Week of May 3, 2020
The Point: Encouragement strengthens relationships.
Saul in Jerusalem: Acts 9:26-28.
 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.  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.  So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. [ESV]
“In Jerusalem: Befriended by Barnabas [9:26-30]. 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 open 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. 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, considering Saul an agent provocateur, Barnabas stepped in to ensure Saul’s reception into the Christian community in Jerusalem . Barnabas appears on the pages of Scripture as a genuinely “good man” [Acts 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 us 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 of 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.]. The sobriquet “son of encouragement” is fascinating because the same word employed here is the very word Jesus attributes to the Holy Spirit in the upper room [John 15:27], and rendered variously as “Comforter,” “Strengthener,” or “Advocate,” or simply transliterated as “Paraclete.” A “paraclete” is, in the older sense of the word, a “comforter,” that is, someone who comes to strengthen. But it is now more generally recognized that the term has a forensic connotation in John’s writing. The Spirit witnesses and testifies of Christ. It is here that we come to appreciate something special about the Spirit’s witness to Christ; it is a witness that we also are to engage in: “You also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning” [John 15:27]. The reference is, of course, to the work of the apostles. They, too, share in the witness-bearing work of the Spirit by pointing to Christ. How instructive that he who knows Jesus best should be the one who encourages others to know him. It is precisely here that the Holy Spirit is our model in encouragement: testifying to others of the glory of Christ! And this is the name given to Barnabas! 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. Luke generalizes here again by suggesting that Paul now met with the apostles, but Paul makes it very clear that he did not meet all of them, only Cephas and James, the Lord’s brother [Gal. 1:18]. Cephas was Paul’s regular designation for the one we know better as Peter. From the beginning of Acts to this point, Peter has dominated the story. He was the chief apostle, without any doubt, and Paul was eager to make his acquaintance. For fifteen days they talked together. What did Peter and Paul talk about? It seems incredible not to think that Peter, as one of the twelve disciples, had information about Jesus that Paul needed to know. Following Paul’s three years in Arabia, all manner of questions must have arisen in his mind needing elaboration from information that he was not privy to. One thing Paul learned for sure was that the risen Jesus had appeared to Peter and James [1 Cor. 15:5,7], the two apostles he met on this initial visit to Jerusalem! The second thing Paul received during this time was what he calls tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. The rudiments of the gospel were being reinforced, and Paul expands on them in many different and wonderful ways. For fifteen days, then, Paul, having been accepted into the Christian community in Jerusalem, moved about freely, and just as he had shown in Damascus, Paul demonstrated boldness in his witness to Jesus.” [Thomas, pp. 264-267].
Paul in Antioch: Acts 11:21-26.
 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.  The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  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,  for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.  So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul,  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]
“The Hand of God. Antioch was one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire, with a population estimated in the region 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. 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 [Acts 11:19]. 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. Four matters emerge from Luke’s description, beginning with his statement that God’s hand was with the church. The Hand of God. Before Barnabas was sent to Antioch, Luke adds his own interpretation of what had happen. The hand of the Lord was upon the scattered Christians who had left Jerusalem, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord . 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. In addition to this passage, he employs it in the description of the blinding of Elymas the sorcerer [13:11] and the (as yet unborn) child John the Baptist [Luke 1:66]. The hand of God signals the invisible God’s 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. It is true that God alone can save an individual. Salvation is of the Lord [Jonah 2:9]. Faith is a gift of God [Eph. 2:8]. God draws his people to himself through conversion, involving illumination, regeneration, faith, and repentance – a complex chain of events that sixteenth-century theologians called “effectual calling” which Luke calls here the hand of the Lord. From eternal predestination to final glorification, the salvation of a sinner is the accomplishment of the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mutually working together in a bond of love and sovereign commitment to do that which none of us have the power to do. To go astray here is to fall into a serious error, one that distorts the nature and degree of our plight and casts aspersions on the enormity of God’s grace and power that is required to deliver us. But at the same time, God employs means to save us. He has not only chosen whom he will save; he has also chosen the means by which that person will come to faith. God’s “calling” employs individuals engaged in robust evangelism. He tells Paul, I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me [26:18]. 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 tells us that a great many people were added to the Lord [11:24]. Luke is showing us what can happen when folk 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. Barnabas: The Encourager. News of the growth of the church in Antioch caused some concern in Jerusalem [11:21]. 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 [11:22]. 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 [11:24]. Luke knew Barnabas and accompanied him on several missionary tours. He had witnessed firsthand his godliness and friendly disposition. This was the kind of man he was. He was utterly genuine and sincere, and he loved the Lord with all his heart. His 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 [11:23]. It is worth pondering what might have happened to the shape of the New Testament church had someone less supportive been sent to Antioch, someone whose policy was to suffocate all enthusiasm and add significant restrictive policies to Gentiles contemplating conversion. Without doubt, the church would have taken a very different shape had this been the case. Are we the ones carping at the sidelines or are we earnestly seeking the growth of the church? It is easy to be the former, but it takes determination and discernment to do the latter. 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. Do you? We need to pause and consider the cost of Barnabas’s initiative to himself. From this point forward, Barnabas will retreat into the background as Saul (Paul) grows and outshines his partner. Soon it will no longer be Barnabas and Saul [11:30; 12:25; 13:2], but Paul and Barnabas [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’s own decision to seek out Saul of Tarsus. The search for Saul was evidently a difficult one. Why? Would he not have been at his ancestral home? The answer seems to be given in Paul’s description of the consequences of his conversion to Christianity in Philippians 3. He had suffered the loss of all things [Phil. 3:8], a testimony that many have seen as a reference to his disinheritance by his Jewish parents. We can imagine Barnabas asking for Saul in the city of Tarsus, only to be ignored. No one knew where he was, and, perhaps, they were hardly disposed to tell Barnabas anything that might aid the church. This 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’s 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. It was, in fact, Jesus-like. 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? Barnabas evidently found Paul and brought him 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 [11:26]. 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 is 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.” [Thomas, pp. 316-324].
Questions for Discussion:
- Describe the encouragement that Barnabas offered Paul in both Jerusalem and Antioch. Note how encouragement goes beyond just speaking words of comfort to a person. Look at the actions Barnabas took in both Jerusalem and Antioch as a means of encouraging Paul. What can we learn about true encouragement from Barnabas?
- The church at Antioch played a critical role in the spread of the gospel in the early church. What did Barnabas discover when he arrived there? Why was Barnabas the perfect individual for the apostles to send to Antioch? Why does Luke use the unusual phrase, the hand of the Lord, to describe what was happening in Antioch?
- Why did Barnabas go to Tarsus to look for Saul? What did Barnabas see in Antioch that caused him to seek out Saul? What particular abilities did Barnabas see in Saul that made him go? What do we learn about being an “encourager” from Barnabas’ actions here? What does this decision by Barnabas tell us about his character and commitment to the gospel? Every church needs people like Barnabas working in the background encouraging gifted members to use their spiritual gifts for God’s glory.
- Acts 11:26 is a key verse for our understanding how church planting and missionary work took place in the early church. Why did Barnabas and Saul spend a whole year teaching the people in the church in Antioch? What does this tell us about the importance of doctrine and the need for instruction in the faith? Note how this teaching impacted the way the people in the church lived their lives. It caused people outside of the church to call them Christians because, evidently, the way they lived was focused upon Christ.
Acts, Darrell Bock, BENT, Baker.
The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Pillar, Eerdmans.
The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity.
Acts, Derek Thomas, REC, P&R Publishing.
The purpose of this article is to provide additional reference resources for those Sunday School teachers who use Lifeway’s Bible Studies for Life material.