Barnabas the Exhorter - A Pen Portrait
A. Naismith, Falkirk
In Old Testament days, the people of Israel were divided into three categories—worshippers, workers and warriors. The priests were set apart for the worship of Jehovah, the Levites for the service of the sanctuary, and the rest of the males over 20 years of age were required, as necessary, to go out to battle. Barnabas was a servant, a Levite, but in common with other members of his tribe came under the divine indictment pronounced in Malachi 2. 8, "ye are departed out of the way", and this meant that the tribe was a failure under the old order. The Levites belonged to the Lord in place of the first born in each family, Num. 3. 12-13. The law required that the children of Israel should have supplied the material and temporal needs of the Levites, 18. 21-24. It seems, however, that the nation's failure in forgetting the Levites had led many of them to take up agriculture and acquire landed property. Barnabas, a Jewish Cypriot, had followed this course and was in possession of an earthly heritage in Cyprus.
When the glad tidings of Christ reached Cyprus, Barnabas, recognizing its claims, was converted and dedicated his life entirely to the Lord Jesus Christ. Embarking on the pathway of faith, he sold his material possessions, and yielded their proceeds entirely to the Lord, Acts 4. 37. Apart from Acts 9. 27, the next time we read of Barnabas is in Acts 11. Having proved his worth in the church at Jerusalem, he was commissioned to go to Antioch, the Syrian capital, where many citizens had been converted through faith in Jesus Christ, and a local church composed mainly of Gentile believers had been formed, Acts 11. 22-26. A wiser or more suitable choice could not have been made by the church in Jerusalem.
In Acts 11. 24 Barnabas is described as "a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith". Here his personality shines out. If we except our Lord Jesus who is in every respect "good", there are only two men called "good" in the New Testament, Joseph of Arimathaea and Joseph Barnabas. Both have "Joseph" as part of their names; both were eager to relinquish their land for the Lord, one for the burial of His crucified human body and the other for the sake of His mystic body, the church ; both were little known before their expression of love to their Lord and Master. Of Barnabas it could be truly said, "The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord", Psa. 37. 23, for his Lord and Master directed all his paths. It has been well said that, as soon as ever a Christian carves for himself, he will cut his own fingers. Following our own way will only lead us into Bypath Meadow.
Barnabas was not only a good man; he was also, like Stephen, "full of faith and of the Holy Spirit", Acts 6. 5; 11. 24, possessing that fulness that is necessary for all who are the Lord's. Our every step and relationship in life depends on our being constantly filled with the Spirit. Emptied of reliance on self and on what is merely transient and visible, we can be filled with faith in the living God.
Another characteristic of this good man was his liberality, to which reference has already been made. He had sold all that he owned in Cyprus and had relinquished it all to identify himself with those who followed and served the crucified and Risen Lord. Like the Macedonian Christians, he first gave himself to the Lord, and could not therefore withhold anything that belonged to himself, 2 Cor. 8. 5.
Probably the elders in the church at Jerusalem observed another trait in Barnabas that would prove invaluable in future service, namely his mobility. From Cyprus he had been led to Jerusalem, and thence, as deputy for the saints, to Antioch. While contemplating the outstanding need in the church there, he found another trip necessary: he must go to Tarsus to seek for Saul, Acts 11. 25. Then there would be the return journey from Tarsus, and another visit to Jerusalem with funds from the saints at Antioch to assist those famine-stricken, both there and throughout Judaea, v. 30. Such a "mobile unit" as Barnabas was just the type of man to carry the gospel into Asia Minor and to the uttermost parts of the earth. Acts 13. 2-4.
In Antioch, too, the first evidence of this man's magnanimity is seen. Instead of assuming the monopoly of the church there and regarding himself as its appointed minister, recognizing his own limitation as an "exhorter", (for that is the meaning of his name bestowed on him by those who had noticed how he encouraged the Christians, 4. 36), Barnabas discerned their need of a teacher and went to fetch Saul of Tarsus to open up the Scriptures to them. On more than one occasion did he display this magnanimity, and not least when at Paphos in the land of his birth he had to take second place, yield priority to Saul, now called Paul, and play second fiddle, Acts 13. 16. As C. H. Spurgeon has neatly expressed it, "It takes more grace than I can tell to play the second fiddle well".
The name Barnabas provides us with the key to his ministry. Wherever he went, he had words of encouragement and exhortation for the believers. In Syrian Antioch he bade them cleave unto the Lord with purpose of heart, 11. 23; in Pisidian Antioch he persuaded the believers to "continue in the grace of God", 13. 43; and in all communities of Christians he advocated continuance in the faith, 14. 22. Later when Paul had rejected his nephew John Mark, he took him under his wing, 15. 39, taught and encouraged him. So effective was this service in Mark's Christian experience that years later Paul could write to Timothy from his dungeon in Rome, "Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry", 2 Tim. 4. 11.