A Son of Encouragement

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 4:32-37

Sometimes the nickname given to a person can tell you something important about their character. Never was that more true than with an early Christian from Cyprus named Joseph, better known as Barnabas.

Not everyone can be an apostle. For every Peter or Paul in the early church, there were thousands more like you and me – humble, ordinary people whose lives left no mark on the pages of history, whose names we do not even know. But it was really these obscure, uncelebrated Christians who did most of the work for God’s kingdom. The apostles preached the gospel with great power and great results, but, most churches in the ancient world were founded by unnamed missionaries. The apostles bore unique testimony to the person and work of Jesus Christ. But, most of the people who became believers, then as now, were converted through the witness of ordinary people whose words pointed to Jesus. Their lives reflected his goodness and his love. The apostles taught the church, and their writings in the New Testament became part of the Bible, the Word of God. This truth was preserved, translated and proclaimed by the labors of countless millions of unknown Christians. It is not necessary to be famous in order to be important.

One of the lessons we learn from studying the lives of the first Christians in the book of Acts is the significance of ordinary people, “behind the scenes” believers. In every generation the vast majority of Jesus’ followers are going to be people of this sort. They won’t ever appear on television. They won’t publish any writings. Their names won’t make the history books – not even the church history books. But their lives will be significant because it is largely through the unpublicized service of these people that God does his work. Such a servant was the man Luke introduces to us at the end of Acts 4. Joseph was his name. He’s better known as Barnabas, the “son of encouragement.”

BARNABAS

Now, it’s true that Barnabas is not exactly an anonymous Christian. If he were literally unknown, we couldn’t be talking about him today! But, although Barnabas did play an important role in the earliest days of the Christian movement, he wasn’t one of the apostolic stars. Barnabas was content to remain in the background, as part of the supporting cast. That is why he is such a good model for you and me today.

We first meet Barnabas in Acts 4, where we learn that this Levite, this Jewish religious leader from Cyprus, was an early convert to the Christian faith, a member of the first community of believers in Jerusalem. Luke holds him up as a wonderful example of sacrificial giving. He is a marked contrast to Ananias and Sapphira whose shocking story follows immediately afterwards in Acts 5. This is how Luke, the historian, introduces Barnabas in the context of the unspoiled, ideal life of fellowship in the Jerusalem church:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.

Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Acts 4:32-37, niv

When we next meet Barnabas (9:27), several years have passed. He is still in Jerusalem where he performs the vital service of welcoming Paul after his Damascus road conversion to Christ. Barnabas went out of his way to befriend Paul, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, the chief official persecutor of the Christians. It was Barnabas who introduced Paul to the other apostles and church leaders. Think of the alternatives if Barnabas had not been willing to link Paul with Peter. Who knows what the result would have been for the very young, harassed church? One thing is certain – the story of Christianity would have been very different.

Luke merely mentions the fact of Barnabas’s role as a bridge between Paul and the leaders of the Jerusalem church. But, from this act we can tell a great deal about Barnabas’s strengths. What was it that made him alone apparently responsive to Paul’s story, ready to accept and trust him, willing to take a risk and add Paul to the apostolic team? Barnabas must have been the type of person who is always ready to believe the best about others, the same type who tends to bring out that best in others. At the same time he was also a keen judge of character. And what credibility he must have had with the leadership of the church to induce them to accept their old enemy Paul on Barnabas’s recommendation! He was a peace-maker, a healer of relationships, a team player, a partnership-builder.

Working with a ministry like Words of Hope, dedicated to broadcasting the gospel throughout the world, I see many wonderful instances of cooperative effort in reaching people with the good news of Jesus Christ. But I also see examples of mistrust, uncooperativeness, and self-serving behavior. How the cause of Christ can be handicapped by the unwillingness of Christians to work together! It takes a special gift, believe me, to overcome old resentments and bring about reconciliation. Barnabas had that gift, and because he did, he was the means under God by which Paul’s incredible abilities were brought into the service of the church of Jesus Christ. We all laud the magnificent career of the missionary apostle Paul. We benefit from his impact, yet we may forget that Barnabas made it possible. But God does not forget. We can be sure that he estimates each person’s contribution at its full value.

