Cloud of Witnesses: Barnabas

(Message given January 5, 2014 at Newberg Friends Church)

We live in a world where you can attend workshops on how to “build your personal brand” on social media.

Everything is ranked: there’s the Fortune 500 list, a book’s sales position on Amazon, a website’s number of hits and ad impressions. Students just learning an instrument feel pressure to look for private lessons to get ahead. Applications for colleges want to see volunteer work and extra-curricular activities. It’s not surprising to find yourself evaluating a particular decision based on how it will affect your image or your “marketability” to an employer or a school.

Not only that, but in a way that seems opposite of what it should be, the more diverse our world gets, the easier it is to surround yourself only with people you agree with. We can listen to radio and get our news and read publications that are tailored to our particular world view, creating a giant divide in our relationships and our churches and our world; we think “different” must be wrong. Is there another way?

We are continuing a series we are calling “Cloud of Witnesses.”

Each week, we are looking at a person who, like it says in Hebrews 12, helps us to fix our eyes on Jesus. Today, we’re looking at Barnabas, one of the early church leaders who points us to Jesus and to a different way of living than we often see today.

He took chances on people and remained loyal to them, even when others were scared or angry. He was willing to cross boundaries and build relationships, even with those most people thought of as the enemy or wrong. And he put all his energy into holding up Christ and not his own reputation or image.

Barnabas is introduced in Acts chapter 4.

Acts tells the story of the early church, and like any good story, there are statements made in the text that are then demonstrated by an example. At several points early in the book, we read how much the early Christians, the early church, cared for each other. They were one. So much so, it says several times, that they shared everything they had, sometimes even selling property and giving the money to the apostles for them to decide who needed it most.

That’s when we meet Barnabas; actually, we meet Joseph, his real name, and we discover that the apostles gave him the name “Barnabas”.

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 4:36-37.

Perhaps the apostles gave him the name Barnabas, “Encourager”, precisely at this moment; maybe the biggest way he brought encouragement was with this practical example of the kind of generosity that the church wanted to define itself by. He was the prime example of someone who actually did it, who actually was generous enough and was so “all in” that he sold property and brought all the money to the apostles.

I think the way we are introduced to people in the bible is significant…it’s significant in any good writing, actually. Joseph is so transformed by Jesus and the community of the early church that he gets a new name, Barnabas. He believes so strongly in the mission of the early church that he is generous and he submits to the wisdom of the apostles in charge. Barnabas holds these character traits all the way through his life.

I think following Jesus and being a part of a strong community of faith still changes lives today!

We next see Barnabas in Acts chapter 9, a scary time in the life of the early church.

In this chapter Saul, who later becomes Paul, the most significant leader in the early Christian movement…chapter 9 is when Jesus appears to Saul on the road to Damascus and changes the course of Saul’s life. I often focus in this chapter on Saul and what this meant for him; but think about how scary and disruptive this had to be for those early Christians.

Saul was just the biggest example of many who were doing everything they could to threaten and stomp out those who followed Jesus Christ. Christians were a small minority, not in power, in danger of losing everything, including their lives. Imagine the first stories that got out about how Saul was no longer their enemy… now he followed Jesus! I’m sure some believed, but think about human nature. Think about our world. Think how distrustful people usually are.

Imagine if renowned atheist and church critic Richard Dawkins all of a sudden changed his tune and started preaching Jesus. We’d be skeptical! Now imagine he had first been given power by the government to imprison anyone who claimed the name of Christ. That gives you an idea of what it would have felt like to have Saul saying he converted. Who’s gonna risk joining with someone like that? The leaders of the church in Jerusalem didn’t.

When he [Saul] came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him 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 9:26-27

Saul/Paul being accepted into the Christian church literally changed the course of history. And it happened because Barnabas was brave enough to risk talking to the enemy and then advocate for him to have a place.

This simple example alone is enough to challenge me greatly. Am I willing to build bridges instead of walls? Am I willing to trust that God can change anyone? Am I willing to stick my neck out on behalf of someone else who is scary to my community?

