Hearing Voices (Part 1)

“And there arose a sharp contention between Paul and Barnabas, so that they separated from one another.” Acts 15:39

What I’m about to share with you today is simply a great story from the book of Acts. I’m going to use this story over the next three weeks to talk about the three voices you need to listen to in life when you’re in the middle of a contentious situation.

The story is really the backstory for the verse “there arose a sharp contention between Paul and Barnabas, so that they separated.” The two leading missionary figures of the day, powerful and influential leaders in the church, came to a contentious chapter in their lives that led them to go their separate ways. What in the world happened?

The bone of contention concerned a young man named John Mark, who was actually Barnabas’s cousin. He had accompanied Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey, and Luke tells us that he left mid-mission, so to speak, and returned to Jerusalem.

Some months later Paul proposed to Barnabas a second missionary journey. Barnabas agreed and suggested they again take John Mark with them. Here is where the problem began. Paul refused. He was not happy that John Mark had left them during the first journey.

We don’t have the details, but we might speculate that John Mark simply didn’t want to go farther away from home. Maybe he was sick. Maybe he just decided he wasn’t cut out for missionary journeys. Pamphylia, where John Mark left them, was a somewhat wilder, less stable area. He might have been scared. Paul did end up getting stoned there and left for dead, so John Mark’s departure may have been the better part of valor.

All we can know for sure is that Paul was not happy with the parting during the first journey, and he wasn’t about to allow this timid fellow on the second trip. Thus, the stage was set for what Luke called “a sharp contention” as Barnabas argued for his young cousin to get a second chance, and Paul, ever zealous and almost certainly unbending, wanted nothing to do with the undependable young man.

Now think about John Mark for a moment. Have you ever wanted to impress someone you really looked up to? Have you ever let them down? Have you ever let anyone down? Has that failure echoed in your mind, convincing you that you really never will amount to much? Don’t you think some of those thoughts rattled around in John Mark’s head as he thought about how he’d let down the great Paul?

Or perhaps it’s simply a contentious situation you’re dealing with. These come and go. They happen at work, in traffic, in families, on Facebook (good grief!). How do you deal with them? You listen to the voices. Now I’ll tell you what those voices are in the coming three weeks. This is what we call in the business “a tease.” It will make you come back next week.

For this week, however, let’s just nail down that we all have contentious situations that can lead to all kinds of caustic spiritual emotions like anger, resentment, shame, guilt, confusion, etc. Let’s also nail down that the contentious way things might be in your life right now is not necessarily the way things will be down the road. God is always working grace into the lives of people who are open to it.

Many years after “the sharp contention” Paul sat in a jail cell facing a very uncertain future. He longed for his books and parchments, and especially for the companionship of a certain young man. So, he wrote to Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful in serving me.” That’s the same John Mark who had been the target of his condemnation years earlier.

Remember, God works His grace into the lives of everyone who is open to Him. You just have to listen to the voices.


Terry Ellis

August 18, 2019