We are in week 8 of a summer worship series on the inspirational acts of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. If you remember, at the beginning of Acts, it is a letter written to someone by the name of Theopholis, which means God Lover, or the one whom God loves, so the essence of the book could have been written as much to us, as it was to some specific person who lived 2000 years ago. ACTS is a biography of a group of people. The early followers of Jesus are seeking authentic expression of living lives in the way that Jesus taught. Last week we learned from Roger as he preached about Acts 10, that the Holy Spirit intends for the gospel, the good news, to be shared with everyone – Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, the Ethiopian Eunuch, even people like Saul who persecuted the early believers. Today we hear about the missionary adventures of Barnabus & Saul as we move through Acts 11-14
We pick up the story of Barnabus, one of the faithful leaders who was first introduced in Acts 4. He was a devout Jew from the tribe of Levi, from the island of Cyprus. Levites were part of the priestly tribe who maintained the Temple and the holy things of God. We don’t know how Barnabas found the community of believers in Jerusalem. Perhaps he was among the 3000 who came to faith on the day of Pentecost in response to Peter’s preaching and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. What we do know is that he was an extravagant giver with an encouraging personality. The apostles actually changed his name from Joseph to Barnabas, derived from: “bar” meaning “son of” and “nabas” referring to a way of speaking that encouraged or built another person up. Literally “son of encouragement”. Barnabas played a pivotal role in Saul’s early ministry. In Acts 9:27, following Saul’s conversion, Barnabas vouched for him when others were afraid of the one who had persecuted them. Some scholars believe Saul & Barnabus actually knew each other when they were Jewish students under Gamaliel, a Pharisee and leading authority in the Sanhedrin.
The next time Barnabas appears is about 10 years later in ch.ll when the early church is exploding with growth in the city of Antioch, an important commercial & economic center – the 3rd-largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome & Alexandria. Culturally, it was a melting pot of Greek, Roman, Semitic, Arabic and Persian influences. Hellenistic Jews from Jerusalem preached the gospel to other Jews, beyond where Peter & Philip have been. Most likely, some Gentiles who already have an interest in Judaism, also begin to speak to Gentile Greeks there, telling them the good news of Jesus Christ.
The church in Jerusalem hears about the large number of Gentile converts in Antioch. The apostles send Barnabas to nurture and shepherd this new community and see what the Spirit was doing among the new believers in Antioch. When Barnabus arrived in Antioch he saw a group of faithful, passionate people, and realized he might need help with all the converts among the Gentiles and Jews in this vast multi-cultural city. He remembered the educated and passionate young Pharisee he had helped to escape by putting him on a boat for Tarsus 1o years earlier. Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch where the two stayed for a year.
Acts 11:26 tells us that it was in Antioch where disciples were called “Christians” for the first time. The designation may not have been welcome and not a term the disciples used for themselves. They preferred brothers, disciples, or known as People of THE WAY. “The Way” is mentioned several times in the book of Acts in connection with early followers of Jesus reminiscent of John 14:6:
“I am the way, the truth and the life.” The Romans considered the Way to be a sect of Judaism.
Ch.11 is a pivotal point in the growth of the new church. Until now, the geographical area of Jerusalem & Judea have played center stage, with Peter prominent in the narrative. The geography now shifts from Jerusalem to Antioch – 300-400 miles north of Jerusalem, in the SE corner of Turkey, 50 miles west of Aleppo, Syria. It will become the springboard for missionary activity to the Roman Empire.
Ch. 13 begins by naming 5 culturally diverse prophets & teachers from a wide variety social, ethnic backgrounds at the new church in Antioch. Barnabas is listed first; Saul is mentioned last. Barnabas & Saul are set apart by the Holy Spirit and are then commissioned with the laying on of hands to travel on a missionary journey. They are sent off by this faith community to preach and teach about the movement. In the beginning Barnabas was more prominent with Luke referring to them as Barnabas & Saul. But at some point during the missionary journey, Saul, also known as Paul, becomes the dominant partner in the missionary team as Luke starts referring to them as Paul & Barnabas. Their first missionary journey is to Cyprus, Barnabas’ native land, in the NE corner of Mediterranean Sea. Barnabus’s cousin John Mark accompanies Barnabas & Paul on the journey as their assistant, but returns early, which will cause a rift between Barnabas & Paul, but that is the theme for next week.
