Not long after the transactions which last engaged our attention, Paul, animated by that keen interest in the spiritual welfare of his converts, which glows through the epistles afterwards written, conceived an earnest desire to revisit the places where the Gospel had been preached by him and Barnabas in their former missionary tour. “Let us go again,” he said to the other, “and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do.”
Barnabas was very willing; but it would seem that the band of brotherhood had been somewhat relaxed between them, in the recent affairs wherein Paul had been greatly vexed by the unsteadiness of Barnabas; and the latter had probably been somewhat hurt at being involved with Peter and others in the public reproof administered by one whose patron he had in some sort been, but who was already become not only a more prominent teacher in the church than himself, but a more regarded leader in that very church which he had himself founded. We are not bound to overlook these probabilities, which he in human nature; and we know that these excellent men were, as they declared to the Lystrians, “men of like passions that we are;” and we know
How slight a cause may move
Dissension between hearts that love,”
when once such uneasiness of feeling has been created as that which this affair was calculated to excite, and seems to have excited. In this case an outbreak commonly occurs sooner or later; and is often, if not always, supplied by some very inadequate cause. In this case the immediate cause of difference was supplied by the declared intention of Barnabas, that Mark should accompany them on this proposed tour. Paul had no ground for interference when the uncle thought proper to bring his nephew from Jerusalem to Antioch; but now when it was proposed to make Mark a third party in the demands and responsibilities of a missionary journey, Paul very strongly objected. But Barnabas persisted, and then Paul’s objections rose into absolute refusal. Barnabas declared that he would not go without Mark, and Paul protested that he would not go with Mark. In short, there was nothing less than “a sharp contention” between the two, which, as is usual in such cases, probably branched out right and left into matters not immediately connected with the question in hand, producing altogether a sad breach between friends who had together “hazarded their lives for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Which of the two was right, or which was wrong, we cannot very well say. Probably they were both right and both wrong—right in some points and wrong in others. We incline to suppose that Paul was rightest on their present knowledge; but that Barnabas is shown to be the rightest by our after knowledge. Barnabas had confidence in Mark’s present steadiness, and the result shows that this confidence was not misplaced. Having this confidence, it was natural that he should be exceedingly unwilling that one, to whom he stood in an almost paternal relation, should be turned back at the threshold of life, from that career of usefulness in the Lord’s vineyard for which he seemed fitted, and which he now earnestly desired to follow, and all for a fault of which he had by this time heartily repented. It seemed too hard. Are faults never to be forgiven? are their consequences to follow us forever? O Lord, if Thou be extreme to mark our failure of duty—O Lord, who then shall stand!
On the other hand, Paul had not the same grounds as Barnabas for confidence in Mark, nor the same personal reasons for overlooking his error. In a case where he could not judge the heart, and had not acquired confidence in the party concerned, it might seem unsafe to proceed on any other grounds than those of public duty, and the safety and honor of the work entrusted to him. That work required steady men; and one who had already, with respect to the very same journey, exhibited infirmity of purpose and considerable disregard for his fellow travellers, could hardly be considered as having evinced any particular qualification for the work; and that work was scarcely one upon which to try experiments with uncertain characters. Indeed, that was a point on which our Lord himself, it would be remembered, had pronounced a strong verdict, when He declared that “He who putteth his hand to the plough, and looketh back, is not fit for the kingdom of God.”
In this unhappy contention it may seem that Barnabas was the more irascible, or the less placable, of the two; for he was the first to leave Antioch, instead of lingering behind to the last moment, in the hope that some accommodation between himself and Paul might be finally attained. He took Mark with him and went to Cyprus, seemingly taking upon himself that portion of what was to have been the united journey of Paul and himself, for the churches in Cyprus required also to be visited. Thus the cause of the church suffered no loss by this difference, but gained rather. There was gain; for Paul having to take a new companion in place of Barnabas, there were thus two couples of travelling laborers, where only one pair had been contemplated.
We hear no more of Barnabas in Scripture. But many have supposed that he is “the brother whose praise is in all the churches,” mentioned by Paul in 2Co_8:18-19, on which supposition it is concluded that not only were Paul and Barnabas reconciled after this separation, but that they again labored together. All this, however, rests on the identity of Barnabas with this “brother,” which seems to us very doubtful. The absence of any explicit mention, either in the history or the epistles, of so prominent and active a person as Barnabas had been, would rather lead to the inference that he did not long survive the separation. And with this agrees the current traditional account of his subsequent history—an account which, although it rests on no satisfactory authority, seems probable enough in its main circumstances. According to this account, Barnabas, with Mark, after passing through the whole island of Cyprus, and converting large numbers to the Christian faith, arrived at length at Salamis, where he preached in the synagogue with great success. He was, however, followed thither by some Jews from Syria, whose leader, according to one account, Barjesus became. These men succeeded in exciting the minds of the people against Barnabas, who perceiving that his last hour was at hand, took leave of the brethren after the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Having then given his nephew directions respecting his interment, and charged him to return to Paul after his decease, he proceeded to the Jewish synagogue. He there began to preach Christ, as was his custom. But the Jews at once laid hands upon him, and shut him up till night. They then dragged him forth, and, after stoning him, reduced his body to ashes. According to another account, however, the corpse was preserved from the flames, and secretly conveyed away by Mark, and deposited in a cavern about five stadia from the city. Mark then joined Paul at Ephesus, as his uncle had directed, and afterwards accompanied the apostle to Rome.
Mark certainly did join Paul, as we have already seen. If he did so after the death of Barnabas, and by his desire, this was certainly an impressive act of reconcilement; and this is still more emphatically indicated if Barnabas was still alive when Mark went to join Paul. Neither Barnabas nor Mark then cherished any spark of resentment against Paul, nor Paul against either of them. That Mark went to Paul shows that he was the first to move in this matter; and we cannot doubt that, in taking this step, he acted by the counsel of Barnabas, whether at the time living or dead. And we may suppose he was charged with the expression of his uncle’s grief at the remembrance of the “sharp contention” which had formerly taken place between them.