One of the greatest bridge builders I know is a woman named Robin Mohr. She and I “met” because of our blogs in 2005, developing a friendship before we actually met in person in over a year later, when she came here to visit and worship with us at NFC. Even though she was part of an unprogrammed Friends meeting in San Francisco which did NOT trust evangelicals, she was willing to write and dialogue with me, a *gasp* pastor. When she started having spiritual encounters with Jesus Christ himself, she wasn’t afraid to talk about that in her circles.

God has led her to serve as the Executive Secretary for FWCC’s Section of the Americas, an organization that is trying to bring communication and community between all branches of Friends in North, Central, and South America. It’s not an easy job. It’s a job that causes many to be wary and distrustful, on all “sides” of any issue. But she is perfect for it. She is Barnabas-like, making friendships and asking questions and sharing her own experiences with beautiful openness, trust, and courage. We need more people like that, who can bring together the splintered pieces of Christ’s church today.

After Saul was accepted into leadership of the persecuted early Church, the next big struggle was whether non-Jews belonged as full members of the Christian church.

Antioch became a city where this struggle came to a head, where many non-Jews or Greeks heard the good news about Jesus and were transformed. Look at Acts 11.

The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
News of this reached the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and 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. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. Acts 11:21-24

All the words here focus on the positive; Luke, the author of Acts, is a “glass half-full” kind of person. God is at work, a great number of non-Jews are having their lives changed, and it’s Barnabas the encourager who is sent to make sure everything is ok. Luke obviously thinks very highly of Barnabas, with that description in verse 24: a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, whose ministry brings even more people into a life of faith in Jesus.

But let’s think about this. A bunch of non-Jews coming into the church is huge, and potentially dangerous. What if they miss what’s truly important? How can they really understand Jesus, a Jew, the chosen one to save Israel? This could really get ugly fast.

So they send Barnabas. They trusted him to keep his eyes fixed and centered on Jesus. Once again, he is the glue, holding things together, the bridge builder. We saw that first in how he connected Saul, and now we see it again with the issue that could split the church wide open, whether Gentiles belong or not. Barnabas uses all his skills and gifts to continue the growth that God is doing and to teach faithfully about Christ. He’s not afraid. He’s not cautious. He’s positive, and “all in” once again. I love this guy!

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. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. Acts 11:25-26

Barnabas knows what is needed and is the personal connector to make it happen. He finds Saul, brings him to Antioch, and for a year, they work together to teach and build and strengthen what God is doing at Antioch. Too often today, we hear of a good leader starting a ministry somewhere, and to grow, they focus on building the brand of that leader, that pastor. Maybe they plant another church, but then they pipe in the video of the famous leader.

Barnabas could have focused on building his image and his authority, but instead he immediately recognizes how big a thing God is doing in Antioch, and he knows more resources are needed. He goes and gets the best person he can think of, Saul, without any qualms at all about losing the limelight. Barnabas has a razor sharp focus on what God is doing and what the church most needs, no matter what cost it may be to him. What a different place our world would be if more of us focused on God’s activity and what the world needs ahead of our own place in it!

Barnabas and Paul’s faithfulness and teamwork is recognized after their year together in Antioch.

The church gathers in prayer and worship and hears the voice of the Holy Spirit calling Barnabas and Saul to go on a journey to share about Jesus. This missionary journey is powerfully effective in building new churches and helping new people come to faith in Jesus. But it is hard work, with a lot of conflict along the way. Everywhere they go, people either love them or hate them…or both.

In the city of Lystra, Paul heals someone and the crowd starts going crazy. Look at Acts 14.

When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: ‘Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. Acts 14:11-15

I see this as just another sign of Barnabas’ character. It is always Christ first, church first-he doesn’t want to get in the way of Christ by having others think too highly of him. And don’t miss out how highly they thought of Barnabas! Paul, in the long run, had the greatest impact on the church. But Barnabas is the one the crowd sees as Zeus, as the most powerful one. He refuses the power of recognition and honor they offer, wanting everyone to see him as human like they are, focusing on bringing the good news of Jesus.

