The account of the second missionary journey begins at Acts 15:36 with the report of a disagreement between Paul and Barnabas. These two men had traveled together on the first trip, taking Barnabas’ relative John Mark with them. It had been the first official missionary journey in which a church actually supported a team of workers, and it had taken the workers themselves to previously untouched areas. The second journey was to prove even greater. On the second trip, Paul got to several of the great cities of the ancient world, among them Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth and Ephesus.
Some have traced this disagreement to the fact that it was Paul who introduced the idea of setting out to visit the churches founded on the first trip. He said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the Word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.” The people I am referring to contrast this modest beginning with the call in chapter 13 in which the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). Because that earlier call is said to have come from the Holy Spirit, these people argue (wrongly, I think) that the second journey was something Paul himself dreamed up and that it was not of God. This was why they began to have troubles.
Actually, the reason why Paul and Barnabas did not receive a second calling of the Holy Spirit at this point is that they did not need one. They had been called to be missionaries, and once a person is called to a task, he or she does not need to be called and called again. To be missionaries was their work. They had begun on their first missionary journey, but they had not completed their work. Now in fulfillment of exactly the same mission, Paul wanted to start off again. As a matter of fact, this is the way he phrases it. He says in effect, “We founded quite a few churches on our first journey. Let’s go back now and see how the brothers are doing. Our task isn’t finished just because we have visited an area once.”
American Christians need a challenge of this kind, because we think that if we agree to teach a Sunday school class for nine or ten months, we have done a great deal; we are then ready to have somebody else do it. Or if we are elected to a church board, we serve for a short time, but then as soon as we can we get off the board and back to more leisurely times. We need to see that when God calls us to something it is for a lifetime—or at least until God Himself clearly moves us in another direction.
Yet this journey was quite different from the first. There were four new things: 1) there was a new alignment, that is, a new alignment of the missionaries; 2) there was a new worker, in fact, there were several new workers; 3) there was a new vision, a new field opened up, and they had a call to it; and 4) there was a new church, the church at Philippi.
The new alignment came about as a result of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas. On the first journey the two missionaries had taken John Mark with them. When they got into difficulty (so we must suppose), Mark decided that this was not his calling. So he turned around and went back. We do not have any recorded words of Paul at this point, but we can assume from what happened later that he was bitterly disappointed. He must have regarded Mark’s defection almost as a betrayal of Christ, because when he proposed the next journey and Barnabas wanted to take Mark with them again, Paul reacted so negatively that the two ended up going in different directions.
Paul must have said, “Mark failed us once. He quit. This is no game for quitters. This is for those who will hang in there through thick and thin, regardless of the difficulties. I will not agree to John Mark’s presence on this journey.”
Barnabas must have said, “Paul, that is not right. Mark is young. Young men make mistakes. He failed once; that is true. But it wasn’t a terrible mistake. He just got tired or worried about the difficulties. I think we should give him another chance.”
“No.” Paul said.
“Yes,” said Barnabas.
The text says they got into “such a sharp disagreement” about it that the only way out of it was for them to part company.