Barnabas, Son of Encouragement

These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Acts 4.32-37

Early in the book of Acts, you can see that Luke drops in a side note about a man who would later become very significant. His name is Barnabas. Luke wants us to take a mental note of his name, and in particular, to notice how he first begins to rise to prominence in the church. There is a connection between this moment early on in Barnabas’ story, and what he would later become. When I read the stories of great men, I am always most interested in their early years, their formative experiences, because there you see what experiences and decisions formed them for their work later on in life. 

When I look at our church, small as we are, I see enormous potential in the room. There is potential for how some of you will serve Grace London, how some of you will be involved in future church plants and missions, and how some of you will pursue God’s call on your lives in ways I can’t predict. 

I see my role as a kind of agitator. I want to stir up godly desires and passions in you. I want to help set you on a trajectory, encouraging you to make right decisions now that will bear fruit in the years to come, and help pull you into action in the present. 

This is why I want us to look at Barnabas. 

At this early point in his story we know three things about him. First, we know that he is a Levite. The Levites were set aside as a special tribe whose call was to minister to the rest of Israel. But being a Levite does not automatically mean that Barnabas had been a spiritual man, any more than a pastor’s kid is guaranteed to be pious. Second, we know that his name was changed, or that he picked up a nickname given by the Apostles. Third, we know that he was extraordinarily generous.

Focussing in on this second fact, his name change, the big question is: Why? Why did the Apostles rename him, calling him Barnabas instead of Joseph? Luke gives us a clue when he tells us that the translation of the Aramaic name ‘Barnabas’ is ‘Son of Encouragement’. This word, ‘encouragement’ (paraclesis in Greek) has different translations depending on the context. In a time of suffering the word means ‘comfort’. In times of temptation it is translated ‘exhortation’. And sometimes it’s just translated ‘encouragement’. The essence of the word paraclesis is that it means ‘calling out courage or strength in another person’, so when they’re suffering, tempted, afraid, or whatever, your words speak strength. 

For some reason the Apostles saw Barnabas as a ‘Son of Encouragement’. Why? 

1. Barnabas partnered in the work of the gospel

From Acts 11 to Acts 15 Barnabas becomes a travel companion to Paul. They are inseparable for about three years. It began in Antioch when the church grows very quickly and Barnabas needs Paul’s help to lead and teach the church. And so, from there they begin a very fruitful partnership.

Together they travel 900 or 1000 miles, planting churches and enduring suffering. On one occasion Paul is stoned by a crowd, and Barnabas is there to take care of Paul and travel with him to their next destination (see Acts 14.19-20). A little earlier we read about Barnabas and Paul being persecuted together (Acts 13.50-52). So Barnabas was a tough, gritty sort of man, willing to go into very dangerous situations.

The important thing to note is that this is a partnership that makes them both more effective and more fruitful, and that this was something the Holy Spirit had orchestrated. ‘While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” ’ (Acts 13.2).

There is an amazing story in 1 Samuel 14 about Saul’s son, Jonathan, who engages in a suicidal mission to take out a garrison of Philistine soldiers. His only support is his armour-bearer, who is urged by Jonathan to join him in the fight and answers, ‘Do all that is in your heart. Do as you wish. Behold, I am with you heart and soul’ (1 Samuel 14.7). The armour-bearer would have fought by his side, or back-to-back.

That is the image of the partnership between Paul and Barnabas, and we know Paul felt deeply his need for companions. The great Paul needed help from others. 

For us, we need to ask how we can support others or be an armour-bearer to someone to enable them to do greater things for God. It is no surprise Paul saw Barnabas as an encourager.

2. Barnabas had great boldness and courage

Twice Luke comments on the boldness of Paul and Barnabas.

‘But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly…’ (Acts 13.45-46).

‘Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands’ (Acts 14.1-3).

Few Christians seem to realise or understand that boldness is a moral issue. What do I mean? We tend to think of people being born naturally courageous or naturally fearful and timid. There is certainly some truth to that; certain people are more adventurous and bold by nature. But how easily this can be turned into an excuse for our fear! The Bible is clear that fear is due to a lack of faith in God, or to put it more bluntly, you don’t trust him. That is a moral issue. That is sin.

