Instruments in the Hands of a Loving God: Lessons from Barnabas

by Mark Olander

By looking closely at the life of Barnabas, we
can identify at least five things God looks for in
individuals so that he can effectively use them.


Photo courtesy SIM


When Jonathan Edwards preached his sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” as a guest speaker at a church in Enfield, Connecticut, on July 8, 1741, his aim was to stir up the members of the congregation which had, up to that time, been completely unmoved by the Great Awakening in New England. Edwards wanted them to realize that only through repentance and faith in Christ could they escape God’s judgment. 

My aim in writing this article is to encourage and motivate fellow Christian workers to be the kind of individuals God can use as effective instruments in his capable hands. As instruments, we do not have the ability of accomplishing anything in our own strength. It is only when we put ourselves in God’s hands that something worthwhile and eternally productive can take place.

My wife and I enjoy music very much and are intrigued by the variety of musical instruments that are used in Africa, where we have served as missionaries for many years. They range from a variety of stringed instruments to drums of all shapes and sizes. Although these instruments are often very ordinary and unimpressive in appearance, they can produce beautiful music when in the hands of skilled African musicians. 

As missionaries, we are a bit like African instruments. For the most part we are ordinary people who may not be very impressive according to the world’s standards and values. However, God is a skilled musician who can do amazing things through our lives if we are willing to be instruments in his hands.

In scripture, we see examples of ordinary people God used in extraordinary ways. One such individual was a man named Simon from Cyprus. Later, his friends gave him the name Barnabas (meaning “son of encouragement”) because he had a reputation of being an encourager. Barnabas became a first-century missionary whom God used to make a major impact in his generation for Christ. By looking closely at his life, we can identify at least five things God looks for in individuals so that he can effectively use them. In each case, I will cite examples of missionaries I have personally known over the years and challenge us to live out these qualities. 

#1: Compassionate Enough to Help Those in Need
The first mention of Barnabas comes in Acts 4:36-37, in which Luke shares that Barnabas contributed to the needs of fellow believers in Jerusalem. Barnabas owned a piece of land, sold it, and then brought the proceeds to the apostles to distribute to those in need. Barnabas was an individual who was compassionate enough to help those in need. He didn’t just pray for them and say, “God bless you.” He was moved to help.

A couple months ago my wife and I had a delightful conversation with a retired missionary friend who had served with her husband for many years in East and Central Africa. We asked her what her advice would be for a person beginning a missionary career in Africa. With little hesitation, she replied, “Always be available to the Africans.” She explained that if someone has come to your door, he or she must have a definite need because often he or she has traveled a considerable distance. Sometimes, those needs might be material, which you may be able to help meet. Other times, the need is for a good listener and someone who can provide him or her with godly counsel and prayer.  

Are we compassionate enough to help those in need?

#2: Courageous Enough to Stand Up for Their Convictions
The next time we hear of Barnabas is in Acts 9:26-28 after Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Saul (later known as the Apostle Paul) showed up in Jerusalem and sought to join the believers’ fellowship. The Christians there were unwilling to accept Saul into their church because of his infamous reputation as a persecutor of Christians. However, Barnabas stood up for Paul and exhorted his fellow Christians to give Paul a chance and accept him into their fellowship based on his testimony of conversion. What impresses me here is Barnabas’ courage to stand up for his personal convictions, even though it went against the opinions and feelings of the majority. He stood up for a marginalized person who was rejected by fellow believers.

Two of our missionary colleagues in Kenya remind me of Barnabas. The husband is a pilot with our mission and his wife has a significant ministry with women. Over the years of service in Kenya, God has given them a burden to reach White Kenyans—something of an unreached people group in the country. These White Kenyans have generally been overlooked by missionaries who have come to Africa to reach out to the Africans—and these White Kenyans don’t look or act like Africans. 

Our two missionary friends have reached out to these spiritually marginalized people of Kenya. Today, there is a church in the Nairobi area which intentionally seeks to minister to White Kenyans. The missionary wife has also had a burden to minister to women prisoners in a Nairobi prison. In both cases, our friends have shown courage to reach out to these people.

Are we courageous enough to stand up for our convictions?

#3: Obedient Enough to Do Whatever God Says
The third time we come across Barnabas is in the first couple verses of Acts 13, in which Luke tells us that God’s Spirit instructed the church in Antioch to set apart Barnabas and Paul as foreign missionaries. Barnabas could have easily argued that he and Paul were having an effective ministry in the city of Antioch and therefore should not be sent elsewhere. He could have rationalized a case for staying where he was. But Barnabas was willing to leave Antioch to go with his disciple, Paul, on this missionary journey, which would take them to some unknown locations for an unknown period of time. It took courage to follow God’s plan by taking this step of faith.

As missionaries, we can certainly identify with how Barnabas must have felt when God instructed him to leave his comfort zone and strike off on this missionary journey. My wife and I have two very good friends from our “Antioch church” back in the United States who remind me of Barnabas’ obedience to God’s leading. This couple visited us in Kenya a few times and God began working in their hearts to leave their secure jobs and home in America to come to Kenya as missionaries at a school for missionary kids (MKs).  

