Lessons From a Future Apostle’s Advocate
The Apostle Paul didn’t come fully formed. Before he even went by the name Paul, a cast of characters taught him, mentored him, saw potential in him, and put him in positions of responsibility. Initially, one person acted decisively to elevate and include him: Barnabas.
Acts chapter 9 details Saul’s initial, dramatic conversion. Saul didn’t slink off; he didn’t recede into the background; instead, verse 20 says, “And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’” As it happened, his new life as a disciple faced a hiccup:
Acts 9:26. When he [Saul] had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.
The church in Jerusalem, traumatized by peril and persecution, having witnessed the death of their friend Stephen with Saul standing right there (see Acts 7:58), didn’t buy the conversion story. Barnabas stepped in:
Acts 9:27. But Barnabas took him [Saul] and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.
This incident makes Saul one of the first Christians to be ostracized for his past. Perhaps it’s understandable that the Jerusalem church would hesitate to embrace a former violent persecutor; but hesitation is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ, which offers redemption, forgiveness, and a new life in Christ (now and in the age to come). It took a brave friend in Barnabas to speak for this persona non grata and make the introduction to the Jerusalem apostles.
Maybe Barnabas saw something unique in Saul, maybe God gave Barnabas special revelation about Saul, or maybe Barnabas was just the kind of person who invites and includes others. In Saul, Barnabas saw a zealous, new Christian. Sure, he had been a killer. Sure, he had opposed the church for years. But Barnabas wasn’t going to let this new believer’s history get in the way of his chance. Are you a person who includes others? What if in your life there were a Saul, someone with a calling so new no one else could even see it yet? Would you advocate for them?
Barnabas and Saul meet again in Acts 11. The chapter records a turning point in the early church, as Jewish believers began to preach the gospel to Gentiles. When they heard that Gentiles were turning to the faith in Antioch, the Jerusalem believers empowered and commissioned Barnabas to go there, and when Barnabas arrived, he met a growing faith community:
Acts 11:23-24. When he [Barnabas] came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.
Antioch’s church was thriving. In an immoral, pagan city, faith in Jesus was taking off. What do the church-growth books say to do in this situation? How would a mega-church pastor counsel a young leader to act? Barnabas’ next move may surprise us: he left.
Acts 11:25-26. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch.
This is no daytrip. Saul had returned to his hometown after a threat to his life in Jerusalem; he was now in Tarsus. Or was he? Saul didn’t own a cell phone or have access to email; there was no way to know his whereabouts for certain—a fact the text emphasizes. According to the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, “The word translated ‘to look for’ (anazēteō) implies the search entails some difficulty. It is often used in the context of hunting for criminals or fugitive slaves.”1 Travelling around 100 miles, Barnabas’ trip took a minimum of five days each direction.2
What a mentor. When Barnabas saw a thriving church filled with new believers, he thought, “You know who would love this? Saul.” And he did the work to get him there. For himself, this act would precipitate a (minimum) year ministry with Saul in Antioch and around four years of travel3 together. For the then-future Apostle Paul, it would mean an opportunity for his calling—a calling that still impacts us today.
Barnabas and Paul parted ways after a “sharp disagreement” about their second trip, when (one could argue) Barnabas did what he had done for Saul. This time, Barnabas advocated for another believer, John Mark, who had quit partway through their first missionary trip (Acts 15:36-39). Barnabas fought—with Paul, this time—to give him another chance. The two disagreed so strongly about John Mark that they split up, but today, church tradition holds that the John Mark (whom Barnabas invested in) ended up penning the Gospel of Mark.4
When I was nine, the families of the Stars and Stirrups 4-H club excluded my family at the 4-H fair. Some 12-odd girls arrived at the event of the year, horses decked out in matching halters and horse blankets, but since they hadn’t told my mom, I was the only little girl who didn’t have a blue halter with a red-and-white striped rope and a blue blanket. Tears and heartache filled that event, as my old barrel horse Sugar and I struggled through competition after competition, solid last-place finishers, alone.
Over the next decade, I applied myself to horse sports with a grueling resolve. I slaved at training horse after horse, rain or shine, cleaning stalls in exchange for lessons from big-name trainers, until nine years later—my final year of 4-H—with other state and national championships already in the bag, I won one of two high-point buckles for the 4-H fair.
My father used the fiasco of that first year as a teaching tool. Each year, he would remind me to remember how I was left out, saying, “Now that you’re one of the cool kids, make sure you include the younger girls.” With every success, he would point to the girls who were just starting, or who didn’t have a big fancy show horse, and admonish me to remember them. At his encouragement, I coached younger girls (and boys), watched them compete, arranged group practices, and drove them to coffee shops for Bible studies.
My final year, the highlight of the fair wasn’t the championship belt buckle, it was when a beginning 4-Her whose name I couldn’t quite remember proudly announced to her family, “Anna’s my friend.” Today, many of the girls I mentored are grown women with families—at least one is a professional horse trainer. In the end, having won local, state, and national prizes, advocating for and including others meant more than any championship.
Are you a person who involves others? When you see work to do in the church, do you respond with nerves and stress, thinking “How am I going to get this all done?” Or do you look around, thinking, “Who would love to help?” Barnabas spent as much as a month travelling and searching for someone he had known for only a short time—perhaps not even knowing if Saul would want to come back with him! What if you needed to expend time and money for someone else’s calling? Would you do it?
We all want to think of ourselves as Paul, the star. The one who teaches and ministers, the one who writes the books, the one who leads. But Christ’s body is not a solo sport: it needs advocates, friends, and mentors who notice each other and promote each other.
God’s goodness would have prevailed in Saul’s life whatever the circumstances, but perhaps we owe some of the fruit of Paul’s ministry to this unnoticed character, the one who fought for his inclusion from the start. As you mature in Christ and become one of the cool kids, as you arrive at a position to stand for others, think of the little-recognized advocate for the greatest apostle. Be a Barnabas.
1 Clinton E. Arnold, “Acts,” in Acts, vol. 2B of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: New Testament. ed. Clinton E. Arnold; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 318.
2 “ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World,” 2022, https://orbis.stanford.edu.
3 V. M. Traverso, “A Quick Guide to St. Paul’s Travels According to Today’s Map,” Aleteia, https://aleteia.org/2018/09/19/a-quick-guide-to-st-pauls-travels-according-to-todays-map/.
4 Eusebius, The Church History, trans. Paul L. Maier (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 3.39, 114.