August 18, 2017

Training New Leadership

Paul Downey

The Bible doesn’t provide a lot of biographical information about the man known as Barnabas in the Book of Acts, but it does present a man worthy of our admiration and emulation. His selflessness and generosity are seen in accounts of his activities as well as in the sometimes surprising silence of the text. Barnabas is obviously a significant figure in the early church, yet even in situations in which his leadership is evident he remains practically invisible. Was he fearful and unwilling to step up and be counted? I don’t think so. As we consider the Biblical evidence, the portrait that emerges is actually that of a bold leader and effective mentor who was simply unconcerned about getting credit for his influence.

We first see Barnabas setting a good example. He is introduced in Acts 4:36, 37.

And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Joses may have been well-known by the apostles who may have been calling him “the son of consolation [encouragement]” for some time. However, I’m inclined to think that he was given that name for this act of generosity. The verses immediately following this passage tell of others who decided to imitate Joses/Barnabas—in form, if not in fact. They seem to have wanted the same kind of reputation for spirituality without the same level of commitment. Barnabas had set an example of sacrificial generosity coupled with humility. His character was acknowledged although he had sought no praise. He had simply identified a need, recognized his own ability to help, and then acted.

The next time we see Barnabas, he is befriending a new convert. Much has happened among the believers since the events of Acts 4. The church has multiplied to thousands. Deacons have been installed in Jerusalem. One of them, Stephen, had so angered the Sanhedrin by his defense before them that a risingstar among the Pharisees, Saul of Tarsus, had been assigned to supervise his execution by stoning. Many of the believers had been forced to flee Jerusalem. Another of the deacons, Philip, had begun evangelizing Samaria. As belief in Christ spread, the Sanhedrin gave Saul another assignment: to seek out and arrest followers of “the way” wherever he might find them (Acts 9:1, 2). Saul’s travels took him beyond Jewish borders into Syria. He was confronted by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and was converted. After spending some time there (and probably three years in Arabia—cf. Gal. 1:17), he returned to Jerusalem.

And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed [attempted] to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus (Acts 9:26, 27).

It is hardly surprising that Saul found the believers in Jerusalem more than a little skeptical about the genuineness of his conversion. Apparently only one among them, Barnabas, was willing to risk his reputation and maybe his life by meeting with this Saul. Then Barnabas put his personal credibility on the line, took Saul to the apostles, and spoke in his defense. He provided the support necessary for Saul to be accepted. The fact that the apostles received Saul on the word of Barnabas speaks volumes for their opinion of Barnabas. He’s not very visible, but he was certainly more than a nice man who occasionally put a lot of extra money in the offering plate.

After a few days, Saul leaves Jerusalem and returns to Tarsus, and Barnabas fades to the background. In the months or years that followed, the church continued to grow. Peter shocked everyone by meeting in the home of a Gentile and leading him to Christ. The primary objection was that Peter had gone into a Gentile’s home and eaten with him (Acts 11:1–3). The folks in Jerusalem seemed to have been willing to admit, albeit somewhat grudgingly, that Gentiles could be converted without being circumcised. But they weren’t quite ready to accept a mixed congregation of Jewish and Gentile converts worshipping together. Then they got word that foreign evangelists from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus and the North African country of Cyrene had begun assembling an apparently mixed congregation in Syrian Antioch. Things were about to get out of hand.[1] It was time to send someone from Jerusalem to investigate. Whom did they send? Not Peter, James, or John. Not one of the other apostles. Not one of the deacons. No, they sent Barnabas. When he got there he was thrilled with what he saw, encouraging and exhorting them all, because he was “a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith” (Acts 11:24). Then he did something unexpected.

Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul: And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people (Acts 11:25, 26).

Barnabas is recruiting an assistant. Rather than fearing that the enthusiasm of a relatively new and untested convert might cause more harm than good, or even fearing that an assistant might threaten his own position of leadership, Barnabas was willing to invest the effort to find Saul in Tarsus, bring him to Antioch, and train him in the ministry. Considering Saul’s extensive educational and elevated social background, Barnabas must have been a man of great confidence in the Lord and in his own ability to lead to even attempt to train Saul.

