Barnabas, ‘Son of Encouragement’
There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 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.
Many of you will know the cartoon titled Peanuts by Charles Schulz. In one of those comics the character Linus has just written a comic strip of his own, and he wants his sister Lucy's opinion. In the first frame, he tentatively hands Lucy his comic strip and says, "Lucy, would you read this and tell me if you think it is funny?" In the next frame, you see Lucy patting her foot, and a little bit of a grin comes across her face. She looks at Linus and says, "Well, Linus, who wrote this?" Linus, with his chest heaved out and a great big grin, says, "Lucy, I wrote that." In the next frame, you see Lucy wadding it up, throwing it to the side, and saying, "Well, then, I don't think it's very funny." In the final frame, Linus picks up his comic strip, throws his blanket over his shoulder, looks at Lucy, and says, "Big sisters are the crabgrass in the lawn of life."
Allow me a question: have you ever been the crabgrass in the lawn of somebody else's life? Sadly, it is all too easy to rain on someone else’s parade. You notice that there are no books written about how to offer discouragement to someone else. That comes way to easy. What we need far more acutely is encouragement. During the 2018 winter Olympics the coverage of the events included personal stories of the athletes; invariably these athletes will speak of the encouragement of a parent or coach or fellow athlete that profoundly helped them reach the goal they were striving to achieve. People believing that you can do things propels us forward.
I invite you to reflect with me today about this man whom the Apostles named Barnabas, a name that means “son of encouragement.” I am convinced that there is no greater encouragement for life than the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ. My objective is that we too would be daughters and sons of encouragement.
1. It was Jesus who gave the name Peter to his disciple whose given name was Simon. Peter, in Greek, is the word for rock and in many respects depicted his character. In a similar way encouragement so characterized this believer named Joseph that “son of encouragement” is what the Apostles named him—Barnabas. It is likely that Barnabas became a follower of Jesus on the day of Pentecost when three thousand were added to the church. These were heady days with the church growing in leaps and bounds—so much so that the high priest complained that they have filled Jerusalem with their teaching about Jesus. (Acts 5:28)
It seems that Barnabas soon distinguished himself as a leader within the church. When a report came to the Apostles in the Jerusalem church that at Antioch Jews and Gentiles were worshipping together in a growing congregation, the Apostles sent Barnabas who becomes, in essence, the pastor of that growing congregation. (Acts 11:22-24) Luke (author of Acts) tells us that “he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.”
We are first introduced to Barnabas in this summary episode Luke gives is of the early days of the church. Those who believed were of one heart and soul. Many who owned lands or houses sold them and gave the proceeds to the Apostles such that there was not a needy person among them. Barnabas was one such disciple who sold a field and gave the proceeds. Luke tells us of Barnabas’ offering as an instance of what many were doing. The point I invite you to consider is that this church leader Barnabas encourages by his actions. Leaders who encourage practise what they preach. Examples encourage us. We find inspiration in their doing. Encouragers do the good they believe blesses life.
2. The second thing I invite you to note is that faith in Jesus Christ is the context for this “son of encouragement.” The foundation for his encouraging ways is encouraging people to believe in Jesus Christ. He is one who encourages faith in others. Barnabas is so excited about helping others to come to faith he joins the Apostle Paul in what we call Paul’s first missionary journey. The first stop of Paul and Barnabas on this missionary journey of establishing churches in various places around the Mediterranean is the Island of Cyprus; Cyprus was where Barnabas was born and grew up. In many ways, for Barnabas, coming to Cyprus was coming home. He returns to people he knows confident that they too will find Jesus Christ to be all that their native son Barnabas has found him to be.
For Barnabas, encouragement doesn’t exist in a vacuum as if to say what the world needs is more encouragement. Encouragement is always towards something, and in this case, towards someone, namely Jesus Christ. I know of nothing that is more profoundly encouraging for life than the good news of Jesus Christ. Consider his self-forgetful self-giving on the cross for our sakes. It is there you learn that God will hold nothing back for your sake.
People find encouragement in the confidence that another human expresses for them. Could anything be of greater encouragement than knowing that God is confident about what you can become/are becoming through faith in him? Yes, the good news comes with the revelation of our imprisonment to sin, but is does so in the revelation of the cure. Recall that in Jesus, God comes among us as the human being Jesus of Nazareth—therefore being a human is a fit vehicle for God. There is nothing wrong with being human; what has gone wrong is human sin. We have turned from God each to our own way. We have replaced God with idols (even ourselves) and deface our humanity in the process.
According to the gospel, humans are the only creatures whom God has crowned with his own image and likeness; humans are those whom he fashioned the apple of his eye. It is true that God is distressed that we have turned away from the glory God has in mind for us. It is for this very glory for which the Son gives himself on the cross in order to redeem us that the image and likeness of God might shine forth in us. God’s correction of our sin is his everlasting “yes”
that God deemed humans worthy of leading us in the way everlasting.
We read today from John’s gospel where he tells us the reason or objective of writing his gospel. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Note the goal of believing—that you may have life in his name. This isn’t restricted to life in the hereafter—though it includes it—but also has in view the now of what we experience in life. The reason Barnabas can encourage people in life is because of what he knows God sees in them and desires for them.
