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Even the Best Fail


Thomas R. Fletcher

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We have a finely developed cult of personality in Evangelical circles. We put our leaders or favorite Christian musicians on pedestals and then we're surprised when they fall off. We make them our heroes and pretend they have no flaws. The truth is, every life, if examined closely has flaws.

As the Bible presents characters within its pages, it does no whitewashing. It presents them as they are: human and subject to failure. I want to examine one character we first encounter in the early chapters of the Book of Acts. Acts 4:32-37 sets the scene and introduces this man named Joseph, whom the apostles called Barnabus--in keeping with the Jewish tradition of name reflecting character. The name Barnabus means "son of consolation," or "son of encouragement." He was given the name because he was an encouragement to others, he consoled others.

Luke, the author of Acts, was an historian. In his writing he periodically makes brief summations. In Acts 4:32-37 we find a summation of the early Church's progress and activity. Conditions sound ideal at that point: believers were of one heart and mind (no church splits, no divisions); the believers shared everything they owned; and there were no needy persons among them. That does not mean there were no poor among the believers, but that the wealthier believers saw that none remained needy. It is significant that Luke makes note of Barnabus selling a field and bringing the money to the apostles for distribution to the needy. I think that Barnabus is listed because he was the first to do so. He saw a need. He had the means to meet that need and he took the appropriate action.

Barnabus set an example for us to follow today. Let me ask you, when you see a needy brother or sister, and you have the means to meet that need, do you do so? 1 John 3:17 says "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?" Barnabus took his Christian duty seriously. In our first introduction to Barnabus we see him as a committed follower of Christ caring for his fellow believers.

In another glimpse of Barnabus, we see him as a peacemaker, bringing together parties once at odds. In Acts 9:26-27 we see this side of Barnabus' character. Let me set the scene for you. Saul (later to be called Paul) had been furiously persecuting the Church. He had a hand in the martyrdom of Stephen and he was on his way to Damascus to capture and bring back to Jerusalem any believers found there. He met Christ on that Damascus road and was forever transformed. He was born again. Naturally he wanted to associate with other believers, but he had an image problem with the Jerusalem believers. Saul had a terrible reputation before the Christians. Naturally they questioned his motives. They more than likely thought he was attempting to lay a trap for them. Saul needed someone on the inside track with the Jerusalem believers who would trust him, and present him to them, making reconciliation. He needed a peacemaker. Barnabus would be that man. Barnabus' reputation with the Christians was as good as Saul's was bad. He knew that Saul merely telling the Jerusalem believers he was changed would not suffice.

Saul held no claim on Barnabus. It would have been no wonder if Barnabus, like the Jerusalem believers, had questioned Saul's motives. Barnabus was the type who would hear a person out. He would believe the best of others. He knew Saul needed his help, and the believers knew Barnabus would never do anything to hurt the Church. How well do we follow Barnabus' example? Do we seek to end conflict when possible? Do we stand in the gap for others?

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If the story ended here we would have a wonderful example of Christian care and service. However, the story doesn't end here. There is a sour note in the life of Barnabus, and we all have sour notes in our lives. Some us just hide them better than others. None of us are perfect. As humans, we fail. In our next view of Barnabus (Galations 2:11-13) we see him as a flawed individual. Peter and some other Jewish Christians had been eating with the Gentile believers, but when they learned of the arrival of a Jerusalem contingent, they pulled away. They separated themselves, refusing to eat with the Gentile believers any longer. Barnabus found himself caught up in the hypocrisy. The very one (Saul, now called Paul) whom Barnabus had originally brought to the Christians in Jerusalem, now must say "even Barnabus was led astray."

Peter's vision of Acts 10 had made it very clear to him that he was no better than the Gentile believers. It is quite possible that the evening before the Jerusalem group arrived that Peter and the others had been enjoying a good ham sandwich with their Gentiles brothers and sisters. Peter was more concerned about his reputation with the big boys from Jerusalem than the feelings of the Gentile believers. Unfortunately, Barnabus went along with him. I don't think Barnabus woke up that morning and said, "You know, today, I think I'll be a hypocrite." It seldom happens that way.

Barnabus was caught up in the situation before thinking it through. He violated his own standards of behavior. He cared for the feelings and needs of others. He wouldn't intentionally hurt his Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ--and it must have been quite painful for them. One day they are all sitting around enjoying fun, food, and fellowship. The next, the Jewish Christians are eating at a different table, acting as though they are better. Barnabus was caught up in the moment. He hurt others by his actions. He pretended to be something he wasn't.

No matter how long we have walked with God, no matter how much good we have done, we are still subject to failure. The leaders, dare I say idols, that we place upon a pedestal are subject to failure. We want to believe our heroes of the faith are without flaw. Failure of our faith heroes forces us to face the awful truth that we too, are subject to failure. J. I. Packer said it best: "The Church is not a museum for saints, it is a hospital for sinners where we all suffer from the same disease and are subject to relapse at any time." When people fail, we need not vilify them but remember we too are subject to failure. Barnabus was a Church leader of sterling character, yet he failed. He failed because he was human. Even the best fail--that is the bad news.

The good news is that God stands ready to forgive and restore. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9 NIV)." Knowing what is to fail, we then stand ready to help a struggling brother or sister, without being judgmental. "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently...(Galations 6:1 NIV)." In so doing, we bring help to others and glory to God.

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