Sometime later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.
I’m sure you can think of more than one friendship that has ended painfully. Whether because of a slow phase out, a loss of contact, or an explosive argument, friendships can fail, often painfully.
We see the end of a longstanding friendship in this passage. Paul, persecutor of Christians, had been the protégé of Barnabas. They had travelled through the province of Asia together preaching the gospel in the first missionary journey (Acts 13). Barnabas had even vouched for Paul when the other disciples did not believe he was really a disciple.
As is often the case with the worst arguments, Paul and Barnabas are, in a sense, both right. Paul needed people he could fully rely on to accompany him on his journey, and John Mark had previously deserted him (Acts 13:13).
Barnabas, living up to the meaning of his name ‘son of encouragement’, wanted to give his cousin John Mark a second chance. This was the cause of Paul and Barnabas’ ‘sharp disagreement’, which is translated elsewhere as a ‘huge row’. And so, Paul and Barnabas ‘parted company’, Barnabas taking John Mark to Cyprus, and Paul taking Silas through Syria and Cilicia. It seems a sad end to a long and fruitful friendship.
Human beings are broken and sinful, and some friendships will inevitably fail and fall apart. This story probably resonates with you in some way, recalling painful and sad memories of friends you’ve lost or left behind. But what hope is there to be found in this story, and what might be its implications for our friendships today?
God specialises in taking human messes and bringing great good from them. In this passage, it is the creation of two missionary journeys rather than one. A division in friendship leads to a multiplication of opportunities to spread the gospel. Separation doubles the church’s mission.
There may be beauty to be found in the ashes of a failed friendship. It is important to take the time to mourn and grieve the loss of such a relationship, but do not stop there. If there are reparations to be made then be sure to apologise, forgive, and make amends. Paul later commends Barnabas as a fellow apostle in 1 Corinthians 9:6.
Going forward, how can you look to honour, pray for, and encourage the friends with whom you have parted ways, modelling forgiveness and seeing God’s goodness in a messy situation?