Invest in Others

 

Week of May 29, 2011

 

Bible Verses:  Acts 9:26-27; 11:19-26; 15:36-41.

 

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about believers’ investing themselves in and mentoring other believers.

 

Take the Risk:  Acts 9:26-27.

 

[26]  And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. [27]  But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.  [ESV]

 

What in the world were they saying in Jerusalem about the conversion of Saul? News surely reached there within a few days after the event. No doubt the Jews were alarmed and angry, while the Jewish Christians were deeply suspicious of its genuineness, fearing some elaborate plot. The members of the community of faith in Jerusalem were not about to throw wide their homes and ask Paul to dinner. The news that he had returned, professing to have been converted, must surely have been an astonishing event no matter which way it was perceived. If Ananias played a significant role in Damascus, introducing Saul to a suspicious and terrified Christian community, then in Jerusalem it was another individual who played this role in a setting even more suspicious, given the Christians’ previous encounter with Saul. His name was Joseph, but he was given the nickname Barnabas because it meant “son of encouragement.” When Saul’s former friends disowned him, Barnabas stepped in to ensure Saul’s reception into the Christian community in Jerusalem: But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. Barnabas appears on the pages of Scripture as a genuinely good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith [Acts 11:24]. We first met him at the end of Acts 4, where he was seen donating proceeds from the sale of a field he owned to the apostles for use in poor relief [4:36]. Later, when the gospel began to be embraced enthusiastically by Gentiles in the city of Antioch, the people in Jerusalem thought it wise to send a representative up north to scrutinize what was going on. That they would entrust this to Barnabas tells us much of their trust in him at a crucial stage in the church’s infancy. His enthusiasm for those of Cyprus and Cyrene who had embraced the gospel, despite things that might have upset others, showed his wisdom, ensuring that the church in Antioch would not be discouraged by overbearing manhandling from Jerusalem [11:22-30]. Barnabas would settle in Antioch and nourish this community until the Holy Spirit set him and Saul apart for what would be the first missionary journey [13:1ff.]. Whenever Barnabas saw a destitute soul needing encouragement, he was there to give a helping hand. His advocacy of the newly converted Saul in Jerusalem was entirely in character.

 

Involve Others:  Acts 11:19-26.

 

[19]  Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. [20]  But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. [21]  And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. [22]  The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. [23]  When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, [24]  for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. [25]  So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, [26]  and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.  [ESV]

 

[19]  In this section Luke takes us to Antioch, one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire, with a population estimated in the region of half a million. Antioch was headquarters to Rome’s Syrian legion. The city lay inland, but within a few miles was the port city of Seleucia, gateway to the Mediterranean. Antioch had a large Jewish population, and following the persecution that arose in Jerusalem at the time of the death of Stephen, many believers fled to Antioch. Luke reintroduces Barnabas and Saul to his narrative. The last we heard of Saul, he had escaped over a Damascus wall in a basket and made his way to Jerusalem, where his life was once more in danger. He had been taken to Caesarea and then sent off to his native town of Tarsus. Nothing has been heard of Saul since (possibly for ten years), and Luke was setting the stage for his reappearance. The church in Antioch was made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers, which signaled a massive change in thinking and perspective for the early church. Thus, the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to investigate.

 

[20-21]  The first matter that Luke describes is the statement that God’s hand was with the church: the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord [21]. The hand of God signals the invisible God making His power and might visible and tangible. As a result of God’s hand, there could be no doubt that His mighty power was with the church in Antioch. Thus, the church in Antioch grew. Despite the problems that normally ensued in relationships between Jews and Gentiles, when God is present in the power of the Holy Spirit, no ethnic or social barrier can disrupt His work. An important theological signal is given to us in the way in which Luke records what occurred: God’s hand was with them as the men from Cyprus and Cyrene spoke to the Hellenists (or Greeks) [20-21]. God blessed their efforts. The blessing was not something that occurred apart from their evangelistic zeal, but in and through their ministry. Here is a proof that God’s sovereign grace must never be pitted against zeal in Christian mission. It is true that God alone can save an individual. Salvation is of the Lord. Faith is a gift of God. God draws His people to Himself through conversion, involving illumination, regeneration, faith, and repentance – a complex chain of events that theologians call “effectual calling” or that Luke calls here the hand of the Lord. From eternal predestination to final glorification, the salvation of a sinner is the accomplishment of the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mutually working together in a bond of love and sovereign commitment to do that which none of us have the power to do. But at the same time, God employs means to save us. He has not only chosen whom He will save; He has also chosen the means by which that person will come to faith. God’s calling employs individuals engaged in robust evangelism. Faithful evangelism, speaking the truths that constitute the gospel, was what these men did in Antioch, and God blessed their efforts by adding to the church. Luke is showing us what can happen when people faithfully engage in evangelism in a prayerful manner. God may attend with His blessing and draw men and women to Himself. Unless this work is committed to the Lord in prayer, looking for His blessing, it will all be in vain.

