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Biblical Characters, 7 - A GOOD MAN, BARNABAS

By Clovis G. Chappell


      Acts 11:24

      This is the text: "He was a good man." Doubtless you think me daring to the point of rashness to undertake to interest and edify a modern congregation by talking about a virtue so prosaic as goodness. "He was a good man." We do not thrill when we hear that. It is not a word that quickens our pulse beat. We do not sit up and lean forward. We rather relax and stifle a yawn and look at our watches and wonder how soon it will be over. We are interested in clever men, in men of genius. We are interested in bad men, in courageous men, in poor men and rich men, but good men--our interest lags here, nods, drowses, goes to sleep.

      The truth of the matter is that the word "good" is a bit like the poor fellow that went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. It has fallen among thieves that have stripped it of its raiment and have wounded it and departed, leaving it half dead. It is a word that has a hospital odor about it. It savors of plasters and poultices and invalid chairs. Its right hand has no cunning. Its tongue has no fire. Its cheeks are corpse-like in their paleness. It seems to be in the last stages of consumption. If people say we are handsome or cultured we are delighted, but who is complimented by being called good?

      What has wrecked this word? What is the secret of its weakness and utter insipidity? Answer: bad company. The Book says, "The companion of fools shall be destroyed." And this word is an example of the truth of that statement. It has been forced to rub elbows with bad company till it has come into utter disrepute.

      Its evil companions have been of two classes. First, it has been made to associate with the gentleman about town whose greatest merit was that he would smoke a cigar with you, if you would furnish the cigar, or take a drink with you, if you would furnish the liquor. He also graced a dress suit, even though it were a rented one with the rent unpaid. And he looked well in pumps. He was a graceful dancer and good at poker. He also was very skilled in never having a job. And his friends all said that "he was a good fellow." And, of course, being forced to keep company with said fellow was enough to ruin the reputation of the word forever more.

      But as if that were not enough calamity to befall any innocent and inoffensive word, it was forced into another association that was but little less disreputable. There was an individual--sometimes a man, sometimes a woman--who did not swear, nor lie, nor steal, nor dip snuff; whose conduct was as immaculate as that of a wax figure in a show window; who never made a mistake, nor did he ever make anything else. He was as aggressive as a crawfish and as magnetic as a mummy. He was "faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null." And one day we felt called upon to clothe this colorless insipidity, this incarnate nonentity, with some sort of an adjective, and so we threw around its scrawny shoulders this once glorious robe "good." We said, "Yes, he isn't much account, it is true, but he is a good fellow." And the garment fit him as the coat of Goliath would fit a pigmy. But little by little the once great cloak seemed to draw up and to come to fit the figure of the dwarf.

      Thus the word "good" lost its reputation, fell, as many words and many folks do fall, through bad company. But let me remind you that, in spite of popular misconception, "good" is not after all a weak word. It is a strong, brawny, masculine word. It has the shoulders of a Samson. It has the lifting power of a Hercules. And the reason God employed it here to describe this man Barnabas was not because He had to say something about him and could not find anything else decent to say. It was not a word to cover up the deformity of uselessness or the glaring defect of a moral minus sign. He used the word because there was none other that would fitly describe the fine and heroic man of whom He was speaking. It means here all that "Christian" means.

      "He was a good man." That was what God said about him. That was how he looked when seen through "the microscope of Calvary." He had matriculated in God's school, and after faithful and patient study, his Master gave him a degree. And what was that degree? Barnabas, the genius? No. Barnabas, the gifted? No. It was a higher degree than either of these. It was the highest degree that Heaven itself can confer. He gave him the degree of "good." Barnabas, the good. "For he was a good man."

      Now, why did God call him good? Or, in other words, what are the characteristics that go to make up a good man? When is a man good in the sight of "Him who sees things clearly and sees them whole?" In what branches must a man show himself proficient in order to receive this degree? I ask these questions with the hope that some of us who are here to-day may want to matriculate in God's school to receive the high degree that was conferred upon Barnabas.

