When the apostle Paul went about the Gentile churches taking up a collection for the poor in Jerusalem, he encouraged people to not think of giving as an onerous obligation. To the Corinthians (for whom this was a sticky issue) he wrote, “Everyone should give whatever they have decided in their heart. They shouldn’t give with hesitation or because of pressure. God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7, CEB).
Hopefully, we’ve learned this lesson from Paul. We not only give, but generously and with a glad heart.
But where did Paul learn the lesson? From the sacrificial self-giving of his Lord, of course. I’m thinking, though, that he also learned it from the example of his friend, Barnabas.
In previous posts, we’ve witnessed the birth of the first Gentile church, in the city of Antioch in the Roman province of Syria. The church sprouted from the evangelistic efforts of adventurous but unnamed souls from Cyprus and Cyrene, who decided to tell the story of Jesus to Gentiles. Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem to see what was happening, and threw himself into the work. Soon, he recruited Saul to help him, and the church continued to grow.
As a coda to that story, Luke throws in this account:
About that time, some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, Agabus, stood up and, inspired by the Spirit, predicted that a severe famine would overtake the entire Roman world. (This occurred during Claudius’ rule.) The disciples decided they would send support to the brothers and sisters in Judea, with everyone contributing to this ministry according to each person’s abundance. They sent Barnabas and Saul to take this gift to the elders. (Acts 11:27-30, CEB)
Agabus, apparently, had the gift of prophecy, of delivering a word from God for the benefit of the people (we’ll see him again in Acts 21). He predicted a famine that would have a widespread impact on the Roman Empire — and as Luke notes, he was right.
In those days, the empire depended greatly on Egypt for its food supply. But historians note that sometime during the reign of Claudius, chronic flooding of the Nile damaged crops. Food became more scarce. Prices skyrocketed. And then, as always, the poor had no protection against the fickleness of the weather and the economy.
We don’t know, at this point, how long the church in Antioch had been in existence. It must have taken some time for Barnabas to find Saul, and Luke tells us that the two partnered in the ministry for a year. By today’s standards, at least, that’s a pretty new congregation.
But whatever reservations believers in Jerusalem may have had about bringing Gentiles into the fold, the converts in Antioch seemed to have no reservations in the other direction. If their brothers and sisters in Judea needed financial help, they were ready to give, each according to his or her ability.
Luke doesn’t say it, but I imagine this was Barnabas’ doing, at least in part.
When Luke first introduces Barnabas into the story, it’s for a great act of generosity: he sells a piece of property and lays the proceeds at the apostles’ feet, for them to use as they saw fit (Acts 4:36-37). It’s no stretch to imagine how he would have responded later, hearing Agabus’ prophecy and of the need in Judea. He would have jumped to help, and successfully encouraged others to do the same.
I don’t know if Paul needed such a living example to learn the lesson of generosity. But he was blessed to have one. I know that I personally can slip too easily into a stingy and possessive attitude toward “my stuff.” I need a Barnabas or two to help me keep my head and my priorities straight.
They’re out there. Go find one.