With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. 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. Acts 4.33-37.
Ask yourself who are the great Spirit-filled Christians of the New Testament and the names Peter, Paul, John will immediately spring to mind. A little more thought, and you might then come up with Silas and Philip … and, oh yes, James, perhaps. But I’d be surprised if your list included the one name that, in my view, should always be up there with the greats – Barnabas, who is first introduced to us in this passage from the Book of Acts.
The first thing to be said about Barnabas (and the first thing that Luke himself says about Barnabas) is that he possessed one particular quality to such a remarkable degree that it became the very name by which the apostles referred to him. His real name was Joseph but they called him Bar-Nabas. Bar means “son of” and nabas seems to have its roots in the Aramaic word for “to prophesy.” (A prophet in Old Testament times was a nābiy.) But, from the way Luke explains the name here, Joseph’s prophetic utterances must have matched the rest of his character in being full of encouragement. The word Luke uses is paraklēsis which is term that covers every kind of warm-hearted exhortation, reassurance and consolation; and that, it seems, is what Joseph as all about from the very beginning. He was unfailingly up-beat, positive: “You can do it,” “Oh, well done,” “Yes, give it a go,” “Up you get!” “Don’t stop now,” “Of course, it’s possible,” “Can I help?” “Need a hug?” So he became Barnabas – Barney the Builder – and that was what he remained.
Later, Luke describes him as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (Acts 11.24) and as we read the book of Acts, we discover something astonishing. We begin to see that without this Spirit-filled man of faith, there might never have been a church for us to belong to today; or if the church had come about anyway, it might have been a very, very different church from the one we know. And that is because, on at least four occasions, the unique intervention of Barney the Builder and his refusal to go along with the negativity of others changed the very course of church history.
First is the time when Saul, the one-time arch-enemy of the young church, arrived in Jerusalem following his conversion on the Damacus road, anxious to join up with the Christians there, only to find that everyone was terrified of him and regarded him as a spy to be avoided like the plague. Everyone, that is, except Barnabas. He took Saul “and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9.27). From then on, because of Barney the Builder, Saul (or Paul as he later became) was accepted and put in place to become God’s greatest instrument in the formation of the worldwide church.
Second is the time when large numbers of non-Jews began to turn to Christ in the region of Antioch. Until then, Christianity had been primarily a movement of God within Judaism. True, there had been the conversion of the Roman centurion, Cornelius, and his family and friends (Acts 10), but that was just a one-off, wasn’t it? The church was still a Jewish club. So was this large-scale incursion of Gentiles into the church a move of God or not? What should the apostles do about it? “They sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts” (Acts 11.22-23). But Barney the Builder did more. “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people” (Acts 11.25-26). Having secured Saul/Paul’s acceptance within the church, Barnabas now finds him his first ministry field and puts him to work in it – doing the very stuff he was designed by God to do.
Third is the time when Barnabas took Paul and embarked upon the deliberate evangelisation of the Gentiles in and around the Mediterranean basin. In Antioch, the Holy Spirit had told the church: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13.2) and that was when Barnabas took Paul to Cyprus (his native land) and, beginning there, established a chain of mainly-Gentile churches throughout Asia Minor. Would it have happened without Barnabas? Notice the name order. Until they leave Cyprus it is always Barnabas and Saul. The widespread evangelisation that brought about a worldwide church composed of folk from every race, age, sex, class, and colour began with Barnabas.
Fourth is the time when Barnabas’s address to the Council of Jerusalem carried the day as the apostles debated “the circumcision question”. At that Council “some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses’” (Acts 15.5) but, first Peter, then Barnabas and Paul argued otherwise (Acts 15.12) and their voices prevailed. Thus, largely because of Barnabas, the church that was then and still is today the church of grace was prevented from becoming a church shackled by the chains of legalism.
This is turning into a long post, but there is one more incident concerning Barnabas that, while not affecting the entire history of the church as did the four events just described, is too worthy of note to ignore. Barnabas had a cousin – Mark – whose home was in Jerusalem. He had accompanied Barnabas and Paul on their first mission but (for some unknown reason) had packed it all in and gone home when they left Cyprus for Asia Minor (Acts 13.13). Because of that, when Barnabas wanted to take Mark with them on their second missionary journey, Paul refused. Mark had failed them once and that was enough. Mark was to be given no second chance by Paul. No – but he was to be given one by Barney the Builder. And so important to Barnabas was Mark’s “redemption” that he actually split with Paul over it, leaving him to depart for Syria with a new companion, Silas, while he, Barnabas, took Mark on a mission of their own back to Cyprus (Acts 15.39-41). The breach was not permanent but it does indicate how resolutely Barnabas rejected the writing-off of anyone and was committed to picking up the fallen, dusting them down, and getting them back in the saddle. And it clearly worked, for years later we find Paul writing to Timothy: “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4.11). Barny the Builder had done it again!
Oh, to be a Barnabas. How the church needs such folk. Positive Christians, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, who see the good wherever it is to be found … Who build up rather than tear down … Who would rather praise than criticise … Who are inclusive rather than exclusive … Who exhort, encourage, reassure, console and do it all with a ready smile and an outstretched hand. Oh, to be a Barnabas!