      The first branch in which Barnabas showed himself proficient in his preparation for this degree was the branch of Christian Stewardship. And I make bold to say that no man will ever receive the degree that Barnabas received who is not proficient in the grace of stewardship.

      Here is the story. Barnabas is in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost. The Church is in the early spring-time of its power. Many Jews, both home-born and foreign-born, have been brought into the fold. They have thereby broken with their kindred, and many of them are without any means of support. Then Barnabas comes forward. He is a wealthy land owner. He sells his land and puts every dollar of it upon the altar of his Lord, for the saving of the church in its hour of crisis.

      What does this mean? It means that when Barnabas became a Christian, that when he gave himself to Christ, he gave his money also. Now, stewardship for you may not mean that you, as Barnabas, sell what you have and give it all away. God does not call upon all men to do that, but what He does do is to call upon every man to put both himself and his money at His disposal. He calls upon every man to recognize God, and not himself, as the owner. That is the first step in Christian Stewardship: that God owns all; He owns me; He owns my home; He owns my children; He owns my property. I have called your attention before to the fact that the modern idea of ownership is pagan. The Christian idea is this: that God is the absolute owner of all things.

      I am sure that we are as ready as was Barnabas to acknowledge this fact. We nod our heads and agree, but a truth like this demands something more than simply a nod of the head. If God owns everything, then I am to acknowledge that ownership. How was God's ownership acknowledged throughout all the Old Testament days? By the devoting of a tenth to His service. That was required of the rich and of the poor. No man was exempt. Christ never at any time set that law aside. I do not see how any man dare do less than that to-day. The Jews, without one thousandth part of our light, were cursed because of their failure to do this very thing. Since when has it come to pass that the greater the light the less the responsibility?

      There is nothing more needed to-day than a Christian attitude toward money. There has been a reaction from the altruism that prevailed during the war, and the world is more money mad than ever before. And men are making money as scarcely ever before, and the man who is making money is the man who stands in the position of a peculiar danger. For the men who can rapidly accumulate money and at the same time be loyal to Jesus Christ are few indeed.

      While I was in Dallas the other day I talked to a friend who was a man of wealth. He said without enthusiasm, "I have made more money this year than I ever made before." And then I questioned him regarding his work in the Church. At one time he had been the teacher of a very large class of boys. He told me that he had given up his Sunday School work, that he had given up all his religious work. Then I said, "If you had a thermometer for registering happiness, I suppose your thermometer would register lower to-day than at any other time since you came into the Church." And with sadness he acknowledged that such was the case.

      Yes, Barnabas was sound in the doctrine of stewardship. And I am fully persuaded that the man who is genuinely Christian in his attitude toward money will be Christian in every other relationship of life. And I am likewise fully persuaded that the man who fails here, who falls short of the standard of goodness here, will fall short everywhere. A man may be a liberal man and fail to be a good man, but no man can be a good man and at the same time be a gripping, grasping, covetous man. It is an utter impossibility. Barnabas got a degree in goodness, and the first course he mastered was a course in Christian Stewardship.

      Second, Barnabas was proficient in that difficult branch that we call faith. He had acquired faith till he was full of it. Faith in God? Yes, he had faith in God. That lies back of all that he did and all that he became. But the faith that shows itself most in his life, as we see it, is his faith in men. How he did believe in folks! Confidence in men is an essential to true goodness. I do not believe that any cynic was ever a really good man. I know we sometimes pride ourselves on being hard to fool. We congratulate ourselves at times on being able to see more through a key-hole than other folks can see through a wide-open door. We boast of our ability to read character and to see behind the scenes and to detect sham where other folks dreamed there was sincerity. And I am not arguing for blindness or stupidity, but what I do say is this: that the really good men are the men who believe in their fellows.

