Acts 15:36-16:5

We pick up Luke’s story line again at Acts 15:36, the matters over circumcision in Jerusalem having been concluded.  Paul and Barnabas have returned to Antioch, and two prophets (preachers) from the Jerusalem church, Judas and Silas, have accompanied them.  Judas has subsequently returned to Jerusalem, but Silas has remained in Antioch.  Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch teaching and preaching along with many others.  (vv32-35)

If you have not taken the time to read Acts 15:36-16:5, please do so now.

Division between Paul and Barnabas

Paul expresses a desire to Barnabas to visit the churches that they had established on their first missionary journey to see how they were doing.  Note that Paul’s request was only to return to where they had been before, not enter new territory (v36).  As a result, Barnabas expressed a desire to Paul to bring John Mark along (v37).  Recall that John Mark had accompanied them on their first missionary journey, but had returned to Jerusalem early in the trip.  Luke doesn’t elaborate on his reasons for doing so, noting only that “John left them and returned to Jerusalem.” (Acts 13:13).  Now Barnabas, ever the encourager (his name means “Son of Encouragement”), wants to give John Mark a second chance.  Paul is repeatedly adamant that they not bring him along on this new journey (v38) because of his previous desertion (Gr. aphistemi, lit. “stand away from”).

This same Greek word is used many times in the New Testament and in many different circumstances.  For instance, Gamaliel’s counsel to the Jewish High Council concerning Peter and John was to “stand away from them and leave them alone,” lest they be found to be fighting against God themselves. (Acts 5:38-39)  In Acts 12:10 it is used to describe the action of the angel who led Peter out of prison when his work was completed — he “departed.”  So this word has many nuances depending on the context.  Given Paul’s intense reaction years later, John Mark may have had to make the terms of his departure from the first journey at least clear and perhaps forceful.  He may also have distanced himself from certain elements of Paul’s theology that had become apparent on the island of Cyprus.

Whatever the nature of John Mark’s departure, Paul felt that he had made a clear choice to separate himself from Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles and there was to be no second chance.  Apparently this was the hill that both Paul and Barnabas were willing to die on, for it resulted in a parting of the ways between Paul and Barnabas.  Barnabas took John Mark and sailed for Cyprus.  Now bereft of his closest partner in ministry since Christ had appeared to him on the road to Damascus, Paul asks Silas to accompany him.  They leave by an overland route through Syria and Cilicia, with the blessing of the Antioch church.

What sadness and anguish, not only for Paul, Barnabas and John Mark, but for the entire Antioch church must have accompanied this parting of the ways.  If ever there was a church split in the making, this was it.  The desire to “choose up sides” must have been intense.  But Luke indicates there wasn’t any such activity.  Based on my human experience with churches of today, it seems absurd and beyond reach.  Somehow they weathered this storm between their two greatest teachers.

Notice that Barnabas and John Mark are the first to leave, and go directly to Cyprus — the very location of John Mark’s previous desertion, and the beginning of the first missionary journey.  They are, in fact, doing exactly what Paul had proposed — revisiting the churches established previously.  Paul and Silas, no doubt not wishing to follow directly in their footsteps, must choose a different route to the north by land along the Mediterranean coast through Syria, and then west into the southern coast of present-day Turkey (ancient Cilicia).  Their route probably would have taken them through Paul’s boyhood home, Tarsus, but Luke makes no mention of it.

Along their route they were engaged in strengthening the churches.   These were not churches that had been established by Paul on the first missionary journey, but had been established by those scattered from Jerusalem under Herod’s persecution.  Silas probably had a stronger relationship with them than Paul, although they also could have been among the churches Paul ministered to during his “desert years” in Antioch.