 

[22-25]  News of the growth of the church in Antioch caused some concern in Jerusalem [22]. It was the number of Gentiles that caused the most concern. The leaders in Jerusalem believed they had a responsibility to ensure that the faith and practice be kept pure. It is a matter of great significance and daring initiative that the church in Jerusalem chose Barnabas as its investigative agent. No more encouraging ambassador could have been chosen than the “son of encouragement.” Barnabas was a man whose life bore visible fruit. Luke knew Barnabas and accompanied him on several missionary tours. He had witnessed firsthand his godliness and friendly disposition. His response to the grace of God evident in Antioch made him glad and he encouraged the Christian community at Antioch to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose [23]. It is worth pondering what might have happened to the shape of the New Testament church had someone less supportive been sent to Antioch, someone whose policy was to suffocate all enthusiasm and add significant restrictive policies to Gentiles contemplating conversion. Without doubt, the church would have taken a very different shape had this been the case. We might ask ourselves whether we are encouragers by temperament. Are we the ones carping at the sidelines or are we earnestly seeking the growth of the church? It is easy to be the former, but it takes determination and discernment to do the latter. In addition to encouraging the brothers in Antioch, Barnabas did something that no one else might have done. He went to Tarsus in search of Saul. This initiative would change the shape of world history. Barnabas saw an opportunity for the gospel in what had happened to Saul, and someone needed to find him and encourage him to that end. It was time to lay aside understandable prejudices resulting from the death of Stephen and others and see in Saul’s conversion the mighty hand of God. Barnabas saw the best in people rather than the worst. Do you? We need to pause and consider the cost of Barnabas’s initiative to himself. From this point forward, Barnabas will retreat into the background as Paul grows and outshines his partner. Soon it will no longer be “Barnabas and Saul” [Acts 11:30; 12:25; 13:2], but “Paul and Barnabas” [Acts 13:43,46,50]. The light will shine on Paul rather than Barnabas, a point that is all the more significant in the passage before us as we discover that it is Barnabas’s own decision to seek out Saul of Tarsus. This search for Saul reveals something extraordinary about Barnabas. He discerned that the church was in need of gifts that he did not himself possess. He was willing to publicly admit that his own gifting was inadequate for the task ahead. This says a great deal about the humility of Barnabas. He put the needs of the church before his own advancement and self-glorification. He played the role of a servant even when that role pushed him back into the shadows. It was the mark of a true servant of God. It revealed both great wisdom and great humility at the same time. Are you willing to do what Barnabas did: take the lowly road where there is little of the limelight, content that you are doing it for Jesus?

 

[26]  Barnabas found Paul and brought him to Antioch. Now that Paul had arrived and there were evident signs of blessing in the church, would it not make sense to launch out into the surrounding neighborhoods with an evangelistic mission? This might well be what we would expect, but it is not what occurred. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. The church was saturated with the truth. Truth matters. Doctrine is important. God’s people need instruction in the faith. It was in the wake of this teaching that believers were first called Christians. The truth affected them in such a way that their lives portrayed the doctrines they espoused. They not only talked about Christ, but also resembled Him in their actions. It was evident to all that they belonged to Christ. The name Christian was initially used to distinguish believers not from non-Christians, but from Jews and Gentiles. Up until this moment, everyone belonged to one or the other grouping. What was so distinctive in Antioch is that a third way emerged – someone who was neither a Jew nor a Gentile, but a Christian. What emerged in Antioch, a pagan Roman city, was a community in which Christian values and zeal were so palpable that unbelievers could see it, even if they derided them for it. Such an environment sifted the wheat from the chaff. Only true Christianity could survive in such an environment. Sooner or later, nominal Christianity will accommodate itself to the pagan culture; it will adopt its values and conform to its levels of acceptability. What showed itself in Antioch was something entirely countercultural. In such an environment, there is no mistaking the true church. When its members are truly committed to Christ, the result is something that shines brightly.

 

Recognize Potential:  Acts 15:36-41.

 

[36]  And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are." [37]  Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. [38]  But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. [39]  And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, [40]  but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. [41]  And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.  [ESV]

 

