We’ve all experienced the disappointment and heartache that come with the death of a friendship, a schism in our church or the break up of a ministry. Often we try hard to mend the situation. But, sometimes the question isn’t how to get it back together, but how to keep moving forward in Christ—with purpose and without bitterness, guilt or anger.
Paul and Barnabas were best buds. After Paul’s conversion experience in Damascus, Barnabas convinced the church in Jerusalem to accept Paul. Later he rescued Paul in Tarsus and brought him back to Antioch where they established the first church. God had big plans for these two and they were inseparable. Together they traveled extensively, spoke boldly, set up churches, suffered persecution, witnessed miracles, worshipped with abandon and experienced the power of the Holy Spirit.
Can you just imagine how cool this must have been?
Yet, despite the Spirit working in their lives, they weren’t immune from the humanness we all bring into relationships. In Acts 15 Barnabas wanted to bring John Mark on their next missionary journey but Paul, wasn’t convinced of Mark’s commitment and vetoed the idea. Stubbornly, Paul wouldn’t change his mind and the two “had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.” (v 39) Barnabas sailed to Cyprus with Mark and Paul went with Silas to Syria. Just like that their beautiful partnership ended.
I don't know about you, but I find this story sad and confusing. If Paul and Barnabas were such godly men, why couldn’t they see past their differences and work it out? Wasn’t the relationship worth saving? After all, aren’t we called to be peacemakers, and shouldn’t we try to establish unity at all costs? Was Paul being too rigid? Was Barnabas being too soft?
The Bible doesn’t address these details. It doesn’t paint their split as a bad thing or use this story as an object lesson in unity. Instead, the two continued their ministries separately—and successfully. Scripture leads us to believe Paul and Barnabas eventually made peace with one another, but this apostolic dynamic duo never got the band back together.
While the death of a friendship is sad and the dissolution of such a fruitful partnership seems tragic, could it be this break up was part of God’s plan? Think about it. The Good News reached more people in more places because Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways than if they’d stayed together.
Maybe Paul felt this way. Because despite his stubborn nature and rough edges, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt he was called to advance the gospel. Period. Perhaps he mourned the loss of his friendship with Barnabas or regretted how he handled the situation, but Paul’s razor sharp focus allowed him to loosely hold all he had—his agenda, his comfort, his desires…and his friendships. He could let go and let God.
It’s hard to accept that sometimes discord and dissolution of a ministry, friendship or partnership can be a good thing. But as we’ve seen with Paul and Barnabas, as long as we stay focused on Jesus, it can be. The hard part is knowing when to hold on and when to let go.
Perhaps this is why Paul said to the Philippians, “I pray that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best…to the glory and praise of God.”
Oh, to be able to hold this life loosely, to discern what is best from what is good and to do it all to the glory and praise of God. As C.S. Lewis said, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
I think Paul and Barnabas would agree.