In any case, Barnabas and John Mark fade from the scene.  Luke chooses to accompany Paul and Silas.  Barnabas is mentioned only three more times in the New Testament, (1) Paul’s description of his associations with James and Peter that we have studied extensively in Galatians 2, (2) in defense of his apostleship to the believers in Corinth in I Corinthians 9:6, and (3) as a cousin of “Mark” (John Mark?) who was apparently ministering to Paul in prison at the writing of the letter to the Colossians (Col. 4:10).  Indeed, Paul and Silas will shortly rejoin the route of the first journey from its farthest point, Derbe.  No mention is made of Barnabas and John Mark having been rejoined, and we assume that their travels never took them that far.

Who was wrong?  Should Paul have listened to Barnabas and given John Mark another chance?  Should Barnabas have listened to Paul and backed down concerning John Mark?  Although theologians and historians speculate and dispute the two positions, Luke (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit) doesn’t get into the blame game — he just reports the facts.  It would be good if we listened to Paul when he says, “… do not go on passing judgement before the time… that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.” (I Cor. 4:5a,6b)  Suffice it to say that Barnabas is absent from Luke’s narrative from here on, and Paul and Silas are the focus.

Paul Meets Timothy

When they reconnected with the tail end of the previous journey at Derbe and Lystra, a young man by the name of Timothy caught Paul’s eye.  Acts 16:1-2 tells us in rapid succession that he was a believer, well-spoken of by everyone in the Lystra-Iconium district, the son of a Jewish mother who was a believer, but having a Gentile father.

I’m seriously reading between the lines again, but IMHO Paul saw the perfect illustration of Christ’s work breaking down the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile in Timothy.  Here was a devout believer who could address both sides of the issue.  But I’m also sure it was more than that.  Paul found in Timothy a kindred spirit who would later be able to faithfully represent Paul when Paul could not be physically in their midst, and who Paul would consider to be a “beloved son” who he “longed to see” as his execution day drew near.  (II Timothy 1:1-5)

Remember that Paul had suffered violence from the Jews in Lystra — they stoned him and dragged him out of the city, thinking he was dead.  God preserved him miraculously, and he got up and walked back into the city under his own power only minutes later.  Paul knew first-hand what the opponents of the Gospel were capable of in Lystra.

Acts 16:3 tells us that Paul wanted Timothy to go with him.  First, Paul circumcised him!  Doesn’t this seem odd given that the previous big event was exactly about this practice, and the leadership of the Jerusalem church had said it was unnecessary?  Apparently Timothy had not been circumcised eight days after birth, as his mother would have wanted.  The only reason it wouldn’t have been done would be that his Gentile father forbade it.  Apparently his father had a reputation in the area, as Luke tells us that the Jews there knew his father was a Gentile.  That reputation seems to be a negative one toward the Jews, in spite of the fact he had married a Jewess!  Luke says that Paul circumcised Timothy because of the Jews who were in those parts (v3).

It’s interesting to compare this situation to that of another of Paul’s young associates, Titus.  Paul ‘s history of his visits to the Jerusalem leadership in Galatians 2 includes a private visit where Barnabas and Titus accompanied him.  Titus was not circumcised, and in spite of false brethren who spied on them and insisted that he be circumcised, he remained uncircumcised at Paul’s insistence.  Why circumcise Timothy and not Titus, especially since both opportunities presented themselves after the Acts 15 council?  I believe it is because of the differences in audience in the two settings.  In Timothy’s case, he needed to accompany Paul into the synagogues in new territory, and it was a matter of acceptance with non-believing Jews.  In Titus’ case, it was because of “false brethren” within the Jerusalem church, who were opposing the liberty from the Law in Paul’s gospel.  ”False brethren” is an interesting turn of words, don’t you think?  Were these non-believers or errant believers?  IMHO they were the latter.  If that’s correct, then the differences between these two situations boil down to acceptance among non-believers and opposition to errant theology among believers.  Feel free to form your own opinion!

In any case, they passed through the cities of the region informing the churches of the decisions made at the council in Jerusalem, with the result that they were strengthened in their faith and were continuing to grow daily in number.

Next week — Holy Spirit Steering!

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