Reading: Barnabas, The Maker of a Great Leader (John Piper)
In the Christian faith great doctrines are a powerful means of
shaping lives. But even more powerful is a great doctrine lived out
by a real person. This means that books about biblical doctrine are
important. But many of us have found again and again that the story
of a person who lived and died by that doctrine makes the truth
more powerful in our lives.
Great Doctrines and People Who Live Them Out
The story may be old and contained in a Christian biography. Or the story may be contemporary and contained, for example, in a letter. I received a letter last week from a man in Elyria, Ohio, who had been reading Desiring God. He told me a little about himself in his letter. And in the process he became a powerful inspiration to me. Here is what he said,
I have a maintenance business and I found that in the manual labor I perform, [there is] time that my mind is free to meditate on the Word of God. And I have found myself enjoying, as you write, hedonistically, the Glories and beauties of God in the face of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the process I have memorized 15 books of the New Testament, and I have found the scripture to be increasing sweet and real and precious as the Holy Spirit takes them and makes the things of Christ real to me.
Now it is one thing to know the biblical teaching that we should hide the Word of God in our hearts. But it is another to get a letter from a janitor who so loves the Word of God that he has memorized 15 books of the New Testament. We are rebuked and guided and inspired. If he can do it, so will I, we say.
So we are looking at Barnabas for three weeks together in these Sunday morning messages. And my prayer is that the portrait of this remarkable man will inspire you, as Hebrews 13:7 says, to "consider the outcome of his life and imitate his faith."
Barnabas' Remarkable Accomplishments
Luke tells us that
Barnabas was a "good man and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith" (Acts 11:24). Previously we studied six aspects of his goodness and noticed how each of them
came from his faith.
- Barnabas felt empathy for outsiders, because faith still feels
the wonder of once having been an outsider but now accepted by
- Barnabas yielded to the call of God, because faith rests in the
missionary promise, "I will be with you to the end of the
- Barnabas saw the grace of God in an imperfect church, because
faith has a homing device for grace.
- Barnabas rejoiced over the grace of God in the lives of others,
because faith not only sees but savors grace; it is not only alert
for it, it is addicted to it through long dependence on
- Barnabas exerted himself for the perseverance of the saints,
because genuine saving faith knows the necessity of vigilance for
itself and therefore for others.
- Finally, Barnabas was utterly trustworthy with other people's money, because the power of greed had been broken by his faith in the love of a never-failing God.
What Is a Christian Leader?
Let's begin with a definition. What is a Christian leader? Broadly speaking, a person is more or less a Christian leader as that person exerts more or less Christian influence in Christian ways. Or to put it another way, to the degree that you shape others toward the image of Christ you are a Christian leader.
That's a very broad definition of Christian leadership, and should include every obedient Christian, because we should all be influencing someone to be more like Christ. But if we get more specific, what we usually mean by a good Christian leader is someone who is really good at influencing others toward Christlikeness. They have personal strengths that draw others into the sway of their influence and lead them to the ways of Christ.
My experience in Cameroon and Liberia two years ago, and in the
Philippines and Singapore several weeks ago, has confirmed the
words of Patrick Johnstone in Operation World,
Leadership is the key . . . There is a worldwide lack of men and women truly called of God and deeply taught in the Scriptures to lead the churches—people willing to suffer scorn, poverty and the shame of the Cross for the sake of the Saviour who redeemed them. Those who accurately and effectively expound the Scriptures are few, especially in areas where the churches are growing rapidly. (p. 37)
There are people who oppose leadership wherever it begins to emerge. But if we had time, I would love to test the following claim by the Scriptures: Opposition to Christian leadership (or an anti-leadership mentality) is not born out of great vision, but out of little resentments. A church without strong leaders is not a democracy of giants. Johnstone's diagnosis is right, because it is biblical: what the church needs worldwide is Spirit-filled, Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting, self-abasing, untiring, persevering leaders who exert deep, broad, life-changing influence for Jesus Christ.
The Need for Leader-Makers
And to get them we need hundreds and thousands of Barnabas-like leader-makers. I am not talking mainly today about leaders. I am talking about leader-makers. Are you one? Could you be one? Don't rule yourself out too quickly.
Charles Spurgeon was the greatest preacher of the 19th century.
Listen to what he says about Mary King, the housekeeper at the
school he attended as a teenager in Newmarket:
She liked something very sweet indeed, good strong Calvinistic doctrine, but she lived strongly as well as fed strongly. Many a time we have gone over the covenant of grace together, and talked of the personal election of the saints, their union to Christ, their final perseverance and what vital godliness meant; and I do believe that I learnt more from her than I should have learned from any six doctors of divinity of the sort we have nowadays.
The most important thing you may ever do for the cause of Christ may go unnoticed for 30 years. Don't quench the Spirit of God this morning. He may be calling you to be a leader-maker.
