12 June 2017

Acts 11:19-30

“He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit. And a great many people were brought to the Lord” (v. 24)

Psalm: Psalm 112


When parents are expecting a child, they usually give a lot of careful thought as to what name to give. Many books are available with thousands to choose from! But often, it is the nicknames people receive that tell us more about them.

Today, we turn our thoughts to St Barnabas, an apostle who often escapes our attention. He was a leader of great wisdom in the early days of the growing early Church. He was from Cyprus, and originally called Joseph (Acts 4:36), but they gave him the nickname Barnabas, which means 'son of encouragement'. This has to rank among the best of the biblical nicknames! Thomas was called 'the twin', Simon became 'the rock', James and John were the 'sons of Thunder'. I know which I'd rather be known as.

Barnabas grew in stature in the church in Jerusalem, the 'mother church', and his first known act involved selling his own property and giving his money wholly into the stewardship of the church, to be used for the relief of poverty and the mutual benefit that was common practice for the new church (Acts 4:37). He became someone whom the other apostles respected and trusted greatly. He was someone who could spot what God was doing, and encourage others to go along with it. He seems to have been a travelling emissary for the Church, observing growing communities of Jesus, and reporting back. This is seen in Acts 9, when Saul of Tarsus (a fierce persecutor of the church) has his mysterious conversion and changes his name too. 'Church HQ' was fearful and sceptical, but Barnabas saw what God had done with this man and on his word Paul was received by Peter and the others. Barnabas had a real gift of discernment, along with an integrity which meant his gift was taken seriously.

This comes to the fore in today's passage . The community of believers had been scattered because of persecution in Jerusalem. Some went to Antioch (in Syria) and their preaching brought a boom in new converts, mainly from the non-Jewish (Greek, Hellenistic) community. News reached headquarters and they sent out their trusted man Barnabas to check out what was happening. Barnabas noted that God was clearly at work: "he came and saw the grace of God" (v. 23), and encouraged the new believers in their faith. He didn't try to stop it! He didn't try to pour cold water on their red-hot faith. He didn't put up structures that would stifle them. But neither did he leave them to their own devices. New believers need careful training and encouragement. So, Barnabas set out to find the right man for the job: Paul!

Paul could identify with the conversion and blossoming faith in Antioch, but he was also a leader with an incredible way of putting theology and Scripture into practice. He was one who would encourage growth, but wouldn't take any nonsense! Barnabas had the wisdom to know that Paul, at that time, would be ideal. (And each year, as Methodist ministers move around the country, the Methodist Stationing Committee try to do the same thing!)

We can only imagine the strength of faith and the impact of the church's growth in Antioch, but we do know they were eager to continue the pattern of giving sacrificially, so that what they had could be shared with those in times of poverty. This was a mark of the early church. It was in Antioch that we got the nickname that has stuck for nearly 2,000 years: "Christians" (v. 26)! It was probably meant as an insult, because in their words and deeds they were constantly speaking of Christ.

To Ponder

  • Nowadays people tend to make a self-declaration about whether they are Christian or not. If we didn't give ourselves this label, to what extent would our words and actions be enough to earn it?
  • Barnabas was a 'son of encouragement'. Who has been important in encouraging you? Maybe you could pray and thank God for them. If you're able, maybe you could tell them yourself.
  • Are you good at discerning who would be good for a particular job or ministry? How often might you assume instead that 'yours truly' would be best?

Bible notes author

The Revd Andrew Murphy

Andrew Murphy is married to Emily and they have two children, Phoebe (aged 4) and Benjamin (aged 18 months). Andy is the superintendent minister of the Market Harborough Circuit (a small circuit in the south of Leicestershire, and over the border into Northants). Previously, Andy’s ministry was based in Barwell in the Hinckley Circuit for eight years. And before that, he trained at the Wesley Study Centre in Durham, close to his home-town of Consett. Andy has a passion to help God’s people grow in faith, and occasionally writes hymns, sketches and songs. Spare time includes trips to play parks, watching Disney films or Postman Pat, reading Mr Men books, visiting Middle Earth, and reminiscing over the good old days of supporting Newcastle United. In the picture, Andy is the one in blue (and the snowman’s name is Olaf)!