We have begun exploring the Christian experience through the lives of some of the early Christians. Last week, we started looking at a person named Joseph, whom the apostles later called Barnabas, the son of encouragement. We found that Barnabas was a person of faith. In and through faith, Barnabas expressed four-character traits that are important for us to see in ourselves. Barnabas, in faith, was committed to Jesus and living his life following Jesus’ teachings. Barnabas, in faith, was a person of action. He expressed his commitment to Christ not just in his mind and by his words but in his actions. Barnabas, in faith, was righteous. He expressed his commitment and actions to do the right thing for the kingdom of God and not for himself. Barnabas, in faith, was a person who submitted himself to Jesus and his church. He was anxious to strengthen the church in numbers, knowledge, and holiness. Commitment, action, righteousness, and submission were Barnabas’ faith characteristics.
On top of his faith, Barnabas was also a person of purpose. He understood Jesus’ mission for the church, for the people who followed Jesus, was to be his witnesses and share the good news.
Being a person of faith and purpose were two of Barnabas’ key character traits that are relatable to our own story. Yet, there is a bit more to Barnabas that bears our examination and appropriation. Today, I would like us to explore two more important parts of Barnabas’ story: namely, his capacity for advocacy and for his vision.
To be an advocate generally means to give public support for a recommendation of a policy or cause. Today, with online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, advocacy can be done in an instant. We can now sign petitions online, protest by reposting materials, or write nasty comments about politicians with whom we disagree. Online advocacy is new and can be impactful, but it does not meet the standard of Biblical advocacy. Why is that? Because online advocacy can be done anonymously by a person or by a created machine that is not even a real person per se. Biblical advocacy requires that we have real skin in the game. Think for a moment about Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his movement for civil rights for African Americans. There was nothing anonymous about Dr. King’s efforts. He wrote and signed letters and newspaper articles. Dr. King march and demonstrated against injustices. He spoke publicly. He placed himself at risk for what he deeply believed. There was nothing anonymous about the Dr. King’s desire to advocate on behalf of others. Think for a moment about the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. The final words of that document states, “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Then 56 men signed the document and distributed it placing at risk everything they had. There was nothing anonymous about their desire to advocate on behalf of others. Now, let’s think about our friend Barnabas and the legacy of Biblical advocacy that he showed. To do so, let’s turn to our reading from the Book of Acts, Chapter 9.
We begin at Chapter 9, verse 26. This passage talks about the post-conversion experience of Saul from Tarsus, a man who generated considerable fear among the early church because to Saul was deadly to the members of the early church. Verse 26, “When he [Saul] came to Jerusalem, he [Saul] tried to join the disciples, but they [the disciples] were all afraid of him [Saul], not believing that he [Saul] really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him [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. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.” As we discussed last week, and see here again in this passage, when Saul came to Jerusalem, he generated a great deal of fear among the disciples, but Barnabas took charge of Saul. Barnabas’ decision to involve himself with Saul was dangerous if Saul had not genuinely become a Christian. Barnabas could be imprisoned or kill. But Barnabas was an advocate for others who were excluded from the church and mission of Jesus. Barnabas spent time with Saul. He learned Saul’s story and then shared Saul’s story with the apostles. In short, Barnabas advocated for Saul. As a result, Saul who was outside the church was now inside the church.
Let’s look at another example of Barnabas the advocate. Please turn to Acts, Chapter 15. We will begin at verse 5. This passage deals with conflict in the church. I know it is hard to believe that there could be conflict in a church, but there was. The issue centered on whether a Gentile, that is a non-Jew, must first become a Jew before becoming a Christian. It was an issue that was tearing the church apart.
Verse 5 says, “Then 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.’ The apostles and elders met to consider this question” (Acts 15:5-6). And there was much discussion. Look now at verse 12, “The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them” (Acts 15:12) The group that was in an uproar went silent when Barnabas and Paul spoke. Note, in ancient writings, whoever is the most important person to the story is listed first. In this passage, Barnabas is listed first, meaning the leadership of the early church thought Barnabas was more important to the conversation than Paul. In the silence created by Barnabas’ remarks, Barnabas advocated for inclusion of the Gentiles in the church. Barnabas was again putting his reputation on the line and advocating for someone who was being excluded. What was the result? Look at verse 19. James, the half-brother of Jesus, leader of the church of Jerusalem spoke, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” Barnabas won the day. The Gentiles would be accepted into the church without first becoming observant Jews.
