Barnabas: The Weakness of a Great Leader

When they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised; only they would have us remember the poor, which very thing I was eager to do.
But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity.

I have been urging you for two weeks to consider the spiritual value of Christian biography. I have referred again and again to Hebrews 13:7, "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith."

Experience teaches us and the Bible teaches us that the lives of great men and women have great power to inspire us and shape us. When Ruth Tucker put together her biographical history of missions, she wrote in the preface,

The Christian missionary movement through the centuries has been perpetuated by missionary biography. In fact, writes Geoffrey Moorhouse, it "became the most fruitful . . . stimulus to the vocation during the nineteenth century."

The Spiritual Power of a Holy Life 

I was struck again this week with the spiritual power of a holy life—especially the holiest of all lives, the life of Jesus. I was reading the life story of Krister Sairsingh, a former Hindu from Trinidad who is now the Chaplain to international students at Harvard. Let me read you some excerpts from his story. After making great progress in the Hindu spiritual disciplines something happened that unsettled him deeply.

During my final year of high school I had some bizarre and rather dreadful experiences in which it seemed that my mantras had failed me and the Hindu deities were of no avail. For the first time I felt that the Hindu gods had disappointed me and that the power of my special mantra was not adequate to my present crisis . . .

One of my classmates, an East Indian who identified himself as a Christian, suggested that I consider Jesus after I shared my problem with him . . .

At the urging of my classmate (now a medical doctor), I began to read the New Testament to learn more about Jesus. He totally captivated me. Here was someone who struck me as different from anyone who ever lived . . .

In reading the gospels I was drawn to this man who said he had the power to forgive sins, to break the bondage of karma. Who really was this Jesus? I really wanted to know. I began a careful study of the gospels. During those two months I would go into the cane fields and cry aloud to the unknown God, hoping that the truth would be revealed to me. More than anything else I wanted the truth.

The weeks went by and still I could not get away from the attractive power of Jesus. As I read his sayings in the gospels, I thought he was speaking directly to me. It was as if he were telling me that he could actually come to me, lift the fear of death, break the bondage of karma, forgive my sins and make me truly alive . . .

One night, after meditation on the account in John's gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus, I asked Jesus to forgive my sins, to set me free from the bondage of karma and to become the Lord of my life. I had come to believe that he was the only one who could do that . . . That night I poured out my heart to him in tears. I knew when I got up from my knees that something eventful, life-changing, had happened. Jesus the Lord had entered my life. (Veritas Reconsidered, pp. 19–20)

If Jesus can captivate a person by his spirit and wisdom and power and love, then it is not surprising that those who have walked closest to him and have a large portion of his spirit will also captivate us. That is the power and value of Christian biography, and that is the value of studying a man like Barnabas, "a good man and full of the Holy Spirit and faith."

Barnabas' Patience with the Failures of Others 

We have seen six qualities of his goodness and how each one grew out of his great faith in the promises of God. And last week we looked at his unusual gift for encouraging younger leaders. We studied the marks of a biblical leader-maker.

One of those marks we passed over very quickly because I said I would come back to it this week and make it the link with today's focus, namely, the weakness of this great man Barnabas. The point we skipped over was patience—patience with other people's failures.

We saw already (in Acts 9:26–30) that Barnabas alone, of all the disciples in Jerusalem, was willing to set aside Paul's history of persecution and give him a new chance to prove himself as a Christian convert. And in doing that, God used Barnabas to give the church the greatest missionary and theologian it has ever had, namely, the apostle Paul. 

The Background of Acts 15:36 

Now there is one other time when the patience of Barnabas moved him to stand up for a younger leader in the church. Let's turn to Acts 15:36. Before we read this passage, let me give you a little background.

Who John Mark Is

In Acts 12:25 we learn that Barnabas and Saul brought a young man named John Mark back to Antioch with them from Jerusalem. Mark's mother's name was Mary, and she had a house in Jerusalem—the one where the disciples were praying when Peter escaped from prison (Acts 12:12). So Mark had experience in the thick of things in Jerusalem in the years just after Jesus' death and resurrection.

