Today’s Feast of St. Mark (also known as John Mark) reminds us that the Gospel occurs within the human setting and condition. Mark was at the center of the tension between Paul and Barnabas; their differences were so severe that it led to a parting of ways.
Yet St. Mark, despite his less-than-stellar beginning in Church leadership came to prove his worth and was reconciled to St. Paul.
To fill in the back story, let’s begin by St. Barnabas and then turn our attention to St. Paul.
St. Barnabas was a Jew, a native of Cyprus, and of the tribe of Levi. As such he likely served in the Temple as a priest, depending on his age at his conversion to Christianity. His given name was Joseph, but the apostles called him Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement” (cf Acts 4:36).
He was probably a wealthy man, for St. Luke describes him early in Acts as a generous man who sold land to support the growing Church.
Most critically, it was Barnabas who vouched for the new convert, Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul. Paul was viewed with suspicion by those in Jerusalem, including the apostles, who only recently had been targets of his persecutions (cf Acts 9:26).
Talk about one of the most pivotal introductions in history! Indeed, it may be argued that this changed the course of Western history and surely that of the Church. Barnabas smoothed the way for St. Paul, the Church’s most zealous missionary and greatest biblical theologian. After Barnabas’ introduction, Paul was able to move freely around the disciples.
Sometime after this, the apostles in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch, which was home to both Jews and Gentiles. It seems that he was not yet considered to be of the rank of apostle or bishop (Acts 13:1 calls him a teacher). Rather, he went more to observe and be of help. Under the leadership of Barnabas and others, the Church in Antioch thrived and grew quickly.
So, Barnabas sent for Paul to come and join him. They worked together for at least a year, and it was at Antioch that the disciples were called Christians for the first time (Acts 11:26). Barnabas continued to advance and build up Paul’s ministry in the Church. Barnabas gave us a stunning moment in Church history; it is not wrong to call St. Paul his protégé.
At a certain critical point, leaders at Antioch laid hands on Barnabas and Saul. While some debate this, to me it is the clearest moment when it can be said that they were ordained and given the rank of bishop and the title “Apostle.”
Missionaries – Having done this, the Church leaders at Antioch, directed by the Holy Spirit, sent Barnabas and Paul forth on missionary work. This journey is what is now known as Paul’s first missionary journey. It is interesting to note that early in the journey described in Acts, Barnabas is listed first, followed by Paul. By Acts 13:43, however, the order changes and Paul is listed first. This suggests a change in leadership.
They took with them on this first journey the Barnabas’ cousin John, who was called Mark. Somewhat early on the journey, Mark decided that he could no longer go on and turned away from the missionary trip. Later on, this would prove to be significant.
The last major role for Barnabas was in Acts 15 at the Council of Jerusalem, which was convened to decide whether Gentile converts could become full members of the Church without converting to Judaism. Barnabas, along with Paul, provided important testimony to the zeal and conversion of the Gentiles.
A sad moment – After the Council in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch in triumph, their ministry vindicated. They planned another missionary journey together, but then came a critical, sad moment:
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 (Acts 15:36-40).
Although it was a sad moment, it illustrates the human situation. Here were two men who had been like brothers. Paul owed his inclusion in leadership largely to Barnabas. They had taught together. They had journeyed hundreds of miles by ship and then by foot into the northern mountains, making converts in effective ministry. More recently they had just returned from Jerusalem, their vision and ministry approved and vindicated against naysayers among the brethren. Yet at this magnificent moment, Paul and Barnabas argued and parted company over Barnabas’ cousin Mark.
One of the things I admire most about the biblical text is that it does not whitewash things like this. Heroes are not perfect men; they are flawed and representative of the human condition. They are gifted and strong but struggle with the same issues and demons that haunt us all.
What is the lesson to be learned? God uses us even in our weakness. Who was right and who was wrong here? It is difficult to say. Two gifted men were unable to overcome an impasse. Alas, that is the fallen human condition. God will continue to work, however. He can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines.
Even sadder, this is the last we hear of Barnabas in any substantial way. He who had been so instrumental in the life of his protégé Paul, and in the early Church now exits the stage in the heat of an argument. The text says that Barnabas and Mark sailed for Cyprus, and then there is silence.
Barnabas is mentioned in Galatians, but given the vague timeline, it is difficult to assume it took place after the disagreement described in Acts. It likely took place earlier and may illustrate that there were already tensions between Paul and Barnabas before the “Mark incident.” In Galatians we see that Barnabas was following Peter’s weak example of not eating with Gentiles, which was clearly upsetting to Paul (cf Gal 2:13).
Healing? It would also seem that Barnabas continued to labor as a missionary for Paul, who makes mention of him to the Corinthians (cf 1 Cor 9:6). Although Paul’s reference to Barnabas is a passing one, it gives no indication of a rift between them. This suggests that there was some healing of the division, even if they did not labor together again.
More healing? Even for John, called Mark (likely the same Mark who became secretary to Peter and authored the Gospel of Mark), it would seem that he and Paul overcame their difficulties. For St Paul wrote to Timothy, likely about the same Mark, Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry (2 Tim 4:11). There is something of a redemption here for Mark and a healing for Paul. The “useless” deserter Mark is now one who is helpful to Paul.
Although the loss and seeming disappearance of St. Barnabas is sad, there is still the story of St. Mark’s growth to greater maturity and to leadership. Though less-than-reliable at first, Mark later proves his worth. It would seem we have St. Peter to thank for that, taking Mark as his secretary and aide. We also owe thanks to St. Barnabas, who did not give up on Mark. In the end, John Mark proves himself helpful in the ministry and St. Peter called him “my son” (1 Peter 5:14).
Yes, God can make a way out of no way. Even in our weakness (and often only because our weakness keeps us humble), God can do great things.