Saturday, January 11, 2014

Grace, Gladness, and a Good Man

"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." - Acts 11:21-24

I've been to a lot of funerals.  I've conducted a lot of funerals.  That means I've heard a lot of eulogies.  Had several "open mic" sessions, where friends and family stand and give testimony to the character and life of the person who has passed.  The stories make people laugh, cry, stay silent, think, etc.  One of the adjectives often used as people speak of their loved one is "good".  He was a good man.  She was a good friend.  Dad was always good at listening.  Aunt Sally was such a good mother to her a second mother to me.

But we describe people as "good" apart from funeral services.  Someone asks about your boss.  "He's a good man."  Your co-worker?  "She's a good woman."  A child may be said to have "a good heart," even though his/her actions seem to say otherwise.  Words that are used so often...can sometimes lose their meaning.

I ran across this word "good" today as I read Acts 11.  It's a word Luke uses to describe Barnabas.  If you're familiar with this man and his role in the book of Acts, then you know his reputation as an encourager.  Here, Luke says Barnabas was a "good man."  That identification stood out as I read.  And I don't believe Luke means it in the general way we sometimes use that phrase: "He's a good man."  He's not just trying to be nice.

In chapter 18 of Luke's gospel, he records an encounter between Jesus and a rich man.  The man comes to him with a question: "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Lk. 18:18).  Not just Teacher...Good Teacher.  It's a compliment.  It's nice.  It's a way to even gain favor with the person you're calling "good."  No problem, right?  Wrong.

Jesus doesn't begin by answering his question.  He begins by addressing this "good" business: "Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone" (Lk. 18:19).  Apparently, Jesus doesn't think slapping the adjective "good" on a person is a good idea.  There may be relative goodness in the acts that we do.  One man may be good when compared to the rest of his family.  His co-workers.  His neighbors.  His community.  Even the world!  But no one is good when we remember the ultimate standard of goodness.  God.  God alone is good.

You may be thinking, "Yeah, but Jesus is God in the flesh.  Why didn't He just accept what the guy said and answer his question?"  Here's why.  The rich man didn't know who Jesus truly was.  He knew Him only as a teacher.  Not as Messiah.  Not as Savior.  Not as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Just as a teacher.  Jesus knows that.  And if this rich man is assuming Jesus is just a man...just a teacher...then he needs to be corrected.

So, it is best to believe that Luke is doing something else.  He's not just paying a compliment.  He's saying something genuine and important about Barnabas.  So...what is he saying?  What does Luke mean by "he was a good man"?  Luke helps us answer that question in two ways.  First, he describes human goodness in relation to God.  Second, he describes human goodness at work.

First, Luke says this "good man" was "full of the Holy Spirit and of faith."  The fullness of the Spirit and the presence of a robust faith in Christ made Barnabas a good man.  This is the way Luke described another good man back in chapter 6.  The first Christian martyr, Stephen, was "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5).  These descriptions speak of one's relationship to God.  Both are marks of born-again Christians.

Apart from faith in Christ...apart from the Holy Spirit's regenerating's who we are: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:10b-12).

But by God's grace, we have been rescued out of this condition.  Freed from the slavery of sin.  Made righteous in God's sight.  Our good God has made us good in His eyes.  The Christian life, then, is to "be who you are."  You are declared righteous in Christ.  You are saints, set apart by the Holy Spirit in Christ.  You are declared good and acceptable to God because of the person and work of Jesus.  That's what the Bible calls justification.

Now, being justified.  Live righteously.  Live saintly lives.  Live good and acceptable lives.  Not to become righteous, saintly, and good, but because God has declared you righteous, saintly, and good.  However, while this is true of all believers in Christ, Luke is not simply saying, "Barnabas was a Christian."  There's more here.  Luke's saying that Barnabas' Christian goodness was observable.  If you look at his life, you'll see the evidence of goodness.  You should see him and come to the same conclusion: "he was a good man".  Jesus says we'll know people by their fruits (Mt. 7:15-20), and Paul says that goodness is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

And that brings us to the second part of the answer to our question: What does Luke mean by "he was a good man"?  How was this basic Christian character observable in Barnabas' life?  Here's Luke's answer: "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" (Acts 11:23).

Barnabas had been sent to gather information about the supposed new church in Antioch.  The apostles heard a lot about them in Jerusalem.  If they had e-newsletters in that day, Antioch would have made the headlines: "A New Church Allegedly Planted in Antioch."  But, being good shepherds and wanting to protect the integrity of Christ's church, the apostles send Barnabas to make sure it's a genuine church.  Genuinely believing and preaching the gospel.  Genuinely marked by God's grace.

And Luke says that Barnabas arrives in Antioch.  He goes to the church.  And what does he see?  The grace of God!  What a captivating idea...he sees the grace of God.  In other words, Barnabas sees the evidence of God's grace.  He sees faith and works that can only be explained by the grace of God at work in their lives.  And how does he respond?  He's not suspicion.  He doesn't cast doubt on the story of their conversion.  He's glad!

Barnabas has always been a guy who is slow to suspicion and quick to rejoicing.  Remember when Paul was converted?  Nobody was ready to believe he was a Christian, but Barnabas came to his side.  Stood up for him.  He saw the grace of God in Paul's life and was glad!  This is observable goodness in Barnabas' life.

Again, think about Luke's gospel.  In chapter 15, Luke records three parables from Jesus about things that are lost: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son.  After the first two, Jesus says that there is great joy in heaven...rejoicing among the angels...when one sinner repents (Lk. 15:7, 10).  Then, in the third parable, a father throws a party to celebrate the repentance of his prodigal son (Lk. 15:22-24).  Joy is the right response to seeing the grace of God in others.  It is the heavenly response.  The godly response.  The good response.

So, Barnabas' goodness is observable in his response to seeing the grace of God.  It's also observable in what he does next.  He doesn't pack his bag and leave town.  He doesn't Skype with the apostles back in Jerusalem and tell them: "Looks like their good!"  No, he does something else.

Barnabas doesn't just see the grace of God.  He encourages them to continue in the grace of God.  "...[And] he exhorted them to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose..." (Acts 11:23b).  Barnabas speaks.  He talks to them about persevering in the faith.  He warns them about the danger of turning away and exhorts them to stay faithful.  But being faithful won't just happen.  It's not automatic.  It's not like setting the cruise control on your car.  These Christians have steadfast purpose.  They have to be intentional.

You see that?  That's goodness at work!  Christian goodness means caring about the lives of others.  Caring about their spiritual lives.  Caring enough to speak God's truth.  To speak it in love.  To speak God's Word so that our brothers and sisters will grow in goodness.  So that the fruit of the Spirit will observable in their lives, too.

Barnabas was a good man.  He was full of the Spirit and of faith.  And that goodness was observable in two things: (1) joyfully seeing God's grace in others and (2) faithfully exhorting God's people to continue in God's grace.  That brings me to a question: Am I a good man?  Are you a good man?  And like Luke, I don't mean, "Are we Christians?" (However, that's the right place to start!)

What I mean we rejoice in seeing the grace of God in others?  In seeing the evidence of grace worked out in their lives?  Do we suspect that it's not genuine, or do we celebrate what we see?  Are we encouraging other Christians to stay steady, to remain faithful, and to persevere in the faith?

More than what I think about me.  More than what I think about you.  What do you think others might say?  If someone were recording this time in your life.  If they observed you at your church.  And if they used the criteria that Luke mentions here.  What would they say?  Are you good?