We learn from Colossians 4:10 that Mark and Barnabas are cousins.

John Mark Leaves Paul and Barnabas

When the Holy Spirit appoints Barnabas and Saul to be missionaries from Antioch in Acts 13:2, Barnabas and Saul decide to take John Mark along as an assistant (Acts 13:5). But something happened after the team left Cyprus and headed on into Pamphylia. It is very serious, but Luke only mentions it in one sentence in Acts 13:13, "Now Paul and his company set sail from Paphos, and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem."

Luke is very reserved here. He passes no judgment on John. We wait to see what will come of this.

Where Acts 15:36 Picks Up

Two or three years later, after the first missionary journey is over, and after the Jerusalem council has settled the issue of Gentile circumcision, and after Paul and Barnabas are back in Antioch teaching and preaching, Paul is convinced that the time is right for a return to that first missionary field to strengthen the saints. This is where Acts 15:36 picks up . . .

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, "Come, let us return, and visit the brethren in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are." And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 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. And there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.

The Disagreement Between Paul and Barnabas 

This is the foremost instance of Barnabas patience with the failures of others. He is the son of encouragement (Acts 4:36). He wants to give John Mark another chance and he wants to do it now.

Paul disagrees. The disagreement is so deep that it cannot be resolved, and these veterans whose friendship goes back at least 15 years, and who owe each other so much, part company. Neither will yield.

Which one of them was right? Well, Luke is remarkably objective here. He does not seem to take sides. Perhaps one little clue shows that the church inclined to the side of Paul, because in Acts 15:40 it says that Paul and Silas were commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. It doesn't say this about the departure of Barnabas and John Mark.

But Luke is not at pains to help us take sides here. He does not report this to make Paul out to be an ogre or to make Barnabas out to be a patsy. The impression you get is that two good men could not agree and a lamentable rupture in their partnership happened.

The Wrong Behavior of Peter and Barnabas 

Before we come back and ferret out the lessons of this incident let's bring one more event into the picture. It is recorded by Paul in Galatians 2:11–14.

A Much More Serious Run-In in Antioch

Sometime before this separation between Barnabas and Paul (in Acts 15:36ff.) there had been another run-in of a much more serious kind. Peter had come down to Antioch from Jerusalem and was enjoying his Christian freedom by eating with the Gentile Christians. But then some of the more strict party in the Jerusalem church came who did not approve of this kind of freedom.

The response of Peter and the other Jews and even Barnabas was utterly unacceptable to Paul. Let's read Galatians 2:11–14.

But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about 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 compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?"

In other words, the behavior of Peter and Barnabas amounted to a new commandment to the Gentiles that they must virtually become Jews.

Notice what was at stake here. It was the truth of the gospel (v. 14). There are actions that so contradict the truth of the gospel that they cannot be countenanced. Paul knew that when the truth goes, the gospel goes, and when the gospel goes, the souls of men perish. This was Paul's great strength. He never forgot that truth issues are ultimately people issues.

Barnabas' Weakness

Peter and Barnabas were wrong. Their actions were out of step with the truth of the gospel. Why had Barnabas been swept away in this error? Why did a few men coming from Jerusalem cause Peter and Barnabas to conform to their expectations rather than stand up for the principle of gospel liberty?

Here is the weakness of a great man. Here the bubble of idealism bursts on the needle of reality. Our hero is fallible and imperfect after all.

Six Lessons 

Now what can we learn from all this? Let me mention briefly six lessons for our instruction and encouragement.

The first is a reaffirmation of our Sunday evening lesson from two weeks ago based on Psalm 119:176:

1. Great Saints Go Astray

At this point I don't want to pick on Barnabas. I have in mind both Barnabas and Paul. Paul himself had given a warning loud and clear that he and Barnabas must not be idolized. In Acts 14:15 they were put in the category with the gods (which we might be tempted to do). But Paul cries out (with a warning that should be stamped over the biography of every man except Jesus):

Men, why are you doing this? We also are men, of like nature with you.