This is why both God and the elders of Israel exhort Joshua to be bold and courageous, because they are making it clear to Joshua that to be fearful would be an unrighteous and faithless thing; it would be a lack of trust in God (see Joshua 1.6 and 16-18).

The flip side to this is that boldness is a beautiful thing, and deeply encouraging to leaders. Your words have great power (just think about the reports of the spies in the Land). If you’re a pessimist, an Eeyore, you can kill a vision by pouring fear like water onto the fire of another person’s passion and faith. But when leaders are surrounded by bold companions they can do more.

Therefore, your attitude can thwart or greatly help others do great things for God. Are you courageous? Or are you fearful and cynical? 

3. Barnabas saw the potential in other key men

On two occasions Barnabas took risks on guys who were not trusted by others: Paul and John Mark.

Paul is converted very dramatically whilst engaged in a mission to find, persecute and destroy Christians. But when he’s converted there are very few witnesses, so everyone thinks it’s all a ruse designed to trap more Christians.

‘And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple’ (Acts 9.26). 

But look at what happens next:

‘…Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus’ (Acts 9.27).

The story reminds me of the situation with the persecuted church in Iran where the underground churches are infiltrated by spies in the government. The churches have to exercise great caution when someone claims to have been converted, and only gradually are they allowed to meet more Christians and pastors. But look at the risk Barnabas takes by bringing Paul right into the nerve centre of the early church, introducing Paul to the Apostles. Why would he take such a risk? Because he saw the potential in this man, while everyone else overlooked him.

In Acts 15.36-40 we read about Paul and Barnabas falling out over John Mark (Barnabas’ cousin). Paul and Barnabas are planning their next missionary journey and Paul wants to leave John Mark behind because he had abandoned them on an earlier trip, while Barnabas wants to bring him because he sees a chance for redemption. They decide to part ways, and Barnabas brings John Mark, while Paul bring Silas. And of course, Barnabas is vindicated because John Mark becomes a great evangelist himself, being the author of Mark’s gospel. (I should also add that Paul is reconciled to both Barnabas and John Mark; see Colossians 4.10 and 2 Timothy 4.11.)

What an encourager Barnabas was! Both Paul and John Mark go on to do greater things than Barnabas, both being authors of New Testament books. Had it not been for Barnabas’ crucial role, perhaps we would not have had a Paul or a Mark.

This is a ministry in itself: the ability to look at men and women and see their potential, and be instrumental in propelling them into ministry.

4. Barnabas showed sacrificial devotion

Throughout Acts we see in Barnabas a man who was willing to suffer, leave home, risk his life for the gospel. But where did that all begin? The answer is that it began in Acts 4.36-37, when he sold his field and laid the proceeds at the feet of the Apostles.

Christians often have a desire to do great things for God some day, but are doing nothing about it in the present. In the Bible we see that greatness grows. It has to do with the principle of sowing and reaping. Your life and lifestyle now is crucial to what you will become in the years ahead. Being fruitful in later life begins with sacrifice in early life.

It is significant that Barnabas’ first act of devotion was financial. Money is the great idol, and Jesus talked about it a lot for that reason. It’s a deep pit, a powerful idol. Money can make you spiritually flabby. But Barnabas sorts this out early in his life and so sets a course for passionate devotion to Jesus.

Do you desire to blaze for God? It won’t happen by accident! What is your trajectory? What are you doing now? What decisions do you need to make about your life now in order that you will be fruitful later?

It is especially interesting that Barnabas was a Levite. The Levites were not supposed to have property at all. While the other tribes had a portion of the Land, the Levites were spread out among the Israelites to bring godly influence to all the people.

‘And the Lord said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel” ’ (Numbers 18.20). 

As Barnabas sells his property, it’s as though he finally becomes a true Levite. Is God calling you to be a Levite in a spiritual sense? What do you need to give up so that God alone will be your portion and inheritance? You can never know what it really means to possess all you need until you possess Christ and treasure him above all.

Finally, notice that this word paraclesis is the same word Jesus uses about the Holy Spirit when he calls him the paraclete, the Comforter or Encourager. This means that the transformation in Barnabas’ life was a fruit of the work of the Spirit in him.