In trying to research a totally unrelated point, I found myself going through a long and drawn out character study of the Apostle Paul. Many issues connected themselves to the story, and even now I would have to say I am doing a "stream of consciousness" posting here to see if I can boil it down to the message that God wants rather than the one my intellectual curiosity sent me on.
I think the story has to do with the several gifts that a Christian may receive for their ministry. Romans 12:6-8 list these gifts as prophecy, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, and showing mercy. Now prophecy as given here is not the "I see a vision of the future" thing you get in comic books. A former pastor of mine would have called it exhorting- the preaching of God's word. This is kind of where Paul was. His longtime original partner, Barnabas, was an encourager (which is where I see me)- in fact, his name means "Son of Encouragement." And the era around the break-up of their partnership has two distinct dichotomies going on.
One is that just before this, there was a Council called in Jerusalem by Paul under the leadership of Peter, James the Lord's Brother, and John (who, while named as being there, was completely silent in the story). The summit was over the Jewish Christians' belief that the new Gentile believers should have to obey Jewish custom, including circumcision. Both Peter and Paul testified that Gentiles had been saved without need of Jewish ritual, and James declared that the Church would put no such burden on the Gentile believers.
But then, a funny thing happened. Paul and Barnabas, along with Jude and Silas, took the report to Antioch and stayed there for a while. Soon Peter joined them- but Paul accused him, despite what the Council determined, of acting one way around the Gentile Christians and another when James' men came up to "check up on him". Paul claimed that soon everyone- including Barnabas- were acting as Peter was, and Paul finally called him out publically on it. Paul was aghast that they would hew to Jewish custom, shunning Gentiles, when other Jews were around.
But soon after that blow-up- and another soon to come- Paul went off to revisit the churches, meeting along the way a young disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman and a Greek father. Paul, who was short a companion (story to follow), wanted Timothy to come along- but because he knew the Jews would complain about his Greek blood, had him circumcised to placate them. And I said, "What the heck is the difference between Peter's deference to the Jews, and Paul's?"
The second dichotomy involves that "partner short" deal. After Paul was through chewing out Barnabas et al for hypocrisy, he decided, as I said, to revisit the churches they planted. Barnabas wanted to bring his young cousin Mark. Now, Mark, who would eventually write the second Gospel, had an iffy reputation at this point: so scared of arrest when Jesus was arrested in the Garden, he was grabbed but left his cloak behind, running off naked to get away. Forgiven that one, he later went with Paul and Barnabas on their first trip- only to abandon ship and go home after just a short time. Paul apparently had not forgiven him this second incident, and wanted no part of him. The fight over Mark reached the point Luke used the term paroxysm to describe it. Finally, Paul went one way with Silas and Barnabas the other with Mark.
Rather than chase down all the verses that made me start to think that Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was being vindictive, let's instead try to see the lesson we get from these. Story number one- what IS the difference between Peter's seeming bowing to the Jews and Paul's? Paul explains his actions with Timothy in that he was "willing to be all things to all men, so that by all means, some might be saved." In order to keep from offending those who would object bringing an uncircumcised Gentile into a synagogue, he'd carry out the ritual on Timothy, making him basically an honorary Jew. In similar manner, he would refuse to eat meat sacrificed to idols IF it caused someone else to compromise their faith, even though there's nothing wrong with the meat since idols are false anyway.
So why get upset about what Peter was doing? Because a) It was going against what they had JUST said they weren't going to do, and more important, b) it was causing others TO sin, where Timothy's circumcision wasn't being "done and un-done" depending on the audience. Paul had NO tolerance for what went against the Gospel. Even today, we face situations like this. Things we know we prolly shouldn't do, but excuse them on the basis of, "But if it helps someone else..." Sure, you can go and have a church service in a bar, as some have, trying to bring the mountain to Mohammed, or the Word to the sinner. But is that doing as effective a job at showing God's love and willingness to come to the sinner, as it is showing the church, "Hey, I can get away with that?" When you have one of those somewhat ambiguous choices, you have to really examine the motive. Paul's was to lift the church up; Peter's was bringing it down.
The second story brings us back to Paul's "no tolerance" policy. One commentator explained that Paul's commitment to the pure Word of God left him "incompetent" to deal with the mercy that Barnabas wanted to show; and that while Barnabas could see the point about not allowing compromise into the Word, he also saw that each person is a different individual, and you cannot fit one-size-fits-all into salvation. He saw in Mark a young man struggling, who had the potential for greatness in Christ- or a lifetime of running and uselessness. He felt it was up to him to change the trajectory of Mark's life.
So who was right, who was wrong? Well, Paul went on to write most of the New Testament, and converted hundreds if not thousands. But Mark, he went on to write a Gospel, something Paul never did. You see, here's the thing. We don't ALL get all the gifts; we don't all get the SAME ones. And we have to use them in the way God intended. At a certain point, the partnership of Paul and Barnabas HAD to break up. Why? First trip, Paul was new at this. He likely needed the encouragement of someone like Barnabas. But by the second trip, that would have been a crutch God didn't want him to lean on. By the same token, while a preacher should be willing and able to travel around the world to reach those not already reached, an encourager needs to be with those reached to encourage them. God NEEDED the pair in different places to do their different things, and Barnabas was a luxury to Paul that God couldn't afford.
And Mark? Obviously, he redeemed himself in Paul's eyes eventually, as near the end he asks Timothy to send Mark to him in prison. Perhaps seeing his waffling in the light of the damage it caused to two brothers in Christ changed Mark; tradition says he ended up with a ringside seat when Barnabas was martyred in Cyprus. His gift, it would seem, was teaching, and thus he wrote down the Gospel he wrote.
I have seen through a certain mutual un-friending I went through a while back that sometimes God separates us because we're just not good, or ready, for each other, and too stubborn to admit it. We compromise what OUR gift is to stay close to the other person, and God finally shoots it down in flames, like he did Paul and Barnabas. So out of all this, I guess it boils down to two basic things to keep in mind.
1- Stay true to your call.
2- Stay true to your gift.