More than once Paul confessed that he was a sinner and that he had not yet arrived at perfection (Philippians 3:12; 1 Timothy 1:15). Great saints go astray, whether Barnabas, or Paul. And biographies are the more valuable if they show us the weaknesses of our heroes as well as their strengths. We can be thankful that the Bible is so honest in its portrayal even of the best saints.

2. The Reality of Judgment Calls

The ministry is made up of many judgment calls.

In fact, life is made up of many judgment calls. What I mean by a "judgment call" is a decision that has to be made when no specific rule of Scripture refers explicitly to your circumstances.

Wisdom and Points of Prudence

There is no passage in Scripture that says, "When a young missionary has forsaken the work on his first journey, you shall give him a second chance after 18 months of penitent and faithful service." And no biblical text says not to.

Instead we have principles that say, "Encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all." And we have principles which say that leaders in the church should be above reproach, and well-tested. One principle stresses the glory of God's mercy. Another principle stresses the glory of God's calling. One principle accents the bounty of God. The other principle accents the holiness of God.

Some of our decisions are governed by explicit biblical commands—thou shalt not commit adultery! But most of our decisions in life are an effort to apply biblical principles to situations that the Bible does not deal with explicitly. And the problem is that we often differ on how to do this. Matthew Henry calls these issues "points of prudence." Listen to his wise and sober words:

Even those that are united to one and the same Jesus, and sanctified by one and the same Spirit, have different apprehensions, different opinions, different views, and different sentiments in points of prudence. It will be so while we are in this state of darkness and imperfection; we shall never be all of a mind till we come to heaven, where light and love are perfect. (Commentary, vol. 6, p. 200)

In Acts 15:38 the word Luke uses to describe Paul's conviction that Mark should not go fits this idea. It says, literally, "But Paul did not count it fitting, or proper, to take along one who had withdrawn." It was an issue of spiritual prudence, an issue of propriety and fitness and strategic wisdom.

How Shall We View Their Disagreement?

But what does wisdom dictate in a choice like this? Barnabas seemed to focus on the need and potential of Mark. Paul seemed to focus on the demands and potential of the larger cause of the gospel and the honor of the mission.

I don't think we should see this as all bad. It's the rancor and bitterness and resentment that are bad. But is it bad that one mission agency perceives wisdom in one strategy and another agency perceives wisdom in another strategy, so that two mission agencies are formed? In fact there are agencies today with extremely high standards for their candidates more like Paul's, and there are agencies who will send almost anyone who wants to go. Is that all bad?

The point here is simply this: most of our life and ministry is made up of those kinds of decisions—the application of biblical principles to situations not explicitly dealt with in the Bible. And therefore complete agreement in these areas will not happen in the body of Christ until we no longer see through a glass darkly. And I suggest that we not too quickly assume that our different strategies for Christ are a bad thing.

3. The Vulnerability of "Sons of Encouragement"

"Sons of encouragement" are vulnerable to minimizing the importance of truth for the sake of relationships.

In other words, their very strength—the inclination to stand up for people—this very strength can lead to weakness. I think this is what happened in Galatians 2. Why did Paul not get sucked into the hypocrisy while Barnabas did, when Barnabas was the older, more experienced Christian? I suspect it was because Paul did not feel the same emotional empathy with the Jews who came from Jerusalem that Barnabas did. Paul didn't feel the same tug that Barnabas must have felt from the Jerusalem brothers.

Paul's orientation to the ministry was so gospel-centered that the emotions and opinions of other people did not have the same importance to him that they did for Barnabas. Listen to how Paul talks in Galatians 1:8, 10,

Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed . . . Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ.

This kind of disposition probably did not make Paul the same "son of encouragement" that Barnabas was. But it did keep the gospel pure for another hundred generations of Gentile believers. And Barnabas, with all his warmth and patience with people, was sucked into an error that compromised the truth of the gospel. Every strength is vulnerable to its corresponding weakness.

Which leads us to the fourth lesson.

4. The Need for a Diversity of Strengths

Diverse people in the body of Christ need each other's different strengths.

