Thursday 24 December 2015

Paul the apprentice (Acts 11:25-26)

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 great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.
Acts 11:25-26

A plumber from Peterborough - who was expelled from school at age 15 - is this year’s winner of the Apprentice. In his final interview, Joseph Valente was asked why he should be Lord Sugar’s business partner. He replied, “What you see, is what you get. I’ve got experience... I’m driven, passionate, hardworking.” Those of you who watched the finale will know that Joseph was shrewdly quoting the title of Lord Sugar’s book (entitled, “What you see is what you get”), identifying himself with the business magnate’s humble beginnings. (Lord Sugar, too, left school as a teenager.)

Still, it did remind me of how even the Apostle Paul began his ministry as a humble apprentice. Yes, Paul did have a miraculous call and conversion on the road to Damascus - struck blind, meeting the risen Lord Jesus, preaching powerfully in the synagogues in Acts Chapter 9. But then he disappears off to Tarsus, his hometown, never to be seen again until Chapter 11 when an enterprising pastor named Barnabas took the initiative of seeking Paul out (verse 25) and bringing him back to lead a new church plant in Antioch.

Barnabas was the guy the apostles knew and trusted. In verse 22, Barnabas is the official representative sent from Jerusalem to check things out in Antioch. (The last time they did something like that was back in Chapter 8 where two of the apostles, Peter and John were sent from Jerusalem to assess the situation in Samaria). And in verse 24, Luke goes out of his way to describe Barnabas as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” On the other hand, no one knew Paul. But for some reason - we don’t know why - Barnabas decided he needed to bring in the new guy. Maybe it was part of his encouraging nature (Acts 4:36 tells us his name Barnabas means “Son of Encouragement”). Maybe he was humble enough to ask for help. But whatever it was, Barnabas took a chance and travelled all the way to Tarsus to brought Paul back as his partner and apprentice.

Again, most of us assume (or at least I did for the longest time) that a powerful figure like Paul was always in the forefront of ministry, leading the team and setting the pace. Didn’t Jesus say of Paul that “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and children of Israel”? (Acts 9:15) Wasn’t his preaching so persuasive that he “confounded the Jews” (Acts 9:22)? And yet, at the end of that same chapter, we meet none other than Barnabas introducing Paul to the leaders in Jerusalem HQ. Why? Verse 26 tells us, “And they were afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.” You see, it was Barnabas who stuck his neck out for Paul before the brothers and said, “Listen to what this guy has to say.”

Barnabas is doing the same thing here in Chapter 11. I once heard Mark Dever say, “We should advance trust the same way we advance credit.” He was talking about what it meant for older ministers to entrust responsibility to younger leaders. It’s an investment. There will always be an element of risk. But we advance trust the same way we advance credit - not expecting an immediate return on our investment.

In the case of Barnabas, that investment began all the way back in Chapter 9. When everyone was afraid of Paul, when no one would dare to speak to Paul, Barnabas was the one guy who stood up for Paul. He does the same thing here in Chapter 11. If you were hiring a new pastor, you want a guy like Barnabas. He’s the right age. Everyone loves him. (With a nickname like “Son of Encouragement”, who wouldn’t?) He is “full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (11:24). And yet, the first thing Barnabas does is in his role as the senior pastor is appoint a guy - whom either the church in Antioch had never heard about (or if they did, they would have heard really, really bad things: “That guy used to persecuted Christians!”) - to be their associate minister.

Of course, when we read in verse 26, “For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people,” we immediately see the investment paying off. Paul was, after all, a gifted scholar, preacher, theologian and apologist. We might be tempted to think, therefore, that Paul was in his element. He would immediately be recognised for his gifts and come into his own. Today, someone like Paul would go off and start his own church and develop his experience elsewhere.

But that isn’t the case with Barnabas and Paul. Read on the following chapters - 12, 13, 14 and 15 - where Luke, the author, keeps referring to them as “Barnabas and Paul.” That is, Barnabas is always named first in the partnership. In Chapter 13, for instance, Barnabas is first in the leadership roster at Antioch (and Paul is referred to at the very end of the list - number 5, in fact). Even the Holy Spirit says, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 11:2) In a rather odd situation recorded in Chapter 14, the people of Lystra mistake Paul as the Greek god Hermes after he miraculously heals a crippled man. Even so, they call Barnabas Zeus, the chief of the gods, and the priest of Zeus comes out to offer sacrifices to them (Acts 14:11, 12).

The point is, Barnabas was still the first of equals. And Paul was still the apprentice. It could be that Barnabas was just more well-known and possibly, much older than Paul, and hence, more respected. Furthermore, these same chapters record the sermons that Paul gave, not Barnabas. Paul was clearly the one used by God to preach the message of Jesus to the Gentile world. Undoubtedly, Paul was the gifted one. Having said all that, Paul was the apprentice and Barnabas was his mentor, at least for this season of ministry.

There are so many points of application from these verses. Barnabas’ humility in bringing in Paul to help him out and Paul’s humility in serving under Barnabas’ leadership. Barnabas’ wisdom in investing so early in a young preacher right at the beginning of his ministry and Paul’s wisdom in taking those initial years out to prepare for ministry in Tarsus.

But the one thing I take away from this is their relationship. Barnabas stuck his neck out for Paul way back in Damascus and he never stopped looking out for him. He was more than a nice guy, a spiritual guy or an encouraging guy. Barnabas was intentionally gracious and loving and encouraging towards Paul. It was an intentional relationship. An intentional investment in one person. And we see the same pattern in Paul’s ministry approach in his later years when he takes Timothy under his wing. This is a much more laborious way of raising leaders compared to, say, running a course and awarding a qualification. It takes much longer. And it is painful. But unlike Lord Sugar, our investment is not money that we deposit into someone’s bank account, but our time, our lives and the gospel which we pour into someone else who is willing to do the same.

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
Philippians 2:17-18

No comments: