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Conflict between Friends

Acts 15:36-40

36 And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do.

37 And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark.

38 But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.

39 And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus;

40 And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God.


Would you open your Bibles to the book of Acts 15:36. In the middle of the great Civil War, Bob Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln came to his mother and dad and said he wanted to join the Union forces and to fight for his country. But his mother refused to allow him to do so and his father supported her because they had already lost two sons and she could not bear the thought of losing a third. When they refused to let him join the Union forces he protested, saying that Burnsides would soon be in Fredericksburg and by Christmas he would have conquered Richmond and the war would be over. But Lincoln said to his son, “No, oh no, my boy, there will be war enough to go around.”

It has been my experience that there is always enough war, there is always enough conflict, there is always enough strife to go around for everybody to get in on it. We are to think together this morning about the subject of strife and conflict between friends. I am preparing to preach to a group of preachers in Ridgecrest, North Carolina, in a few weeks and during the whole week I am going to deal with various aspects of conflict. One of them I want to deal with is conflict between friends, and we have an example of that in scripture here today. Not only an example of what happens and how it happens, but I some suggestions for how to deal with conflict when it occurs.

In Acts 15:36, there is an account of a conflict that came between the apostle Paul and his missionary companion Barnabas. There came a time when Paul felt a need to return to the places where they had preached on their first missionary journey and to see how the Christians whom they had bought to faith in Christ and the new churches that they had established were doing.

When Paul spoke of that he was talking like a pastor talks. A farmer knows that he cannot plant a seed in the ground and leave it untended. A parent knows that they cannot bear children and then ignore them. And the apostle Paul knew that you cannot convert people to Jesus Christ and then not nurture them and train them and look after them. He realized that no person comes to maturity in Jesus Christ overnight. So there was in his heart a longing to return to those places where they had preached, to those people they had won to faith in Christ, to those churches they had established and find out how these new believers were doing. As they made plans and preparation for their journey, verse 37 tells us that Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them but the apostle Paul did not think it good to do so. Verse 38 tells us why. It is because as the scripture says, “John Mark departed from them.” He had left them at Pamphylia. 

That has reference to their first missionary journey. Paul and Barnabas had taken John Mark with them. After their second or third stop John Mark went back home. We are not sure why. Maybe he was homesick. Maybe he began to realize that God had not called him into foreign mission service. Or maybe he was frightened because being a missionary in the first century was to undertake hazardous duty. But for whatever reason John Mark defected, he quit and he came back home. And obviously the apostle Paul took that defection very hard. When they started making preparations for their second journey and Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them the apostle Paul steadfastly refused to do so. 

You may need to know that John Mark was the nephew of Barnabas. He was his sister’s son. And perhaps he was thinking with his heart and mind and not with his head when he said, “Let’s take him on the journey. “ But the apostle Paul was a strong-minded man and he was not about to agree to take this quitter on a second journey with them. So in verse 39 we are told that the contention was so sharp between them that they departed asunder. 

Now we must not rule out that verse of scripture and that experience to make this a simple disagreement between two men. The scriptures say that it was a sharp contention. That means that it was keen, that it was heated and perhaps it even became violent. The tempers of both of these men were ruffled. They were greatly upset and in disagreement with one another so much so that the scriptures say that they departed asunder. Those words “departed asunder” are the translation of one Greek word that means “to rend, to rip, to tear.” It is a word that describes taking a garment and literally ripping it apart. The contention, the disagreement between Barnabas and the apostle Paul over whether to take John Mark on that second journey was so strong and intense that it literally set this missionary team so that they would never again work together in the service of God so far as we know. 

The very fact that the Bible records for us this experience of conflict between two of its most eminent apostles is a remarkable thing. I think that this experience in the Bible is about the most improbable experience that you would ever expect to be found in scripture. That is true for several reasons.

