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(Acts 15:36–41) Stubborn Servants . . . Second Chances

(Acts 15:36–41) Stubborn Servants . . . Second Chances

by Stephen Davey
Series: Sermons in Acts
Ref: Acts 15:36–41

Disagreements are a part of life. The question is not how do we avoid them, but rather how do we deal with them when they occur?' In this lesson, Stephen addresses conflict and resolution.

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We recently completed studying the great decision made by the Jerusalem council in Acts chapter 15 as we continue to make our way through the study of this great Book.

The decision of the Jerusalem council ultimately protected the definition of a pure gospel – a gospel free from the necessity of works or rituals – a gospel that clearly declared, “Faith in Christ alone brings salvation.”

As we learned, this issue had deeply divided the church – in fact, division over the value of circumcision for Gentile believers would continue to play out through the remainder of the first century. 

In fact, by the time we arrive at the Epistle of Galatians, the Jews who desired to add Mosaic law to N.T. grace had formed an established denomination called, “The party of the circumcised.”  They would be a thorn in Pauls side throughout his entire ministry – and a constant threat to the new believers who were leaving Judaism by the thousands and entering the body of Christ through the gospel of grace.

And now at the conclusion of chapter 15 we find a shocking development – not about religious controversy but personal controversy.

And, believe it or not, the personal controversy is between Paul and Barnabas.  Two men who had spent the last 2 years traveling together, teaching together and risking their lives together.

The very two men who stood together to preserve the unity of the church are now deeply divided and embroiled over a divisive issue.

Before we launch into the text, let’s make a few observations about disagreement:

1)  First of all, there isn’t any way to avoid disagreement in the church.

I just collected a few questions that reveal just a few of the issues that become sore spots of division in churches today:

            READ SORE SPOTS

Disagreements are a part of life – to have a family or a church without them would make you reach for a pulse – it’s proof of life!

Which leads me to the second point

2) Whenever dealing with disagreement in the church, the issue is not so much the issue, but how you handle the issue.

Turn to I Cor. 11: 17.

I Corinthians 11:17

“But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse.  18.  For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions (scisma – schism)  exist among you; and in part, I believe it. 19.  For there must also be factions among you (now Paul changes the word here to airesiV which can be translated -  different opinions. . .why is it Paul that you think there must be different opinions?), in order that those who are approved may have become evident among you.

In other words, in the midst of a church disagreement, keep your eyes and ears open – because people who are qualified for leadership will rise to the occasion and reveal their spiritual maturity and perspective.

Different opinions are necessary – they expose leadership.  And one of the marks of spiritual leadership is whether or not you value the other person enough to respect and love them even if you disagree with their opinion.

So it isn’t just what you disagree about, it’s how you disagree – that is equally important.

 3)  Third, disagreement doesn’t automatically nullify opportunity; it may multiply opportunity.

And that’s exactly what happened in Acts 15.  Let’s go there now and set the stage for this showdown between two friends who disagreed.

            Turn back “actually” to Acts 12

Let’s try to uncover the few clues we have that reveal how this strong team ended by going separate ways.

Actually, let’s start with Acts 12:25 -  And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark.

John Mark was the cousin of Barnabas – it was in John Marks home that the early Jerusalem leaders often met; it was in his home where the prayer meeting was held for Peter’s release from prison – you may remember our study of that passage and how Rhoda, the servant girl announced to the church prayer meeting that Peter was standing at the door.

So John Mark had a wonderful opportunity to meet with, to pray with the early Jerusalem leaders and church members.  He evidently stood out above the rest of the young men, because he was chosen to accompany Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey.

Now look over a page to Acts 13:13

Acts 13:13  Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia; and John left them and returned to Jerusalem.

The word, returned, is a nice word.  Paul will later, in chapter 15 refer to that return as desertion – in fact the word used by Paul is the greek word which gives us the transliterated word, “apostasy!”  John Mark walked away from the faith.

Perhaps there was one other subtle thing going on in the back of Paul’s mind.

Turn ahead quickly to Galatians 2:13

Galatians 2:13

This is the passage where Paul had to rebuke Peter for his hypocrisy before the Gentile believers.  Peter withdrew from eating with the Gentiles when some prominent Jewish leaders arrived from Jerusalem.  But notice that Peter wasn’t the only hypocrite in the crowd.   And the rest of the Jews joined Peter in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.

While, Barnabas later regained his balance – and ultimately stood with Paul before the Jewish church in defense of the Gentiles – could it be that the wounds hadn’t fully healed – Barnabas left Paul standing out in the cold – Paul had to deal with that hypocrisy without the benefit of his partner – maybe Paul was still bothered by Barnabas’ failure at Antioch.

