Stick With Encouragement

| Acts 9:26-28; 11:21-26

The Point:  Encouragement strengthens relationships.

Barnabas, the Encourager:  Acts 9:26-28.

[26]  And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. [27]  But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. [28]  So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord.  [ESV]

“What in the world were they saying in Jerusalem about the conversion of Saul? News surely reached there within a few days after the event. No doubt the Jews were alarmed and angry, while the Jewish Christians were deeply suspicious of its genuineness, fearing some elaborate plot. The members of the community of faith in Jerusalem were not about to throw wide their homes and ask Paul to dinner! The news that he had returned, professing to have been converted, must surely have been an astonishing event no matter which way it was perceived. Luke describes Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem in verses 26-28. If Ananias played a significant role in Damascus, introducing Saul to a suspicious and terrified Christian community, then in Jerusalem it was another individual who played this role in a setting even more suspicious, given the Christians’ previous encounter with Saul. His name was Barnabas. When Saul’s former friends disowned him, Barnabas stepped in to ensure Saul’s reception into the Christian community in Jerusalem [27]. Barnabas appears on the pages of Scripture as a genuinely good man [11:24]. The apostles called him ‘Barnabas’ because of what the name means: son of encouragement. We first met him at the end of Acts 4, where he was seen donating proceeds from the sale of a field he owned to the apostles for use in poor relief [4:36]. Later, when the gospel began to be embraced enthusiastically by Gentiles in the city of Antioch, the folks in Jerusalem thought it wise to send a representative up north to scrutinize what was going on. That they would entrust this to Barnabas tells us much of their trust in him at a crucial stage in the church’s infancy. His enthusiasm for those of Cyprus and Cyrene who had embraced the gospel, despite things that might have upset others, showed his wisdom: ensuring that the church in Antioch would not be discouraged by overbearing manhandling from Jerusalem [11:22-30]. Barnabas would settle in Antioch and nourish this community until the Holy Spirit set him and Saul apart for what would be the first missionary journey [13:1ff.]. Wherever he saw a destitute soul needing encouragement, Barnabas was there to give a helping hand. His advocacy of the newly converted Saul in Jerusalem was entirely in character.”  [Thomas, pp. 264-267].

The Church in Antioch:  Acts 11:21-26.

[21]  And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. [22]  The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. [23]  When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, [24]  for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. [25]  So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, [26]  and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.  [ESV]

