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Read Acts 15:36–41

Both characters in this short passage in Acts 15 live up to their reputations. Barnabas, whose name is really Joseph but who got his nickname “Son of Encouragement” after making a personal sacrifice to the church early on in the book of Acts, comes through again with an encouraging attitude. Meanwhile, Paul, who talks a lot about grace in his letters but who still comes across as something of a hard case, does nothing in this instance to disabuse us of that opinion.

The question here is whom to include in their second missionary journey. Barnabas proposes John Mark, a young man who started out with them the first time but who returned home before the mission was complete. The “Son of Encouragement”—which, by the way, is just a Hebraic way of saying “encourager,” in much the same way that “Son of Man” means “human being”—is ready to give Mark a second chance.

The Hard Case? Not so much. Luke tells us, “Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work” (v. 38). Paul proves to be the stickler we suspected he was, one whose moral code allows no bending. The champion of grace, which Martin Luther and others would have us identify as Paul, turns out in this circumstance to be Barnabas.

In other cases as well. Besides the one I already mentioned, in which Barnabas sells some of his property and gives the proceeds to the burgeoning church in Jerusalem, Barnabas demonstrates his gracious nature, ironically enough, when it comes to Paul himself. In chapter 9, not long after Paul’s famous conversion in Damascus, the former persecutor comes to Jerusalem as a newly minted disciple of Jesus. The other disciples are understandably skittish, however; “they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26). But not Barnabas. He took Paul, “brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:27).

The apostles’ caution is realistic: how could they know that Paul is not just pretending to be a Jesus-follower so as to infiltrate their ranks and rat them out to the authorities? It would be a risk to take him into their confidence. But Barnabas is ready to do so. And since there is nothing in the text to suggest that Barnabas is particularly naive or gullible, we can only assume that he also understands the risk. It’s just that he believes in grace, and he trusts that Jesus is able to change the heart and mind of even a hard-core enemy like Paul. So he takes a chance on the genuineness of the other man’s conversion. It turns out he is right.

We can find another instance of the mysterious working of grace in the story of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15. Luke says, “The disagreement [between the two leaders] became so sharp that they parted company” (v. 39), with Barnabas and Mark going one way and Paul taking a guy named Silas and setting off in the other direction. Even in the midst of serous conflict, the Holy Spirit is able to salvage the situation by doubling the mission. Now instead of one team of missionaries taking the gospel to the Gentiles there are two. The Encourager and the Hard Case go their separate ways, but the work of God continues, and the unstoppable river of God’s grace roars on.

Grace and peace,