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Minor Men With a Major Message: Barnabas – The Man Who Played Second Fiddle Best

Acts 11:19-30

I get by with a lot of help from my friends…

One such friend is Mary Lea Handy who shared with me the story about a fellow in his thirties who became fed up with life in this hurly-burly world, and so he decided to become a monk. As he entered the monastery, he was told that he would be permitted to speak just three words every ten years. After the first ten years, he was given the opportunity to speak and he said: “Food no good.” He was thanked for his remarks and told not to speak for another ten years. Another decade passed and he was given the chance to say his three words. He said: “Bed too hard.” This time he was sent away to ten more years of silence. When the ten years were up, he was summoned to speak. He said: “I am leaving.” The abbot of the monastery said: “I am not surprised. You have done nothing but complain ever since you got here!”

There are a lot of people like that who are always complaining about their lot in life. Barnabas was not one of them. The Bible pays Barnabas the compliment of labeling him “a good man.” That is, in fact, the highest commendation God can grant to anyone. Here in Acts 11 we read: “Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” Understand, please, that Barnabas had reason to complain about what happened to him in life. He was one of the earliest devotees of Jesus. He made possible the ministry of Paul. He sacrificed heavily for the work of the Church. Yet he wound up playing second-fiddle in God’s orchestration of the early Christian Church. He wound up being second-string on the missionary team. He wound up being second-best in the building of the kingdom. He wound up taking second-place to Paul in Christian hearts and in Christian history. But he never complained. Not once. Instead, he learned how to play second-fiddle best of all. And I think that is why the Bible says: “Barnabas was a good man.” But let us play out the “second-fiddle” theme of his life together…

First, Barnabas played the best second-fiddle you ever heard when it came to Christian stewardship.

In Acts 4, we are told that the church at Jerusalem had a crisis—it was a good crisis, but it was a crisis nonetheless. The church was growing fast—from 120 to 5000 in a rather short period of time. The growth was outstripping the church’s ability to provide financial resources for ministry. For that reason, the Book of Acts tells us that the Christians in Jerusalem began to share of their resources to meet needs and to fuel the continuing growth. And in the midst of the story, one man is singled out for special mention—Barnabas. It says: “He sold a field which belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the Apostles’ feet.”

Now why pick out Barnabas for such a compliment? I think we find the clue in the very next chapter—Acts 5—where we are told that Ananias and Sapphira gave not out of generosity, but out of selfishness. They gave in order to get. They did it with a big show, seeking the praise of other people, but they also held back some for themselves. I think, the message is that Barnabas gave very generously, but he did it so humbly, that the writer felt that he was worthy of being an example. In other words, when Barnabas became a Christian, when he gave himself in faith to Jesus Christ, he gave his money also. Barnabas understood that God calls us to put who we are and what we have at His disposal.

Walter Russell Bowie tells of a young minister who was sent out west to serve a small, rural parish. There was a wealthy landowner in the church, and the man took the young minister out to a knoll one day. And from that vantage point on the top of the hill, he pointed the young minister to the four points of the compass—north, east, south and west—and then he said: “Young man, as far as you can see in every direction, I own everything.” He waited for the minister to comment. The young man, far wiser than his years, said: “You have turned me in every direction and told me that everything as far as the eye can see is yours. But one thing you have not told me.” And lifting his hand and pointing toward heaven, he said, “How much do you own in that direction?”

Good question. Barnabas could have answered the question easily. He was successful at making money, yes—but he understood that the gift of making money and handling money was a gift to be given away. You see, Barnabas was the kind of man who could sit loose on the saddle of things. He was the kind of man who could not be bewitched by acquisition and accumulation. He was the kind of man who put value, not on what he could get, but on what he could give—not on what he could acquire, but on what he could share.

That is not easy for successful people to do. For the people who can rapidly accumulate money and at the same time be loyal to Jesus Christ are rare indeed. And rarer still are those people who, like Barnabas, give without notice or attention or acclaim. We have some people like that in this church, and it has enabled us to do some incredible things for the work of Christ in the world. For example, there are three men in this church who are like Barnabas—they have been successful at making and handling money, but they give most of it away. Consequently, in the last few years, because of these three disciples of Jesus Christ, we have completed the building of the Peace House, a residence for lepers at the Wilson Leprosy Hospital in Soonchun, Korea, and soon we will be helping to build a cancer research institute at the Jesus Hospital in Chonju, Korea. Yet these men seek no recognition for their extraordinary generosity. No one knows who they are. They are like Barnabas. They play the best second-fiddle you ever heard in their Christian stewardship.

Secondly, Barnabas played the best second-fiddle you ever heard when it came to Christian people.

Barnabas believed in people and he was willing to go the second-mile on their behalf. Look at what he did for Paul. Paul had been the arch-enemy of the Christian faith. Then one day, he declared that he had been converted on the Damascus Road, but nobody in Jerusalem believed him. They had been tricked before, so they would not give Paul the benefit of the doubt. They would not give him a chance. You could preach a whole sermon around this incident—the day the church did not want a member! They would not let Paul in. But then Barnabas stepped forward. He believed in Paul. He was willing to stake his reputation upon his faith in Paul’s ministry. He said to the apostles in Jerusalem: “I want you to believe that God has brought a dramatic reversal in the life of this man—and I will stake my life on the validity of that change.” My friends, do you understand that if it had not been for Barnabas, Paul would have been lost to the Christian Church?

