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Saturday, August 08, 2015

When the Holy Spirit is Silent

We love building narratives, don’t we.

Sometimes the tales we tell each other represent reality. Other times we are simply reading our own impressions, default assumptions and prejudices into the text of scripture.

I was in a conversational Bible study recently. Our subject was Acts 15 and the “sharp disagreement” between Paul and Barnabas over whether or not John Mark, who had previously deserted them in Pamphylia, should accompany them to encourage the believers in Asia where they had planted churches and preached Christ. The disagreement, if you recall, was sharp enough that Paul and Barnabas parted ways. Barnabas took Mark and went with him back to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and went through Syria and Cilicia.

Some good came from the disagreement: four men went out to do the work of God instead of two or three, and they were able to minister to different groups of believers in need of encouragement. But many narratives have been built on six short verses that go significantly beyond what we have been told in the word of God.

“Paul. Was. Wrong.”

For instance, a few minutes into our study, a voice behind me boomed out, “Paul. Was. Wrong.” Like that. A man got to his feet, Bible in hand, and quoted Romans 7 where Paul says, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing”, to establish that Paul made mistakes. He concluded that Barnabas, who supported the inclusion of John Mark, was in the right and that Paul had made a terrible mistake in being unwilling to trust someone who had previously proved unreliable.

Leaving aside his bizarre use of Romans 7, it ought to be pointed out for the umpteenth time that the book of Acts, for the most part, simply records history. Absent a specific editorial comment from the Holy Spirit as to who was right and who was wrong, we are only making up stories when we go beyond what is recorded. Our opinions are weightless and unauthoritative when we speculate.

Speculative Forays

Here are some of the stories told by those who study the passage:

1.    The dispute resulted in ongoing animus between Barnabas and Paul. There is no suggestion of this. Luke records that they had a sharp disagreement, the consequence of which was that they separated. He does not suggest either side (or John Mark, for that matter) harbored ongoing ill-will toward the other. The only mention Paul makes subsequently of Barnabas to the Corinthian church is difficult to construe unfavourably.

2.    Barnabas’ support of John Mark contributed to his subsequent usefulness. This is possible but far from certain. It is a conclusion drawn from Paul’s instruction to Timothy (by many calculations almost 20 years later) to “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry”. To know how Mark became useful during the two decades that followed, we would need to ask Mark, and even he might not be entirely sure. It might be that Paul’s rejection of him lit a fire in his heart. It might be that Barnabas’ unconditional support strengthened him. It might be both, and there are numerous other possibilities.

3.    Paul was wrong about Mark. Again, there is no evidence in scripture of this. Mark may have been useless in AD49 and very useful indeed in AD67. Those of us who have been consistently faithful for our entire Christian lives are few and far between.

4.    John Mark returned to Jerusalem because of something Paul did in Paphos. It is alleged that Paul’s strong language to Elymas the sorcerer or extending the gospel to Sergius Paulus triggered Mark’s departure between Paphos and Pamphylia. Again, a neat story, but entirely speculative. The Holy Spirit says nothing of the sort through Luke or anyone else.

Taking Sides

Interesting as such extrapolations may be, they are nothing more than opinions. Invented narratives invariably arise from or play to our prejudices. Those who have been helped by encouragers and those who are exhorters by gift or disposition may favour Barnabas. Those of a more strategic bent and those who tend to see the big picture may be more inclined to take Paul’s side.

The Holy Spirit through Luke does not take a side. (Some infer the church at Antioch did, noting that Paul and Silas were commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord” while no such comment is made about Barnabas and Mark. But even this inference is dubious as Luke does not explicitly record that Barnabas and Mark were not commended.)

Unequivocal Lessons

Still, it seems to me there are enough unequivocal lessons in these six verses that we don’t need to invent more. We find that, among other things:

1.    Devoted believers and servants of Christ may legitimately disagree in good conscience about how his work should be done.

2.    The work of the Lord may go on regardless.

3.    Scripture is frank about such potentially embarrassing episodes where some might feel the need to spin the story more favourably.

4.    If we fail the Lord in some way, we may expect legitimate criticism or temporary mistrust but we may also anticipate someone to help us get back on our feet.

When the Holy Spirit speaks, we ought to pay close attention. When he does not, we should probably resist the natural impulse to supply words for him.

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