“For he was a good man, and he was led with the Holy Spirit and with faith” Acts 11:24.
Threaded through the early chapters of Acts and almost hidden behind the scenes is a shadowy sketch of a relatively rarely studied disciple. He is a man whom we may initially consider obscure, unimportant and perhaps even inconsequential to the growth of the Truth, an individual who appears overshadowed by the larger, broad brushstrokes of the mega-apostles such as Peter and Paul. Yet there is a wealth of information that when connected together paints the colourful and impressive picture of a disciple, who through his fatherly spirit gently influenced the lives of struggling individuals to achieve their potential.
Barnabas is introduced to us in the context of his practical support to the newly-birthed ecclesia, the widows and the underprivileged. Later, he helped with the development of the predominantly Gentile ecclesia in Antioch as he fully embraced the grace of God that had been extended far beyond the borders of insulated Judaism. He assisted the Apostle Paul back out of the obscurity of Damascus and Arabia, re-introducing him into the Jerusalem Ecclesia. By extension therefore, Barnabas was pivotal in assisting the apostle who wrote over two thirds of the New Testament. In fact, Barnabas later fetched Saul from Tarsus to assist in the growth of the Antioch Ecclesia and then accompanied him on his first missionary journey. There weren’t too many individuals who could keep pace with Paul’s fervour and drive – but Barnabas could! Not only that, he encouraged a youthful John Mark to engage in mission work with Paul, and although John Mark turned back, Barnabas later wanted to give him a second chance and in this matter he was prepared courageously to withstand the opinion of the Apostle Paul. So in all of these circumstances, Barnabas is revealed as a brother with an amazing broadness of character; one who was sensitive enough to handle and balance difficult issues, resilient enough to work with Paul – and yet who never lost sight of the ongoing need to help inexperienced individuals like John Mark to find their feet.
An introduction to Barnabas
We are introduced to Barnabas when there was a duality of issues: sharp economic distress and massive ecclesial growth. There was an incredible increase of 3,000 converts at Pentecost (Acts 2) and then a further expansion as the ecclesia grew to 5,000 (Acts 4:4).While this was wonderful progress, it also triggered the difficulty of social and cultural adjustments with the addition of many brothers and sisters who were enduring poor economic conditions. This is the context in which we are first introduced to the disciple Barnabas and provided with an initial insight into his character: “And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas (which is,being interpreted, the son of consolation) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36–37). There were many contributing to the ‘poor fund’; as the previous verses state, “they had all things common,” so why the insertion of Barnabas’ gesture? What made his donation outstanding? Well, the record goes on to provide the contrast with Ananias and Sapphira, clearly defining the transparency and honesty of Barnabas’ gesture but also establishing his understanding of fellowship. For Barnabas, fellowship was not just a definition of fundamental beliefs, it was a practical action. Even though he was a Levite and well acquainted with the legalities of the Law of Moses, to him, fellowship was not a legality, it was an actuality! So this was an action of astounding generosity. While Ananias and Sapphira “kept back” part of the proceeds, Joseph (his actual name in Acts 4:36), which means ‘adding’ or ‘increasing,’ gives without a backward glance. His action was both positive and generous, showing his big-heartedness and total commitment to his work in Christ. The lesson for us is that our fellowship should not just be viewed legalistically or mechanically, but we should be actually sharing with brothers and sisters, in practical ways, our love of Christ. This may involve words of edification, instruction and counsel, through to financial support for ecclesial needs and mission work overseas. So in real terms our fellowship needs to be practical and genuine, and not just in words.
Joseph is nicknamed
The apostles nicknamed Joseph ‘Barnabas’ and Acts 4:36 goes on to inform us that they interpreted this nickname to mean “the son of consolation”. This is a similar act to the renaming of Cephas to Peter: his name was to encompass his personality and purpose. Barnabas actually means ‘son of Nabas (prophecy),’ and prophecy means to ‘forth tell, bubble over, or have confidence’. Acts 11:24 says, “he was full of the Holy Spirit,” and Acts 13:1 tells us that he was a prophet. So not only did he have a solid grounding in the Word of God as a prophet, he also ‘bubbled over’ with enthusiasm for the things of God. Added to this is the word ‘consolation,’ which to the apostles was the definitive element of Barnabas’ personality. In the Greek the word is ‘paraklesis,’ which means ‘to come alongside, to give exhortation, comfort or instruction,’ and is often used in the context of assisting someone who is fearful, agitated or troubled. The same word is used in Philippians 2:1: “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies.” When we put all these nuances together we have a clearer picture of who Barnabas was: he was “the increaser ( Joseph) of encouragement and comfort”. Whenever he appears in the record, this is the predominant activity. He was:
- Encouraging the new ecclesia in acts of generosity (Acts 4)
- Encouraging a new brother despite his reputation (Acts 9)
- Encouraging new direction and growth in the Antioch Ecclesia (Act 11)
- Encouraging new converts through mission work (Act 13, 14)
- Encouraging a young brother who initially defaulted on the work (Act 15)
So in whatever circumstances Barnabas found himself, he would always be attempting to encourage and provide consolation to others. Proverbs 12:25 says, “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.” Is this something we need to develop in our lives? What would be your ‘nickname’ in the Truth? Brother Faithful or Sister Consistent? Is there something you are well known for? Is it positive, helpful and constructive?
