“For he was a good man, and he was filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith” Acts 11:24.

In our last article, we introduced Barnabas and his generosity of spirit in supporting the poor and in reintroducing Saul into the Jerusalem ecclesia. Another ten years have now passed without any details of his activities, but, significantly, the next glimpse we have of him is his appointment by the apostles to assist in bridging the gap between two different ecclesias and cultures. Again, this incident is a witness to the ‘Barnabas spirit’ of reconciliation and repair.

The background to this event is contained in Acts 11, where it records that as a result of “the persecution that arose about Stephen,” believers fled from Jerusalem and settled in other regions, preaching “unto the Jews only” (v19). However, some from Cyprus (the homeland of Barnabas) and Cyrene extended their preaching “to the Grecians” (v20). Often this term refers to Hellenistic Jews who spoke Greek and lived a more relaxed lifestyle than the zealous orthodox Jews. Because of this, they had their own synagogues (Acts 6:9) and generally did not congregate with the more exclusive Hebrew-speaking Jews. However, in this reference it relates not just to Hellenistic Jews but more particularly to the Gentiles. The Alexandrian manuscript has “Greeks” and so relates to Gentiles, with other manuscripts having the word “also,” implying a contrast. The phrase in verse 19, “preaching the word to none but the Jews only,” highlights the contrast in the next verse and connects it to verse 18 in relation to the baptism of Cornelius and the extension of God’s invitation: “then hath God also granted repentance to the Gentiles.”

A new ecclesia

And so another ecclesia was formed with a growing membership of “Gentiles”. This appeared to initiate some consternation in the Jerusalem Ecclesia and they felt compelled to send a delegate to consolidate and guide the fast growing ecclesia. It is significant that of all the qualified brethren that could have been chosen, including perhaps one of the apostles, when the final decision was made, Barnabas was selected. Perhaps because “he was a Levite” (Acts 4:36) and was solidly grounded in the principles of the Law of Moses, and yet at the same time he was balanced and recognised the “grace of God”. So Barnabas was instructed to go “as far as Antioch” (v22). Inherent in that phrase is the concept of uncharted territory, as this was the furthest extent, on the fringe of the then known ecclesial world! With the growing scepticism from some elements within the Jerusalem Ecclesia, a careful choice had to be made of someone who was balanced without being overly restrictive and legalistic. Barnabas had a proven track record that he was the man with the right qualifications:

1. He had a reputation for careful discernment and integrity

2. He had the respect of the Apostles, elders and ecclesia

3. As a Levite he had a deep knowledge of the Law of Moses

4. He was from Cyprus – the brethren that started the work in Antioch were fellow countrymen “from Cyprus” (v19–20), so he would get on well with them.

5. He was “the encourager,” so there would be a positive edge to his visit.

He encouraged a love of the truth and the brotherhood

He was selected not just to investigate but more importantly to “encourage” (v18, 23) and we note that upon arriving his first response was that “he was glad”. This emphasizes the embracing spirit of Barnabas and shows that there was no envy, jealousy or resentment at the rapid expansion of this ecclesia. Rather, he was encouraged to see the power of God transforming people’s lives. He “saw the grace of God” in their joyful service and observed their appreciation of truth. He did not criticize the new work or highlight the problems, nor was there an intensive focus on the depth of their technical knowledge but rather, as a Levite, he saw beyond law to grace! When he witnessed their enthusiastic spirit, he “exhorted (paraklesis) them all” (v23). Here is his nickname again: “the son of encouragement (paraklesis)” as he called them to his side and commended them to continue “with purpose of heart”. He helped them to focus beyond the ash of emotion to a steadfastness of faith and hope in that they should “cleave to the Lord”. For Barnabas, the Truth was not only growing in knowledge but also developing it relationally.

This is perhaps something on which we need to reflect. We tend at our meetings to analyze and evaluate a speaker’s talk on a technical level and then go home and forget all about it on a practical level. Rather, we should follow the Barnabas spirit by trying to build on what the speaker has said, through group and personal discussion, as is seen in the following quotations:

Acts 14:22 “Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.”

