Throughout the biblical book of Acts, there is a man named Barnabas.
He is best known as a missionary who worked with his more famous partner, the Apostle Paul. These two men played a major role in taking the good news of who Jesus was and what he had done across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. They made an excellent team until a disagreement about who they would take with them on a forthcoming missionary endeavor caused them to part ways.
People within the church are generally aware of the story of the split, but what is often missed is that what caused the split also is what brought Paul into the picture in the first place.
Paul was not a good man before he decided to follow Jesus. He was an ambitious, up-and-coming leader in Jerusalem and he hated Christians. He hated them so much that he requested and received special letters giving him permission to arrest and extradite Christians from other places back to Jerusalem, where they would be placed in prison and prosecuted.
His hatred ran so deep and so hot that on at least one occasion, he acted as the overseer of an angry mob that murdered a man named Stephen, a leader of a church in that region.
Following a spiritual experience while hunting Christians, Paul had a change of heart and became a Christian himself. It was great news for the church. The problem was people struggled to believe it was true. As a result of Paul’s past, he was unwelcome and unwanted.
The killing of Stephen sparked a wave of violence and persecution against the church. In an amazing twist of irony, rather than stopping the church dead in its tracks, it caused it to grow. Barnabas was sent to check it out and to encourage the new Christians in their faith.
The author of Acts doesn’t tell us why, but at some point, while encouraging these Christians, Barnabas headed off to find Paul. He went and retrieved him from his hometown and back with him to help encourage those who have been hurt by the persecution that Paul’s actions had set into motion.
When everyone else had run from Paul, Barnabas ran to him. When everyone else saw Paul as a dangerous liability, Barnabas saw him as a valuable asset. When everyone else was content to push Paul to the margins, Barnabas brought him into the center of the community.
It ended up being a hugely successful move, as Paul ended up writing most of the New Testament and was the driving missionary force of the first century.
I think Barnabas’ decision had as much to do with who he was as it did what he saw in Paul. The first time we read about Barnabas is actually back in Acts 4:36-37. It reads, “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means ‘Son of Encouragement’), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”
It turns out Barnabas was an earned nickname given to him by the leaders of the early church. He is so defined by his grace and compassion that he’s called Encourager. He is a person who is willing to give of his belongings, to risk his reputation and safety and to go out of his way to care for and include those in need.
And this is what causes the split. Barnabas wants to give a second chance to a young man that Paul doesn’t trust, so they head their separate ways. The same grace that caused Barnabas to bring Paul causes Paul to push Barnabas away.
We could use a few daughters and sons of encouragement today. We could use some women and men who are willing to give of themselves in order to bring healing, wholeness and restoration to those who are lonely, broken and pushed aside.
This is the very model that Jesus set for his followers through his life and death. He came to bring hope to the hopeless and love to the loveless. He came to call sinners and saints alike to repentance and into right relationship with both God and humanity. That is an encouraging prospect. Barnabas understood that full well. Do we?
The Rev. Jeremy Myers is the lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Seymour. Read his blog at jeremysmyers.com. Send comments to [email protected].