Be more Barnabas
The New Testament character Barnabas may be one whose name you’re aware of, but who you don’t know much about. That’s not surprising, as whilst he’s not the least mentioned character in the early church, there aren’t exactly volumes written about him either. He authored no books of the Bible, and wasn’t the recipient of one of Paul’s pastoral letters. The little we do know of Barnabas, however, paints a picture of a man worth learning from.
He did exactly what he said on the tin
Remember the Ronseal slogan: ‘Ronseal: Does exactly what it says on the tin’? Well, the same was true of Barnabas. First mentioned in Acts 4:36-37, we find that Barnabas’ real name was Joseph. (As I write this I can’t help but think of the ‘Only Fools and Horses scene where Rodney tries to understand why ‘Trigger’ calls him ‘Dave’!) We read, though, that the Apostles knew him not by his actual name but as ‘Barnabas’ “which means son of encouragement”. Isn’t that interesting? The name by which this man was most commonly known was a nickname based, it would seem, upon the way he conducted himself; upon what he did. We’re not privy to a catalogue of Baranabas’ activities prior to his mention in Acts 4, but the fact that he was nicknamed ‘son of encouragement’ speaks volumes.
Think about nicknames for a moment. They’re seldom awarded for positive attributes nowadays; more often they’re awarded based on a person’s most humiliating, shameful or embarrassing moment (a friend who was in an orchestra with me when we were younger had an unfortunate accident during a live performance and was not thereafter known as ‘Virtuoso Pete’, but ‘Piddling Pete’!) Something about Barnabas stood out. Strangelt, it wasn’t the sale of the field that’s referenced in verses 36 and 37, as the passage suggests he had already become known as ‘Barnabas’ before then. Clearly those who observed him in daily life had seen something of his encouragement of others that impressed.
I wonder if you were to become known by how you act and your most common behaviour or disposition, what would your nickname be? Grumpy? Mr Serious? Mr Perfecionist? They’re three names which, to my shame, spring to mind as I quickly reflect on how I may come across to others.
But imagine being known for being an encourager. It’s a ministry that doesn’t seek platform and influence or power. It’s not glitzy or glamorous. It’s not headline-grabbing or fame-making. It’s quiet, unseen, and undetected by most. The recipient of the encouragement knows about it, but not many others. Encouragement sees and speaks out the evidence of the grace of God in the life of a person. It cheers on the good that people are doing. It affirms a person’s value and dignity , even when they’re clearly still a work in progress. It comes alongside in the ordinary, day-to-day events of life and says ‘I see you, I see what you’re doing and I’m rooting for you. I applaud what God is doing in you and through you.’
Genuine encouragement relates to specific behaviours/attitudes/efforts, and is more than vague, positive-sounding statements. It should amount to much more than merely a ‘balance’ to a difficult conversation. It shouldn’t be a consolation or a ‘there, there’. It should be an unsolicited, genuine affirmation of the triumph of grace in another’s life.
Let’s not just encourage the ‘successes’. Instead, let’s be quick to encourage when someone’s intent and desire were good, but the outcome flopped. Or when someone has just been doing what they always do without fanfare or fireworks. Or even the times when to commend the positive seems illogical given the contradictions you see across the rest of a person’s life. Those are the times when encouragement is all the more important and all the more impactful!
Be quick to encourage; people need it more than you recognise.
He took a risk on Saul
Paul’s history was, let’s say, a little dubious. The early church were rightly wary of this man who now professed Christ as Lord. Their guards were up. No fanfare or red carpet here! What Paul needed was someone to believe what he claimed had happened to him on the Damascus Road. Someone to vouch for him; to stick their neck out.
Volunteers were few, but there was one… Barnabas.
In Acts 9, after his conversion, we’re told that the evidence of God’s work through Saul was plain to see, and his reputation grew (9:22), yet when he presented himself to the other disciples, “they were all afraid of him, not really believing that he really was a disciple” (9:26). It would have been easy for Barnabas to go along with popular opinion, but he “took [Saul] and brought him to the apostles.” He then proceeded to vouch for him, confirming what he knew to be true.”
Barnabas risked his reputation. Imagine how he’d have been viewed if Saul actually infiltrated the apostolic inner circle on his say so. Imagine if the person he’d vouched for turned out not to be the real deal. Notwithstanding the inner testimony of the Holy spirit, he took a risk. But look at the pay-off for that risk, in terms of the advance of the Gospel.
I wonder if we’re stuck too long in sceptical mode, and wary of the genuineness of God’s work in and through others. What might it look like if we were to determine to view people favourably and with grace as opposed to cynicism and guardedness? What ‘rough diamond’ are you cheering on and championing? How are you acting to sway the views of others towards people in whom the Spirit is at work?
He didn’t cling to position or influence
Not only did Barnabas risk his reputation but he risked his status. It was Barnabas who introduced Saul to the apostles, and him who took the initiative in involving Saul in church affairs at Antioch. All that time, the author of Acts – Dr Luke - records the activities of ‘Barnabas and Saul’. However, by the time the two are sent out on mission, Dr Luke’s records change. He refers now to ‘Paul and his companions’. This group – at least for some of the time – included Barnabas, but Paul had taken the lead.
This insight into Barnabas’ heart challenges our empire-building mindset and propensity to cling to position and influence.
Barnabas was happy to be used by God in whatever way, and in whatever position. He didn’t cling to his influence or the prestige of his position with a tight grip. To have done so would have been to stifle the man who would become, to many, the Great Apostle. To have done so would have been to have got in the way of God’s plans. To have done so would have been to prioritise his own empire over God’s Kingdom.
That wasn’t Barnabas’ heart.
His heart was to invest in, support and encourage a man younger in the faith, Saul (also known as Paul) and create opportunity for him to be used as God chose. Such an open-handed approach to seeing Saul go beyond him, to take the limelight, highlights how secure he was in his own identity and his deep commitment to the advance of the Kingdom.
I wonder how ‘Barnabas’ your own heart is. Are you building up others without need for recognition, in such a way that God can take them beyond where you’re at? Or are you impoverished in the way you invest in others and the encouragement you give, lest they become more used of God than you? Barnabas’ example is a challenge to us today as we pour ourselves – or not! – into the lives of others.
More could be said about Barnabas: His generosity (Acts 4:36-37), his role in the local church (Acts 13:1) or his use by God in bringing many to faith (Acts 11:24) but these can feature in another post. This man – seemingly one not for the limelight, but who poured himself into others for the Kingdom – sets a challenging example. In what way could you, with the Spirit’s help, be more Barnabas? What would it take, and what would it cost?
And, finally, are you willing to say yes to the cost?