“Here, Luke provides a “bridging passage” between what had gone before and what lies ahead. It is one of those literary devices that help the reader catch up on the story line. We are taken to Antioch, one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire (after Rome, Ephesus, and Alexandria), with a population estimated in the neighborhood of half a million. Antioch was headquarters to Rome’s Syrian legion. The city lay inland, but within a few miles was the port city of Seleucia, gateway to the Mediterranean. Of importance to Luke’s description was the fact that Antioch had a large Jewish population, and following the persecution that arose in Jerusalem at the time of the death of Stephen, many believers fled to Antioch [11:19]. Mention of Stephen’s death had taken us back to Acts 6 and 7. Another figure who now came to the surface was Barnabas, mentioned in Acts 4:36 and 9:27. His real name was Joseph, but he was given this nickname “Barnabas” because it meant “son of encouragement” [4:36]. Of all the figures to send up to Antioch to investigate what had been taking place, it would be difficult to imagine a better man than Barnabas. Had they sent someone of more native prejudice, of less natural enthusiasm or warmth of personality, the story of the church would have been different. But there was a third person, in addition to Stephen and Barnabas. It was Saul of Tarsus, whose violent opposition and subsequent conversion had been told at length in chapters 8 and 9. The last we heard of Saul, he had escaped over a Damascus wall in a basket and made his way to Jerusalem, where his life was once more in danger. He had been taken to Caesarea and then sent off to his native town of Tarsus. Nothing had been heard of Saul since (possibly for ten years), and Luke was setting the stage for his reappearance. Thus the stage was set: men and women who had left Jerusalem following the persecution surrounding Stephen’s death made their way to Antioch (as well as Phoenicia and Cyprus), but spoke the gospel only to fellow Jews. But others, believers from the dispersion (Cyprus and Cyrene), spoke to Gentiles also, signaling a massive change in thinking and perspective. As a result, the church in Antioch was now made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers, a distinction that may not have been wholly apparent to the casual eyewitness. Thus, the church in Jerusalem (which always had a tendency to conservatism) sent Barnabas to investigate [11:21-24]. Three matters emerge from Luke’s description, beginning with his statement that God’s hand was with the church. (1) The Hand of God. Before Barnabas was sent to Antioch, Luke adds his own interpretation of what had happened. The hand of the Lord, was upon the scattered Christians who had left Jerusalem, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord [21]. It might surprise us to learn that the expression the hand of the Lord is a rare one on the pages of the New Testament. It is common enough in the Old Testament, but Luke is the only writer who employs it in the New Testament. The hand of God signals the invisible God making His power and might visible and tangible. As a result of God’s hand, there could be no doubt that His mighty power was with the church in Antioch. Thus, the church in Antioch grew. Despite the problems that normally ensued in relationships between Jews and Gentiles, when God is present in the power of the Holy Spirit, no ethnic or social barrier can disrupt His work. An important theological signal is given to us in the way in which Luke records what occurred: God’s hand was with them as the men from Cyprus and Cyrene spoke to the Hellenists [11:20-21]. God blessed their efforts. The blessing was not something that occurred apart from their evangelistic zeal, but in and through their ministry. Here is a proof that God’s sovereign grace must never be pitted against zeal in Christian mission. Faithful evangelism, speaking the truths that constitute the gospel, was what these men did in Antioch, and God blessed their efforts by adding to the church. Luke is showing us what can happen when people faithfully engage in evangelism in a prayerful manner. God may attend with His blessing and draw men and women to Himself. Unless this work is committed to the Lord in prayer, looking for His blessing, it will all be in vain. The task before us is as urgent and necessary as it was in the time of the apostles: a dying world is moving at breakneck speed to a lost eternity, and we have in our grasp the solution to their plight. God could save without our efforts, but He has commanded us to evangelize and will hence sovereignly gather them in through our efforts. (2) Barnabas: the Encourager. News of the growth of the church in Antioch caused some concern in Jerusalem [21]. It was the number of Gentiles that caused the most concern. Concern, however, can quickly revert to control, and it has been a feature of ecclesiastical polity that in addition to a laudable desire to obey the Great Commission, there can often appear a less attractive compulsion to control. Oversight can quickly become a matter of stifling initiative and destroying zeal. To those who have recently discovered the grace of God, it can often appear negative and discouraging. The motivation to control is understandable, of course. After all, the church has a responsibility to ensure that the faith and practice be kept pure. Some form of “connectionalism” between the church in Jerusalem and the church in Antioch was evident by this concern. At the very least, the church in Jerusalem did not see itself as wholly independent from the believers in Antioch. It is a matter of greater significance and more daring initiative than we might initially think that the church in Jerusalem chose Barnabas as its investigative agent [22]. No more encouraging ambassador could have been chosen than Joseph – the man whose nickname, “Barnabas,” meant “son of encouragement.” Barnabas was a man whose life bore visible fruit. Luke described it this