First of all, these were both good men. There is no doubt in our mind about the goodness of the apostle Paul. Here is a man who literally honeycombed the Roman Empire with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Here is a man who risked his life and limbs for the cause of the Lord and nobody can doubt his goodness, his devotion, his allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul was a good man. But Barnabas was equally good. We are introduced to him in the early chapters of the book of Acts when we are told he sold his farm and gave all of his possessions to the church for the feeding of the poor. His real name was Joseph. But those early disciples nicknamed him Barnabas, which literally means “the son of consolation” or “the son of encouragement. “ It seems as though this man Barnabas was so kind and so sympathetic and so optimistic that he was always reaching out to help other people. He was an encourager. He was an upbuilder. He was an uplifter. He was the kind of man who always sought to do something for somebody else and it was that nature in him that caused him to sell off his possessions and give every last cent to the work of God. 

When the apostle Paul became a Christian and began to preach the Gospel, it was Barnabas who gave him the start in the Gospel ministry. When the church at Antioch began to grow and prosper and the Christians in Jerusalem were concerned about them they sent Barnabas down there to supervise that work and to make sure that the church was off to a good start. It was in that experience that the Bible makes this significant observation about Barnabas that he was a good man, full of faith and the Holy Ghost, and many people were added to the Lord because of him.

So this man Barnabas, along with the apostle Paul, were both really good men. The fact that we have two good men in a quarrel that they cannot resolve and they determine that they can no longer serve the Lord together I think is a most significant, a most remarkable experience. Not only were they good men, they were also old friends. There are some people who believe that Barnabas and Paul were classmates together, sitting at the feet of Gamaliel as they studied the law of God. Whether they were classmates or not I’m not sure. But I do know that it was Barnabas who gave Paul his start in the ministry. 

Paul, you remember, was a persecutor of the church. And on his way to Damascus he was converted to Jesus Christ. And shortly after his conversion he began to preach in Damascus until they chased him out of town. And he went down to Jerusalem and when he arrived there the apostles and the church were afraid of him. They thought maybe this man was an imposter. Maybe he was pretending to be converted to get on the inside, to infiltrate their group and find out who the Christians were and then he would start persecuting them all over again. And they were hesitant to reach out and receive him into their fellowship. This man Barnabas, this big-hearted kindly man, reached out his hand and took Paul and brought him into that Christian fellowship and encouraged the apostles to receive him and to treat him as a brother.

Then when Barnabas was sent down to Antioch, and that church began to grow and he needed some help, he sent for Paul in Tarsus and invited him to come to be his assistant in that church as they continued the work of God. So the apostle Paul and Barnabas went back a long way in time. They were very close friends as they had served the Lord together. When they went on that first missionary journey, it was these two men working in the kingdom of God side by side. And they endured many difficult experiences as they carried the Gospel into Asia. There were persecutions, there were stonings, there were rejections, there were privations of every description and they endured those things together and in those experiences they were welded together as brothers in a way that few men can call somebody else their brother. 

So they were both good men. And they were old friends. They had been together for many experiences. Yet in spite of the fact that they were good men, in spite of the fact that they were old friends, there came a split, a rupture in their relationship and in their fellowship so that they could no longer serve the Lord together. And perhaps the most significant thing I can say about that is that this rupture occurred over such a small thing. It was over the question of whether they would take John Mark on their missionary journey or not. When you compare that question to some of the problems they had been dealing with in their life, it was small, it was insignificant indeed. I mean these guys had been stoned by a mob in their first missionary journey. Their lives had been threatened. These two men had gone as representatives from the church at Antioch down to Jerusalem and had participated in the great Jerusalem council that decided the issue of salvation. And they decided in favor of the revelation of God that says that men are saved by grace through faith plus nothing else. So Paul and Barnabas had shared some great and monumental experiences together. And yet here is a very small matter, an insignificant matter over missionary personnel, and it became so serious that these two men were divided so that they would never work together again.

I have found it true in my experience—perhaps you have found it this way as well—that it is usually the small things in life that divide us. You can bring people together to discuss small issues and they will wind up in a quarrel. But you bring people together to study something that is great, something that is monumental, something that is significant, and they can be unified. 

So we find these two good men, these longtime friends, divided over a very small, insignificant question. The question is bound to come to our minds—how in the world does something like this happen? Good men, old friends divided over a small, insignificant question.

It can happen because the best of men are not infallible. You know we need to understand that though a man is a good man, it does not mean that he is a perfect man. And that good people can still have honest differences. Good people can sometimes be strong-minded. Sometimes they can have unbending wills and though a person is a good person it does not mean they are perfect in any sense of the word. And as long as we are dealing with imperfect people there is the possibility of strong disagreement. 