      You have met the man who says that every fellow has his price. But whenever you hear a man say that you may know that there is at least one man who does have his price, and that is the man who is making the statement. You can compromise till you come to persuade yourself that compromise is the law of life. You can play with honesty till you come to believe in the dishonesty of the whole world. And the man without confidence in his brother is a man who personally knows that he himself would not do to trust.

      Barnabas believed in men. One of the greatest enemies that the Church ever had returned one day from a tour of persecution in Damascus. He declared that he had been converted on the way, but nobody in Jerusalem believed him. Yes, there was one glorious exception. That exception was Barnabas. He believed in Paul, staked his reputation, his life, his Church, which was dearer to him than his life,--he staked all these upon his faith in Paul's sincerity. But for that, Paul might have been lost to the Church.

      And here is another instance: Paul and Barnabas are on their first missionary tour. With them is a young man named Mark. He has been tenderly nurtured. He finds the missionary life harder than he expected. He proves a coward and goes home. Years after, when the faces of Paul and Barnabas are again set to the battle front, Mark once more offers his service. But Paul will not accept him. He knows that the mission field is no place for parlor soldiers. And so he flatly refuses to allow him to become a part of the army of invasion.

      But Barnabas,--somehow he cannot bring himself to give him up. He believes that even if a man failed once he may succeed at a second trial. He believes that a coward may become a hero, that a deserter may yet become a trusted and faithful soldier. And so he stands by John Mark even at the great price of parting company with Paul. And his confidence was gloriously justified, as our confidence so often is. Who wrote the second Gospel--one of the choicest pieces of literature in the world? It was written by John Mark, the deserter.

      Then years later, when bitter days of persecution have come, Paul is in prison. He especially needs men about him now on whose loyal courage and devotion he can count absolutely. For whom does he now ask? Listen! "Take Mark and bring him with thee, for he is profitable to me for the ministry." Mark has come back. He has been saved to Christ and to the Church. And the one to whom we are mainly indebted for his salvation is none other than the good man Barnabas. And Barnabas won because of his sturdy, persistent faith.

      Now to some this virtue may seem a bit of a weakness, but if weakness, how like it is to the weakness of Christ Himself! For certainly one of the most marvelous characteristics of Jesus is His faith in men. How Jesus could expect that the poor slattern who was dragged into His presence taken in adultery could be utterly different from that hour, I do not know. I certainly would not have expected it of her, but He did. And I hear Him saying to her, "Go and sin no more." How Jesus could expect that twelve faulty, unlearned, self-seeking men, such as His disciples were, would ever be the means of remaking the world, I cannot for a moment see. They failed Him in His hour of supremest need. They slept in the garden and ran like frightened sheep when He was arrested. And yet, knowing their cowardice and their weakness, He tumbles the responsibility of world conquest upon their frail shoulders with the declaration that "the gates of hell should not prevail against them." Certainly the wildest faith that was ever exercised is the faith that God exercises in men. And the faith of this man Barnabas was a quality born of a goodness that was close akin to the goodness of God.

      That is the way, I think, that this man got his name. You know they did not always call him Barnabas. The folks over in Cypress knew him as Joses. They named him Barnabas because that was the word that best described him. It was a verbal picture of the man. What does it mean? A son of consolation. Isn't that fine? James and John were called the sons of thunder. That speaks of power, might, dash, the lightning's flash, the thunder's crash. There is storm wrapped up in their personalities. But Barnabas is the peaceful sunset after the storm. He is the light at eventide. He is a son of consolation.

      Now, if there is anything finer than that I do not know just what that something might be. To be incarnated encouragement, embodied comfort, flesh and blood consolation,--it would be hard to find a better vocation than that. This man had the tongue of the learned that he might be able to speak a word in season to him that was weary. He delivered men from the bondage of their self-despisings, from the burden of their self-contempt. He brought hope where there had been despair and turned the westward gaze toward the east. He pointed out the streaks of dawn that were lighting the sky. He made men hear the bird's song within the voiceless egg and to catch the perfume of flowers under the snow. He was a son of consolation. "Be pitiful," says Dr. Watson, "for every man is having a hard time." There are some folks who depress us. There are some wet blanket personalities who stifle us. And there are others like Barnabas who refresh us, and when they come and knock at our doors we pass out of the stuffy atmosphere of a mental prison into a flower garden where the air is fresh and sweet with perfume and musical with the morning song of birds.