way: for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith [24]. Luke knew Barnabas and accompanied him on several missionary tours. He had witnessed firsthand his godliness and friendly disposition. It seems that Luke was saying that Barnabas was glad at what he saw because of his godly character. This was the kind of man he was. He was utterly genuine and sincere and he loved the Lord with all his heart. Barnabas’ response to the grace of God evident in Antioch made him glad, and he encouraged the Christian community at Antioch to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose [23]. In addition to encouraging the brothers in Antioch, Barnabas did something that no one else might have done. He went to Tarsus in search of Saul. This initiative would change the shape of world history. Barnabas saw an opportunity for the gospel in what had happened to Saul, and someone needed to find him and encourage him to that end. It was time to lay aside understandable prejudices resulting from the death of Stephen and others and see in Saul’s conversion the mighty hand of God. He saw the best in people rather than the worst. We need to pause and consider the cost of Barnabas’ initiative to himself. From this point forward, Barnabas will retreat into the background as Saul grows and outshines his partner. Soon it will no longer be “Barnabas and Saul” [Acts 11:30; 12:25; 13:20], but “Paul and Barnabas” [Acts 13:43,46,50]. The light will shine on Paul rather than Barnabas, a point that is all the more significant in the passage before us as we discover that it is Barnabas’ own decision to seek out Saul of Tarsus. The search for Saul reveals something extraordinary about Barnabas. He discerned that the church was in need of gifts that he did not himself possess. He was willing to publicly admit that his own gifting was inadequate for the task ahead. What Barnabas knew of Paul in the decade that passed since his previous visit to Jerusalem we can only guess. It is possible that news of him had filtered through. But Barnabas made the bold and self-deprecating decision that the church needed someone other than himself to take it forward, even if this would cost him the limelight. It says a great deal about Barnabas’ humility. He put the needs of the church before his own advancement and self-glorification. He played the role of a servant even when that role pushed him back into the shadows. It was the mark of a true servant of God. It revealed both great wisdom and great humility at the same time. Are you willing to do what Barnabas did: take the lowly road where there is little of the limelight, content that you are doing it for Jesus? (3) Christians. Barnabas evidently found Paul and brought him back to Antioch. And what then? Now that Paul had arrived and there were evident signs of blessing in the church, would it not make sense to “strike while the iron was hot” and launch out into the surrounding neighborhoods with an evangelistic mission? This might well be what we would expect, but it is not what occurred. For a year, Barnabas and Paul met with the church and taught a great many people [26]. The church was saturated with the truth. Truth matters. Doctrine is important. God’s people need instruction in the faith. It was in the wake of this teaching that believers were first called Christians. The truth affected them in such a way that their lives portrayed the doctrines they espoused. They not only talked about Christ, but also resembled Him in their actions. It was evident to all that they belonged to Christ. The term Christian was initially used to distinguish believers not from non-Christians, but from Jews and Gentiles. Up until this moment, everyone belonged to one or the other grouping. What was so distinctive in Antioch is that a third way emerged – someone who was neither a Jew nor a Gentile, but a Christian. What emerged in Antioch, a pagan Roman city, was a community in which Christian values and zeal were so palpable that unbelievers could see it, even if they derided them for it. Such an environment sifted the wheat from the chaff. Only true Christianity could survive in such an environment. Sooner or later, nominal Christianity will accommodate itself to the pagan culture; it will adopt its values and conform to its levels of acceptability. What showed itself in Antioch was something entirely countercultural. In such an environment, there is no mistaking the true church. When its members are truly committed to Christ, the result is something that shines brightly. It may prove costly to shine for Jesus in a godless society, but in doing so we become the beacons of hope for a dying world. Nor should we underestimate the way such a light can be a draw for those whose lives are engulfed by darkness. Continue to shine brightly, Christian, and pray that God may use it to draw lost souls to the light of Jesus Christ through you.”  [Thomas, pp. 316-324].  

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Imagine that you were a member of the Jerusalem church. You hear news of Saul’s conversion and that he is returning to Jerusalem. How would you react to this news? Would you welcome Saul, the former prosecutor of believers, into your church? Would you have had the courage of Barnabas? Are there people in your church today who need a friend like Barnabas?

2.         What three matters emerge from Luke’s description of what is happening in Antioch? What did Paul and Barnabas do to strengthen the church in Antioch? What can we learn from the church in Antioch that can be applied to our church today?

3.         What do we learn about Barnabas from these two passages? What type of person was he? Why did the church leaders in Jerusalem trust him enough to send him to Antioch? What does his actions in Antioch reveal about his faith and character?

References:

Acts, Darrell Bock, BENT, Baker.

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Acts, Derek Thomas REC, P&R Publishing.

Every Man in the Bible, Larry Richards, Thomas Nelson Publishers.