What are the marks of a biblical leader-maker? That's today's
question. There are at least five that I see in the life of
Five Marks of a Biblical Leader-Maker
Under the providence of God in the life of the early church, we owe the ministry of two leaders to the initiative and advocacy of Barnabas. The two leaders are Paul and John Mark. As far as we know, Barnabas wrote none of the New Testament. But the men he nurtured wrote a third of it: Paul wrote 13 of the epistles of the New Testament and Mark wrote one of our four gospels.
Let's look at the marks of a biblical leader-maker in the life of Barnabas —the man whom the apostles nicknamed, "son of encouragement" (Acts 4:36).
A biblical leader-maker takes risks to support hopeful leaders.
Acts 9:26 says that some time after Saul's conversion he came to Jerusalem and tried to join the disciples. You remember he had previously persecuted Christians. He was the High Priest's hatchet man, you might say.
Now here he is claiming to be a Christian convert. The last part of Acts 9:26 says, "They were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple."
Is there anyone who will take a risk for Saul? Is there anyone who can see in him the making of a great leader? One man came forward. One man stuck his neck out when everyone else was afraid to give Saul a chance to prove himself—Barnabas. Acts 9:27 says, "Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles."
Barnabas became his advocate. The result? The church accepted him and his ministry flourished in Jerusalem. And Barnabas watched, and made note. This would not be the last time he supported Paul's ministry.
So the first mark of a biblical leader-maker is the willingness to take risks on behalf of potential leaders. All the other disciples were afraid. But the leader-maker had the courage to give this remarkable young man Saul a chance. What a pay-off!
2. Having a Good Eye and a Glad Heart
A biblical leader-maker has a good eye and a glad heart for the potential of grace.
Looking for the Embers of Grace
When the church in Jerusalem heard that a church had been planted in Antioch, the one man that they thought would be a good encourager for the new Gentile believers was Barnabas. Barnabas could always find something good to encourage in people!
So Acts 11:23 says, "When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad." He had a good eye and a glad heart for the potential of grace. The church was new and imperfect, but Barnabas saw the work of grace and it made him glad. That is the mark of a leader-maker, or a son of encouragement, as the apostles called him.
Leader-makers have their heat sensors adjusted and alert for embers of grace that they can fan, while the other kind of people, it seems, have their buckets of criticism ready to pour on the ashes of imperfection. So a leader-maker has a good eye and a glad heart for the potential of grace.
The Example of One of Our Missionaries
One of the most gifted persons in this regard that I know of is Barb Espland, one of our missionaries to the Philippines. Noël and I marveled, as we spoke with her for several days, at how she spoke of all unbelievers as more or less on the way to Christ. She could see signs of hope in almost everyone.
She doesn't seem to have that static, crisis mentality that sees people as fixed in their alienation from God and stationary until some crisis crashes in and converts them. Instead she has a more dynamic view that sees people, to be sure, as really cut off from God and in need of conversion, but not as static. People are in motion spiritually. God is at work in a hundred ways to influence them, and she has an eagle-eye and a glad heart for these signs of grace.
3. Humble and Self-Effacing
Biblical leader-makers are humble and self-effacing.
That means that they have the beautiful gift of fading into the background while pushing others into prominence. They are not addicted to the praise of men and do not crave the limelight.
What He Does When His Ministry Flourishes
Where do we see this in Barnabas? It starts in Acts 11:25–26. Barnabas' ministry in Antioch had been so successful that the converts were everywhere. Now there is one kind of person who would say at this point: I am now a respected leader. I have earned a good reputation for my work. It is now time to consolidate my gains and establish myself as a prominent preacher in this part of Syria.
But what does Barnabas do? Instead of maneuvering for his own exaltation, he leaves town to look for an associate—an associate that he knows good and well is a more dynamic leader and a better preacher than he is, namely, Saul. Acts 11:25–26 says, "So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church, and taught a large company of people."
With this strategic investment in Saul's life and career, Barnabas secured forever his secondary status in church history—and I love him for it.
What He Does When He Fades into Paul's Shadow
Watch what happens as Barnabas fades into Paul's shadow, like an aircraft mechanic fades into the shadow of the soaring pilot.
In Acts 13:1–3 the Holy Spirit sets Barnabas and Saul apart for a missionary journey to the unreached cities of Cyprus and Galatia. Notice the order of the names in verse 2: it is still Barnabas first and Saul second, the way it has been back in Acts 11:30 and 12:25.
When they get to the city of Paphos on the island of Cyprus, the proconsul invites them to speak to him, and in Acts 13:7 Barnabas still has the honor of first place: "he summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God."
But when Elymas the magician tried to turn the proconsul away
from the faith, it was Saul who exploded with the Holy Spirit in Acts 13:10, "You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?"
This is probably not the way Barnabas would have said it. But from this point on, Saul (now called Paul for the first time in verse 9) is in charge.
We see this immediately in verse 13. Luke says, "Now Paul and his company set sail from Paphos." Barnabas is not even mentioned. In verse 16 it is Paul not Barnabas who delivers the sermon in Antioch of Pisidia. When both of them are mentioned, it is now "Paul and Barnabas" not "Barnabas and Paul" (13:43, 46, 50; 15:2, 22, 35; except in Jerusalem where Barnabas is on his home turf, 15:12, 25; and in Lystra where Barnabas is called Zeus and Paul Hermes).
In chapter 14 we get a glimpse of what their partnership looked
like. They have come to Lystra and a man has been healed through
the hand of Paul. In verses 11 and 12 look at how the local people
describe the relationship between Barnabas and Paul.
"When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, 'The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!' Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, they called Hermes."
Zeus of course is the father of the Greek gods. His Roman name is Jupiter. And Hermes is his son and is the fleet footed messenger of the gods. His Roman name is Mercury.
So evidently Barnabas is perceived as older and more venerable and dignified than Paul. But Paul is the one who speaks with amazing force. Barnabas keeps a consistent strategy: put this young leader forward. Let him have the word.
Two Roles and Two Costs
And so behind the emergence of the greatest missionary and the greatest theologian is the aging Barnabas, humbly giving way to the explosive young leader named Paul. Sons of encouragement are less likely to be stoned than sons of thunder.
These two roles have their different costs. Barnabas pays the price of self-effacement and eventual obscurity. Paul pays the price here in Lystra of being stoned. Acts 14:19 describes how Paul, not Barnabas, bears the wrath of the cities where he has been the spokesman.
A biblical leader-maker is humble and self-effacing. He looks for people with better gifts than his own and pushes them forward.
4. Patient with the Failure of Others
A biblical leader-maker is patient with the failures of others.
Barnabas accepted Saul when no other disciple in Jerusalem would do so. Later, a young believer named John Mark started out on a missionary journey with Paul and Barnabas but then left them. This was a serious failure by Mark. When the time came for launching another missionary journey, Mark wanted to go along, but Paul refused to give Mark another chance. However, Barnabas would not give up on Mark but gave him another opportunity as a fellow missionary, despite his earlier failure (Acts 15:36-39). Not only did Mark turn out to work well with Barnabas, but eventually he became a treasured colleague of Paul and Peter. Indeed, Mark went on to become the writer of a key portion of God's inspired Word, the Gospel according to Mark.
5. Free from Materialism
A biblical leader-maker is free from materialism.
He Doesn't Love Money, He Loves People
In Acts 4:36 Luke tells us that the apostles gave Joseph the name Barnabas because it meant "son of encouragement." The very next verse says, "He sold a field which belonged to him, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet." Why did he do this? Verse 34 says that it was to meet the needs of the poor in the Christian community. This is what Luke associates with Barnabas' being a "son of encouragement."
So I conclude that Barnabas does not love money and things, he
loves people. This is essential for being a biblical leader-maker.
Twenty years later Paul writes to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 9:4–6) like this: " "Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?"
Twenty years have passed and here is the old Zeus and the younger Hermes keeping themselves lean for the Lord, working with their hands, refusing to take gifts from Corinth. Why? In order to make perfectly clear that they do not minister for money. They minister for people.
What Biblical Leader-Makers Dream Of
If you want to be a biblical leader-maker, ask yourself this: when my mind is free to dream, do I dream of clothes or cars or houses or lake property or sports or profits or stereos or videos or computers or vacations or food or movies or investments . . . ? In other words, am I materialistic in the moments when I dream about what I would like to do and to have? Does my mind naturally fill up with possessions?
That is not what fills the mind of a biblical leader-maker.
When leader-makers lie awake at night, their minds turn to people—people potentials and people strategies. They dream about how to maximize their influence on people for the sake of Christ.
- I could invite that 11 year old boy to spend the night in the
International House . . .
- We could get behind that 14 year old missionary with our 20:20
group . . .
- We could ask that student over for Thanksgiving dinner . .
- We could give an anonymous gift to that struggling seminary
student . . .
- We could pay her way to Urbana . . .
- I could send him a note of thanks for that pastoral prayer . .
- I could read my children a series of missionary biographies . .
- I could write that short-termer a letter of encouragement . .
The list is endless for biblical leader-makers—people who are free from the heart-deadening mentality of materialism.
Well, there is Barnabas, the maker of a great leader.
- He took a risk to support a dangerous new convert.
- He had a good eye and a glad heart for the potential of grace.
- He was humble and self-effacing and let himself fade behind the rising star of the apostle Paul.
- He was patient with the failures of others.
- And he was free from materialism and filled with thoughts and
dreams of how to make leaders for the Lord of glory.
May the Lord fill this church with leader-makers for the cause
of Christ here and around the world.