paul and barnabas split

Paul and Barnabas Split: The Progression of John Mark

Acts 15.36-41 takes place just before Paul leaves on his second missionary journey. While he and Barnabas put their affairs in order and planned out the relevant details of the trip, a disagreement arose between them regarding whether or not John Mark should accompany them.

Let’s take a look at what Luke writes:

36 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” 37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

We could talk plenty about the context of this passage and the timing. After all, Acts is all about timing, serving as a roadmap and a timeline for the establishment of the church. The events of this passage follow the Jerusalem Council and Paul and Barnabas’ time in Antioch. But Paul never stayed in one place for long, and decided he and Barnabas should return and visit the cities where they had previously preached the Gospel. It was in this setting, as they prepared to leave, that they discovered a difference of opinion.

Nature of the Disagreement Between Paul and Barnabas

The controversy over John Mark was no simple disagreement. Verse 37 says, “Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark.” Luke chooses the imperfect tense in the Greek for the verb we translate as wanted, indicating Barnabas was persistent and determined in his request. Then, in verse 39, “there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.” We get our English word paroxysm from the Greek word used here for sharp disagreement. This is a sudden, violent outburst and gives some idea to the intensity of the disagreement.

While this sharp disagreement between two of our heroes in the faith could cause some concern, we should be thankful to Luke for revealing the humanity of these two men. That Luke is willing to record not only the marvelous events during the establishment of the church, but also the rough patches as well, lends credibility to his account. If we didn’t see problems erupt from time to time among great, but imperfect men, it is then we should be concerned about the authenticity of what we read. We can take comfort knowing that even the best of men disagree on occasion. It’s part of life.

Paul’s Issue with Mark

So we know Paul and Barnabas disagreed over whether or not Mark should be taken with them on the second missionary journey, but why? Why didn’t Paul want Mark to accompany them?

“Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work” (Acts 15.38). When did this happen? When did Mark abandon them? For that answer we go back to Acts 13.13, “Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John (Mark) left them and returned to Jerusalem.”

Our path gets a little tricky here because this is all the information we are given, at least directly.

Some men a whole lot smarter than me have speculated about the possibility that Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem to alarm the church, reporting that Paul received Gentiles apart from going through the synagogue. It is definitely of worth to note that the conversion of Sergius Paulus came right before Mark’s decision to leave. If Mark did in fact alarm the church, it may have stirred up the controversy we find later in Acts 15.1.

All of this is of course speculation, and whatever the details may be, we know that Paul felt Mark’s leaving them at Perga revealed a defect in his character.

Mark joining a journey lead by Paul at this point would have been unwise. For right or wrong, Paul couldn’t trust him, and therefore Mark could not have been effective under his leadership.

Barnabas’ Interest in Mark

Mark likely felt guilty about abandoning the journey to Perga and wanted an opportunity to redeem himself. Perhaps the Jerusalem Council’s decision had a large enough impact to give him a new perspective from the one he held back in Acts 13. Barnabas wanted to give Mark this chance at redemption.

To be fair, we must note that Mark and Barnabas were cousins (Col 4.10), but it’s doubtful this was the only reason Barnabas wanted Mark to accompany them. Perhaps Barnabas recognized Mark’s full potential and wanted to give him a chance to develop and mature in his walk.

Was Galatians 2.11-14 a Problem?

Galatians 2.11-14 accounts for the time gap between Acts 15.35 and Acts 15.36, indicated by the words, “and after some days” in verse 36. This was the time immediately following the Jerusalem Council. In Galatians 2.11-14 Paul writes,

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

So what happened? Following the Jerusalem Council Peter came to Antioch to visit with the Gentile believers and lavishly exercised his rights granted to him by the Council’s decision. He ate freely and enjoyed fellowship with the Gentile converts.

Not long after Peter’s arrival in Antioch there came a group of men from Jerusalem under the influence of the Judaizers, and when they arrived, Peter with his chronic insecurities, immediately ceased fellowship with the Gentiles. And not only did Peter exercise this lapse in judgment, but Barnabas was pulled down with him as well (Gal 2.13).

Paul confronted Peter regarding their regression from the Gentiles and a peaceful resolution followed. Peter and Barnabas admitted to the error of their ways and restored fellowship with the Gentiles.

Some might argue that ill feelings from this incident were still in play at the time of Paul and Barnabas’ disagreement in Acts 15.36-41 (our primary text), but because of the amicable nature of the resolution there is no reason to assume the existence of lingering negative feelings that would have any effect on this division between Paul and Barnabas.

Who Was Right Between Paul and Barnabas?

We have established that Paul sensed (or assumed) a character flaw within Mark that made him unfit for ministry at the time, and it’s likely Barnabas also recognized the flaw but wanted to grant Mark the chance to work through it. I don’t believe the debate here was over whether or not Mark committed an unacceptable act, but rather should he be given a chance at redemption.

Who was right? Barnabas or Paul? Some say Barnabas should have submitted to Paul’s apostolic authority, but Barnabas had some hefty credentials himself (which we’ll see a in just a bit). Also, at this time, Paul’s apostleship was not universally accepted among the other apostles and could have been more of a gray area than we are aware. (No, I’m not saying Paul was not an apostle–please don’t misquote me. I’m only stating that it took some time before everyone recognized him as such. Some of the other apostles needed to be convinced.)

