Big-hearted Barnabas and the Whole-hearted Church

Acts 11:19-26, Acts 13:1-3

1 June 2008

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning service


You've got to love Barnabas, haven't you? With the sole exception of Jesus, I think Barnabas must be my favourite character in the Bible.

We don't meet Barnabas very often, but on the few occasions we do he is so transparently wise and brave and, above all, big hearted that you can't help but love him.

As you probably know, Barnabas was actually a nickname. His real name was Joseph; Barnabas means "Son of Encouragement". So, universally in the early church he is known as the one who encourages or strengthens God's people, and that's how he has been known for the last 2000 years. What a lovely way to be remembered.

It is doing his work of encouragement that we find Barnabas in our passage this morning. Chapter 11, verse 23, When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their heartsref.

Now, in no way do I resemble Barnabas, but I do share his aim this morning. What it is my heart's desire to do in the next few minutes is to encourage you all: to encourage you to remain true to the Lord with all your hearts.

I want to encourage you by holding up the picture here of the whole-hearted church in Antioch that Barnabas was devoted to and persuading you that by God's grace we can be like them.

So, what does a whole-hearted church look like? There are three particular features that we find in this pen-portrait of the church in Antioch. First, it is a church that grows, second, it is a church that gives, and third, it is a church that goes. If it were a telephone it would be 3G compatible.


First, this whole-hearted church in Antioch grows.

In the story of the book of Acts, we are moving all the time away from Jerusalem. The gospel message, the good news about Jesus, began in Jerusalem, of course. And it might well have stayed there had God not intervened in an alarming way by bringing persecution on the church.

We can see the effect of the persecution in verses 19 and 20, Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.ref

God had given them a boot, and now the message is spreading far and wide. Phoenicia is what we call Lebanon today, north of Israel. Cyprus hasn't moved. Cyrene is in North Africa.

Antioch itself is in the south of modern-day Turkey, although at the time it was the capital of the Roman province of Syria, and the third greatest city in the Roman empire.

So the the message of Jesus was travelling geographically, but it was also beginning to travel culturally and ethnically. What began as a purely Jewish faith was starting to spread among non-Jews.

It's about 12 or 13 years after the persecution in Jerusalem had begun, and it looks like second- and third-generation converts were active. They were coming from Cyprus and Cyrene where they had presumably been converted, and no-one has told them that the gospel is for Jewish people only. So here they are in Antioch, a huge city of half a million people from all over the Roman empire and beyond, spreading the good news to Greek-speaking non-Jews as well, and, verse 3, The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lordref.

News of this caused a stir back in Jerusalem. Prior to this, only one non-Jewish family had been converted: Cornelius and his household, which is what the previous chapter-and-a-half has been about. So, at the news of gentiles believing in droves, they send our man Barnabas to check it out.

Verse 23, When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.ref.

So Barnabas likes what he sees, but faced with huge numbers of new gentile believers, he calls on the one man who has been given the specific task of being the Apostle to the Gentiles, his old friend Saul. Verse 26, So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of peopleref.

"Great numbers of people" . Three times — verses 21, 24 and 26 — we are told that great numbers of people were believing. This whole-hearted church was growing spectacularly. The church was growing in depth because it was devoted to learning from the apostles, but it was growing in size because ordinary believers were gossipping the gospel.

Ordinary believers were simply telling ordinary people, whoever would listen to them, the good news about the Lord Jesus. And they were believing in droves.

Now, any of us can do that, can't we? Any of us who knows Jesus has some good news to share about him, haven't we? And it is such good news! Don't you love to share good news? I had an email from a friend this week to tell me of the birth of his third baby. It's great news; why should he be shy about sharing it?

These are all things I've said to one or another of my colleagues at work in the last couple of weeks, and I'm a hopeless evangelist! I'm sure that out of your own experience of the Good News of Jesus you can think of all sorts of ways to share it. If we really feel it is good news, then nothing will stop us.

But we must make sure it is the good news of Jesus that we are sharing. Have a look at the end of verse 26 and the lovely little note Luke inserts there: The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.ref This was evidently a nickname that the people of the city gave the believers. They didn't call them "Church-ians", or "Weirdy-beard-ians", they called the believers "Christ-ians": people who belong to Christ. The believers were known primarily for their attachment to Jesus himself. Is that what you are known for?


So, one characteristic of this whole-hearted church is that it grows both in numbers and devotion. Another characteristic is that it gives, which we see in verses 27-30.

When a prophecy was made of a famine affecting the whole known world, the response of the church in Antioch was to give generously to the church back in Judea.

Obviously, the famine would have struck the church at Antioch as well. But they didn't use that as an excuse to hold back. Antioch was a prosperous city: hard times were ahead, but not as hard as for those in the persecuted and famine-struck church in Jerusalem. So, verse 29, the disciples, — many of them non-Jews, of course, without any particular affinity with Jerusalem — each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judearef.

In the same way today, hard economic times may lie ahead in this country, with the credit crunch and its consequences. But we must never fail to give generously to the persecuted and suffering church, so much poorer around the world than we will ever be.

One charity I particularly like, and not only because of its name, is the Barnabas Fund. Colin Bailey introduced them to us a couple of weeks ago in connection with the persecuted church in Iraq. Here's an example of news from their latest magazine:

A new government scheme designed to lift Pakistan's poorest households out of poverty has been criticised heavily because Christians have been prohibited from joining. The scheme offers savings on five basic foods to 6.8 million of Pakistan's poorest families. It allows low-income groups to get essential food items from specific, government-backed stores for 25% to 40% less than the normal cost. The fund is contributed to by all taxpayers; however, only Muslims can benefit from it.