Just quickly, I want to look at one more example. Please turn look down the page a bit to Acts 15, verse 36. “Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’ 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he [Mark] had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They [Barnabas and Paul] had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas” (Acts 15:36-40a). Mark, sometimes called John, and other times called John Mark, accompanied Barnabas and Paul on their first mission trip, but Mark returned home to Jerusalem before the trip was completed. Paul thought Mark was a failure. Barnabas believed in the second chance, I think because Barnabas saw God as the God of the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh chances. Barnabas advocated for Mark because he saw something in Mark and believed Mark should not be excluded. At that time, Paul could only see Mark’s failure. Barnabas and Mark went one way and Paul and Silas went the other way. In a few weeks, we will talk about Mark, but for today I want to just cap this event with words Paul would later write to Timothy. Paul wrote, “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). Paul came full circle and saw Mark as a significant minister and missionary of the early church. I guess Barnabas was right about Mark.
Barnabas was a man who advocated for others who were being excluded from the joy of being part of the church. Barnabas did so for Saul, for the Gentiles, and for Mark. Barnabas was willing to put himself into the situation, put his life and reputation at risk for the advancement of the kingdom of God. There was nothing anonymous about Barnabas. When we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are not signing up to join the Secret Service or the CIA. We are not to be silent and unsee yet somehow present. We are to be the visible body of Jesus Christ who was the visible image of the invisible God. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Barnabas encouraged the church to accept those who were being excluded from the kingdom. Where do we stand on advocating for others? What is our willingness to speak on behalf of those who are different than we may be? Do we have any skin in the game?
As with keep those questions in mind, let’s turn to the final thought about Barnabas. Barnabas was an encourager who advocated for those excluded from the kingdom because Barnabas had a vision of what the church could be. Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (KJV). Barnabas had vision for the church. Look at today’s second reading from the Book of Acts, Chapter 11, beginning at verse 22. As we explore this passage, we find that some of the early Christians who fled Jerusalem as Saul (now Paul) was imprisoning people for being Christians resettled in Antioch. In Antioch, these early Christians formed a church and had many people coming to faith. Verse 22, “22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they [the Apostles] sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he [Barnabas] arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he [Barnabas] was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He [Barnabas] was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (Acts 11:22-24). The Apostles trusted Barnabas to check things out in Antioch. Barnabas did and stayed to encourage and build up this church. But Barnabas could see, he had the vision of God for a greater church than he, Barnabas, could encourage on his own. He could see what God wanted.
Look at what Barnabas did in verse 25. “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he [Barnabas] found him [Saul], he [Barnabas] brought him [Saul] to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people.” (Acts 11:25, 26). Barnabas had the vision of the church of Jesus Christ that would extend to Jew and Gentile alike and sought out Saul to get in the game. Barnabas knew that Saul, later known as Paul, was part of God’s plan and so Barnabas acted. Barnabas had vision of the mission given by Jesus that Jesus’ disciples would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). With that vision in mind, Barnabas once again acted.
As we wrap up our understanding of Barnabas, we have seen that Barnabas was a person of faith. He was committed, action oriented, righteous, and submitted. Barnabas was a person of purpose. He gave himself to the mission of Jesus to be a witness of all that Jesus said his followers should do. Barnabas was an advocate for those being excluded from the kingdom of God. Barnabas was a person of vision who joined himself to God and could see the next steps needed to bring the church to flower. The Apostles changed this man’s name from Joseph to Barnabas, the son of encouragement because he was a man of faith, purpose, advocacy, and vision. This is who each one of us can be in service to the Church. Just like Barnabas, every person hearing this message has been gifted with one or more gifts from the Holy Spirit for the purpose of building up the church of Jesus Christ. What is your gift? Are you using it? Are you called to be an encourager, or counselor, or food maker, or organizer, or musician, and the list goes on? Are you acting in faith, sharing in the purpose of the church, and advocating for those who are being excluded from the kingdom message because they are too poor, too lame, too black, too white, too whatever! Do you have skin in the game? How we answer these questions will determine the enduring legacy we have from our dear friend Barnabas, the son of encouragement. Let’s be in conversation with God as we explore our faith, purpose, advocacy, and vision.