Is it not a beautiful and encouraging thing that at the beginning of Paul's Christian life when no one would take a risk on his behalf, Barnabas came forward and saved him for the cause of Christ; but many years later, when Barnabas was falling away from the truth, Paul came forward and saved him for the cause? These men needed each other's different strengths.

Can either of these men boast over the other? I think not. God has chosen to build a community of diverse people. His aim is not that all the Barnabases become Pauls or that all the Pauls become Barnabases. His aim is that they help each other fight the fight of faith and endure to the end and be saved. His aim is that when one is weak, the other be strong; when the strength of one makes him vulnerable to a corresponding weakness, the other be there with the balancing virtue. And his aim is that we not envy or resent each other, but rejoice in the wisdom of the Spirit who creates and uses and molds us according to his choosing.

5. The Foolishness of Resting on Our Past

Past experiences and past usefulness are no guarantee of future obedience.

In Acts 11:24 we saw that Barnabas was a good man and full of the Holy Spirit and faith. And God used him mightily in the church. But it is just as certain that in Galatians 2 he was NOT full of the Holy Spirit. He gave way to the spirit of error and ceased, for a season, to walk in the way of faith.

Therefore, the lesson to be learned is that none of us should rest on his laurels. None of us should say, Well, I know I once had this marvelous experience with God, so I am safe and secure from now on. Rather we should say with Jesus, "Let us watch and pray that we not fall into temptation. Let us put on the whole armor of God and do all to stand in the day of testing. Let us hide the Word of God in our heart that we might not sin against him."

Past experiences and past usefulness are no guarantee of future obedience. The Christian life is a race to be run and finished, a fight to be fought and won, and a faith to be kept to the end. There is no place for coasting or drifting.

In this Paul excelled: "I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified . . . Forgetting those things which lie behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (1 Corinthians 9:26–7; Philippians 3:13–4) Persevering faith, not past faith, is the path to glory.

6. Firm Confidence and Hope in God's Triumph

The cause of God will triumph through all the weaknesses and failures of his people.

Three Evidences from the Life of Paul and Barnabas

There are at least three evidences of this from the life of Barnabas and Paul. First, in 1 Corinthians 9:6, some time after separating from Barnabas, Paul refers to Barnabas as a fellow worker who shares his life and labor. The breach has been healed.

Second, in 2 Timothy 4:11 Paul says to Timothy, "Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you; for he is very useful in serving me." Was it Paul's tough rebuke or Barnabas' tender patience that saved Mark for the cause of the gospel? Or could it have been both? In any case, the Lord brought victory out of contention, and Mark not only became useful to Paul but also served as Peter's interpreter and wrote our second gospel—the gospel according to Mark.

The third piece of evidence that God triumphs even through the failures of his people is that when the contention was not solved, neither missionary quit the ministry. Instead they chose new partners and went on with the ministry of the gospel, and out of one faltering missionary journey there emerged two.

God's Activity Throughout History

And God has done this again and again in history. Out of the ashes of failure he fans a few embers into a new fire that burns for his glory.

The defeats of God's people are always temporary. And the celebrations of hell are very soon ruined by the sovereign wisdom and grace of God.

The ark of the covenant may be captured by the Philistine armies. But take heed lest you judge the victor too quickly: Dagon will fall on his face before the rays of dawn and tumors will ruin the triumphs of the enemies of God (2 Samuel 5). The defeats of God's people are always temporary. The cause of God will triumph through all the weaknesses and failures of his people.


Let's close by summing up what we have seen.

  1. Great saints go astray—sons of thunder and sons of encouragement.
  2. The ministry is made up of many judgment calls, and we will have to learn to disagree on some things without rancor or bitterness or resentment.
  3. Every strength has its corresponding weakness and we are all vulnerable.
  4. Therefore we need each other's different strengths and mustn't envy one another but rather give thanks for God's wisdom.
  5. Past experiences and past usefulness are no guarantee of future obedience. Successful Christian living is made of vigilance and constant prayer.
  6. The cause of God will triumph through all the weaknesses and failures of his people. Our defeats are temporary and the celebration of our enemies is brief.