These verses describe a sharp disagreement [39] between two leaders at a crucial stage in the growth of the church. It is an example of Christians in conflict with each other. Given the fact that Christians still find themselves in conflict with one another on occasion, the principles taught in this passage of Scripture should help us in managing conflict resolution. To begin with, we need to describe the background to the conflict. It all began when Paul suggested to Barnabas that they revisit the churches in Galatia to see how they are. It had been over a year since their initial visit to these churches. When Paul proposed this return trip to Galatia, Barnabas suggested that they take John Mark, his cousin, along with them. This was where trouble ensured. John Mark had evidently accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, which had begun in Barnabas’s home territory, Cyprus. John Mark acted as a helper to Barnabas and Paul in circumstances that had occasioned the opposition of Elymas the sorcerer. When they had made the sea crossing from Paphos in Cyprus to Perga on the mainland of Pamphylia, John Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem [Acts 13:13]. Luke adds no comment, and had it not  been for what occurs here in Antioch, we might have inferred that his departure had met with the approval of all concerned. But in 15:38 we see that John Mark had deserted Barnabas and Paul when things got tough and Paul sees him as someone that he cannot depend upon. But Barnabas wants to give his young cousin a second chance. It is important to note a few things about this disagreement: first, its severity. Luke’s sharp disagreement suggests that passions were aroused. There can be hardly any doubt that the issue seemed personal. A second thing to notice about this dispute is the fact that it was unresolved. At least, they did not come to the same mind. This raises an important point: there are times when the best of Christians will disagree and no matter how hard they try, they will fail to come to the same mind. Barnabas looks as though he was a peacemaker, wanting to give John Mark a second chance. Paul looks as though he was guilty of being stubborn and unforgiving. Of course these portrayals may be entirely wrong. Making peace is not easy, especially when personal and familial issues are involved. What may appear as peacemaking may simply be an attempt to achieve a position of honor and privilege for one’s own family. From one point of view, Paul was a difficult man to work alongside. He was multi-talented, was rigidly focused, and did not suffer fools gladly. He could appear overbearing and calculating. He had a single vision for God’s kingdom and glory and had little time for underachievers. This is a caricature, or course, but there is a grain of truth in it. Many of us would far rather work alongside the forgiving Barnabas than the demanding Paul. Luke refrains from taking sides in this issue, which is interesting. He simply records the event, letting us draw out the more obvious conclusion which is that even Christians of the caliber of Paul and Barnabas are capable of sharp disagreements. Paul and Barnabas were not in disagreement over a point of doctrine, it was their assessment of an individual that differed. There is one more aspect of this conflict that we need to examine: its consequences. Paul took Silas with him to Syria and Cilicia and from there on a journey that would take them back to the Galatian churches. Silas had been one of the individuals sent by the church in Jerusalem to oversee the reception of the decree in Antioch. He and Judas had been sent back to Antioch [Acts 15:33], but he must have returned from Jerusalem having given a report to the church of how the decree had been received in Antioch. Barnabas takes John Mark and heads for his native island of Cyprus. Despite a reference to Barnabas in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (drawing attention to the fact that Barnabas, like himself, preferred to be self-supporting rather than depend on the financial support of other Christians [9:6]), the two would never work together again. It is worth asking whether Paul’s actions with regard to John Mark meant that the latter would never find true usefulness again. Had Barnabas not taken John Mark with him to Cyprus, it may well have meant just that. He may have retreated into the background in Jerusalem, never to be heard of again. Can Christians who have failed in ministry ever find true usefulness again? The question becomes acute when moral failure is in view, but the issue with John Mark was ministerial failure, not moral failure. It is the failure of inexperience that lay at the heart of what John Mark did. The fact is, John Mark did find both future usefulness and reconciliation with Paul. The next time John Mark is mentioned in the New Testament, he is in Rome. Writing to the Colossians (in about ten years’ time, around 60 AD), Paul sends greetings from three fellow Christians of Jewish birth and three of Gentile birth. Among the first three is one called Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. Paul singles out Mark, instructing the Colossians to welcome him if he comes to them. What is clear is that Mark has found favor in Paul’s eyes. Later still, in Paul’s final epistle, he urges Timothy, Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry [2 Tim. 4:11]. Furthermore, Peter refers to Mark as my son [1 Peter 5:13], adding some New Testament support to the long-standing tradition that Mark wrote his Gospel account with Peter whispering in his ear. No Christian is beyond hope of recovery. No matter how bad the fall may be, there is a road back to usefulness. John Mark is not doomed to live out a second-rate Christian life, never to experience the smile of God’s approval on his ministry ever again. Think about it: God would choose him to write one of the Gospels. This does not justify what he did at Pamphylia. But God forgives repentant sinners, and so should we.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         What does Luke mean by the hand of the Lord was with them [11:21]? What implications does this statement have for the way we do evangelism?

 

2.         The church desperately needs people like Barnabas. People, who in their humility and love for God, are willing to encourage and promote the work of others for the greater benefit of God's church. How can you be a "Barnabas" in your church? Our pastors, church leaders, teachers, etc., need people who will encourage and support them in their ministries like Barnabas did with Paul. Ask God to show you how you can be an “encourager” and not a “complainer” in your church.

 

3.         Describe the conflict between Paul and Barnabas. What lessons can we learn from this conflict that we can apply to conflict resolution in our churches and in our own individual lives?

 

References:

Acts, Darrell Bock, ECNT, Baker Academic.

The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Eerdmans.

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity Press.

Acts, Derek Thomas, P&R Publishing.