Be a Barnabas

What would it look like in your life if others knew you not by your name, but by your most prominent character trait?  Would that be a good thing?  In Acts 4:36, we meet Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus.  However, you may better recall the name his friends used in referring to him…Barnabas.  Bar-nabas literally means, “Son of Encouragement” (or “Son of Consolation”).

Imagine, being thought of as the son (or daughter) of encouragement.  You might be able to think of people who might have earned such a nickname.  Even more likely, you can think of someone you would call the son of complaint, or the daughter of bad attitude.
Barnabas curing the sick by Paolo Veronese, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen.
We know relatively little about Barnabas.  However, we do know he was a spirit-filled disciple of Jesus Christ and that he gave his all for the Lord.  As the Book of Acts goes on to show, Barnabas was far more than just the Apostles’ pet name for Joseph.  Rather, Barnabas lived up to the moniker in every way.  As Warren Wiersbe comments, “Not every believer can be like Peter and John, but we can all be like Barnabas and have a ministry of encouragement.”

When we meet Barnabas in Acts 4:36-37, he has just sold a tract of land and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet.  Clearly, such a generous gift would have been a boon to the fledgling Christian church.  Quite possibly, Ananias and his wife, Sapphira may have seen the esteem the apostles heaped upon Barnabas when they—in Acts 5—likewise sold a plot of land, but (unlike Barnabas) kept back a portion of the proceeds.  When the apostles confronted Ananias and Sapphira, they dropped dead—not because they had kept the proceeds, but because they wanted others to believe that they—like Barnabas—had given all to the Church.

As Acts continues on, Barnabas’s actions reveal so much more about his nature as an encourager.  We see Barnabas again in Acts 9.  He meets Saul—the former arch-persecutor of the Church—who has had a major change of heart after his “Road to Damascus” experience.  Saul boldly proclaimed Jesus Christ in the synagogues of Damascus, at the risk of own life.  After escaping Damascus in a basket lowered over the city wall, Saul decided he needed to go to Jerusalem to try associating with the apostles.

You can imagine that the apostles must have found Paul’s overtures suspicious.  Here was the chief persecutor of the church, trying to show them he is a disciple.  The apostles clearly saw Paul’s advances as a trap.  They were the leaders of the church, and Saul was now coming for them—or so they thought (Acts 9:26).  This must have been discouraging to Saul.  Yet Barnabas saw what Saul had become, and saw that it was a real transformation.  Ever the encourager, Barnabas vouched for Saul to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 9:27).  Saul went from meeting the apostles to proclaiming Jesus Christ in Jerusalem.  Of course, for neither the first nor the last time, Saul’s preaching got him in trouble with Hellenistic Jews.  For his own safety, the apostles sent Saul to his home in Tarsus—on the Mediterranean coast of what is modern southern Turkey.

In the meantime, persecution scattered much of the early church out of Jerusalem, which really served to spread the Gospel.  The church remaining at Jerusalem caught wind of a vibrant Christian community at Antioch (in modern Syria) and sent trusted Barnabas to check out the report (Acts 11:21).  When Barnabas arrived, he found the reports were true.  And, true to his nature, “Who, when he (Barnabas) came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord.” (Acts 11:23-24).

It did not take Barnabas long to realize he had more work than he could handle.  Back in Tarsus, maybe Saul thought the apostles had forgotten about him.  Maybe he thought God couldn’t use him in any big way.  Nevertheless, the encourager Barnabas hadn’t forgotten him, and he knew that Tarsus was not too terribly far away from Antioch.  So, Barnabas went to Tarsus to find Saul and bring him back to Antioch, “And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” (Acts 11:26).  Barnabas and Saul, then, really laid the foundation together for one of the most important centers of early Christianity.

The church at Antioch then sent trusted Barnabas and Saul to bring a collection for the famine relief for Christians in Judea (Acts 11:29-30).  After the two returned—bringing Mark with them (Acts 12:25), the church at Antioch followed the Holy Spirit’s direction to “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.” (Acts 13:2).  Barnabas and Saul (who had become more familiarly known as Paul) set out together as what is known as Paul’s First Missionary Journey.

While Barnabas and Paul would later part ways over John Mark (Acts 15), Barnabas’s nephew, with whom Paul had issue because John Mark had left them on the earlier journey—it is difficult to imagine that Paul would have had such a powerful impact for Christ without Barnabas by his side, encouraging him throughout his early ministry.  Indeed, after an angry mob stoned Paul in Lystra (Acts 14:19-20), Barnabas was there to help him off to Derbe and on through the rest of the first missionary journey.  Moreover, it is clear that Barnabas was a powerful encourager to his young relative, John Mark—better known simply as Mark, the same man who wrote the Gospel that bears his name.  Paul would later reconcile with Mark; no doubt Barnabas played a part in mentoring Mark, helping him become the man of whom Paul told Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11, ESV).

Barnabas rarely makes headline billing in sermons today.  While he seems like no second fiddle to Paul, he wrote none of the New Testament Gospels or epistles that we cherish.  Still, it seems quite likely that modern Christianity would look nothing like it does today without the encouraging influence of Barnabas.  Quite possibly, the nascent church at Antioch—besides Jerusalem, the principle center in early Christianity—would have died in its infancy.  Paul may never have become such a powerful missionary apostle or have written the epistles we treasure today.  Mark likely would not have written his Gospel without Barnabas first taking him under his wing.  Barnabas understood the essence of discipleship.

So, we should ask ourselves, when was the last time we encouraged a Christian brother or sister.  While we may be giving heart to the next Apostle Paul, we might be helping someone to take that next step in faith, to become all that God wants him or her to be.  As one observer once said, “Encouragement is the oxygen of the soul.”  Be a Barnabas!

Pastor Bart Denny

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