of this?

So while we cannot say for certain that either Paul or Barnabas was completely without fault in this, the fact that Barnabas refused to recognize Paul’s leadership, the fact that he returned home in a huff, the fact that the brethren in Antioch commended Paul and not Barnabas, the fact that the record follows Paul and not Barnabas, and the fact that Mark later is restored to Paul while Barnabas never is, all lead us to the conclusion that Paul was the one more in the right here, and that Barnabas should have listened to him in this case. The modern tendency to blame Paul and side with Barnabas is in fact the weaker position when it comes to what we actually see from Scripture.

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

So we see that Paul does as he set out to do. With Silas, he goes through Syria and Cilicia, revisiting the places he had been before, and seeing how the believing brethren in each place are faring. We may be sure that they were happy to see Paul again, and to receive the benefits of his ministry.

So Paul strengthened the ekklesia in all these places. This did not have to do with building up organizations called churches as we have them today. Rather, it had to do with building up the out-called men who had been established as the leaders and guides of the other believers in each place.

Yet Paul’s work would not stop here. There were still many places to reach with the word, and Paul will strike out to reach these places once again. We will see how that came about in the next chapter.