There is another reason why this could happen and that is that apparently the Lord allowed them to settle this issue, to make this decision on their own. In the earlier part of this chapter there is the great Jerusalem conference, and the church is debating the issue of salvation. When it finally comes to its decision, the scriptures tell us this: “That it was pleasing to us and the Holy Spirit.” Obviously the Holy Spirit was at work at that conference. Obviously the Holy Spirit was guiding and directing in all of these decisions that were to be made, and when their decision was made, when they finally came to it, the Holy Spirit was instrumental in leading what they decided. But in this experience there is no evidence that the Holy Spirit gave direction to them. The Holy Spirit did not dictate whether John Mark should be taken or not. This was one of those decisions where the Lord allowed his people to make up their own minds. 

You do understand that God allows us to grapple with some problems on our own. He does not write every answer across the heavens. He does not send a divine telegram concerning every question that comes up, every issue that arises, but he instead expects us to grapple with many of those issues on our own, using our wisdom, using Christian grace, using the spirit of Jesus Christ, to resolve some problems on our own. And apparently the Lord had allowed these two good men to grapple with this issue of taking John Mark, and because they were strong-minded, because they were stubborn, because they were proud, because they were unbending—and perhaps because they had honest differences—they finally decided that they could no longer work together.

So the apostle Paul took a new missionary companion, Silas, and he went back to the same churches they had visited before and began to edify and to build up those churches and to continue the work of evangelism. And Barnabas took John Mark and sailed for the island of Cyprus. 

Who was at fault in this controversy between these two good friends? It may very well be that neither man was at fault. Apparently the church at Antioch took the side of the apostle Paul because as he and Silas went on their missionary journey they commended them unto the grace of God. There is no such statement made concerning Barnabas and John Mark. So apparently the church at Antioch took the side of the apostle Paul. But still there is no way to determine which of these men was right in this assessment. It may well be that John Mark needed the sternness of the apostle Paul and he needed at the same time the kindness of the apostle Barnabas. The sternness of Paul who said you have failed, turned your coat and ran, you were not dependable in a time of need. The fact that Paul would not take him on that second journey may have given some stability and some strength and some steadfastness of character to this young man John Mark. At the same time, the fact that a man like Barnabas was willing to give him a second chance, that he was to be kindly toward him, may have enabled him to save face and thus get on with the work of God. So it may very well be that either man was entirely right and either man was entirely wrong. Whatever the circumstances these two men could no longer work together and these good men who were old friends found themselves divided over a very small and insignificant is sue.

If the Bible story ended there, it would be a sad story indeed, for it would be the story of failure and division and conflict. But if you will read the writings of the apostle Paul carefully, you will discover that in 1 Corinthians 9:6 he makes reference to Barnabas again. And he speaks of him with such words of kindness and affection and admiration that you know that whatever differences they had were now healed. And they were together at least in spirit in God’s work. Though they would never serve on the same missionary team again their differences had healed, the bitterness and the resentment and anger that had been expressed in Antioch had faded away and Paul could speak of Barnabas in glowing terms, respecting him for who he was and what he did.

On three occasions Paul speaks of this young man, John Mark. In the book of Colossians and in the book of Philemon he speaks of him as a fellow laborer in the Gospel. He is a man who is working in the Gospel, spreading the Gospel just like the apostle Paul. And in 2 Timothy 4:11 he tells Timothy, “Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry.”

Obviously something has happened in the life of John Mark. This young man who was a failure, this young man who turned tail and ran back home in the time of difficulty has been transformed in his service for God and he is now strong and stalwart worker and Paul finds him valuable and helpful and needful in the service of God. Something wonderful has happened, the breech has been healed, the failure has been turned into a success and the story that seems to end in failure suddenly becomes a victory for God and for his people.

Now, what happened between Paul and Barnabas oftentimes happens in our lives. That is to say, sometimes two good people have a difficult time getting along. They may even be old and longtime friends like Paul and Barnabas. It may be somebody you work with. It may be somebody in your neighborhood. It may be an acquaintance in the church. But the kind of thing that happened to these two apostles happens to us all the time. 