They could have easily justified staying where they were. However, at a time when most of their peers were focusing on retiring from their careers and sitting back to enjoy a comfortable retired life, this couple (in their late 50s) pulled up their roots and headed to Africa as first-time missionaries. They quit their high-paying professional jobs, sold their business, sold most of their possessions, rented out their house, and left for Kenya. They were willing to leave their comfort zone and their extended family—which included thirteen grandchildren! 

Today, they have a strategic ministry as dorm parents for high school girls at a school for MKs in Kenya. God is using them to make an eternal impact on the lives of these teenage girls. Furthermore, because of their willingness to serve, the parents of these MKs are able to be missionaries in Africa. If it were not for quality boarding schools for MKs and dedicated people like this couple, those missionaries would most likely not be on the foreign mission field today. 

Are we obedient enough to do whatever God says?

#4: Humble Enough to Serve in the Shadows
Barnabas was also willing to serve behind the scenes with Paul as the leader. At the beginning of their missionary journey, Barnabas was leading the team. He was the older Christian and had discipled Paul after his conversion. However, the leadership shifted from Barnabas to Paul after they left Cyprus and moved into Asia Minor. 

This change of leadership was most likely due to the fact that Paul was the more gifted public speaker, apologist, and evangelist. Barnabas had other gifts, including serving, encouraging, giving, and showing mercy (c.f. Rom. 12:6-8). Initially, Luke lists Barnabas’ name first and then Paul’s (c.f. Acts 13:2, 7). But eventually, the order changes to “Paul and Barnabas” (c.f. Acts 13:13, 42, 43, 46, 50). If Barnabas had been a proud person, he might well have quit the team and gone home because it took humility to step aside while his protégé took over. However, Barnabas was willing to serve in the shadows. Having once been the senior pastor, it takes humility to become an assistant pastor!

Many missionary colleagues of mine have demonstrated this same quality of humility. One of them is a man who served for many years as the principal of a Bible college in Kenya. This missionary and the college board of governors recognized the importance of getting a qualified African to lead the school. Therefore, my friend helped groom a Kenyan faculty member to become the new principal of the college. 

At the appropriate time, my friend stepped aside to make way for this Kenyan man to lead the college. My friend wisely moved away from the college for several years to let the new principal develop his own leadership style. He and his wife later went back to the same college to serve as teachers on the faculty. 

Are we humble enough to serve in the shadows?

#5: Merciful Enough to Forgive Those Who Have Offended Them
The final mention of Barnabas is in Acts 15:36-41, when Paul proposed to Barnabas that they return to visit believers in Cyprus and Asia Minor, where they had evangelized during the first missionary journey. Barnabas wholeheartedly agreed that such a follow-up visit was needed to help the new believers and he was willing to go along with Paul. 

The problem arose when John Mark, who had deserted Paul and Barnabas during the first journey, showed up and wanted to go with them. It is not known for sure what the reason was for John Mark’s desertion and return to Jerusalem, but apparently Paul thought it was not an acceptable reason. Undoubtedly, his desertion was a great disappointment and frustration for both of his missionary colleagues. Now he wanted a second chance. 

Should he be allowed to go with them? Paul felt strongly that John Mark should not. Barnabas insisted that they give John Mark another chance. Luke tells us that Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp disagreement” and decided to go different directions on this missionary endeavor. 

Although Paul likely had good reasons for his position, I respect Barnabas for his merciful attitude toward his cousin, John Mark, by offering to give him a second chance. As we noted earlier, one of Barnabas’ spiritual gifts was showing mercy. Time would show that John Mark became a very mature and godly man who later was given the privilege of writing one of the four Gospel records of the life and ministry of Christ.

I’ve known many missionaries who have been greatly offended and disappointed by the actions and attitudes of both non-Christians and believers alike. However, quite often the missionaries have extended forgiveness to those who have offended or hurt them. For example, one missionary woman was the victim of an armed robbery. She was held up at gunpoint while the thieves stole her car and left her on the side of the road. Although she was not physically harmed, she suffered great emotional trauma which could have easily caused her to leave Africa, never to return again.   

She had been robbed by the very people to whom she came to Kenya to share the love of Christ. That incident took place nearly seventeen years ago and she is still serving as a missionary in Africa today. 

Are we merciful enough to forgive those who have offended us? 

The Bible teaches that God has a specific purpose for your life and mine (c.f. Paul’s comment about David in Acts 13:36). He has uniquely equipped each of us with the abilities and spiritual gifts to accomplish that purpose. 

Are we the kind of people God is able to use? Are we like Barnabas—compassionate, courageous, obedient, humble, and merciful? Are we instruments available for God’s purposes? Are we willing to let him use us whenever, wherever, and however he chooses? I pray that we are.


Mark Olander is a missionary with Africa Inland Mission who has served in South Sudan and Kenya. Currently, he is an adjunct faculty member at Africa International University, the Academy for World Missions in Germany, and Columbia International University.

EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 196-201. Copyright  © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.



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