There was once a very ordinary Christian named Joe. Actually he was much admired by those around him, but it’s his very ordinariness that’s the most important thing about him. He wasn’t proud or ambitious. He never rose to high office. In fact in the normal course of things, he would have been one of the many heroes of the church whose names are remembered only in Heaven. But Joe made his mark in the critical first years of the Christian movement. And when Luke wrote the book of Acts, he recorded some of Joe’s exploits for posterity.
You may be wondering why you’ve never heard of this Joe. And the answer is that, whatever his own talents may have been, his most treasured gift was setting up opportunities for others, encouraging them, and helping them to grow. And Joe was such a constant inspiration to others that they gave him a nickname: 'Son of Encouragement'. Now in English that’s a bit of a mouthful. It's hard to imagine somebody calling out to him across the room, "Hey, Son of Encouragement, are you joining us down the pub after work?" But in Aramaic (the language Jesus and his followers spoke among themselves), it was a bit snappier.
In Acts 4:36-37, we hear about him for the first time: “There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus called Joseph, to whom the Apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means son of encouragement). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money and laid it at the Apostles’ feet.” Now we don’t know how Barnabas came by this field, but he had probably been keeping it as a nest-egg for his old age. And in explaining why Joseph became known as Barnabas, Luke leaves us in no doubt why he recorded the incident; it was because Barnabas’ example encouraged others in their sacrificial giving.
Barnabas pops up again in Acts chapter 9. I expect you know the story of Saul of Tarsus, the savage persecutor of the infant church: how he received a blinding vision of the risen Lord Jesus and went on to become the Apostle Paul. Well soon after his conversion, Paul went to Jerusalem to meet the leaders of the church. But as the Bible tells us in Acts 9:26, “the disciples...were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the Apostles, and described how on the road Paul had seen the Lord who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus Paul had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.”
Do you see how Barnabas was willing to risk everything on his confidence in Paul when more senior Christian leaders had an attack of nerves – putting his physical safety as well as his reputation in the Church at stake? It’s as a result of Barnabas’ quiet courage and conviction that Paul was able to move around freely in Jerusalem and develop his own ministry.
There’s a further story about Barnabas in Acts chapter 11. The Apostles had sent him to Antioch in Syria, the third city of the Roman Empire, as pastor to the infant Christian community there. As you’d expect, he was a terrific success. “He was a good man,” Luke writes in Acts, “full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” And no doubt Barnabas could have carried on there, a big fish in a little pond, until the day he died. But as Luke says, Barnabas was full of the Holy Spirit and faith. His vision was as large as his ego was small. And Acts 11:25 tells us he “went to Tarsus to look for Saul (Paul), and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch.”
Together they worked there for a whole year, and it’s a tribute to Barnabas’ vision and humility that the first mainly Gentile church was established right there under his and Paul’s leadership in Antioch. In fact the Bible tells us it was there that followers of Jesus were first called Christians, marking them for the first time as a distinct movement from Judaism. This shared ministry was equally valuable in Paul’s own development, and it’s no coincidence that it was from Antioch that he launched the three great missionary journeys that spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.
That’s not the last we see of Barnabas in the Bible, but those three stories are enough to make the point. He wasn’t one of the great Apostles of the Church. He was an ordinary Christian like you and me, but he let God use his gifts to the full and was repeatedly the catalyst for remarkable growth in the church and in the individuals around him. Barnabas is held up to us time after time in Acts, not primarily because he was generous, or modest, or trusting or courageous. Of course he was all of these things, but his real gift was encouraging other people to make the most of their own gifts. It’s no surprise that to his friends and colleagues, and to two thousand years of history, his real name of Joseph is all but forgotten. He is simply known in salvation history as Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement.
It’s my prayer that each one of us will ask God we can do more to encourage others in their fellowship. Here are three questions we can put to God and to ourselves, inspired by these three stories about Barnabas:
Q1). How could I be more generous with my money and my other gifts? Not for empty show, but nevertheless to set an example - to encourage others make more of their gifts and calling.
Q2). Do I have the courage of my convictions, or am I too concerned about how others see me? Am I always trying to score goals of my own, or am I willing to pass the ball to somebody else, the way Barnabas did when he presented Paul to the Apostles, and again when he invited him to Antioch?
Q3). And one last question: What about the way I speak? Nobody in the church needs false flattery, but do I go too far the other way? Do I run people down? Do I criticise, or do I talk to people in a way that will encourage them to take yet bigger risks for Jesus. Do I spread the seeds of division and partisanship, or does my conversation foster cooperation and unity?
Heavenly Father, thank you for the example of Barnabas, a very ordinary Christian who in your strength did extraordinary things. We ask that his example may take root in us under the influence of your Holy Spirit, and that whatever our other gifts may be, we may all truly be sons and daughters of encouragement. In Jesus name. Amen.
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