No follower of Jesus is perfect, but some set a compelling high standard. What distinguishes those who are most alive with the faith?
I don’t know which genre of literature you dislike the most, but mine is the autobiography. When I was younger I couldn’t get enough of the ghosted sports autobiography; today I don’t even look in this section in bookshops. Too many autobiographies are self-serving and without the honesty and self-awareness that would make them an interesting read. They settle old scores, tell half-truths and paint the subject in the kind of glowing light that is unrealistic. By contrast, scripture is sceptical of human beings, with even the greatest figures of faith history held up for unsparing scrutiny. This is comforting for today’s believers because we learn as much from the mistakes of others as we do their successes.
The curious thing about Barnabas is that scripture is almost uniformly warm about his contribution to the early church. To adopt modern parlance, he was a good thing. In Acts 11:24, Luke describes him as a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith and there are five ways in which Barnabas distinguished himself. The first was as an encourager. Barnabas was an enthusiast for the Gospel and this spilled over into the company he kept. The very word ‘enthusiasm’ is taken from the Greek en theos meaning ‘in God’. His godliness was inspirational and people imitated him. Encouragement is needed in industrial measure today. Our world is competitive and attritional. We view other people as rivals and bolster our brittle self-esteem by elevating ourselves over them in our work, in our relationships, in the purchases we make and the holidays we take. If someone at work uses words of encouragement we wonder what instrumental motive lies behind it. Do they want something out of me? Are they flirting with me? The lack of encouragement in the ordinary conversations of life makes us surprised when it is used.
Our culture is so cynical that enthusiasm is thought naïve, the product of a lack of maturity and experience. It is at this point that our spoken witness can prove so distinctive. It is remarkably easy to say words of encouragement to others and which show we do not take them for granted. We talk a lot about how words cannot be taken back when they are spoken harshly. By the same token, words of grace and kindness are remembered by the recipient and visibly lift their spirits. Those who adhere to the memory of Barnabas are alert to the gift of encouragement.
The second characteristic of Barnabas is that he was trusting. The more we trust others the happier we are in life, but in an anonymous society where we do not know others well, the sphere of trust is small. When Saul converted to Christ and became known as Paul, he left behind him a life of persecuting Christians and making life as perilous for them as it was possible to be. The believers in Jerusalem were sceptical of Paul. Was his conversion just a ruse to infiltrate their numbers the better to dispose of them? Would you trust someone who hated you one week but claimed conversion the next and an undying love for you? It’s easy to say yes when the question is hypothetical. Paul may have wasted many months trying to establish his credibility but for the trusting approach of Barnabas, who vouched for his integrity. We can put ourselves in a vulnerable position when we trust people we do not know. Barnabas showed the priority of trust when there is evidence of God at work.
Barnabas was generous in his judgements too. When news of God’s grace at work in the Gentiles of Antioch reached Jerusalem, the Apostles sent Barnabas to research it and report back. These were still early days after the conversion of Cornelius and the earth-shattering acceptance of the Gentiles into the community of faith. Barnabas went with an open mind to Antioch. Less generous people may have come with conditions within which the new believers should fall in order to qualify for the hand of fellowship. Barnabas was a perceptive man and he allowed the evidence to speak to him without presupposition. It is a mark of faith we do well to embrace, when we are reluctant to accept God is in something because it does not fit with the status quo. God is always doing new things while we are tempted to look to the past, which is easier to control.
The fourth characteristic was his ability to match gifts to needs. Having witnessed the work of the Holy Spirit in Antioch, Barnabas saw the need for leadership to nurture the new Christians in their faith. His response was to go in search of Paul whom he felt was just the man to fulfil this. Paul had returned to his home town of Tarsus where it seemed not much was happening. It was Barnabas’ imaginative deployment of him to Antioch that renewed Jesus’ calling of Paul to the Gentiles. They spent a year there together, during which the followers of this new faith were called Christians for the first time – perhaps the most famous and enduring branding in human history.
The fifth and final characteristic of Barnabas was his commitment to social concern as a function of mission. The prophet Agabus, who in a different story in the New Testament revealed the limits of his prophetic gift, predicted a widespread famine which the disciples were able to pre-empt, using Barnabas and Paul to bring relief to the believers in Judea, thereby helping to cement the new and precarious relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians.
These stories adorn Barnabas, but there is one tale where he falls short of his unusually high standards. In Galatians 2, Paul writes of the factionalism in the early church, generated by those who believed the new converts should be circumcised and keep the law. Following pressure from James’ lobby, Peter withdraws from fellowship with the Gentiles and Paul observes that ‘even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy’. No-one is perfect, and I wonder if this story indicates that Barnabas, in the warmth of his commitment to personal relationships, bowed to pressure from one lobby because he did not want to be out of favour with them? It is impossible to say at this distance, but it can be a failing of ours when we elevate harmony above principle. These are often difficult judgments to make when we are faced with them, but there is no doubt that in this case, Barnabas made the wrong judgment and one which, had it been established, would have fatally weakened the Gospel.
So what do Barnabas people look like? In short they are enthusiastic, generous, trusting, perceptive and compassionate. They arrive at this by asking God to fill them with his Holy Spirit. This is his legacy; these are the people who truly bear his name.
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