This is so refreshing, and so needed in our world of building celebrity pastors and evaluating Christian leaders by blog hits and Twitter followers. The truth is that each one of us are partners with the same task: sharing and living the good news of Jesus, and doing all we can to build up and unify the church of Jesus Christ!

Barnabas has his struggles as well, and not long after this disappears from the record of the early church.

I love that even what could be seen as a sort of failure is something that is consistent with his character as a connector and a risk taker when it comes to people he believes in.

On the first journey with Paul, Barnabas brings along his cousin John Mark. John Mark leaves some time in the middle of the first journey, and it’s clear that it really bothers Paul. Barnabas and Paul stay strong through the pivotal moment in Acts 15, where the Jerusalem Council decides once and for all that Gentiles are in and do not have to follow Jewish law to be part of Christ’s church. The decision hinges in large part on the strong testimony that Barnabas and Paul give about what God has done during their ministry to non-Jews.

It’s a huge victory! And Barnabas and Paul are chosen to bring the news to the churches. They go to Antioch first; but when Paul suggests returning to check on the new churches they created, Barnabas wants to bring John Mark; he wants to give him another shot. They disagree so strongly that the dynamic duo separates. Barnabas takes Mark and heads to his hometown of Cyprus, and is never mentioned in Acts again. Paul takes Silas, and he goes on to the cities the letter from Jerusalem is addressed to. It’s clear that Paul has now taken over as the “official” leader of the Gentile Christians, the “official” representative of the good news from Jerusalem.

Barnabas believes in John Mark and won’t give up on him.

It’s a mark of Barnabas’ character, first shown with Paul. Barnabas was Paul’s champion when everyone else was scared of him, and he was John Mark’s champion even when Paul didn’t trust him. Barnabas is willing to give up the prominent leadership role in order to do what he thought was right. He was able to serve the churches in Cyprus at least, and probably other places for the rest of his life.

Barnabas develops John Mark’s leadership, so much so that years later Paul himself can write to the Colossians endorsing Mark; at the end of his life, Paul even writes to Timothy to bring Mark “because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” It’s likely by this point that Barnabas was already dead. But you have to believe that he would have been pleased that his loyalty to both Paul and John Mark had resulted in a reconciliation between those two men, and more importantly, that many, many people had grown in their faith in Jesus because of their ministry.

I want to be the kind of friend who doesn’t give up on my friends. I want to show that kind of loyalty, and draw out of others the God-given potential that they have. Looking at Barnabas gives a strong example of this kind of friendship and loyalty that brings out the best in others.

You and I can aim for many of the characteristics Barnabas models. 

He’s a relational connector. He’s loyal, has his priorities in the right place, and is more concerned with Christ being honored than getting credit or honor. We need this in our marketing-driven, personality-obsessed world.

May we honor Christ in all we do! May we build bridges between the scattered and divided camps in Christ’s church. And may we not be afraid to be loyal to people we believe in, even if it costs us in others’ eyes.

One thought on “Cloud of Witnesses: Barnabas

  1. I too was inspired by the example of Barnabas, and honored to be mentioned in that company. I am a little concerned that you have exaggerated my good qualities, but grateful nonetheless.

    Gregg, I am grateful for your friendship, the example of your life, and your sermons. I have been reading them on this blog for years now, as a kind of devotional reading.

    The Friends World Committee has been building bridges since before we were born. Friends from Northwest Yearly Meeting have been a very important part of that. They have been examples like Barnabas, and I have learned a lot from them: taking chances on people, being willing to cross boundaries and build relationships, even with those most people thought of as the enemy or wrong, and putting their energy into holding up Christ and not their own reputation or image.

    I thank God for you and them, and your encouragement to me and many others.


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