I have a pastor friend who used to say, “Except for the grace of God, at any given moment, every one of us is less than a week away from virtually ruining our lives.” For some of us, we crossed that line a long time ago.
Do you believe you are your past? That the bad things you’ve done have so defined who you are that you will never be anyone other than the screw-up who made all those mistakes and committed all those sins? Do you know anyone who believes this about themselves and needs to be brought in out of the relational cold?
The apostle Paul was a man like this. Before his conversion, he was committed to ridding the world of Christians. Then, he was converted to Christ by Jesus Himself while traveling to Damascus to round up Christians and have them put to death. If there ever were a lost cause, Paul was it.
Three years after his conversion but before he had begun his ministry to the Roman world, Paul traveled to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles in that city. They were wary of him; they had every reason to be. After all, Paul had overseen the stoning death of Stephen, one of the deacons in the Jerusalem church.
Barnabas likely knew Stephen personally, since they were both part of the church from its early days. And now he was being told Paul had become a Christian. Embracing Paul must have been complicated for Barnabas. Making room for Paul cost him something. He would have had to personally forgive Paul for the pain and suffering he had caused. Barnabas had felt the heat of the persecution Paul had ignited years before. Some of Barnabas’s close friends had been martyred, others tortured, and others were still living as exiles because of Paul’s behavior.
Not only did Barnabas need to forgive Paul, he also had to believe in Paul’s call to minister the very gospel he once worked so hard to destroy. He had to trust that Paul was not a wolf trying to come in among the sheep Barnabas loved. So what did Barnabas do? He spoke with Paul and sought out the genuineness of his faith. He soon became convinced that the God who had raised Jesus from the dead had also given new life to this infamous Pharisee. So Barnabas took Paul by the hand and led him before the apostles. He stood as one with Paul, lending his own reputation in order to affirm God’s work in Paul’s life. When Barnabas put his arm around Paul, he wasn’t just confirming Paul’s calling to the apostles; he was confirming it to Paul too.
This is a beautiful picture of what it looks like to bring someone who feels like a lost cause in out of the cold. Hospitality for the lost cause can cost us something, and it usually involves risk. So why should we do it? Because Jesus did. And because none of us are very far from finding ourselves in the same place—where we’ve failed or sinned in some way that leaves us dependent on the kindness of a friend to pull us up from the pit of shame and accusation.
Written by Russ Ramsey