When they arrive at Antioch in Pisidia, which is NW from Antioch in Syria, Paul & Barnabas find the local Synagogue, and start sharing the good news there. The people are receptive to their preaching and ask them to stay until the next Sabbath. When the synagogue leaders see the large crowd of Gentiles attempting to get into the synagogue to hear Paul, conflict looms. They get jealous. This is a pattern that will be repeated in city after city: Paul & Barnabus are rejected by Jewish leaders, so they preach to Gentiles instead. Paul & Barnabas shake “the dust off their feet” in protest, and move on to to Iconium – 90 miles SE of Antioch. They speak so effectively at the Jewish synagogue that large numbers of Jews & Gentiles believe the gospel and God performs miraculous wonders through them. But the people remain divided about them. 14:4 “Some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles”. Eventually the Jews hatch a plot with some political leaders intending to stone them to death. Paul & Barnabas flee to “Lystra & Derbe” where they continue to preach. Lystra was unfamiliar with the Hebrew God or Jesus, so when the people see a man healed, the crowds interpreted the healing to mean that Paul & Barnabas were Greek Gods – Zeus & Hermes. What was supposed to be a revival for Christ turned into praising Greek gods instead! The reaction turned from high praise to an angry mob. The days of the early church were also the beginnings of a painful and messy parting between Jesus-followers and Judaism. Paul’s message angered some Jews so much that they tried to kill him. The next day, he got up and went with Barnabas to Derbe to preach the Gospel there.
Paul & Barnabas revisit each city on their way back to Antioch. This time they keep a low profile and avoid public preaching. Their objective is not to make more converts, but to strengthen and continue in the faith. Ch. 14 ends with “When they arrived in Antioch, they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how God had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles. 28And Paul & Barnabus stayed there with the disciples for some time.”
From here on out, the Book of Acts will primarily focus on Paul, but it is important to recognize the contributions of Barnabus to Christianity. Luke paints a picture of the kind of person Barnabas was – with the kind of attributes every church needs. Barnabas was a developer of people, with an ability to discern a person’s authentic growth. Many saw Saul as a persecutor, Barnabas saw a great evangelist in the making. Barnabas demonstrated humility and allowed others to take the limelight at the appropriate time. As Barnabus mentors Saul, the focus switches from Barnabus to the ministry of Paul. Barnabus was a leader who nurtured new churches and people to transform their communities. Barnabas never wrote a book of Bible (though some have suggested he may have written the Letter to the Hebrews). Much of our NT would not exist without the encouragement he gave to Paul. He exhibited compassion, had a deep faith, and is led by and filled with the Holy Spirit.
All of us need a Barnabas in our lives. Someone who is consistently offering encouragement. 30 years ago Joyce Landorf Heatherly wrote a book entitled Balcony People. She describes the difference between the kind of people who tend to evaluate & criticize first – and Balcony People – the people in our lives who offer a word or gesture of encouragement first.
For some, the first inclination is often to criticize, not encourage. It is often far easier to notice what is wrong with the situation than what is right. When the first inclination is to pounce on the negative, it can be destructive in relationships.
It’s important for us to remember that we are called to be someone else’s Barnabas too. Part of our mission in life is to encourage others, to see in them what they may not see in themselves. Who is your Barnabas? More importantly, whose Barnabas will you be? There is a quote attributed to William Arthur Ward: ”Flatter me, and I may not believe you. Criticize me, and I may not like you. Ignore me, and I may not forgive you. Encourage me, I will not forget you.” Real encouragement comes from a place of honest and genuine awareness. They have an open mind to consider what God may be doing in another person and they take the time to encourage it.
Who is a person who has believed in you and encouraged you? Who are you believing in or encouraging today?