148. Was the Rich Young Ruler Barnabas?
When Jesus spoke of the difficulty for the rich to find a
place in the kingdom of God, his disciples, utterly astonished, asked: "Who then
can be saved?" As they saw it, if a man with all the advantages of ease and
comfort could not prove himself worthy of everlasting life, what dope was there
for those beset with all the cares of a life of toil and anxiety? And was not
material prosperity the outward sign of God's blessing? So surely the scales
were loaded in favour of the rich.
Jesus answered: "With men it is impossible (that the rich
should be saved), but not with God: for with God all things are possible"-which
surely means that God has the power to save even the rich whose wealth is
actually such a big spiritual handicap.
But this rich man had chosen to go away from Jesus, and so
this saying that God has the power to save even the rich was left hanging in
mid-air, so to speak-unless He proceeded to do just that with this earnest young
man who said: 'No, you are asking too much, Jesus. I cannot do what you require
of me.' In this fact, then, there is surely good presumptive evidence that
ultimately God did save this rich man, in vindication of Christ's assertion that
God can save even a rich man in love with his riches.
The ominous saying with which this incident concluded is also
worth pondering here: "many that are first shall be last; and the last first."
The first phrase was a palpable warning to the privileged twelve, the one of
whom (Mk.14 :10 RVm.) was to become last of all. But who was the last one who
was to be given a place among the first?
It is to be noted that, whatever else, this would-be disciple
did not lack honesty. Unlike so many of Christ's more recent disciples, he did
not somehow manage to persuade himself that "Sell all that thou hast and
distribute to the poor" really meant something else less exacting and a great
deal easier of achievement. When a man is frank and honest regarding the demands
of Christ there is hope for him, even though his response be inadequate. But
when he succeeds in throwing dust in his own eyes so as to persuade himself that
he is fulfilling the Lord's commands, when really he is doing nothing of the
sort, he is in dire spiritual danger.
It makes an intriguing study in circumstantial evidence to
bring together the various lines of argument which support, without completely
proving the conclusion that this young man was Barnabas, who later became Paul's
companion in travel.
First, it is possible to go a long way towards establishing
that this rich ruler was a Levite (as, of course, Barnabas was; Acts 4
Many readers of the gospels have mused over the fact that
Jesus quoted to his enquirer the second half of the Decalogue-those commandments
which have to do with duty to one's neighbour. Why did he not quote the others
(more important, surely) which concern a man's duty to God? But if indeed this
enquirer were a Levite, then by virtue of his calling, the first half of the
Decalogue would find fulfilment almost as a matter of course.
It is also worth noting perhaps —though not too much
stress should be put on this-that apparently it was when Jesus was near to
Jericho that the rich young ruler came to him; and at that time, as the parable
of the Good Samaritan shows, Jericho was a Levitical city.
Much more emphatic is the fact that apparently Jesus did not
require of other disciples that they "sell all, and give to the poor, and
come and follow him." Once again, if the man were a Levite, all is clear, for
"Lev! hath no portion nor inheritance with his brethren; the Lord is his
inheritance " (Dt.10 :9). Thus a Levite with a large estate was a contradiction
in terms, and when Jesus bade him be rid of this wealth, he was merely calling
him back to loyalty to other precepts in the Law of Moses.
Barnabas, it is interesting to observe, was a Levite of
Cyprus. So apparently the letter of the Law was observed by his owning no
property in Israel. The "inheritance" Moses wrote about was, of course, in the
land of Promise. So that estate in Cyprus was a neat circumvention of the spirit
of the Mosaic covenant, and now Jesus bade him recognize it as such.
Jesus went on to quote also from Moses' great prophecy
concerning the tribe of Levi: "There is no man that hath left house, or
brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for
my sake and the gospel's, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time
..." In spirit, and also in detail, this is very much like Deuteronomy 33 :8,9:
"And of Levi he said, Let thy Thummim (' If thou wouldst be perfect. .
.') and thy Urim be with thy holy one . . . who said unto his father
and to his mother, I have not seen him; neither did he acknowledge
his brethren, nor knew his own children .. ."