With that as the background and introduction to this shocking development, let’s now go to the actual events that led to the personal controversy between Paul and his good friend Barnabas.

Now let’s turn to Acts 15 verse 36.

Acts 15:36

15:36.  And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.”   37.  And Barnabas was desirous of taking John, called Mark, along with them also.   38.  But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.

I tried to climb back into this first century scene and listen in on their discussion that later turned into frank, sharp disagreement.

I can just about hear Barnabas saying, “Now listen Paul, my cousin John Mark wants to go along with us – I want to give him another chance and take him with us.”

I can hear Paul responding, “John Mark . . . God forbid!  That young man left us in the lurch – he couldn’t be counted on then, he can’t be counted on now.”

Now Paul – if you remember, I gave you a chance by going and pulling you out of Tarsus and bringing you to Antioch to teach with me – I risked everything to give you another chance…if anybody ought to be forgiving it’s you, the former Saul of Tarsus.

No, no Barnabas, don’t use me as an example – I never walked away from the work of God – in fact, didn’t Jesus Christ Himself say, that if a man puts his hand to the plow and then looks back, he isn’t fit for the kingdom of God.”

Hey, don’t quote scripture at me – and don’t imply my cousins not going to heaven - you’re just being stubborn Paul.

Stubborn?  Ha - you wouldn’t even think of giving him another chance if he weren’t your cousin.”

Well, cousin or no cousin, I say he goes with us– and he’ll do just as good a job as anybody.

“You just won’t admit it Barnabas - your cousin is a quitter!  I say, he stays.

He is not a quitter, and I say he goes. . .

He stays . . .

He goes – and if he doesn’t go, Paul, then I’m not going.

Well, then . . . don’t go!

You say, Stephen, they didn’t really argue did they . . . I mean, show a little respect; we are talking about the great Apostle?

I’m not being disrespectful – in fact, I’m respecting one of the greatest proofs of inspiration – the fact that the scriptures didn’t hide the failures of its heroes.

In fact, if you look at verse 39, you’ll see just how bad it got!  39.  And there arose such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another.

The word translated “disagreement” can be translated, sharp contention.  The word refers to strong emotion.

There was no compromising with either man – no negotiation – it was a matter of principle with Barnabas and a matter of principle with Paul.

Ladies and gentlemen, they were both wrong – and yet, in the Providence of God, they were both right.

Paul believed John Mark was unreliable – and when you’re going into the thick of the fight, you need someone who won’t break down under fire.

Like the proverb that said, “Putting confidence in an unreliable man is like chewing with a sore tooth, or trying to run on a broken foot. (Prov. 25:19)

But Barnabas longed for the best in his cousin – surely John Mark had repented and now was the time to use him in battle again.

So -

39b.  And Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.

40.  But Paul chose Silas and departed, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.  41.  And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

In the ways of God, you actually have the creation of two teams now, instead of one.  Two different ways of doing things, no doubt – but two advances of the gospel into the mission fields of the world.

By the way, with these closing verses, Barnabas sails off the story line of the New Testament.  While he’s mentioned again by Paul in a few places later on, we never hear of any of his work or ministry.  Legend has it that Barnabas was killed by an angry mob he was trying to reach with the Gospel.

Barnabas’s refusal to give up on John Mark, fainlly paid off – evidently long after Barnabas was killed

Note the progression in the New Testament of his young cousin:

Acts 15:37 – he sails away with Barnabas, smarting from the fact that Paul rejected him – would it make him bitter – angry – resentful – after all, the leading missionary tagged you a failure for life.  NO – he evidently kept the path open for Paul to travel back to him, if he ever chose to do so. 

Paul finally chose to do so – publicly, in a letter bound for the Christians in Colossee – in his letter , The Epistle to the Colossians, Paul wrote in Colossians 4:10.  Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings; and also Barnabas’ cousin Mark (about whom you received instructions; if he comes to you, welcome him.”

18 years after the events of Acts 15, Paul has evidently changed – and so has John Mark!

That’s not all – in 2 Timothy 4 Paul is giving his last instructions to Timothy.  In the last letter he would write, he told Timothy to go by on his way to Rome and pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.  It seems that in his dying breath, Paul sought to set the record straight – by now, the church had read the Book of Acts – they knew the story of John Marks’ defection – could he be trusted – Paul makes sure they know – John Mark was worthy of a second chance – he has become precious to Paul in ministry.

Was Barnabas right?  Oh yes – the fruit of his decision is seen every time you open your Bibles to the Gospel of Mark – the gospel  written by Barnabas’ cousin, John Mark.

Finally, 1 Peter 5:13 gives us the last mention of John Mark – you discover in that passage that Peter calls John Mark his spiritual son.