1 Thessalonians 4:1 “Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more.”

Hebrews 10:25 “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”

He was a good man

The divine summary contains three notable qualities of Barnabas as he worked with the Antioch Ecclesia (Acts 11:24). “He was a good man.” It does not say that he was a man of distinguished talents or learning, nor an imposing teacher, but simply a kind man with a benevolent disposition. There is encouragement for all of us in that summary! “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth that which is good … for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Interestingly, the only other reference in the New Testament to “a good man” (other than Jesus) is in connection with another Joseph – of Arimathaea. In Luke 23:50 “he was a good man, and a just,” and similarly prepared to give up his wealth and position in order to follow Christ.

Barnabas was also “full of the Holy Spirit and of faith”. What does this mean? How can a person be “full of the Holy Spirit”? Does this mean he could do lots of miracles? No; the phrase relates particularly to prophetic utterance, a recall of Scripture and an enthusiastic witnessing to the Truth. Uniquely, this combination of being “full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” is only used of two men, Barnabas and Stephen. Acts 6:5 and 8 say, “they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit … and Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people”. All brothers and sisters must have the primary element of faith, but this combination implies a unique spirit-motivated faith with a strong vision of the future enabling them to stand firm in their beliefs, resist adversity and effectively communicate that vision to others.

Barnabas seeks additional help

The result of Barnabas’ sensitive evaluation was that “considerable numbers were added to the Lord”. Significantly, the name “Joseph” means “increaser” and carries the idea of God’s blessing and enlargement. In view of the increase, Joseph Barnabas recognised the potential of the area and the need for capable brethren to assist. Immediately he thought of a brother who had disappeared from the ecclesial scene and Bible narrative for almost 10 years: Saul of Tarsus! Straightway he went searching for him, as verse 25 says, “then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul”. There are a number of reasons why Barnabas would seek such an ‘outcast’ to assist him:

Barnabas was not a proud man. He needed help and was big enough to accept he had his limits! He saw the remarkable explosion of interest in Christ and his abrupt action in seeking Saul was to satisfy a need, to nurture and to give guidance to the spectacular increase in Antioch.

He would have considered a number of brethren, but in the end, Saul of Tarsus was the right brother for the job, even though he perhaps had not seen him for some time. Saul had the right qualifications: he was a Jew who understood Greek culture, and he had an intellectual brilliance when it came to explaining the Scriptures and a passion for preaching openly to the Gentiles, while respecting the Jewish protocols.

Saul, as an apostle, had the ability to impart the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which would have been needful and beneficial to this multicultural ecclesia.

Barnabas’ actions confirm the biblical concept of forgiveness and Barnabas was big on reconciliation. The ecclesia in Antioch had sprung up because brothers and sisters had been scattered by Saul (v19). He had ripped up families, confiscated property and violently confronted individuals: so here was an opportunity to repair some of the damage he had caused!

Paul had been commissioned by Christ to “bear my name before the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15) and Barnabas knew that.

Barnabas’ humility

Barnabas’ overriding concerns were for the needs of brothers and sisters and the success of the gospel message, not his personal prominence, and we see in his action a beautiful, self-deprecating spirit of humility. He knew of Saul’s skill in debate and his incredible grasp of Scripture that might have well overshadowed his own and this could have meant taking a step back and allowing Saul to come to the fore; but Barnabas was not worried about that. In our own times, there have been some outstanding examples of sacrifice where brethren have left their home country to serve an ecclesia, or do mission work, or step down from a position because there was a more capable brother. The result of the Barnabas/Saul combination was that “for a whole year they assembled themselves with the ecclesia, and taught much people” (Acts 11:26). Together they organised the teaching of new converts, grounding them in sound doctrine. Together their labours led to growth and progress so that “the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch”(v26). They were not called Nazarenes, Galileans or people of “that way;” they were called “Christ-followers” because it was evident in their way of life. Barnabas, with Saul, had taught them how to preach the Truth practically through their day-to-day lives.

The record shows the ‘Barnabas spirit’ was becoming part of Antioch’s ecclesial atmosphere because verse 29 says, “the disciples … determined to send relief unto their brethren in Judea”. This gesture was not commanded by Barnabas but it was the outcome of his activity among them in which he helped bridge the gap between Jerusalem and Antioch to such an extent that they truly became of “one heart and of one soul” (v32). The brothers and sisters in Antioch were true “Christians” because they demonstrated their love through their deeds: “Whoever has this world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:17–18, NASB).

The journey back to Jerusalem

So the Antioch Ecclesia responded: they determined to provide relief “and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:30). They did not just talk about it; the record says they did it. How often do we determine and make a mental note but never actually get around to doing it! As Barnabas took the contribution back to Jerusalem, he was not only binding both ecclesias together but (more importantly) he was again attempting to reconnect Saul with the Jerusalem Ecclesia after a break of ten years! Imagine the journey back, the knock on the door and, after a decade of self imposed isolation and a year’s hard labour in Antioch, the brother who caused so much havoc stood there with Barnabas and a bag of money from Gentiles to help the Jewish brothers and sisters in their time of need. What a remarkable work by Barnabas in rebuilding relationships!

Significantly, the terrible and unexpected execution of the Apostle James occurred while they were in Jerusalem. Acts 12:1 introduces us to this situation and verse 25 in particular confirms they were there at the time. This is an important context because Paul was now experiencing a dramatic role reversal! Some years before, he had been the protagonist but now he was with the brothers and sisters, feeling the brunt of persecution. It would appear they were receiving hospitality from Barnabas’ sister, Mary (v12). Her son was John Mark, whom they took back to Antioch with them (v25).

Even Barnabas was carried away

Acts 11:30 provides the connection to Galatians 2:1 prior to the Jerusalem Conference. In Galatians 2:9 Paul notes that he and Barnabas received the “right hands of fellowship” as a public declaration of support and appreciation, showing harmony between the Jerusalem and Antioch Ecclesias. However, verse 11 notes that when Peter visited Antioch, some fragmentation occurred and Paul “withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.” The situation was fraught with tension and confrontation. Barnabas found the situation so difficult that he stepped aside from Paul, who comments in shock, “Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation [hypocrisy]”. The little word “also” shows in what great esteem and respect Paul held Barnabas. One writer comments,“The defection of Barnabas was of a far more serious nature with regard to Gentile freedom than the vacillation of Peter: Barnabas, the foremost champion of Gentile liberty next to Paul, had become a turncoat”. The Judaists previously had been deeply concerned that that Law of Moses had been bypassed and the great traditions of circumcision and the Sabbath were being abandoned and ignored. It appears that Barnabas was affected by the emotive appeal of the Judaists and perhaps his own connection to the Law as a Levite.

Perhaps it is something of a comfort in our own problems to know that, for a time, two great friends were not in the same ‘fellowship’! Galatians 2:14 says, “I said unto Peter before them all”: on the other side, facing Paul, was Barnabas, his long-standing friend, who went and brought Paul from Tarsus to help in the establishment of the Antioch Ecclesia. How his heart must have wrenched as he felt some responsibility for this inflammation. Perhaps he felt there was a need to maintain links with Jerusalem and avoid a rift in the brotherhood so to prevent a split he ‘crossed the line’. Perhaps he was hoping to temporarily ‘go along with’ the Judaistic party as an interim measure to support the authority of Jerusalem with Peter and James until he could find an opportunity to meet with them and define an appropriate direction. Later, we see in Acts 15 a remarkable change of direction as Barnabas headed back to Jerusalem with Paul to confront the Judaistic element and refute the need for circumcision.

Barnabas was his own man

What emerges from this difficult circumstance, though, is a further insight into the character of Barnabas. For all his support and loyalty to Paul, he was his own man and would make his own decisions. He was not a puppet or a pawn in the hands of others. Later we will see him stand once more against the great Apostle Paul in the situation of John Mark and this further illustrates that he was not just Paul’s shadow.

In this current situation, Barnabas came to recognize that Paul’s principles were right. He was big enough to realise he had made a mistake and he reconciled with Paul. In that action, he shows a depth of maturity, wisdom and humility. In a similar way, we need to see beyond our momentary lapses of judgment and try to restore and repair relationships, whether in our marriages or ecclesially, and certainly with our God. Barnabas shows us the importance of having a courage to stand up for our convictions rather than just to ‘go with the flow,’ and if there are areas in which we have been at fault, we need to deal with our mistakes and not let them overwhelm us. We need to recover and repair: that is the Barnabas spirit.