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Lesson 29: How to Become a Good Person (Acts 11:23-24)

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Perhaps you saw the title of this message, “How to Become a Good Person,” and thought, “I’m not even sure that I want to become a ‘good’ person!” The word “good” is used so often and widely that it almost becomes a meaningless description. I heard recently that the mother of a convicted killer said that her son was “a good boy.” He didn’t really mean any wrong when he shot that other man and took his money!

Most people in the world would say, “The way to get into heaven is to be a good person.” Again, the definition of “good” in the minds of those who say this is so vague and broad that almost everyone qualifies. If you’ve ever done a good deed for someone, even if it was to earn your Boy Scout badge, you’re in!

But the Bible teaches that no amount of human goodness can qualify a person for heaven, because God is absolutely good and He cannot and will not allow even a single sin into His perfect heaven. Thus the apostle Paul builds his argument that “there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Rom. 3:12), because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). As Jesus replied to the rich young ruler, who called Him good, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19). Jesus knew that the young man was using the word in the relative human sense, not in the absolute sense of referring to God. Since none are good enough for heaven, we need a perfect Savior to bridge the chasm between us and God.

In light of this, when the Bible calls a man “a good man,” we should sit up and take notice. Although it is speaking relatively, not perfectly, here is a man whose life we should study and learn from. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke says that Barnabas “was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24). The description starts on the surface and works inward. He was a good man—how so? He was full of the Holy Spirit. How so? By being a man of faith.

By studying Barnabas’ life, we will look at what a good person is, namely, a person who loves God and others (the two great commandments). Then we will look at how a person becomes good in that sense, namely, by walking by faith in the Holy Spirit. Finally, to be honest in our look at Barnabas, we must note that even a man whom the Bible calls good is not perfect. Even good people have their weaknesses and failures.

To be a good person, you must love God and others through a walk of faith in the Holy Spirit.

1. To be a good person, you must love God and others.

The whole Bible is summed up in the two commands, that you should love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and, that you should love your neighbor as yourself (Mark. 12:29-31). There is no command in the Bible to love yourself. Rather, the Bible assumes that we all love ourselves quite well. If we would just love others as much as we do love ourselves, we would fulfill God’s holy law. A study of Barnabas’ life shows that, while far from perfect (as we all are), the bent of his life was to love God and others.

A. A good person loves God.

Barnabas was a religious man. By birth he was a Levite (Acts 4:36), who was obligated to serve at the Jewish temple. But his religion did not, because it could not, reconcile him to God. At some point (we don’t know when), perhaps on the Day of Pentecost, Barnabas recognized that he was a sinner and that Jesus is the Anointed Savior that God sent to bear our sins. Barnabas put his trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and was born again.

We cannot even begin to love God until we are reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ. We must begin by realizing that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Any love that we show toward God is a response to His great love for us in sending His Son to die for our sins. But once we have received God’s gift of eternal life in Christ, we show love to God in two main ways: heartfelt devotion, and willing obedience.

1) Heartfelt devotion.

In Acts 13:2, we see Barnabas, along with the other church leaders in Antioch, “ministering to the Lord and fasting.” That unusual phrase, “ministering to the Lord,” has always captured my attention. Most of us minister for the Lord, but how many of us know what it means to minister to the Lord? The Greek word translated “ministering” is almost always used of discharging one’s service in public ministry. It was used of the service of the priests at the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 1:23). But here Luke applies it to the leaders of the church who are serving in the newness of the Spirit, not in the oldness of the law. Their fasting would seem to point to a special occasion where they were seeking God’s direction as they waited upon Him in prayerful devotion. Spending time in heartfelt devotion to God is one way that we show love for Him.

2) Willing obedience.

Stemming out of our devotion to God should be obedience to Him. “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). We see this instant and unquestioning obedience in Barnabas. When the apostles in Jerusalem needed someone to go to Antioch, they sent Barnabas (Acts 11:22). The text assumes that he went without any question. Then, when the leaders in Antioch were ministering to the Lord and fasting, and the Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2), the two men obeyed by going out on the first missionary trip. It was no small commitment to make!

All human goodness must begin in this God-ward direction. We receive God’s love through faith in Christ; we return God’s love by devotion and obedience from the heart. Any other motive for our good deeds is ultimately self-serving, not God-glorifying.

B. A good person loves others.

This is the second greatest commandment. Biblical love is not just warm feelings toward someone. Rather, it is a self-sacrificing commitment to seek the highest good of the one loved. The highest good for every person is that he or she be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ and be growing in holiness and in conformity to Christ. Barnabas’ love for people is seen in four ways:

1) A loving person accepts imperfect believers, while encouraging them to go on with the Lord.

We saw this last week, so I will only touch on it briefly. Barnabas was a nickname that meant “son of encouragement,” and he was true to form when he saw the new Gentile believers in Antioch. Although he was a Jewish priest, raised with the Jewish strictness about separation from Gentiles, Barnabas could see God’s saving grace at work in Antioch. So rather than grumble about the Jews and Gentiles eating together, he rejoiced and then encouraged them all with purpose of heart to remain true to the Lord (11:23). The explanation given for why he rejoiced and encouraged these new believers, rather than treating them in the expected Jewish fashion, was that he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith (11:24).

Barnabas had already shown this loving acceptance toward Saul when Saul returned to Jerusalem as a relatively new believer. The Christians there were afraid of Saul, thinking that he was just faking his Christian faith to get on the inside, where he would continue his murderous ways. But Barnabas talked to Saul and became convinced that his testimony was genuine. He risked his reputation (and even his life) by taking Saul to the apostles and convincing them to accept him as a brother in Christ (9:26-27). No doubt Saul was still pretty rough around the edges, but Barnabas accepted him and by accepting him, encouraged him in the Lord.

Biblical love sometimes must confront and correct, or it is not real love. But the foundation for any correction must be our love and acceptance, which the person feels.

2) A loving person desires to see others using their gifts to the glory of God, even if it means being eclipsed in his own ministry.

It is significant that when the work in Antioch grew to be more than Barnabas could handle, he did not turn back to Jerusalem for help. Instead, he went looking for Saul and brought him back to Antioch. Eventually, Saul eclipsed Barnabas in their work together, but Barnabas didn’t mind. His focus was not on making a name for himself, but rather on seeing God glorified and His work furthered through young men like Saul using their gifts.

I just finished reading The Life of William Farel (by Frances Bevan [Bible Truth Publishers]), where (p. 367) I was reminded of a scene similar to that of Barnabas bringing Saul into service, and eventually being eclipsed by Saul. Farel was a courageous Reformer and evangelist for many years before John Calvin was even converted. He had suffered much to bring the gospel to Geneva. One evening in July, 1536, a young man rushed into Farel’s quarters and told him that Calvin was in town for one night only, on his way to Strasburg. Farel had read Calvin’s Institutes, which had just been published, and he knew that Calvin was the man to help him with the work in Geneva.

He immediately went to the inn where Calvin was staying. He found a pale, thin, and frail 27-year-old man, who also was shy, timid, and reserved. But Farel implored Calvin to stay in Geneva. He told Farel that his calling was to be a reclusive scholar, not a teacher or pastor in the public eye. Farel continued imploring, and Calvin continued to come up with reasons why he was not the man that Farel was looking for. Finally, with fire in his eyes, Farel warned Calvin about what happened to Jonah and then thundered, “May God curse your rest, and curse your studies, if for their sake you flee from the work He would have you do!”

Calvin trembled, sat speechless, and finally concluded that God’s hand reached down from heaven and laid hold of him to keep him in Geneva. Except for one period when he was banished from town, Calvin spent his remaining 28 years as a pastor in Geneva. Today almost every Christian has heard of Calvin, but few know about William Farel, who pioneered the work in Geneva.

Barnabas had a bent toward grabbing hold of men who were rejected by others and bringing them into a place of usefulness in God’s kingdom. He not only did this with Saul. Later, when his cousin, John Mark, deserted Barnabas and Saul on the first missionary journey, Barnabas wanted to give him a second chance. Paul insisted that a man who deserted them should not go with them again, but Barnabas with equal vehemence insisted that he should go. Both men dug in their heels, and it led to a split between them. I think that both men were wrong in some ways, and both were right in other ways. Barnabas was right in that his stubborn love for Mark resulted in his later being used to write the second Gospel. Later Paul himself requested Mark’s coming to him in prison in Rome, adding, “He is useful to me for service” (2 Tim. 4:11). Biblical love delights to see others serving the Lord.

3) A loving person is generous with his time and money to meet the needs of the suffering.

When we first meet Barnabas, he is selling his property to lay the proceeds at the apostles’ feet to meet the needs of the early church in Jerusalem (4:36-37). Years later, the apostle Paul referred to Barnabas as one, like him, who labored with his own hands to support himself in the ministry of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:6). Perhaps if he had kept his land, he could have used the income to support his ministry. But Barnabas’ generosity toward those in need took precedence over his thinking about his own future. Later, when the famine threatened not only Judea, but also Antioch, the church in Antioch gave to help the needy saints in Judea. Although the text does not say, I’m sure that Barnabas contributed to that gift, and he gave his time to deliver it to Jerusalem. The church could trust him with the money, because he was a generous man, free from greed and obedient to God.

The Bible is clear that love is much more than saying, “I love you.” Love means opening our hearts to those in need by sharing with them the abundance that God has given us (1 John 3:17). When we cling to our money and work hard to get even more, we’re being selfish. The more we love God and others, the more we will trust God by giving to further His work. The most needy people in the world are those who are perishing without Christ. God calls us to love them by giving to missionaries so that they may hear the good news about Jesus Christ. That leads to the fourth mark of Barnabas’ love for people:

4) A loving person devotes himself to reaching the lost for Christ.

