The separation of Paul and Barnabas had always troubled me whenever I read it in Acts 15:39. This seemed to have been a serious matter, and it probably was for both Barnabas and Paul. I do think reconciliation eventually occurred, because Paul asks Timothy to bring Mark with him to assist Paul when it seemed Paul was near the end of his life (2Timothy 4:11). We are not told when the reconciliation occurred, but there is little doubt that it did happen.
So, what did take place way back in Acts 15 (cir. 49-50 CE)? I think we have to return to Acts 13 to figure this out, because the reason for the separation was Paul’s unwillingness to take Mark with Barnabas and himself to visit and encourage the churches in Galatia, where they went on their first missionary journey (Acts 15:38).
Paul and Barnabas took Mark from Antioch in Syria on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-5). However, Mark left the two after they arrived in Perga. The curious thing is, Mark did not return to Antioch from where he embarked on the evangelistic mission, but to Jerusalem, which up to this point had been considered the “headquarters” church. Everyone looked to the apostles as the leaders of the Jesus movement.
Some believe Mark may have gotten sick, but if this is true, why was Paul so opposed to his rejoining them on their second trip to Asia? Others believe Mark may have gotten homesick, but this doesn’t seem to fit either. He was perfectly willing to go after the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, and he never seemed to have trouble missing mommy afterward, for he was the companion of Peter for quite awhile after he went with Barnabas. Neither homesickness nor health matters seem to fit the context of what we know about Mark.
I think we need to look at what Luke records immediately after Mark left for Jerusalem and Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch. Not long after returning from their first missionary journey, “those of the circumcision” came to Antioch saying the gentiles had to become circumcised in order to be saved (Acts 15:1)! Nothing is really set in cement here, but the context seems to show Mark was offended with the manner in which Paul preached the Gospel to the gentiles. He may have been a little wary of receiving the gentiles into full fellowship without their having to become Jews. This was the manner of the Jews that had always been used regarding gentiles and worshiping the God of Israel, and remember that the Jewish faith up to the time of Christ was the only faith ever begun by God! So, why not; isn’t this opinion perfectly understandable, if one did not take the teaching of Christ into consideration?
Whatever did in fact occur, the context at least points to the possibility that Mark may have been instrumental in bringing about the ruckus that developed, thereby causing a need for the council in Acts 15. It may be that he brought back to Jerusalem a negative report about the manner in which Paul was receiving the gentile converts (cp. Numbers 13:32). While the leaders of the Jerusalem church may not have been upset (considering Acts 10), the Pharisees, among whom Paul mentions were false brethren (Galatians 2:1-2; Acts 15:5), would have been concerned. Often it happens that men who are opposed the purity of the Gospel have an influential voice when it comes to creating dissension.
Both Barnabas and Paul acted in character, Barnabas the encourager, willing to forgive the repentant Mark; and Paul the protector, wanting to see evidence of repentance before he entrusted new believers to the young man. It also may be true, considering Paul’s background in the Pharisaical sect, that he knew of earlier secret plans in the Jewish community by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to infiltrate the church and seek a way to control the Jesus movement (cp. Acts 5). He may have suspected Mark was one of them.
In any case, whether what I believe to be true is so or not, relationships were healed as testified in the NT, and God did indeed work all things together for the good of the whole church. After all, there were now two teams going out on missionary journeys, while at first there was only one!