When the Apostle Paul, still called Saul at this point arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to meet with the believers, but they were all afraid of him. They did not believe he had truly become a believer! “Then Barnabas brought him to the apostles and told them how Saul had seen the Lord on the way to Damascus and how the Lord had spoken to Saul. He also told them that Saul had preached boldly in the name of Jesus in Damascus. So Saul stayed with the apostles and went all around Jerusalem with them, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord.” Acts 9:27-29a.
Saul was described with “monstrous” words before his conversion: as breathing out threats and slaughter with every breath he took. From the time of the stoning of the first martyr, Stephen, the Bible records Saul’s determined efforts to destroy the disciples in Jerusalem. He jailed them, had them killed, and in some cases forced them to blaspheme the name of Jesus. Destroying the church was his life’s work. He was an understandably scary figure. Prior to his conversion, he was a Pharisee and considered one of the most religious people around.
Though outwardly appearing to be a righteous and religious person, his heart had been filled with bloodthirsty anger. His heart had been hard. In Matthew 23:27, Jesus describes these religious people:“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” Ouch!
So when Saul shows up in Jerusalem in the above passage, it is quite reasonable that the church wants nothing to do with him. After all, it was they, their friends, family and brothers in Christ that Saul was destroying. It was their faith that he sought to stomp out by any means necessary. They had likely heard about his conversion on the Road to Damascus, but fear and distrust are strong motivators. That fear and distrust compelled most of them to have nothing to do with Saul, no matter what they heard about him meeting Jesus. It is hard not to blame them, after all, Saul had earned that distrust through his sin; and there are consequences for sin. Unsurprisingly, those believers were cautious about whether or not his conversion was authentic.
Saul was on his own and excluded from the church. Some may have even felt this was deserving punishment for the work he had prior to conversion. They may have said, “Sure, Jesus can save anyone, but I don’t have to go to church with them.” Then there was a man named Joseph, a Levite, who the Apostles nicknamed “Barnabas”. He is one of the underrated great men of the Bible. Paul gets most of the attention for the missionary journeys, but Barnabas was right there with him. He and Paul were the first missionary team to the Gentiles in Church history. After they separated, Barnabas continued on the mission field taking John Mark with him to reach the world for Jesus. He preached the Lord and brought many to faith in Jesus.
Our account, though, focuses on a difference aspect than his preaching or missionary activity. Though he was named Joseph, he is remembered by his nickname Barnabas because of what it signified.
Barnabas means “Son of Consolation” or “Son of Exhortation”. Consolation is something that helps another person feel better after a loss or disappointment. It is synonymous with solace, sympathy, compassion or empathy. Exhortation means to summon to one’s side, to encourage or entreat.
It involves developing deep relationships with people to encourage them in their spiritual walks. What an awesome nickname for a Christian! What an example of Christ! How are we encouraging people in their spiritual walks? How do we extend God’s grace?
Importantly, Barnabas was not born with this name, he earned it from the men who walked with Jesus. His day to day life was defined by reaching out and making others, who had suffered a loss, feel better. His practice of developing relationships with others to uplift and edify them and help them in their Christian life was noticeable. He would be the one weeping with those who weep, rejoicing with those who rejoice and suffering with those who suffered in the church. His service to the Lord so defined him that Peter and the Apostles named him for it.
What are we known for as believers? When people observe our Christian walk, what do they see? Are we characterized by works of the Spirit? What might our nickname be?
So when newly Christian Saul, returns to Jerusalem and there are problems, it makes sense that Barnabas becomes involved. Saul comes back from a foreign land, Syria, to his people and the city of his Lord and seeks to join the church. Can you imagine how moving and difficult that was for Saul? It was the city that was the Jewish center of the world and where Jesus Himself preached. It was also the city where Saul tore apart the church and killed the Saints. How hard it must have been for Saul to see the place where he had taken part in Stephen’s stoning.
How does the church respond to Saul? The church turns him away out of fear. Saul had met the Risen Lord, and they thought he was faking it. How painful this must have been. Then the man characterized by consolation and exhortation, Barnabas, steps in. He brings Saul alongside him and makes the way for Saul’s conversion to define him rather than his past define him. He speaks on Saul’s behalf before the Apostles and testifies to what the Lord had done in Saul’s life. He focuses on the good in Saul. He focuses on the transforming work of Jesus in him.
Barnabas takes a great chance on Saul, in getting close to Saul and bringing him before the Apostles, but what else could he do? It was who he was after all – the one who comforts, empathizes, encourages. An imitator of Christ; one who forgives. One who keeps no record of wrongs.
Barnabas acknowledges the redemptive power of Christ Barnabas knows that the Resurrected Lord brings dead things to life…even whitewashed tombs!
Are you defining others by their past sin? Or are you offering grace and forgiveness? The enemy of God wants us to condemn others, but the Lord instructs us to forgive and not to keep a record of wrongs.
“There is, therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” Romans 8:1
By the way, in Acts 13, Saul gave up his Hebrew name and its status, and chose the Roman form, Paul. Paul means “little” and as a missionary to the Gentile world, it was a name they could relate to. The meaning of the name also seems to indicate a heart change in Saul. The name Paul demonstrates a humility, and reflects his desire to be made small so that Christ could be magnified.
Saul was a believer who was likely hurting, excluded by the church, experiencing the consequences of past sins, unable to move forward in the church. That is when Barnabas apparently was at his best. Barnabas is a great reflection of the grace of God.
We all sin. We all have past failures. But God’s mercies are new every morning, and as regenerated believers in Christ; we are no longer defined by our past sins. God wants to do a new thing in our lives if we’re willing.
As Paul said, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:12-14
Let us not focus on past sin and regret, giving Satan opportunity to hold us back from our calling or that of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Instead, let us repent and trust in the Lord that he has done great things in the lives of even the most broken people. Let us give thanks for the grace of God lived out by the Barnabas’s in our lives. Let us do our best to be like Barnabas and be defined by encouragement and exhort others to press on and share the gospel!