Today’s New Testament lesson (Acts 15:36-16:5) offers us a glimpse into the “human side” of some biblical heroes. Paul and Barnabas are in the midst of a missionary journey, and they decide to visit the towns in which they have preached in order to encourage the believers there. Barnabas wants to bring John Mark, his cousin and protege. But Paul is opposed to the idea, since John Mark has already bailed on a previous trip. In fact, the conflict between Paul and Barnabas becomes so severe that they part ways, with Barnabas and John Mark heading off in one direction, and Paul and Silas in the other.
It would be nice, of course, to know more about this conflict and how these early Christian leaders tried to handle it before they allowed it to split them apart. And it would also be tempting to “dismiss” this conflict, noting that whatever caused it — and whatever was done (or not done) to deal with it — God still used it to multiply ministry.
But at the same time — if we allow it to offer a “window” into following Jesus in the real world — it does offer us an encouraging reminder that even our spiritual role models can struggle at times to practice what they preach. Paul, after all, is the same teacher who would go on to write movingly about how we have been entrusted with the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19) and how we are to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:13). And yet, even he struggled to adhere to these admonitions all the time.
Thankfully, the scriptures also offer evidence that the conflict between Paul and Barnabas was eventually resolved. We don’t know how or when it happened. But as Paul neared the end of his life, he wrote to Timothy and said: “Get John Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:11) This young man — who had been a source of conflict — has now become a source of comfort — and a living testimony to the reconciling power of Christ.
Naturally, I pray that our lives are “conflict-free” today. But even if they’re not, let’s remember: A) Conflict happens, even to the most spiritual among us; and B) Conflict can end in comfort, as we allow the One who has forgiven us to make us the kind of people who are able to forgive.