From a maturity in the faith standpoint, I think Barnabas was right in not judging Mark based on his past. He rightly understood that walking with the Lord changes people and the more time they have to walk, the more time they have to change. It’s called sanctification.

Either way, Luke does not write this account in such a way that puts Paul in the right and Barnabas in the wrong, or vice versa. They made a mutual decision to split ways because neither could agree with the other. In a way, they both were right. It wouldn’t have been productive for Paul to take Mark when he didn’t trust him, but Barnabas saw the long-term potential in Mark and gave him another chance.

God Brings About Good from the Paul and Barnabas Split

It’s tough to grasp the idea that two of the most influential men in the establishment of the church could have such a heated (remember, violent outburst) disagreement, but at the same time we have the benefit of seeing the big picture. God worked a great deal of good from this situation.

The most obvious working of good is that two missionary journeys were launched rather than just one (Acts 15.39-41). Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus. Paul and Silas traveled through Syria and Cilicia.

Also, Barnabas shows us a fantastic character lesson by refusing to use his clout to overrule or cause trouble for Paul. We are talking about a man (Barnabas) who led the church in its earliest days (Acts 11.22-24), brought Paul into the work (he was the teacher and Paul the apprentice at one time), lead the first missionary journey (Acts 13.2), and represented the church at the Jerusalem Council. You think Barnabas couldn’t have made trouble for Paul if he had so desired? He could have easily played the “church politics game” and created an even larger issue than it was already.

Though we don’t know the specifics, I believe Paul grew up some through the process as well. He learned how to show grace and forgiveness. We know that later in Paul’s life he commended the ministry of Barnabas (1 Cor 9.6).

And lastly, I want to designate a special section to the progression of John Mark through these events because it’s so good. God knew what he was doing when he sent Mark with Barnabas instead of Paul. Mark learned valuable lessons and apparently lived the latter part of his life in a manner worthy of forgiveness and redemption. Let’s take a look…

The Progression and Restoration of John Mark

We know Mark ended up close with Peter (1 Pe 5.13) and wrote one of the four gospels. These two landmarks cannot be ignored. The one who once neglected to serve, wrote a gospel emphasizing Jesus as the Great Servant. But what about his relationship with Paul? What happened there?

We know Paul developed a respect and love for Mark later in life (Col 4.10), and we know Mark worked closely with Paul during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (Phil 23).

But perhaps the most touching of Paul’s references to Mark comes in 2 Timothy. When Paul wrote his second letter to the young pastor he was literally in the bottom of a pit–a dungeon. This wasn’t like his earlier house arrest in Rome where he could freely wonder about. Here, chains shackled him to the grimy wall behind him and if he could see any daylight at all, it was very little. Paul knew his execution was imminent and he had only a short time left in his earthly body before he would permanently unite with his Savior. He wrote 2 Timothy to set his affairs in order and to give his “last words” to Timothy who would carry on Paul’s ministry after his death. Only Luke was there with him. The letter is highly personal and should be read as such.

Towards the end of the book Paul gives a list of personal instructions–mainly comprised of several people to greet and one person in particular to dodge. Among the names listed, we find a final reference to Mark by Paul in verse 4.11. Paul writes, “Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” In Paul’s final hour he requested only five things: for Timothy to come soon (v 9), for him to bring Mark with him (v 11), and to bring his cloak, his books, and the parchments (v 13).

Despite everything that happened at Pamphylia (Acts 13.13) and the emotionally violent disagreement over Mark in Acts 15.36-41, Paul, at the end of his life, found Mark to be very useful for ministry. The man he wanted to leave behind years before had become highly valuable to him. What a change! And this isn’t a change that would have come lightly. Mark must have undergone significant character enhancement since he had last been with Paul, and Paul had grown in his capacity to forgive and recognize the sanctification process in others. It is a beautiful picture of love, grace, perseverance, and restoration.

Here we have this man, John Mark, who clearly messed up in his abandonment of Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey. In many cases, a man like this may have tucked his tail between his legs and never been seen again. How easy that might have been. But instead Mark ends up becoming so much more than a failure. God uses the time Mark has alone with Barnabas to mold him into a champion of the early church and a dear friend of the man who once rejected him. How good is God’s process of sanctification?

What Can We Learn?

  1. Our past mistakes don’t have to define our future. God constantly works within us to make us more like Him. No matter the extent of our failure, we should learn from it, and allow God to continue to work out his sanctification process in us. It’s never too late.
  2. If you mess up in ministry, or in life, don’t ever feel like you can’t get back in the game. Mark was a late bloomer, as are some of us. Sometimes God works in people for years, with many falls along the way, before they are ready for ministry. Be patient.
  3. It’s never too late to reconnect with someone you’ve let down. We’ve all failed someone in our past. Time spent being sanctified can be a powerful healer.
  4. It’s never too late to forgive someone who let you down. Just as we’ve all failed someone else, we’ve also had someone fail us. Sometimes people go years without speaking because of a falling out. Someone hurts us and we assume they’ll always be that type of person–unchanging. But we need to always remember that if we can change over time, so can someone else. Reach out to them. They just might surprise you.

Full Disclosure: I wrote this months ago as a personal study with no intention of publishing and therefore did not mark my sources. Below I have listed the commentaries used for this study:

  • The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts, by John MacArthur
  • The Acts of the Apostles, by Morgan
  • Acts: The Expanding Church, by Harrison
  • The Book of the Acts, by Bruce
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