The church in our generation hasn’t always dealt well with racial problems, and that’s probably a significant understatement.
Unfortunately, we’re not alone in this. The biggest hurdle the first-century church had to cross was an ethnic one: Can non-Jews become Christians? If so, should they keep certain Jewish traditions? Can Jewish and Gentile Christians mingle and treat one another as equals?
It’s hard for us to understand how big of an issue this was.
These intense feelings are probably what led the Christians at Jerusalem to feel like they needed to check on a rumor they had heard. Listen to Luke as he tells the story:
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he 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. 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 11:19-26).
Here’s another reason why I love Barnabas.
The situation is a delicate one. The church is still predominately Jewish, even though the door had been opened to Gentile church membership with Cornelius’ conversion in Acts 10.
But when some of the Jewish Christians heard that certain preachers were going around preaching openly to “Hellenists”—probably Gentiles—they weren’t sure what they should do.
Who could handle this sensitive issue? Who is fair-minded, generous, and magnanimous? Who doesn’t let racism dictate his words and actions?
Well, Barnabas, of course.
Notice what Luke says about him: “he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.”
Don’t you love this Christian man?
He did what you would expect him to do, if you know the kind of person Barnabas was. The fact that people were accepting Jesus—regardless of race—thrilled him, and he encouraged them in their faith.
Are we still troubled by division because of ethnicity, social status, educational background, or some other superficial distinction?
Do we still draw lines based on the way a person looks?
If so, we should learn from Barnabas.
When a person follows Christ, she’s our sister, regardless of her race. When a man is forgiven by the Lord, he’s our brother, even if he’s from a different background.
When we’re in God’s family, we’ve got the greatest thing in common—we call God “Father” and Jesus “Lord”—and nothing should separate us.
Barnabas knew that. He was a good man.