The journey continues

Having experienced the shocking physical violence of the mob at Lystra, Barnabas would have tended to Paul’s wounds and bruises and comforted him with words of consola­tion and support as together they faced this fright­ening level of violence. Quite incredibly, the very next day (Acts 14:20), they departed together, not to return to the safety and comfort of their home ecclesia but to continue preaching the Gospel in this harsh environment. Such a response provides an insight into the stamina and determination of both Paul and Barnabas as they trudged on to Derbe.

Having reached the next town, God’s bless­ing abounded and there were more converts to the Truth. With Paul’s visible head wounds, welts and dark bruises, it must have been an inspiring conversation to convince others to endure afflic­tions for the sake of the kingdom! Additionally, how tempting it would have been for them both to continue forward to their home ecclesia at Antioch in Syria. In fact, even Paul’s hometown of Tarsus was just a few days’ walk from Derbe by way of the famous Cilician Gates. Although these options may have been tempting, incredibly they both turned back, retracing their original steps and revisiting the newly established ecclesias. Barnabas the ‘son of encouragement and consolation’ knew the importance of follow-up work and seeking out those who were struggling. He had done this for the Apostle Paul previously, by searching him out to help build the Antioch ecclesia and now they both returned to seek out the brothers and sisters that needed further reassurance. They “encouraged them to remain true to the faith” (v22 NIV). The word “encouraged” (“exhorted” KJV) is parakaleo, the same word as used back in Acts 4:36 to describe Barnabas – his nickname was “the encourager!” That wonderful positivity is also used in Acts 11:22-23: “and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch. Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord”. His example of helping Paul and return­ing to encourage brothers and sisters is a vital work we can all perform. It’s this word of encouragement that can inspire, motivate, comfort, enthuse and arouse those we love when they are finding the way difficult. As Jude wrote: “But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude v20-21).

The difficulty of living the truth

Paul and Barnabas did not gilt edge the difficulty of living the Truth or cover over the stresses others would have to endure but they were honest and empathetic with these newly formed ecclesias. It was an exhortation that was given in the context of the previous few days, when Paul had been stoned and left for dead. How sad it is to hear stories of brothers and sisters giving up because it has all become too hard. We know the journey is not without its difficulties but we also know that in those experiences God is with us, as Isaiah 63:9 reminds us: “In all their affliction he was afflicted … in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old”. If God felt that affliction and empathised with the struggles of faithless Israel for forty years through the wilderness, how much more will the Angel of His presence be with us!

Paul and Barnabas provided sound, practical advice to the believers and in Acts 14:22 they urged them to:

  1. “Continue in the faith” to stand fast and persevere. How often when the pressure gets too intense is it tempting to uproot and move elsewhere to somewhere more ‘comfortable’!
  2. Be willing to cope with trial and tribulation.
  1. Focus on seeking to “enter into the kingdom of God”.

They didn’t criticise or belittle the new converts or suggest they had failed or did not have the ca­pacity to maintain their faith. Instead, they warned and strengthened them to resist the hardships that were to come and one of the helpful procedures they instigated was to provide a structure and form a framework of strength in the midst of tribulation. They did this by ordaining elders in every ecclesia (v23) to assist in the appropriate handling of any issues that could arise.

Heading back home

Having completed their journey, they travelled by ship to Antioch in Syria. It would appear they had been away for about a year so we can imagine the excitement and interest of the Antioch Ecclesia upon their return. There was a special fraternal gathering arranged, during which the brothers and sisters were updated on the work performed. As Paul and Barnabas shared their experiences, the ecclesia became exhilarated at the clear evidence that God was working among the Gentiles so ef­fectively and what had begun in Antioch was now being extended to the far off regions of Galatia. Notice how humble these two great missionaries were in the way they delivered their report. There are three significant phrases in Acts 14:26-27: (1) “the grace of God”; (2) “all that God had done”; (3) “how he (God) had opened the door of faith”. Notice that there are no self congratulatory com­ments about their own accomplishments; to them it was a privilege to be involved in this serving work that God had blessed.

Throughout the journey, Barnabas was seen in the role he performed best – a supportive fellow-servant. He wasn’t always in the limelight – and didn’t want to be. Paul may have been the chief speaker but Barnabas was always standing alongside him, adding to the powerful message of hope – he never faded away into the shadows. While it could have been more efficient for them to go in differ­ent directions as individuals and progress through the region more quickly, they didn’t separate. Paul, perhaps, could have done Antioch, while Barnabas moved on to Iconium etc. No, they needed each other for cooperative moral support and joined in mutual prayer, seeking the Father’s blessing. They were following the pattern designed by our Lord in Luke 10, when he sent out the 70. It was a joint work, not a separate work, for the Spirit had dictated that it was both “Barnabas and Saul, who are to be selected for the work whereunto I have called them” and, undoubtedly, without Barnabas, Paul would never have accomplished what he did.

This prompts some personal reflection:

  • In a difficult environment, do we work together as a team – or discourage others by our detach­ment and indifference?
  • Are we passive observers or participating sup­porters?
  • How do we feel and what do we do when others suffer because of the Truth?
  • Do we have a persistent spirit that illustrates our grit and determination for God?
  • Are we prepared to endure difficult times through an understanding that tribulation is part of God’s process?
  • Do we give glory to God and see the benefit of tough times in our lives?

Further difficulties

Some two years later the “joy” they had experi­enced was being diluted by the intrusion of “certain men” and their mega-emphasis on “law”. Notice in the record of Acts 15:1 that Luke does not describe them as “brethren”, although, significantly, this chapter contains more references to “brethren” than any other in the whole of the New Testament! It is a worthwhile colouring exercise of this word in verses 1, 3, 7, 13, 22, 23, 32, 33, 36, 40.

At the heart of these difficulties was the issue of Gentile and Jewish fellowship, which was rap­idly becoming a source of conflict and disunity. As with many ecclesial disturbances, bullying tactics and inappropriate behaviour were evident. Luke records, “certain men came down from Judea”. Geographically, coming from Judea you would ‘go up’, but there appears to be an attitude of distain, in which travelling to the Antioch ecclesia would be considered ‘going down’! Not only that, but, apparently, these knowledgeable men “taught the brethren”. This elite group felt that Antioch was deficient in education despite the numerous “prophets and teachers” recorded in Acts 13:1 and the spirit’s determination to specially select Paul and Barnabas for teaching work! Their insistence that, unless believers were circumcised and kept the Law of Moses they could not be saved (Acts 15: 1,5), was met with strong opposition by both Paul and Barnabas. The record notes the intensity of the confrontation with the phrase, “no small dissention and disputation” (v2). The words describe a serious controversy or “uproar” (used in Acts 19:40 of the gathering in the Ephesian amphitheatre)! Barnabas was in the thick of this confrontation, resisting and refuting their contention and showing its weakness by good reasoning. The point is, Barnabas had an in-depth knowledge of God’s Word and an excep­tional ability to reason it out, and stood alongside Paul. We often imagine that encouragement and argumentation are mutually exclusive – not so! Barnabas was encouraging and compassionate but held firm to an accurate view of the Truth. He did not water the fundamentals down for the sake of a pseudo-peace. He had matured from the time of Galatians 2 when he was emotionally “carried away” with much “dissimulation” (v13). He was now prepared to vigorously promote the scriptural position and hold back this formidable attack on the “liberty … in Christ” .