More time passes, during which Barnabas and Saul are sent by the church at Antioch to deliver famine relief to the believers in Jerusalem. While there, James is beheaded as an apostate by Herod (Agrippa I), and Peter narrowly escapes the same death through the miraculous intervention of the angel of the Lord. Immediately following that event, Barnabas and Saul return to Antioch, taking Barnabas’s nephew John Mark with them (Acts 12:25). Barnabas has begun training a new worker. The next event that Luke records tells us that the Holy Spirit moved the church at Antioch to send two of their five most important leaders on a special mission to the Gentiles, saying, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them” (13:2). We often think of Paul as the first missionary and forget that on his first journey Barnabas was in charge. Luke also tells us that when they departed from Antioch, “they had also John to their minister” (13:5). What we see is a threeman team with Barnabas in the lead, Saul working closely with him, and John Mark assisting both. But John Mark doesn’t stay with the team. For reasons not made clear in the text, he decides to head home. Rather than giving up in despair over his “failure” with John Mark, or dragging him along under duress, Barnabas takes Saul and continues to do the work God had appointed for them. Actually, on this trip Saul begins to be called Paul, probably because of the Gentile emphasis in their ministry.[2]

As this trip progresses, we see Barnabas delegating responsibilities. Paul may have always been the primary speaker, but he is clearly so starting with his testimony before Sergius Paulus. But even by the time they arrived in Lystra (Acts 14:8–12), Barnabas’s leadership was still obvious to the crowds. After Paul healed a lame man, the people of Lystra said, “The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men. And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker” (Acts 14:11, 12). Remember that while Mercury was the messenger of the gods, Jupiter was their king. And don’t miss the fact that it was the priest of Jupiter, not Mercury, who brought garlands and sacrifices to offer before them (14:13). The people of Lystra were honoring Barnabas above Paul, even though Paul was the speaker and miracle worker. Barnabas was deferring to his pupil and was moving to the background in the Biblical narrative, but his leadership was still evident in this situation.

Eventually, we see Barnabas surrendering leadership. The time came for Barnabas to get completely out of the way and turn the work over to Paul. Unfortunately, the parting was not entirely amicable. Acts 15:36–40 says,

And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do. And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work. And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed to Cyprus; And Paul chose Silas, and departed. …

Significantly, they split over the issue of training John Mark. Who was right? Both of them. It was God’s intention to divide the work at this point. Paul would take Silas and continue the missionary work he was called to do, and for which Barnabas had trained him. Barnabas would take John Mark back to Cyprus to disciple him.

Thus, the last time we see Barnabas in Acts, he is starting over with a new recruit. Was he successful this time in salvaging one who had been a dropout? While Barnabas disappears from the narrative, his pupil becomes important. Years later, near the end of his life, Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4:11, “Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry.” Beyond that, the Holy Spirit used John Mark to write the gospel that bears his name. Tradition tells us that Mark traveled with Peter through the region north of the Caucasus Mountains in Anatolia: “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1). The earliest quotations from Mark’s Gospel are found in the second-century writings of Justin Martyr, who identifies his source as “the memoirs of Peter.” Mark was apparently a successful aide to Peter, transcribing Peter’s sermons as his source material for his Gospel. In some ways much like Paul, the pupil of Barnabas once again rises to greater heights of fame than the teacher ever acquired.

Many among us are facing the reality of a personal ministry winding to a close. It is important to realize that the ministry is not so much a marathon as a relay, connecting generation to generation. Are Fundamentalist leaders going to be willing and able to release the baton to the hands of those who will carry on the fight in the decades to come? Barnabas shows us how. His legacy was not in the books he wrote, the building he erected, or the crowds he addressed. It was the men he trained. May each of us run our leg of the race for God’s glory.


Paul W. Downey pastors Temple Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2005. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. They were right to be fearful. Jewish opposition becomes much more intense after this. This was only partly due to the mingling with Gentiles. Perhaps more importantly, the believers are tagged with a new name: “Christians.” New Testament believers never called themselves by this name. It was given by their detractors. The only other times the name is used (Acts 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16) the context is persecution. By identifying believers as “Christians,” the Roman authorities were no longer constrained to provide legal protection. They were followers of a new religion. But neither would the Jews call the believers “Christians,” because they refused to concede the “Christ-ness” of Jesus. So this name stung the Jews as well. The Jews no longer saw believers in Christ as a variant denomination within Judaism, but as an apostate cult, evidenced by James’s beheading rather than stoning in Acts 12:2. The establishing of the church in Antioch was a watershed event in more ways than one. []
  2. The shift comes with the conversion of Sergius Paulus in Cyprus, the first record of a Gentile converted through the direct ministry of the gospel without any prior relationship with Judaism (Acts 13:7–12). Since John Mark left immediately afterward, it seems likely that his reason for leaving was objection to a ministry targeting Gentiles directly. If so, it might help explain the later attitudes of Barnabas and Paul toward John Mark: Barnabas thought spending more time with him would help, but Paul didn’t want him coming with them on their next journey. []


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