Just as Paul had adopted Timothy as his young disciple, so Peter had adopted Mark.  The Apostle who benefited most by a second chance giving God, now discipled his son in the faith, this son of the second chance.

In the war years, triage (sorting out) referred to the policy by which medical assistance was given in makeshift hospitals near the front lines.  It was up to the medical staff to "color-tag" the wounded, placing them in one of three categories according to their condition.  One color meant hopeless -- nothing would save them.  Another tag was hopeful – that meant the injured soldier would survive whether they get help or not.  The third color-tag was marked, doubtful – that is, the wounded would live if medical assistance was immediately given.  Since there were severely limited medical supplies . . . assistance was being given only to this last group.  One soldier named Lou was badly blown apart, including one leg severely wounded.  The doctor who examined him made the decision that Lou was a hopeless case and tagged him as such, basically leaving him to die.  But a nurse noticed Lou was conscious and began to talk with him.  They discovered they were both from Ohio.  Getting to know Lou as a person, the nurse just couldn't let him die.  She slipped into the ward one night and - risking her job - she broke all the rules and changed his color-tag from hopeless to doubtful.  Because of that, Lou was taken in the back of a truck to a better medical facility where he spent several months.  He recovered.    Even minus one leg he led a full life, all because a nurse broke the rules of triage and changed his tag and gave him another chance to live. 

Maybe the task of the church is to go around and change the tags.  

Maybe this morning what you need is your tag changed.

From unbeliever to believer.

Maybe you need to change a tag you’ve put on something:

something you’ve marked hopeless

someone you’ve tagged – unreachable

some past event you’ve marked – unforgivable

some deed done to you that you’ve tagged - unforgettable

For those of you who have placed your faith in Christ – maybe you need to ask God to provide immediate assistance – to change your tag and perform surgery on your heart – to change the way your tag reads:

from nominal believer to committed believer  -

from prayer-less Christian to prayer partner 

from stingy believer to generous giver 

from un-involved church go-er to selfless servant.

Take it from a failure that even the great Apostle had tagged as hopeless – take it from another Apostle who knew what second chances were all about – and learn something about the Lord – learn something about grace – learn that even  though the Lord has to deal with stubborn servants, He’s available to give you and every other child of His, another chance to serve Him well.

Issues that cause sore spots:

  • Should music in a worship service be mellow or upbeat.
  • Should you sing from the hymnal or use an overhead.
  • What instruments are allowable in a worship service; organ?  Organ and piano? Drums, keyboards and saxaphone along with the organ and piano?
  • Is it okay to sing music composed in the last 20 years, or is it, “the older the music the more sacred.”
  • Can a person sing in the choir who is not a church member?  Can a person sing a solo who is not in the choir? Should the choir members wear robes?  If so, what color?”
  • Should the Sunday school curriculum be the same for each class or can teachers choose topics 
  • Should the adult classes be divided by age or topic or both? 
  • Should the Sunday school meet before the worship service or after? 
  • Should a church have adult  Sunday school or one longer service? 
  • Should offerings be taken in Sunday school?  If so, should the money be used for Sunday school materials only or budget needs or both? 
  • Should people being baptized wear robes or casual clothes?  If robes, should the color be white or can they be another color?
  • Should churches build buildings, rent public buildings, or meet in homes?  If building a building, which building should be built first?  The multi-purpose building or a sanctuary? 
  • How should the building be financed?  Borrow money, sell bonds or pay as you go with cash?  If it’s cash only, what method of fundraising is to be employed?  Can outside organizations help?
  • Should missionaries be supported for certain terms or for life? 
  • Should missionaries be given inflationary raises or should the amount of money remain the same? 
  • Should church planting missionaries take precedent over other medical missions?
  • Should an offering be taken in church by passing offering plates or placing a box in the back of the sanctuary?   Or neither? 
  • Should people simply pledge their annual giving and mail it in whenever they choose?
  • Is it more spiritual to drive a Ford or a Chevy pickup truck?
  • Why aren’t there more pastors courageous enough to give the answer - Chevy?

Those last two questions were for fun – the other 30 aren’t so fun.  Different opinions abound about everything imaginable!.

That’s why I have hanging in my office a little plaque that reads, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there will be disagreement as to what the Bible teaches. “

You need to understand however, that disagreement in the church is part of the church.  Just as disagreement in your own family is part of family – it is inevitable. 

I was sent a copy of some letters, 6 and 7 year old written to God –



  • A little girl wrote, “Dear God, I bet it is very hard for You to love everybody in the whole world – there are only 4 people in my family and I just can’t do it.”
  • One little boy wrote,  “Dear Lord, maybe Cain and Abel wouldn’t have killed each other so much if they had had their own rooms . . . it worked for me and my brother.”




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