The opening introductory record also reveals that Barnabas was a Levite. Under the Law of Moses he therefore had an entitlement to receive tithes and financial support in his work for God. But here was a Levite who was not receiving but giving! He is an outstanding contrast to Judas Iscariot. As the record in Acts 1:18 says, “this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity,” whereas of Barnabas it is said that he,“having land, sold it.” The critical factor is that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). This is a behind-the-scenes activity that emulates the Barnabas spirit and challenges us as to our level of support and activity in the Truth.
Forgiveness – a true friend
Barnabas then disappears from the narrative for about four years and his next appearance is associated with the re-introduction of Saul into the ecclesia at Jerusalem. It was obviously a difficult situation for Saul to gain acceptance by the brothers and sisters that had earlier been the brunt of his ferocity. Saul had “made havoc” of the ecclesia, broken up families, imprisoned members and voiced consent to their deaths. Acts 9:26 indicates that he left Damascus three years after his conversion and attempted to join the disciples in Jerusalem. There would have been anxiety and suspicion as he re-emerged from isolation, for perhaps the ecclesia had grown comfortable over time with the rumours that he had disappeared into Arabia. News from the Damascus Ecclesia that he was a member there possibly filtered through, and the Jerusalem Ecclesia may have been comfortable with that while he was isolated in that region. The record says, “but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him…” (Acts 9:26–27). Weymouth says, “Barnabas came to his assistance.”
Imagine for a moment if Barnabas (and it appears as though he alone initiated this action) had not stepped into the breach to seek a resolution. Saul could have felt totally rejected and disconsolate as the ecclesia refused to accept him, some perhaps muttering that he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Or perhaps the Damascus Ecclesia where Saul had worked vigorously for the previous three years was offended with how the Jerusalem Ecclesia treated Paul, and disputed with them, creating an inter-ecclesial fellowship issue! For ourselves, originating out of a Gentile environment, we owe a great debt to the incredible courage of Barnabas, who smoothed over the situation so that the “apostle of the Gentiles” was able to continue his work.
What is quite unusual is that up to this point in the divine record, no verbal statements of “the great encourager,” the “son of consolation,” are recorded! While he obviously would have engaged in considerable discussion, his actual words or statements are not recorded. This tells us that Barnabas was not just a man of words. He didn’t just spend his life verbalising; he was at the grass roots level of practicality. When he put his arm around Saul, it wasn’t just with smooth talking or eloquent platitudes; he took him to the disciples and stood up in his defence by declaring what God had done through Saul. That takes courage. That takes perception. That illustrates a proper and generous understanding and embracing of forgiveness that takes our breath away! We don’t know the confession and conversation that occurred between Barnabas and Saul; it was rightly private, but the outcome was a restoration. Do we have that same generosity of forgiveness when it comes to repairing, restoring and encouraging brothers and sisters who have had a diffcult past? Do we have the courage to engage with them, embrace them and bring them back to the fold? It requires the courage and yet the gentleness of a Barnabas spirit.
Saul is sent to Tarsus
With a cursory reading of this incident, we may have imagined that Saul was a ‘hot potato’ and while he was accepted into fellowship the brothers found his past too overwhelming and simply handballed him on. Not so! In fact the ecclesia moved swiftly to protect Saul from external death threats, and that meant sending him overseas. If we read the record accurately it says, “he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him. Which when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus” (Acts 9:29–30). Notice that the term used here is not ‘apostles’ or ‘ecclesia’ but “when the brethren knew about it”. What a lovely spirit is manifested here. So it was not that the ecclesia was refusing to accept Saul, or trying to get rid of him – rather, the brethren were moving to protect him from harm.
Lessons for us
There are four points we can draw from this incident:
1. Be a welcoming brother or sister
2. Be protective of those who have diffcult issues
3. Be patient with their development
4. Believe in the future potential they may have
In our ecclesial environments we need to show the Barnabas spirit by being welcoming to new members rather than hindering them with suspicion. Romans 15:7 says,“Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God.” Obviously, we need to follow standard procedures and inform new members of our ecclesial expectations regarding belief and behaviour. But we should also have a generous spirit and an accepting heart that allows them a new start, a new beginning and a new spiritual environment in which to grow and flourish. Barnabas welcomed the fact that even a Pharisee of the Pharisees could be converted to the Truth, and later his perception was proved true through the wonderful work Saul performed in the extension of the gospel to the Gentiles.
Be protective of others without being sceptical or suspicious. Colossians 3:13 says, “Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.” Barnabas considered the evidence, recognised this was a work of God and built a relationship with Saul that would last a lifetime. We need to show friendship to each other, forget past errors and absorb historical mistakes, even though there may be some risk in doing so. Barnabas was putting his reputation on the line for another brother and there are times we may be called upon to do the same.
Similarly, we cannot expect immediate and radical change; it sometimes takes time. Saul disappeared to Tarsus for 10 years before Barnabas later fetched him and invited him to help at the Antioch ecclesia: “The servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves” (2 Tim 2:24–25).
Finally, we need to see the potential, not the problems. Barnabas did not discard Saul’s contributton to preaching and teaching, but noted the incredible potential he had and used it. We need to have the vision, foresight and perception to develop the latent talents others have for service in the Truth. 2 Thessalonians 1:3 says, “We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of every one of you all toward each other abounds.”
May we have the fortitude and maturity to develop the ‘Barnabas spirit’ by becoming brothers and sisters of ‘encouragement’ and ‘consolation’.