Sermon Text: Acts 11:19-26 /
Pastor Steven Pagels /
In the name of Christ Jesus, dear friends:
It was an honor and a privilege and an amazing opportunity. The leaders of the church in Jerusalem had chosen Barnabas to visit their brothers and sisters in Antioch. That meant he was trusted and respected by his peers. That meant he would be able to get personally involved in the work of a rapidly growing mission field. But traveling to Antioch also meant that he would have to leave his loved ones behind.
His family and his church family were there for his farewell. There were hugs and handshakes, and when he came face-to-face with his mother there were also some tears. He had been preparing himself for this moment. He told himself that he wasn’t going to cry. He had been practicing what he was going to say, but at that moment he couldn’t say anything. So she did. She hugged her son tightly and whispered in his ear: “Make your mother proud.”
There is no biblical evidence that Barnabas ever had a conversation like that. The Bible doesn’t tell us his mother’s name or if she was in Jerusalem or even if she was still living when he left for Antioch. So we don’t know if there was a tearful goodbye. We don’t know if she told him to make her proud, but we do know that he did. The inspired record in Acts makes it clear that Barnabas honored his mother by doing the work of his heavenly Father. And in so doing he sets an example for the rest of us.
As we celebrate the sixth Sunday of Easter, we also shine a spotlight on one of the not-so-well known men of faith in the Bible. And as we honor his memory, we ask the Lord to inspire us and empower us to…
BE LIKE BARNABAS
- A son of encouragement
- A brother of Paul
- A father of Christians
How much do you know about Barnabas? Did you know that his given name was Joseph and that he came from the island of Cyprus (Acts 4:36)? Did you know that he sold a piece of property and donated all the proceeds to the apostles (Acts 4:37)? Did you know that he was a leader in the early church and a mission partner of Paul?
The limited amount of biographical information we have about Barnabas, his generosity, his love for lost souls, those things strongly support what Luke tells us about his character: “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (24).
Barnabas was a good man, a God-fearing man, a hard-working man, but he wasn’t good because of his generosity or because he was a missionary. God considered him good because he was “full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” The Holy Spirit had created faith in his heart. That faith manifested itself in many positive ways, and that same faith qualified Barnabas for a very important task.
The scattering of Christians described in Acts 11 can be traced back several years (and several chapters) to the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. On that day a great persecution broke out against Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem. Many of them were forced to flee for their lives. Some went up the coast to Phoenicia. Others found refuge on the island of Cyprus. And a large number tried to blend in among the hundreds of thousands of people in the city of Antioch.
It looked like Jesus’ disciples were on the run. It looked like the followers of the Way were about to be wiped out, but that’s not what happened. Instead the intense persecution had the opposite effect. Jesus’ followers didn’t keep quiet. Jesus’ followers didn’t keep to themselves. They shared the good news about Jesus wherever they went. And at least some of them began to share the good news with Gentiles.
Luke reports that “news of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch” (22). Was the mother church suspicious because this mostly Jewish group was being infiltrated by former pagans? Were the bureaucrats in Jerusalem looking for a way to maintain control of the organization? And why Barnabas? Why was he chosen to represent the church in Jerusalem?
All of these questions are answered in the next verse: “When he (Barnabas) arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts” (23).
Barnabas wasn’t a spy, and he wasn’t sent to check up on his fellow Christians. True to the nickname that had been given to him by the apostles, Barnabas was a “son of encouragement.” He encouraged the persecuted Christians who had come to Antioch to keep doing what they were doing. He encouraged the new Christians in Antioch to remain true to the Lord. And as Barnabas encouraged others, he was encouraged too.
Do you know someone like that, someone like Barnabas, someone who has the gift of encouragement? They seem to always know exactly what to say and exactly how and when to say it. All you have to do is see their face or hear their voice, and immediately you feel better.
Or maybe you know someone who has the gift of discouragement, the kind of person who can find the dark cloud inside every silver lining, the kind of person who brings everyone else down. Can you identify someone like that? Or are there times when that description fits you?
The devil loves to capitalize on our negativity. The devil loves it when Christians fixate on their problems and forget about God’s blessings. The devil wants us to focus so much of our time and energy on the bad stuff in our lives that we have nothing left for the Lord.