One of the reasons why I am so grateful that this experience is in the Bible is that if it were not I might think that those early apostles were not men and women like you and me. But I suddenly realize that they were flesh and blood, that they had their weaknesses, that they had faults and God could still use them with all of their imperfections. And that means that God can use me and God can use you even though we are not all that we ought to be at times. It encourages me that God can use fallible people, that God can use imperfect people, even people who sometimes have a hard time getting along with one another.

As I read this experience, and as I thought about the teachings of the scripture, I came to four suggestions for you about how to handle conflict with a friend. So if you are taking notes on the sermon you may want to jot these four ideas down.

1. Deal with the difficulty candidly.

The first thing I would suggest, if you find yourself in the same position as Paul and Barnabas, in conflict with a friend, is that you deal with the difficulty candidly. Sit down and you talk forthrightly with the person about the problem that is between you. 

Several years ago word came to me that a fellow pastor was critical of me. I knew that it had to be something in his own life because we had never had any dealings with each other before. We had never had any conflict; we had never had any differences. We had had very few dealings at all. So I just ignored the first word that came to me.

Then there came a second word that he was critical of me a second time. I ignored it that time also. Then there came a third time and when I was told that third time that his man was critical of me, I picked up the telephone and I called him and I said, “Let’s have lunch together.” So we visited together at lunch and talked about a few insignificant, trivial things and then I asked him, “Is there some contention between us? Is there some problem?” 

You know how he reacted. I knew what he would do before I asked him. He denied that there was any problem. But by his expression and his mannerisms I knew that he was not telling the truth. So I said let me tell you what I’ve heard. And when I was done I said, “I just thought that since we are brothers, since you are a preacher and I am a preacher, and we are supposed to be in the same work together, that maybe we ought to talk about it.” 

We left that day having resolved the issue that was in his mind and in his life, at least to my satisfaction. 

Nobody likes that kind of confrontation. Nobody likes that kind of challenge and laying things out on the table to talk about them. But there are times in our lives when we must deal with problems that way or they will stay inside of us and they will fester and grow until they produce bitterness and resentment and anger that is sinful against God.

Confronting other people sometimes simply means that I care enough about you that I’m willing to lay the problem on the table and say let’s talk about it and let’s solve it so we can get on with things that are important.

Now, though it is never pleasant, though it is never enjoyable, talking candidly with the person about the problem that is between you is the first step to resolving differences and difficulties.

You ought to always try to pick the right time and the right place. You don’t want to make it a hit and run kind of problem solving. That you just hit them with it and run off without a chance to discuss it. And you don’t want to do it in a place where the person may lose face in the presence of other people. But a private meeting between the two of you, to discuss the issue honestly and candidly without any accusation on your part concerning their guilt in the matter, but just to discuss it offers an opportunity to solve that issue and that is the first step.

2. Pray about the conflict.

The second thing I would suggest, though it is not presented explicitly in this text, but I think it’s suggested by the Bible as a whole, is that you always ought to pray about the conflicts and the differences that you have with other people.

I have a preacher friend who tells this story and I’m not sure that it’s true, but it is a good story and preachers don’t always tell the truth when they have a point they want to make.

He said that there was a lady in his church who seemed to oppose him on every issue. It didn’t matter what he said, it didn’t matter what he presented to the church, she was always there in opposition to it and she became to him a thorn in the flesh.

One day he was out visiting in her neighborhood and he decided on a whim to visit with her about this problem. When he drove in front of her house, her car was parked in the driveway and so he had reason to believe that she was home. So he got out, walked up to the front door, and rang the doorbell and nobody came to the door. When you have visited as long as I have and as long as he had, you can almost sense when somebody is home. And there are times when you ring the doorbell and you knock on the door and you know they are inside but they are not answering that door. That happened that day. So he rang the doorbell and she didn’t come to the door, so he knocked on the door. Sometimes doorbells don’t work. But she still she didn’t come. So he did what we preachers do every once in a while. He went to the back door. Maybe she was in the back of the house. Maybe she couldn’t hear up front. So he goes to the back door and knocks and still she doesn’t come. And he just knows she is in that house. So he comes back to the front door and he knocks on the door and then without even thinking he just dropped down on his knees and looked through the keyhole in that door. And guess what he saw? He saw an eye peering right back at him. And he said to her, after she opened the door, “Isn’t it interesting that the first time we got down on our knees together, we saw eye to eye.” 