That's actually one of the less shocking items, but it shows that the church across the world needs our help, just as the church in Judea needed the help of the church in Antioch.

Nobody else is going to help these people. It's the church's job to look after the church, and when we give we should remember that. Galatians chapter 6 verse 10 is a key verse for the Barnabas Fund: Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believersref. Jesus told his followers By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one anotherref.

So when we prioritise our giving, I'd like to suggest that we prioritise the suffering church. No-one else is going to help them. There are plenty of non-Christians who will fund the RSPCA and all that; we should be supporting Christian charities whenever we can. When we respond to emergency appeals, like the Cyclone in Burma, we should consider giving specifically through Christian organisations rather than through the general channels. We are one of God's ways of blessing his suffering church.

For what it's worth, three charities I can particularly recommend are: of course, the Barnabas Fund; TEAR Fund, who always try to work through local churches to get aid to people; and Open Doors, who support the persecuted church worldwide.

The whole-hearted church gives whole-heartedly.


Third, the whole-hearted church goes.

After an interlude in chapter 12 highlighting the persecution back in Jerusalem, we return briefly to Antioch in chapter 13.

In verse 1 of chapter 13 is a list of some of the prophet's and teachers in the church, and it just demonstrates what a diverse church had grown up in Antioch. Barnabas came from Cyprus; Simeon was evidently a black African; Lucius came from Cyrene in North Africa; Manaen had connections with minor nobility; and Saul came from Tarsus.

Clearly the church could have said with some justification, Look, all the world is coming to us, we don't need to send anybody anywhere. But the Holy Spirit had other ideas.

He picked out the two men who had been at the heart of the activities in Antioch and sent them out to spread the word. Barnabas and Saul had been instrumental in teaching and strengthening the church in verse 26. They had been the ones entrusted with the gift for the church in Judea in verse 30. The Antioch church could have said, These are our most effective workers, we can't send them away! But they didn't. Verse 3, after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.ref

The church in Antioch was prepared to send out its best to spread the message across the known world. And this is very much the start of the second half of the book of Acts, as we follow Paul on his three great missionary journeys and see the church planted far and wide.

Note that the going wasn't Barnabas and Saul's initiative. Verse 2, The Holy Spirit said, Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called themref. Barnabas and Saul had been called by the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit also confirmed that call through the church.

Missionaries aren't free-lancers. It's vital that they go with the support and prayer and commission of the church.

Perhaps there are some here this morning who have felt the calling of the Holy Spirit to go out from here. I hope there are some here this morning who are called to go! One of the lesser-known activities of the church is the candidates committee. On behalf of the church, a group of wise and faithful Christians can meet with you and consider your call. In this way you can be sent and supported by the whole church if they feel it is appropriate.

If you are feeling called by the Spirit to go, wherever it may be, however indistinct that calling may seem at the moment, let me encourage you to discuss it with one of the elders to see if the Spirit will confirm that calling through the church. There will certainly be prayer, and there may even be fasting. Who knows.


So, the whole-hearted church grows, it gives and it goes.

In the midst of each of these activities is big-hearted Barnabas, a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faithref.

I want to be like him; I'd love our church to be full of Barnabases!

And we can be like him, because in the end it's all from God.

All of the activity in the church at Antioch is driven by the Holy Spirit. In verse 21, the church grows because the Lord's hand was with themref. In verse 27 the church gives because it is prompted by the Spirit. In chapter 13 verse 2, the church goes because the Spirit impels them.

It is the same in Barnabas's life. He is the man he is simply because he is full of the Holy Spirit and faith. And any of us can be full of the Holy Spirit and faith. In fact it is God's command to us all: be filled with the Spiritref.

If you've never known the Spirit's work in your life, encouraging you and transforming you, and making you good and full of faith, then what I would say to you is that you need to come to Jesus. The Spirit is the gift that is given to everyone who makes Jesus their Lord. If you have never done that, then you can do it today. Whoever you are, whatever you've done, simply pray to God; ask him for forgiveness for all the ways you've pushed him aside in your life, and commit yourself to following Jesus forever.

Then God will fill you with his Spirit, his seal of ownership on you and the sign of his forgiveness. The Spirit is God's power to transform your life so that it brings him glory.

On the other hand, you may have already committed yourself to following Jesus, but you feel as far from being like Barnabas as can be. You believe God's Spirit is in you, but you would never be described as full of the Holy Spirit and faith.

When the greatest evangelist of the nineteenth century, D.L. Moody, was asked why he said he needed to be filled continually with the Holy Spirit, he replied, "Because I leak!"

We all need to be filled with the Spirit again and again. How do we do it? Well, no differently than the first time. We come to God in repentance and prayer. We need to re-devote ourselves to God.

In chapter 13 verse 2 it wasn't while they were watching television that the Holy Spirit worked among them. It wasn't while they were surfing the Internet. It wasn't while they were reading a crummy novel. It was while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting that the Holy Spirit worked among them.

As Barnabas encouraged the church: be true to the the Lord with all your hearts. Turn off the television; log-off the Internet; put down the novel and re-devote yourself to God. Being filled with the Spirit is not rocket science, but it's not going to happen by accident.

What a blessing it is that God, by his Spirit, chose to work through individuals like Barnabas, and through churches like Antioch. Don't you long that he would do the same through you and me, and through Woodley Baptist Church?