So I am with Barnabas on this. The foundational order of business of being an encourager is to encourage faith in Jesus Christ—to promote people in saying “yes” to Jesus. There is no one that knows what is in you to become like God. He knows far more about you than any self-analysis will disclose. He died to free you and me so that who we truly are could emerge. I know of no greater encourager for life than Jesus.
3. The third thing I invite you to note is that this encouragement for life that is found in relationship with Jesus Christ ought to spill over in our relationships with one another across the spectrum of life. We noted a moment ago that the purpose for writing the gospel of John was so that we might believe in Jesus and find life in his name. The first letter of John is written to believers and is, in many respects, an application of the truth set out in the gospel of John. In that first part of the letter the purpose for writing is that we might have fellowship with one another. In faith God turns us to himself and then to one another. The encouragement we find in Christ is to be extended to one another. We become a conduit of God’s encouragement.
I come back to the note that Luke makes about Barnabas’ gift of the proceeds from the sale of a field he owned. There was no requirement to do this—it came freely from Barnabas, as freely as God’s gift of salvation in the Son came to him. It is my experience that people who encourage are also generous. Not just generous with their wealth but also with their time and energy. They are generous with themselves towards others.
I remember how nervous I was when I first called Dr. Victor Shepherd to ask him if he would consider being my thesis advisor for the doctoral studies I had undertaken. We had met a couple of times at gatherings of United Church clergy and I knew of his excellent academic acumen. I was so nervous and so hesitant fumbling this conversation that he finally asked me what I wanted him to do for me. “Would you direct my thesis,” I finally said plainly. I was so profoundly encouraged by how readily he said yes. And I cannot tell you how freely he gave of himself for me. He literally handed me books and published articles that he thought would be germane to the work I would do. Encouragers are generous.
I think encouragers are generous because they know the One who has been generous with them beyond imagining. Jesus Christ poured his life out without remainder for our sakes. To experience his generosity for us fosters a generosity that ought to spill over on to others as we have opportunity to be that conduit of encouragement.
I find also that encouragers, gospel encouragers, are people who want others to excel, they want the potential they see in others to emerge for the person’s sake. Recall that the Apostle Paul had a much checkered history when it came to the church of Jesus Christ. In many respects he led the charge on behalf of the Sanhedrin when it came to persecuting the followers of Jesus. He stood with the mob approving the killing of the first Christian martyr Stephen. He was on his way to Damascus with murder in his heart against the followers of Jesus when Jesus accosted him on the Damascus road. You would understand that the Apostles might be a little nervous trusting his conversion story; perhaps fearing it a ruse to infiltrate the church for purposes that were anything but the welfare of believers. It was Barnabas who brought Paul to the Apostles in Jerusalem and vouched for him. (Acts 9:27-28) He could see in Paul a great champion for the cause of Christ.
It there someone in your life for whom you could be this kind of encouragement? Perhaps helping them by making introduction showing your confidence in their future. Encouragers want others to be the best they can be.
When Barnabas became the pastor of the growing congregation of followers of Jesus at Antioch it soon became apparent that he needed help. The one we know as the Apostle Paul had gone home to Tarsus and Barnabas knew that Paul needed to be in ministry. So Barnabas went and recruited Paul to join him on the ministry team at Antioch. (Acts 11:25-26) When the church at Antioch sent Barnabas and Paul on what we call Paul’s first missionary journey it should have been called Barnabas’ first missionary journey; Barnabas was the team leader. But as is true of encouragers, so with Barnabas, they don’t mind when the one they are encouraging excels beyond their own ability. Barnabas wasn’t offended because Paul’s leadership ability emerged.
We also find Barnabas encouraging his young relative John Mark. John had gone on the first missionary journey but deserted part way because the rigors were too much for him. When it came time for second mission Paul and Barnabas disagreed over whether they should take Mark. Mark had “chickened out”, as we like to say. He had let them down. “Give him a second chance” Barnabas urged; “He’s only nineteen. He’s young. “If he’s that young then he’s too young” replied Paul; “We can’t risk jeopardising the mission. We can’t risk having him let us down again.” Luke tells us in the book of Acts that Paul and Barnabas “disagreed sharply.” They didn’t become foes; they didn’t flail each other; they didn’t harbour a grudge for the rest of their lives. But they did disagree. Paul moved off into his second missionary foray without Mark.
Barnabas took Mark under his wing (and this time Mark didn’t let anyone down.) Years later — this is a point we mustn’t overlook – Paul spoke of Mark in the warmest terms. When Paul was imprisoned in Rome he asked Timothy to “get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:11) Encouragers give people second chances. They know that people aren’t perfect—we followers of Jesus need the help of one another when we stumble. I have known the encouragement of people just like Barnabas in my own life.
Think for a moment about how God has used the writings of the Apostle Paul in his letters to various churches and the Apostle Mark in his gospel of the life of Jesus written to encourage persecuted believers in Rome. Behind these two men was an encourager named Barnabas who helped them be their best for Jesus’ sake. Is there someone you could offer encouragement today?
There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). Amen