You know if we prayed more and argued less, we might see eye to eye more. So you confront the person when necessary and you lay the problem on the table at the right time and the right place with the right spirit. 

By the way, it’s better to make enemies by your position rather than your disposition. By taking a stand on what you believe, by your spirit and your attitude in the whole matter. You lay the issue on the table and you pray earnestly about it.

3. Remember that it’s possible to agree to disagree.

The third thing I would suggest is that if that doesn’t work, then you part as friends. You know it is possible to agree to disagree. Sometimes people just can’t work together because of their honest opinions or their personalities. And that is okay. Obviously it was okay in the experience of Paul and Barnabas. It worked out okay at least in the end. And there are some people you just can’t work with and I just can’t work with. But we can agree to disagree, we can disagree without being disagreeable, and we can part in peace with one another. 

You know the apostle Paul said in the book of Romans: “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). I have always been grateful for that loophole. He said as much as lies within you. You see there are some people nobody can get along with.

There are some people who nobody can work in harmony with. And you have to decide who has the problem. But, as much as lies within you and within me, we are to strive to live peaceably with all men and if we cannot do that, if there is no way to work it out, then we depart from them, we separate from them without bitterness, without rancor, without anger, and we determine that we will work separately because we cannot work in unity. 

Be careful about harboring bitterness and anger and resentment toward people who hurt you. If you build up bitterness and anger and resentment toward people who hurt you, they will liable to hurt you twice. They hurt you and then because your spirit becomes bitter and angry toward them and they win two victories instead of one.

So you deal with the problem candidly. You deal with the problem prayerfully. You deal with the problem peaceably. You part and separate if necessary.

4. Admit when you are wrong.

One other thing: you ought to be humble enough to admit when you are wrong. You could say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. I made a mistake.” 

So Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:6 that Barnabas is one of his fellow workers, one of his fellow laborers. He says concerning John Mark, the boy he refused to take on that second journey, he says that he is now one of my fellow laborers and he is profitable, he is of value to me in the ministry. The apostle Paul had the wisdom and the grace and spirit of Jesus Christ to admit when he was wrong. We must ever and always seek to have the spirit of the Lord Jesus so that we also can do that. 

Somebody has said that our tempers get us into trouble and our pride keeps us in trouble. In a moment of anger, in a time of conflict, we have a disagreement with a person and it is all because of our temper. But after a while as things cool off we realize the mistake but our pride keeps us from saying, “I was wrong. I’m sorry and I want to make things right.” And apparently the apostle Paul was humble enough to admit things had changed between Barnabas and him and things had changed with John Mark and these two men were once again his companions and fellow workers in the kingdom of God.

The conflicts are bound to come because none of us are infallible, because we do have honest differences, and because God doesn’t write the answer to every problem across the heavens. We are left to grapple with them ourselves and we make mistakes.

So the problems are bound to come. The question is, how do you handle them? You handle them by talking about them. By praying about them. By agreeing to disagree. By parting as friends. And then by admitting when you are wrong and affirming your faith and confidence in those with whom you disagree. 

I think perhaps the most beautiful part of this whole story is found in the life of John Mark, who was a quitter who absolutely failed on that missionary journey, but he came back to become useful in God’s service. And the wonderful thing his life teaches us is that no person has to stay the way they are. That by the grace of God, and by the help and support of Christian fellowship, a man can come back from failure to victory, from defeat to success, if he follows the Lord and surrenders to his will. I think I speak this morning to some people who not only have had some conflicts with their friends that have not yet been resolved, but to some who like John Mark have failed in days gone by. I want you to know that the God of the Bible is the God of the second chance. That failures can still succeed. You can come to God today in repentance, faith, and trust. And what he did for John Mark, he can do for you here today.

If you are not a Christian, I trust that will trust in him. For in Christ and in Christ alone there is forgiveness and salvation. If you are not a member of this church, then you ought to be. You need to be. I trust that this hour will be the hour of your decision and you will come to receive Christ as Savior. You will come to join the family and the fellowship with us.

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