Barnabas... Servant Leadership


Before we moved as a family to Cairo, Egypt, in 1975, we were living in Beirut, Lebanon. One of the cherished memories of our time in Lebanon was studying Bible characters with our team. We studied Old Testament characters such as Abraham, Samson and David, and we studied New Testament characters such as Peter, Paul and Barnabas. My love for the Scriptures went to a deeper level at that time.  

Based on 2 Timothy 2:2—"And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others"—I was repeatedly asked, "Who is your Timothy?" or "Where is your Timothy?" Paul’s discipling of Timothy was crucial for the ministry to continue to the next generation. These two questions are still important for the gospel to continue beyond us.

But there were also important questions that no one asked me: "Who is the Paul or who are the Pauls you are serving?"

I have had a long-time passion and desire to understand what it takes to be a servant to great people. Years ago when I first watched the movie "Gandhi," it was in this context that I focused my attention on the British Anglican priest who accompanied Gandhi back to India after his experiences in South Africa. I wanted to know what influence this Anglican priest had on Gandhi, and what influenced his decision to move out of the picture for the sake of Gandhi's reputation. Over time I have learned that being a servant to great people involves:

  • Awareness of their needs

  • Meeting some of their felt needs

  • Empowering them and enabling them

  • Not making the false assumption that I know how to do their ministry better than they can do it

  • Truly believing that they are more effective at their ministry than I could be

  • Truly believing that the purpose of my complementary gifting and humble service is to help them become more effective in their ministries

  • Truly believing in the value of interdependent relationships in the body of Christ in advancing the gospel  

I have always admired the way Barnabas served Paul, believed in him, gave him the space to lead when it was time, and became a dependable partner and servant of Paul (as long as he did not violate his conscience).

I remember one time while in Egypt, a very mature man of God asked me, "Will you consider me as a new believer who surrendered his life to Christ today, and will you disciple me step by step so that I will learn how to disciple others?" I was humbled and immediately replied, "Who am I to disciple you? If I do try to disciple you, sooner or later I will become the bottleneck. My place is to be under you, to serve you and share with you what I know and then the sky will be the limit." That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted for many years. This man became my "Paul," and I became his "Barnabas." If I did not have that attitude of humility, he would not have asked me to meet with him again.  

According to Acts 4:36-37, Barnabas’ real name was Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus. The Apostles called him Barnabas, which means "son of encouragement." This name was chosen because he was an encourager who believed in people. Furthermore, he sold a field that he owned and gave the money to the church in Jerusalem for it to be given to those who needed it more.

After Saul of Tarsus had an encounter with Christ on his way to Damascus, he was brought down to his knees and fully surrendered his life to Christ. Years later, when Saul returned to Jerusalem, his reputation as a persecutor of the church clung to him, even though his life had been completely transformed. In Jerusalem, the Apostles were hesitant to believe that he was truly transformed. So Barnabas listened to him, believed in him and facilitated for him a connection with the Apostles. He convinced them that Saul was truly and authentically transformed, and that he had risked his life as he preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus (Acts 9:27).

Some years later, some believers came to Antioch and preached the gospel—not only to the Jews but also to the Greeks. This resulted in an unexpected outcome: some Jews and Gentiles came to know Christ. Antioch was the third-largest city in the empire, after Rome and Alexandria. When the leadership of the church in Jerusalem heard about this new phenomenon—a church plant made up of Jews and Gentiles—they sent Barnabas the encourager to them to figure out what needs to be done in that unfamiliar and new situation and to carry the responsibility for that ministry (Acts 11:22). Barnabas was the choice because he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and completely trusted by the Jerusalem church. As a result of his ministry in Antioch, a great number of people were brought to the Lord (Acts 11:24).  

After evaluating the situation, Barnabas knew his limitations and knew that he needed Saul of Tarsus to complement him and help him in this new ministry. Saul of Tarsus had the right set of gifts and abilities. He was a Jew rooted and educated in the Jewish tradition, but he also understood the Gentiles and how to relate to them. Furthermore, Saul spent nine years studying the Scriptures in the light of Christ after his conversion. He knew how to confront both Jews and Gentiles with his in-depth knowledge of the Old Testament and knowledge of Gentile literature. So Barnabas went to Tarsus and persuaded Saul to move to Antioch to help him in that new ministry (Acts 11:25).

It’s probable that Barnabas was older in age than Saul; but there’s no question he was older in the faith and with greater experience in the ministry. Regardless, he treated Saul as an equal—a fraternal worker rather than a disciple whom he recruited. "So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch" (Acts 11:26).

The generosity of Barnabas must have had an impact on the young church in Antioch, for when they heard about the famine in Judea they each according to their abilities gave financial gifts, which were carried to the Jerusalem church by Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:30). When Barnabas and Saul finished their task in Jerusalem, they returned to Antioch and brought with them John, who was also called Mark (whom I call John Mark from here on), who was a cousin of Barnabas (Acts 12:25 & Colossians 4:10).

The church in Antioch was an amazing phenomenon, for not only were there Jews but Greeks as well. Furthermore, it was a missional church. For after fasting and prayer, they decided to send out their two top leaders—Barnabas and Saul—to the mission field, accompanied by John Mark (Acts 13:2). Can we imagine a situation where after a missions’ conference an American church decides to send to the mission field the senior pastor along with his associate staff! So Barnabas and his team set sail for Cyprus, starting at synagogues in Salamis, then across the island as far west as Paphos.

The ministry in Paphos resulted in two things: the first was that Saul of Tarsus was no longer Saul but Paul, and the second was that Barnabas created space for Paul to become the leader of the team (Acts 13:6-13). From then on in the book of Acts it was no longer Barnabas and Saul, but Paul and Barnabas. We do not know the details about how the transition occurred. Was it stressful, or was it smooth and graceful? Did Paul ask for the leadership position or did Barnabas suggest it to him? Did Barnabas struggle under the young leadership of Paul? Was Barnabas a wholehearted follower and good team player on Paul's team? The events that followed on that first missionary journey did not convey any resistance by Barnabas to Paul's leadership.

Barnabas' relationship with Saul/Paul demonstrates several of the lessons I learned regarding being a servant to great persons, and also made me realize that you can serve great persons from a position of leadership as well. As a leader, Barnabas truly believed in the value of interdependent relationships and complementary gifting. Knowing that Saul had skills and abilities that would complement his own, as a servant leader he had the humility to not be threatened by Paul's presence—he knew the mission at Antioch was more important—and he welcomed Saul and enabled him to use his gifts. I personally believe Barnabas recognized Paul's abilities were greater than his for that specific mission, and so he demonstrated humility when he empowered Paul to take over as the leader, placing himself in the position of servant.

I wonder if God has brought to your mind someone you can serve.

Dr. Nabeel Jabbour