It wasn’t always easy for Barnabas to live up to his name. It wasn’t easy for Barnabas to be positive and encouraging when his life was in danger. Barnabas is living proof that the gift of encouragement doesn’t come from within. It comes from above. God gives us the faith to believe his Word. God gives us the encouragement to remain faithful to his Word. God gives us the motivation us to be like Barnabas (where else?) in his Word.
Barnabas saw the evidence of the grace of God in Antioch, but that is not all that he saw. When he looked at the city, he also saw a ripe field just waiting to be harvested. And because he couldn’t do everything by himself, he recruited someone to help him.
“Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him he brought him to Antioch” (25,26). At first, this doesn’t appear to be a big deal. Barnabas needed some help, so he recruited Paul. But we need to remember that Paul was not always Paul. In this chapter, he is still called Saul. Saul was a Jew. Saul had been a Pharisee. And Saul the Pharisee was no friend of Christians. He was there nodding with approval when Stephen was stoned to death. He hated Christians and hunted down Christians. And he was on his way to Damascus to do just that when God changed his life forever (see Acts 9).
In an instant, the Lord made one of his greatest enemies into one of his greatest missionaries. But the transition from Saul the persecutor to Paul the preacher didn’t take place overnight. The apostles weren’t prepared to welcome him with open arms, at least not at first. It’s possible that Saul put some of them in jail. There is a chance that Saul put some of their friends/relatives to death. Someone had to stick his neck out for Saul. Someone in the church had to stand up for Saul before the others would be willing to trust him. And that someone was Barnabas (see Acts 9:26-28).
Barnabas considered Saul to be his brother, but not just because they shared Jewish blood. Saul and Barnabas were brothers in faith. They believed that Jesus was born to fulfill Old Testament prophecy. They believed that Jesus lived and died and rose again to take away their sins. They trusted the Lord’s promises and embraced the Lord’s command to preach the good news to all creation. And so these brothers, united by a common faith, also became brothers in ministry.
This is one area where it might not be so easy for us to be like Barnabas. When someone sins against us, our initial reaction is not to forgive and forget. When someone hurts you, it can be extremely difficult to let it go. Even if you are able to move on, it is all but impossible to treat that person as if nothing ever happened.
In Barnabas we have an excellent example of forgiveness, but we have an even better one. When Jesus’ enemies persecuted him, he didn’t respond in anger. When his enemies taunted him, he didn’t open his mouth. When his enemies nailed his hands and feet to the cross, Jesus didn’t ask God to crush them. He asked God to forgive them. And at the same time, he was asking God to forgive us.
Jesus is not just a model of forgiveness. He is the giver of forgiveness. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the sinless lamb who sacrificed his life for you. There are no conditions to be met. There are no strings attached. God’s forgiveness is free, and it frees you and me to forgive others.
Barnabas was a son of encouragement. Barnabas was a brother of Paul. And because the name was first given to believers while he was working in Antioch, it is also appropriate to call Barnabas a father of Christians.
“For a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people” (26). Why did Barnabas and Saul spend so much time in one place? Maybe it was because many of these new Christians had come from pagan backgrounds. Maybe they needed that much time to build a solid foundation. Whatever the reasons were, God blessed their efforts and allowed them to teach great numbers of people.
And almost as a footnote we are told that “the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (26b). Notice that they were called “Christians,” not “Barnabites.” Barnabas was the messenger, but he was sharing God’s message. Barnabas was doing the teaching, but the Holy Spirit was doing the converting. Some of these new Christians might have even looked up to Barnabas as their spiritual father, but they were all followers of Christ.
As I look out at this congregation, I can see people who are here because someone else brought them here: a relative, a spouse, a co-worker, a friend. And I see pews filled with Barnabases, people who know people who don’t know Jesus, people who want all people to be saved, people know the truth and know that the truth sets sinners free.
It doesn’t matter if you have been at St. Matthew’s your whole life or if you will be coming up to the altar in a few minutes to be welcomed as a new member. We all share the same name. We are all Christians. We are all followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one thing needful in this life. Jesus is our only hope for eternal life. And for as long as we are here, the Lord calls us to carry the cross of Christ into the world.
Mother’s Day is next Sunday. If you want to do something extra special for mom this year, if you are hoping to find the perfect gift, if you want to do more than buy flowers or do the dishes, if you are looking for a meaningful way to honor your mother and your heavenly Father, make it your goal to be like Barnabas. Amen.