READ – Acts 9:19-31
Currently, our nation is divided by a controversy about our walls. There’s disagreement about which people should be brought in and who should be kept out. This issue is not unique to our country. Every country, group and community must make decisions about its walls. Who gets in? Who’s out? And why are some in and some out?
Because the heart of Christianity is that no one earns or deserves to be in, but everyone is welcome into relationship with God by grace through faith in Jesus – this means the church is called to be a community without walls. Everyone is not only allowed to come inside, the church is called to go “outside” to everyone and anyone to welcome all into relationship with God in Christ. The story of how Barnabas brought Paul in teaches us that God calls the church to be a community that brings people in by becoming a community of encouragement.
1. WHY WE WANT TO BE ON THE INSIDE
After Saul’s dramatic conversion in Damascus, he began “immediately proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues” (v20). First, everyone was astonished. “Is this the same Saul!?” The change was dramatic. Over time, it became clear it wasn’t a passing phase – he kept growing “stronger” in his faith and resolve to prove Jesus is the Messiah his people had been waiting for (v22). After a while (2-3 years), the Jewish leaders had enough of this new Saul and tried to trap him in the city to kill him. He barely escaped with his life (v25) and was on the run. Where would he go? Who would take him in? He thought to himself, “Surely the Jerusalem church will take me in. The apostles of Jesus will give me refuge.”
But when he arrived something very different happened – “He tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple” (v26). Saul must have been crushed. They didn’t just reject his newfound ministry, they didn’t believe in the authenticity of his new-found faith. He must have been deeply discouraged. Is there anything more discouraging than being on the outside of an “inner ring” that we desperately want to be in on? To be told, “You don’t belong”, “You aren’t one of us”, “We can’t accept you” is one of the most crushing things we experience in life. Why? The Bible teaches us we are all like Saul – everyone has the deep need to be accepted and belong.
2. WHY WE KEEP PEOPLE ON THE OUTSIDE
Though we know how bad we want to be on the “inside” and how bad it feels to be on the outside, we continue to excel at making walls that exclude people and keep people out. Why is this? Verse 26 gives us the answer. It’s fear. Those on the inside had legitimate fears about Saul. Was he really changed? He had their friends murdered and driven out of their homes. What if it was a trick? Fear grew in the community. As our fear grow larger, our view of God grows smaller until who he is, what he is doing and can do is pushed out of the picture. Those who are on the outside are also afraid – afraid that any attempt to get in will lead to rejection. These fears are powerful. They lead to boundaries, walls and barriers being put up by people in fear. How can these walls be brought down? How can our fear be overcome?
3. HOW GOD BRINGS US IN
This story is about how God overcame these fears through a man named Barnabas. We first meet Barnabas in Acts 4 where we are told that he earned the nickname Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement) because of his consistent encouraging presence in the church. Verse 27 says Barnabas “took him [Saul] and brought him to the apostles”. Barnabas, the insider with a great reputation, risked his place in the community and his reputation for Saul – the outsider with a terrible reputation who didn’t deserve to be brought in. This is a picture of how God brings us all in. This is a picture of the gospel.
The Gospel is that Jesus brings us in. We don’t deserve to be brought into the family of God. We could never earn our place. But Someone else does deserve it and has earned it –and He brings us in. This is how God brings us in:
· Everything that would have kept us out & should have kept us out - Jesus took on himself.
· Jesus brings us in to the acceptance, love and favor of God - forever.
· Nothing we do can take us outside of God’s acceptance, love and favor.
When these gospel truths sink in; when we are astonished that we’ve been brought in and how we’ve been brought in, it changes how we think about “outsiders”.
4. HOW WE BRING OTHERS IN
When the gospel takes hold of a church, what happens? It’s described for us in 9:31 – ‘The church… had peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit it increased in numbers.” A strong and healthy church is marked by the fear of the Lord—not the fear of being on the outside ourselves and not the fear of outsiders who believe, live, think differently than us. A church that gets the gospel is a community of encouragement – a church full of Barnabas who are willing to go outside of their comfort zone, to risk their own status in order to come alongside people who need encouragement.
An important principle emerges from the story of Paul and Barnabas : encouragement is absolutely necessary for the health of the church and for the mission of the church. An encourager is someone who goes out to bring someone else in; someone who goes out of their way to bring someone deeper in to God’s love and God’s will for them in Christ. Encouragement happens through words and actions of acceptance, welcome and affirmation.
Barnabas helps us build the “profile” of an encourager. An encourager is continually astonished that they are in. They know they don’t deserve and didn’t earn their place in God’s family. An encourager is willing to listen to opponents, even enemies, as Barnabas listened to Paul and his story. An encourager is willing to persevere in love – even when it’s hard. Paul (like us!) wasn’t always the easiest person to encourage – but Barnabas never stopped encouraging Paul. Even after they had a sharp disagreement (about what else? encouraging John Mark! see Acts 15:36-41), Paul felt Barnabas encouragement through John Mark while he was suffering in prison. There would be no apostle Paul, epistles of Paul and worldwide impact of Paul without Barnabas. Encouragement is that powerful.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?
2. Have you ever experienced being on the outside of an “inner ring”? What was that experience like? Why does acceptance and belonging matter so much to us? How does the bible help us answer this question?
3. Do you agree that it is largely fear that causes us to keep people outside of our groups, circles and communities? How have you seen this at work in your experience and the walls we build around ourselves?
4. How does the gospel overcome our fear of being on the outside and our fear of outsiders? How might the three bold bullet points above address your own fears?
5. EXERCISE: Read Romans 15:3-7. Notice how Paul encourages the church to welcome and accept each other. He references Psalm 69 to show them exactly how they were welcomed in and accepted by God. As a group, slowly read all of Psalm 69 listening for how the Psalmist describes his experience. In what ways does the Psalmist describe what it’s like to be an outsider? What difference does it make knowing that this was the experience of Jesus? that he experienced this to bring you in?
6. What role has encouragement (what Barnabas did for Paul) played in your faith? Why is encouragement such a powerful thing? How are you in need of encouragement now?
7. FOR GROUPS: Discuss this question together - How can we become better at encouragement? Hebrews 3:13 calls us to daily encourage each other. What would it look like for our group to put this into practice?