Even more impressive is the Lord's demand that this earnest
seeker sell all and come and follow him, for this is exactly what the Law
prescribed when a Levite wished to give himself to full-time service of the
sanctuary (Dt. 18 :6-8). There must be first "the sale of his patrimony," and
the devotion of the proceeds to the sanctuary. Instead of the temple Jesus
substituted his own poor disciples, the new temple of God. But this was to be
done only if the Levite came "with all the desire of his mind."
Perhaps also there is special significance in the fact that
when Jesus quoted the Commandments he put one of them in the form: "Defraud not"
(Mk.10 :19), as though with reference to the commandment forbidding the
withholding of the wages due to a poor employee (Dt.24 :14,15). But it could
refer to the dutiful devotion of one's resources to the honour of God, a
responsibility specially incumbent on a Levite who rejoiced in excessive wealth.
More specific identification?
It is now possible to explore further and find clues
suggesting identification of this rich Levite with Barnabas, who when he came to
prominence in the early church is mentioned as selling an estate and putting the
proceeds into the common fund for the benefit of the poor brethren - which is
precisely what Jesus had told the rich young man to do (Acts.4 :36). The Greek
word used to describe the estate Barnabas disposed of is the same as was used by
Jesus (Mk. 10:29).
And apparently it was then that Joseph was given his
new name Barnabas, "the son of exhortation," that is, the man who did what he
was exhorted to do. The rich young man was also a "ruler," that is, a member of
the Sanhedrin. There is fair evidence that Saul of Tarsus also was a member of
the Jewish Council Here, then, is a likely explanation of the singular fact in
Acts 11 :25 that it was Barnabas who went off to Tarsus specially to find Saul
at a time when Gentiles were being added to the church at Antioch. These two
remarkable men had apparently been colleagues in the Sanhedrin (see "Acts", by
H.A.W., ch. 34).
The same passage describes Barnabas as "a good man, full of
the Holy Spirit and of faith" (11 :24). The linking of the last two phrases
suggests a special gift of faith through the leading of the Holy Spirit (see 1
Cor.12 :9). Then was it through God's power and guidance that Barnabas was
brought to his great act of renunciation of considerable wealth? This link
excellently with Christ's comment on the rich young ruler: "With men this
impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible" The extreme
rarity of the same kind of decision in these days makes it more evident
than ever that Barnabas' act of faith was a gift from God.
A further detail about Barnabas now takes on clearer meaning.
The first missionary journey began from the instruction: "Separate me Barnabas
and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them" (Acts 13 :2). That perfect
tense prompts the enquiry: At what earlier time had these two been called by
Christ? The call of Saul was, of course, on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9
:15). But when had Barnabas been called? The answer to this enquiry is either
that the call of the rich young ruler is what is referred to, or else there has
to be an assumption that there was some other direct call of Christ which
neither Gospels nor Acts mention at all.
Is there also some special significance in the fact that it is
only Mark's record about the rich young ruler which tells that "Jesus,
looking on him, loved him"? John Mark was "sister's son to Barnabas"
Two unexpected hints from the Old Testament remain to be added
to this accumulation of circumstantial evidence. Mark 10 :22 has this: "And he
was sad at that saying, and went away grieved." The Septuagint
Version of Isaiah 57 :17,18 is most remarkable: "On account of sin for a little
while I grieved him, and smote him (with a hard demand); and he was
grieved, and went on sorrowful in his ways. I have seen his ways,
and healed him, and comforted him, and gave him true comfort
(paraklesis: son of exhortation): peace upon peace to them that
are far off and to them that are nigh (Barnabas' preaching of the gospel to the
Gentiles as well as to Jews)."
Again, the words: "With God all things are possible" (Mk.10
:27), are usually assumed to be an allusion to Genesis 18 :14; but more
likely the reference seems to be to Psalm 62 :11: "Power belongeth unto God."
The context here is rather impressive: "Surely men of low degree (the apostles)
are vanity, and men of high degree (this wealthy ruler) are a lie ...
if riches increase set not your heart upon them. God hath spoken once,
twice have I heard this (the first and the second call of
These Old Testament resemblances are certainly very
remarkable. Are they to be written off as coincidences or interpreted as the
fruits of inspiration? If the latter, they add evidence of an exceptional kind
to the identification proposed here.
The conclusion drawn from a study of this kind varies with the
individual. Points of evidence which are nearly decisive for one are of
negligible value to another. But it is surely remarkable that in such very brief
records concerning two men so many points of resemblance or connection can be