By Alex Walker
Now over a decade ago, I still remember sitting enraptured during a talk on Christian leadership. The speaker, then unknown to me but now a close and dear friend, was sharing on the early Church leader Barnabas. The overall gist was that as Christians we must intentionally seek to grow Barnabas’s DNA in our lives.
Who is this guy?
When we first meet Barnabas, he’s just sold a plot of land to give to the work of the apostles and growing church (Acts 4:36-37). So, he’s a generous guy, but also, he’s primarily known by a nickname. His real name is Joseph, but everyone calls him Barnabas (meaning “son of encouragement”).The next time he enters the scene is to help of a man named Saul (du du du).
Most of us remember Saul (later given the nickname of Paul) because his story is, well, amazing (chpt 9)! One minute he’s breathing out threats and persecuting the church (Saul was present and affirmed the stoning of Stephen 7:58, 8:1). The next minute his trip to Jerusalem to arrest anyone following Jesus gets waylaid in Damascus by, well, Jesus. Overnight Saul goes from persecuting the early church to becoming a member of it.
Later when he travels to Jerusalem, it’s really no surprise that when Saul figuratively knocks on the apostles’ doors they pretend to be not at home. (Of course believers in Damascus like Ananias have already welcomed him 9:10+) Who in Jerusalem musters up the courage to meet Saul? Full of encouragement, our friend Barnabas meets him, takes him to the disciples, and vouches for this fresh convert.
Discernment – the first element of the Barnabas DNA
Where uncertainty and fear of the unknown (understandably) appears to influence the majority’s response to Saul, Barnabas steps out in bold faith. In doing so, he gets to hear Saul’s story first hand and recognizes the truth of God’s calling over his life. The result is that Saul is able to go freely in and out among the community of believers in Jerusalem! Barnabas, reaching out, discerns God in Saul. By doing so, not only is Saul brought into a greater sense of community he starts building up those of the faith (9:28).
It’s very easy to stop at surface-level knowledge of a person. Certainly that approach feels safest at times, but the overall life of a community can be much more exciting when we reach out to the other. What would our church look like if we all reached out with the intent of discerning God’s calling in others, while helping to create a space for that calling? (This is where we all join hands and start singing “We are one in the Spirit…” like it’s 1960 again.)
Noble – the second element of the Barnabas DNA
At some point, Barnabas is sent to serve as a pastor at an exploding church in Antioch (11:22-26). In modern day Turkey, Antioch was an invariable Roman playground. Not only was it a port city that played an integral role in that part of the world’s commerce, counting Rome and Alexandria, Antioch was the third largest city in the entire empire. It was the happening place to be.
Barnabas arrives, checks out the church, and basically says, “Wow, I see God’s grace at work here. Sit tight, remain faithful. I’ve got to leave and bring back Saul.” And that’s what he does. He leaves, gets Saul from his hometown in Tarsus, and they go back to Antioch to minister together for a whole year. It’s during their stay and leadership there that disciples of Jesus are called “Christians” for the first time (11:26).
At seeing this thriving church in a thriving city, it would have been all too easy for Barnabas to stick around and get all of the credit. He certainly was qualified for the job and likely would have been successful. Instead, at the helm of something great, he exercises honorable and generous character by moving from individual to shared ministry. He acts nobly and gets Saul to Antioch to help lead.
In his book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen says that one of the chief temptations in Christian leadership (or “internet life” in general these days) is to be spectacular. I’ll say that again. One of the chief temptations in Christian life is to be spectacular. Thankfully, Nouwen suggests that one way to resist this temptation is to move from a mindset of individual ministry to one of shared ministry. Is there something that we do alone (maybe with pure but perhaps misguided intentions) that would be more life-giving if shared with someone else?
Affirming – the third element of the Barnabas DNA
After Antioch, these two go on multiple missionary journeys together (chpt 13). While in Cyprus, a truly remarkable thing happens. A Roman leader has invited them to share about their faith and a live, in-person magician opposes them in front of everyone. Surprisingly, Saul not Barnabas responds (also from here onward the writer of Acts begins referring to Saul by his nickname, Paul):
“Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, ‘You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?’” (13:10)
There’s so much fun to be found in this encounter from Voldemort to the salty language of an immerging leader!
It’s fairly clear that up to this point, Barnabas has been taking the lead on public interactions. Yet here Paul steps up as representative. Until this moment on Cyprus, the chapter headings and verses say “Barnabas and Saul” in that order. From this point onward while they are together, its “Paul and Barnabas” in that order. So much so that directly after what happens at Cyprus, some versions pick up the story again simply by saying, “Now Paul and his companions set sail…” (13:13 ESV).
Of course, it’s important to realize that Barnabas’s influence and leadership doesn’t go away. For instance, later during one trip people refer to Paul as Hermes while Barnabas is called Zeus (Zeus of course enjoying better status than Hermes on Mt. Olympus) (14:12)!
Now for a movie reference. I love the classic film Roman Holiday. Uncharacteristic to the practice of the day and despite this being Audrey Hepburn’s first major film role, her name is included next to Gregory Peck’s in marketing and the opening credits. Legend has it that Peck specifically asked for this after realizing Hepburn’s potential during filming(special features, y’all). Here’s the thing: Peck didn’t stop being a great actor because Hepburn was billed by his name (or because she won an Oscar for the role). He was legendary then and after. Hepburn, not yet, did become legendary.
Who in our lives has potential? Are we helping them to grow in it? Or are we consumed by attention to the details of our individual journey towards hoped-for legendary status that no one ever gets billed by our names?
The Barnabas DNA
Discerning God in Paul, Barnabas nobly creates a space for him to grow in calling, and then in important moments of new-found leadership for Paul, he affirms and supports him. The rest is (church) history as they say.
I’m convinced that our individual lives are threads woven together into a great tapestry that is the family of God. Because of this, each one of us gets the chanceto look beyond ourselves to discern and nobly affirm what God is doing in the lives of those around us. I’m also convinced that by following Barnabas’s example we’re doing the best possible thing for our lives. For this is how the tapestry of our faith – individual and communal – grows stronger and more uniquely beautiful.
Barnabas and Paul didn’t always get along. At one point they abruptly split ways after disagreeing about whether or not to take a young John Mark on a missionary journey (15:36). Much like Barnabas vouched for Paul, he did the same for John Mark. Most believe that the two made amends and came back together later (along with John Mark). In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul says that he’s sending to them one “famous among all churches.” Most consider this to be Barnabas.