Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

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.

A Levite

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 :36).

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" (Col.4:10).

O.T. anticipations?

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 Barnabas)."

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 traced.

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