      Third, this man was thoroughly missionary. He had taken a course in God's doctrine of evangelism. He believed that the Gospel was for all mankind. Some Christians of that day were trying to keep it a Jewish sect. When they heard that folks were actually being converted down in Antioch there seems to have been not the least bit of joy in the fact. But under the leadership of the Spirit they sent Barnabas to investigate. He came and saw the same light in their faces down in Antioch that was in the faces of those who were Spirit-baptized up in Jerusalem. And the story says that when he saw the work of the Lord he was glad. And not only was he glad, but he threw himself at once into the work of evangelizing that foreign city.

      Then he did another big thing. Seeing the great opportunity that was there, he went and sought Paul out over at Tarsus and brought him over as his helper. And it was there as they labored together and ministered to the Lord and fasted that the Holy Ghost said, "Separate me Barnabas and Saul, for the work whereunto I have called them." And they went forth as the world's first foreign missionaries. An army has gone forth since that day,--the choicest spirits that this world has ever seen. And those who have gone have consecrated the soil of every continent by their prayers, their tears and their sacrifices. Their ashes rest to-day upon every shore and the songs of the redeemed are sung to-day under every sky because they have labored. Who was the vanguard of that great army whose going forth was as the going forth of the morning? The vanguard was made up of two men. One of them was Paul, the other Barnabas, a man not marvelously clever, not greatly gifted. His supreme merit was just this, that in a real and genuine sense he was a good man, full of faith.

      And last of all, Barnabas was a spiritual man. The inspired writer says that he was full of the Holy Ghost. And that implied, of course, that Barnabas was a man fully given up to God, There can be no deep spirituality apart from that. Our surrender is the condition of our being full of the Spirit. "For we are His witnesses of these things, as is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey Him."

      So you can readily see why Barnabas has a right to the fine compliment that is paid him here by the writer of the Acts. Barnabas was generous with his possessions. He had the Christian attitude toward money. Barnabas was generous in his judgments. He had a brother's attitude toward his fellows. He was thoroughly missionary. He made Christ's program for world conquest his own. He was profoundly and genuinely spiritual. And because of these fine qualities one who knew him well said of him, "He was a good man."

      Now, there are compliments more flashy than being called good. There are encomiums that are much fuller of glitter, but in spite of that, I am convinced that nothing greater or better could possibly be said about any one of us living to-day or any one that ever has lived than just this that is written about Barnabas: "He was a good man." I had rather my boy would be able to say that about me when he stands by my grave, sunken and grass-grown, than to say anything else in all the world.

      Brother, let us covet goodness. Let us seek that rare treasure. For there is nothing better or finer or more beautiful or more useful. "Goodness." It is the fairest flower that can ever bloom in your soul garden. It is the sweetest music that even God's skilled fingers will ever be able to win from your thousand stringed heart harp. It is the virtue in those we love that grips us tightest and holds us longest. And wonderful to say, it is within reach of every one of us.

      There are certain fine things that you and I can never possess. We know that. Genius, greatness,--they are high and forbidding mountain peaks. Their sides are rugged and precipitous. They have pulled iron hoods of snow and ice upon their brows. But goodness,--that is a peak that may be scaled by the tender feet of little children and by the tottering feet of old age. It may be scaled by the reluctant feet of those in life's prosaic middle passage. Let us address ourselves then to this high task. Let us matriculate this morning in God's school for this degree, the degree of "goodness." And one day it may be written of us as it was written of Barnabas, "He was a good man."

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