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Paul’s Partners: Barnabas (2)

David Williamson, Newtownabbey

We concluded our last article by considering the generosity and integrity of Barnabas. We now commence with another delightful trait - his humility.

His Humility

It is refreshing to see this Christ-like quality so plainly displayed in the life of Barnabas. It is evident in his dealings with his brethren and in his attitude to God.

Barnabas appreciated his brethren! When Barnabas had encouraged the fledgling assembly at Antioch he "departed…to Tarsus, for to seek Saul" (Acts 11.25). Why did he go for Saul? He recognised the need for other workers and was not slow to search for one who was eminently suitable! Antioch was a success story of grand proportions and Barnabas could have kept it for himself, but he was not a small-minded, self-indulgent person! He had the Lord’s interests at heart. He was not in the work at Antioch for himself, but for God.

Is it not essential for us to recognise and appreciate the qualities and gifts given to other servants? We all have our own responsibilities but we are not expected to be building our own empires. Barnabas recognised that God had provided workers more suited than he for the present need.

Barnabas would not displace his God! In Acts 14, in Lystra, Barnabas was with Paul when a crippled man was miraculously healed. The people "lifted up their voices, saying...The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men". Then the priest of Jupiter planned to offer sacrifices to them. When Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they "rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out...Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you" (Acts 14.11-15). These co-labourers were together adamant that God’s work should result in glory for God and not for them. The glory that should be reserved for God, they refused to take for themselves!

May we learn this lesson also! Do we take for ourselves glory that is due to God alone? It was for this very sin that Herod was "eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost" (Acts 12.23)! All believers should be generous, trustworthy, and humble. We all want to be good men or women. Barnabas is an example of a good man. These qualities are essential if we desire God’s approval.

The Grace of God in which he Rejoiced

The book of Acts is a history of a transitional period in God’s dealings with men. Barnabas, on the whole, was quick to recognise the change in God’s dealings. His name is mentioned in association with a beautiful expression - the "grace of God"! In fact he delighted in it and defended it, but sadly for a time was deflected from it.

Delighting in the grace of God

At Antioch "when he came, and had seen the grace of God, [he] was glad" (Acts 11.23)! As we noted in the earlier article, it was unlikely that these believers ticked every box! They had been saved from idolatrous, heathen backgrounds and every difficulty would be present! They needed on-going instruction and pastoral care – this was one of the reasons that Barnabas searched out Paul and brought him to Antioch. However, whatever shortcomings there might have been, there was evidence of the grace of God at work, and in that Barnabas delighted!

In the case of every genuine conversion to God there will be some evidence of the grace of God at work. Perfection is not to be expected in a new believer. However, when a person who once was "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph 2.1) suddenly begins to manifest a desire to please God, a love for the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, a conscience about sin, and a love for fellow-believers, it is high time we began to rejoice in the grace of God at work!

Defending the grace of God

In Acts 15, Judaizers came to Antioch to infiltrate the assembly and taught, "Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved" (Acts 15.1). The assembly, made up mostly of Gentiles, was in danger of being overthrown by false teaching. Paul and Barnabas stood shoulder to shoulder against the false teachers and "had no small dissension and disputation with them" (Acts 15.2). This resulted in a journey to Jerusalem and a council – the details of which are found in the later verses of Acts 15. This solidarity in the face of false teaching which threatened the very foundation of the gospel is something that must be emulated in our own day. There are differences of opinion in Biblical study in which it would be unwise to be dogmatic. The doctrines of the gospel, however, are not up for debate – we should unite behind the clear Scriptural testimony to these truths.

Deflected from the grace of God

It is sad to note that, for a brief time, Barnabas was wrongly influenced in respect of the grace of God. In Galatians 2 Peter, in order to appease a strong Jewish element visiting the church at Antioch, began to withdraw himself from eating with Gentile believers. In other words, while Peter would have agreed that circumcision was not required for salvation, his actions gave the impression that Gentile believers were not on the same level as Jewish believers. The result of Peter’s hypocritical stance was that "the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation" (Gal 2.13). Barnabas was "led astray by their hypocrisy" (ESV)!

Perhaps in Barnabas there was a weakness when it came to personalities in the church. It may be true that he was easily influenced by the big names. Whatever the reason, this is one blot on the character of a great servant of God. Let us delight in the evidence of the grace of God we see among believers! Let us defend the doctrine of salvation by grace with our lives if necessary! Let us take care that we are not influenced by personalities, rather than by the precepts of God’s Word.

The Grief of Contention

It is disappointing to end our study of Barnabas on a sad note. He has proven to be such a lovely character of a man. The heart-breaking chapter in the life of Barnabas is Acts 15.36-40.

The choice of John Mark

Paul suggested to Barnabas that they should return to visit the brethren in the cities where they had preached, to see how they were doing. Barnabas was in agreement but "determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark" (Acts 15.37). What was the problem with that choice? The next verse gives the answer: "Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work" (Acts 15.38). John Mark had previously let Paul and Barnabas down.

Why did Barnabas choose John Mark? His reasons are not very clear. We need to be careful not to blame Barnabas as being in the wrong. It is possible that, because of his character, he did not wish John Mark to be discouraged by previous failure. Perhaps, because John Mark was a relative, whether cousin or nephew, Barnabas did not like to consider him as having failed!

The contention with Paul

Paul disagreed with Barnabas. Mark had disappointed them before – Paul evidently feared that he would do the same again. The argument became very sharp and heated. Darby renders it: "There arose therefore very warm feeling" (Acts 15.39). Evidently the emotions of both men were involved.

The cleavage in service

Barnabas and Paul went their separate ways. Even as we read the book of Acts, the speed at which this division occurred is astounding. They had seemed inseparable up until this time, but the Devil used a relatively small matter to separate two of the greatest servants of God! We may argue and wonder at the wisdom of both men. It seems evident from what follows that Barnabas has to bear the bulk of the blame. The sobering fact is that the Devil used a small disagreement to disrupt the work of God. It is well for us to remember that God desires unity. We are instructed to use all diligence "to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph 4.3). The Devil is a master at taking advantage of our pride and folly. Here, a family matter caused a separation which should have been avoided.

We have highlighted the many positives without side-stepping the negatives! The influence of Barnabas as Paul’s partner in the work of God cannot be over-estimated. May we emulate his virtues and learn from his failures. If we do so we will be true helpers in the work of God.

To be continued.

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