Or look at what Barnabas did for John Mark. Young John Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, but he found the going tougher than he had bargained for, so he went AWOL from the service of God. Years later, this same John Mark applied to Paul and Barnabas for mission work. Paul would not hear of it. He flatly refused. But Barnabas—ah, Barnabas—the one who believed that even if someone failed the first time, a second-chance might prove successful. He believed that a coward may yet become a hero, that a deserter may yet become a trusted soldier. So he stood by John Mark even though it meant parting company in mission work with Paul. Of course, ultimately, the confidence Barnabas had in John Mark was gloriously justified. For my friends, do you understand that the second Gospel—one of the choicest pieces of literature in the world—was written by none other than the coward-turned-hero, John Mark?

Barnabas, I believe, learned this quality of believing in other people’s possibilities from Jesus Himself. I mean, how Jesus could have expected that poor woman caught in adultery to ever be something other than who she was, I do not know. Yet He did—and on the strength of that belief, He said to her: “Go and sin no more.” Or how Jesus could have expected that twelve faulty, uneducated, self-seeking men would be the means for re-making the world, I will never know. After all, they failed Him in His hour of greatest need. They slept while He struggled. They missed the point of His teaching. They ran at the first hint of danger. Yet He placed upon their shoulders the responsibility for carrying the Gospel message to the world and He said of them: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against them.” Yes, Jesus believed in the great possibilities possessed by people—and so did Barnabas. Barnabas believed people could change by the power of Jesus Christ, and Barnabas could see the good that Jesus planted in other people. We need more people like Barnabas, don’t you agree?

By the way, do you know that Barnabas was not his real name? Joseph was his name. Barnabas was his nickname. They called him that because it best describes who and what he was. You see, the word “Barnabas” literally means “Son of encouragement.” He lived up to his name. He was an encourager. We need modern-day Barnabases in the church—the sons and daughters of encouragement, people who listen and care, people who help and support others, people who lift up and build up. That kind of thing may not win you first-place in prominence and prestige, but it will win you something infinitely more valuable, friends. Barnabas understood that. That is why I say that he played the best second-fiddle you ever heard when it came to offering support and encouragement to other people.

Thirdly, Barnabas played the best second-fiddle you ever heard when it came to Christian mission.

Barnabas understood the Great Commission of Jesus. He believed that the Gospel was for all the people of the world. We see just how true that was in Acts 11. It seems that a spiritual revival had broken out in the wrong place, Antioch. What was wrong with it? It was not Jewish. The people there had not learned the Old Testament and they did not observe all the intricacies of Jewish law. That offended the Christian leaders in Jerusalem. So they sent Barnabas to investigate what was going on in Antioch. The Bible says that when Barnabas got to Antioch, and saw the grace of God at work in the lives of people, he was glad. Not only that, but he stayed in Antioch for a year working to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.

It would prove to be the turning point in the history of the church. It would launch Christianity outside of its Jewish cradle and would lead to its becoming an international religion. In the midst of that, Barnabas recognized he needed help. So the Bible says that Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Paul. Hunted him down—that is what the Greek literally means—tracked him down like you would track an animal. Then when he found him, he brought him to Antioch to work the most pivotal opportunity in the history of Christian missions. You see, these two—Barnabas and Paul—were the first missionaries of the church going into a land not their own to proclaim the Gospel. And in all the years since a veritable army of Christian missionaries has followed in their steps. They have consecrated the soil of every continent by their prayers, their tears, and their sacrifices. The songs of the redeemed are sung in every nation on earth because of their work. And it all began with Barnabas and Paul. 

Now I said that Barnabas played second-fiddle. Well, at this point in time, Barnabas was in charge of the mission work. Wherever his name appeared with Paul’s name, Barnabas’ name was always first: Barnabas and Paul. But then in Acts 13, a subtle change takes place. Suddenly, the people began to respond to Paul’s words and work—and just as suddenly, the order of the names is changed. It is no longer Barnabas and Paul—now it is Paul and Barnabas. Do you remember what John the Baptist said about Jesus? He said: “He must increase and I must decrease.” Well, Barnabas said the same thing about Paul. He said: “Paul must increase, and I must decrease.”

Isn’t that amazing? This man had every right to get his name in bright lights and bold print, but instead he deferred to Paul. For the sake of his goal and mission in life—that of spreading the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ—Barnabas put Paul up front and sacrificed his own fame. He could have said: “I started the work in Antioch. I am going to be the head of the missionary team until I retire, and Paul can have it then.” But Barnabas did not say that. Instead, he was willing to step aside and play second-fiddle so that the work could thrive and the mission could grow.

So…

The Bible says that Barnabas was “a good man.” That he was. He was a saint who could play second-fiddle. I hope in this church we can find a few Pauls—people who see the vision of the Kingdom and sense the urgency of the hour and dream great dreams and lift us to new heights by their leadership. Yes, I hope we can find a few Pauls. But I also hope that we can find a lot of people like Barnabas—people willing to give their money to Christ’s work and seek no credit or control, people willing to develop the great possibilities in other people and take no glory, people willing to go and do what has to be done, offering no complaint and seeking no recognition.

So you cannot preach like Peter
And you cannot pray like Paul
[Like Barnabas,] You can tell the love of Jesus
And say “He died for all.”

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