God used Barnabas in Antioch to reach considerable numbers for Christ (11:21, 24). Then, with Paul, he went out on the first missionary journey, and they saw many more come into God’s kingdom. Even after the rift with Paul, Barnabas did not get mad and quit serving the Lord. He took Mark and continued reaching out to the lost with the gospel. The most loving thing you or I can do for a lost person is to tell him about the grace of God in Christ so that he may be saved. Not all are called to work at it full time. But it should be always in our thoughts as we have contact with lost people. We always should be praying for opportunities to tell others about the Savior. Not to have a heart for the lost is not to love them.

So a glance at Barnabas’ life shows us a man who loved God and others. I believe that that is the essence of a good man. But how did he get that way? Was it just his natural inclination? No.

2. The source of any human goodness is to walk by faith in the Holy Spirit.

Barnabas was “full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” This was the source of his being a good man. We see the same connection in Galatians 5:16 & 22. There Paul exhorts us to walk by the Spirit so that we do not carry out the desire of the flesh. One of the fruits that the Holy Spirit produces in the believer is “goodness.”

We walk by the Spirit by faith. A walk is a step by step process in which you commit your weight to your legs and trust them to sustain you. A walk in the Spirit is a step by step dependence on the indwelling Spirit of God. You rely upon Him in every situation for power to overcome temptations that stem from the world, the flesh, or the devil. You yield control of your life to Him, rather than being self-willed. As that walk becomes a daily habit, the fruits of the Holy Spirit are gradually formed in your life. Your good deeds, then, are not something that you do for God, but rather, something that God does through you.

Early in my Christian walk, I was taught that the filling of the Holy Spirit is an all or nothing proposition. Either you are totally filled or you are not filled at all. But I now think that to be filled with the Spirit is an ever-expanding process that is never completely finished in this life. I yield all of myself of which I’m aware to all of God that I know. As I grow in faith and knowledge, I learn of more areas in my life that need to come under the Spirit’s control. I also learn more of God, which leads me to trust Him more. As He controls more and more of my life, His goodness shines through me more and more. Thus to be full of the Holy Spirit and of faith is the key to being a truly good person.

It would be nice to stop here, on a positive note. But to do so would not give you the full picture of Barnabas. The Bible lets us see its heroes warts and all. But this helps us to see that there is hope, even for someone like me, since God is pleased to use imperfect people.

3. Even good people who walk in dependence on the Spirit have their weaknesses and failures.

Even though Barnabas was the champion of God’s grace in Antioch, as seen in his rejoicing in the salvation and acceptance of the Gentiles, he later fell into sin in this very matter. We read of it in Galatians 2:11-13, where Paul tells of what happened once when Peter had come to Antioch. Before certain men from the circumcision party in Jerusalem came to town, Peter ate with the Gentiles, contrary to Jewish custom. But when these legalists came, Peter feared them and held himself aloof. As a result, the rest of the Jewish Christians joined him in hypocrisy, “with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.” Since this error involved the very truth of the gospel (2:14), Paul publicly confronted Peter and those who had followed his bad example.

The phrase, “even Barnabas,” shows how out-of-character this behavior was for this godly man. It also shows us that we all, even those who are spiritually mature, have our weaknesses and are prone to failure. Usually, our greatest strengths are also the source of our greatest weaknesses. Barnabas’ acceptance of people in spite of their faults led him in this instance to accept their sin, when it needed to be confronted. He compromised essential truth about the gospel because he didn’t want to offend these men from the mother church. So even good men are not perfect men. And yet, God’s cause will triumph and He is glorified by using imperfect people to accomplish His sovereign plan.

Conclusion

Other than from reading and studying the Bible, I have found more help in my Christian walk through reading the biographies of great Christians than from any other source. If you have never read the stories of John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, William Carey, Hudson Taylor, George Muller, and the many other saints who have gone before us, you are impoverished as a Christian!

Thankfully, the Bible is not just a book of doctrines and moral principles, but also a book of biographies. While we might wish to know more detail about some of the characters in the Bible, we are given these stories so that we will consider “the result of their conduct” [or, the outcome of their lives] and “imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). While we all have differing gifts and personalities, we all can learn from the heroes in the Bible. By applying the lessons of their lives to ourselves, we will grow in godliness.

So having considered Barnabas, I ask, can it be said of you, as it is said of Barnabas, that you are a good man or woman, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith? Is your love for God vital and growing? Is your love for people becoming more tender and compassionate? Do you seek to help others grow in their faith? Do you ask God to use you to reach the lost for Christ? Are you aware daily of your need to depend on the Holy Spirit to produce His fruit of goodness in your life? When you do stumble, do you turn from it and go on with the Lord? That is how you can become a truly good person before God.

Discussion Questions

  1. How much should love for God be a feeling, and how much is obedience in spite of our feelings?
  2. In loving others as God does, how can we know when to overlook faults and when to confront them?
  3. How bold should we be in talking to others about Christ? Should the risk of offending them keep us from saying anything?
  4. What is the relationship between the Spirit’s power and our power? (See Phil. 2:12-13.) Are we to be passive or active?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life