AN IMPORTANT MISSION

Later on we come upon Barnabas again in Acts 11. This is a pivotal chapter, both in the substance of the book of Acts, and in the symbolic sense of the story of the first Christians and church growth. Up to this point, the followers of Jesus consist almost entirely of Jewish Christians living in Palestine. The middle chapters of Acts describe the first tentative steps of the expansion of the church across racial, cultural and geographic lines. This was in keeping with Christ’s will, his commission to bear witness and make disciples among all people groups on earth. We see that begin to happen in Acts 8 with the Christian mission expanding into Samaria and the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. Then comes the conversion of the gentile God-fearer Cornelius and his household in chapter 10. Those two chapters bracket Acts 9 with its account of the crucial conversion of the great apostle to the Gentiles, Saul of Tarsus. Then in chapter 11 we see the dam of ethnic and religious prejudice break down. The trickle of non-Jewish converts becomes a flood.

We think of Jerusalem as the birthplace of the Christian church, and so it is. But it was actually the church in the city of Antioch that really established world Christianity. There large numbers of gentiles first – as far as we know – came to Christ. The events that happened in this city ensured that Christianity would not simply be another sect within Judaism but would become a truly world-wide faith. This was the church which first sponsored Paul and Barnabas as missionaries. There is even a slight hint in Acts that Luke himself was from Antioch, so that gives some idea of the importance of this city and its community of Christian believers. Once again, it was Barnabas who was the key to the efforts that would make Antioch such an important center for the gospel!

After the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr in Jerusalem, intense persecution broke out against the whole church there. This offers, incidentally, a good illustration of the law of unintended consequences. The Jerusalem authorities killed Stephen in order to silence him as a powerful Christian spokesman. They thought, in doing so, they could cripple the new, untested movement. Their actions had just the opposite effect. The persecution that they unleashed scattered believers up and down the eastern end of the Mediterranean (Acts 11:19). Although the apostles remained in Jerusalem, ordinary Christians were sharing their faith in these new regions through which they were passing. So the Christian church began to expand both into new geographic areas and – more significantly – into new cultures as well. Some unnamed believers, Luke says, from Cyprus and Cyrene took the momentous step of going out to speak directly to gentiles about the Lord (v. 20). These believers from Cyprus and Cyrene, an area in North Africa, remind us that people were being converted and churches established in places not described in the book of Acts. Acts does not tell the whole story of early church history. It does describe the most vital and essential developments.

One such development was this new attempt to share the gospel with gentiles, an outreach focused on the city of Antioch in Syria. Antioch was one of the Mediterranean world’s major urban centers. As a result of the missionary activity there, a new group of believers sprang up (v. 21). These followers of Jesus Christ spoke so much and so often about their new Lord that the citizens of Antioch soon gave them a new name. They called them “Christianoi,” (Christians), and the new name stuck.

When the apostles back in Jerusalem heard about all this, their very human reaction was the decision to check it out thoroughly. The man they tapped for their fact-finding mission proved to be a happy choice. He was none other than our friend Barnabas. Like the name “Christian,” Barnabas too was a nickname which revealed a good deal about its owner. Joseph, the Jewish Christian from Cyprus, was such a positive upbuilder of people that everyone called him “Son of Encouragement,” or “Barnabas” in the Hebrew language.

When Barnabas got to Antioch, he was thrilled by what he found there – a new church, “the evidence of the grace of God” (11:23). He immediately launched into his characteristic activity: “he . . . encouraged them all,” writes Luke. I wonder again if we realize how much we owe, under God, to this relatively obscure servant. Imagine the consequences if Barnabas had been skeptical and negative by temperament, instead of positive and encouraging, or if he had sent back a very hostile report to Jerusalem about what was happening in Antioch. But Barnabas was not like that. He looked forward, not backward, and so he earned one of the most wonderful personal endorsements in all of the Bible. Luke tells us that “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24). Has there ever been a better testimony to anyone’s character than that? Is there anything you would rather be true about you? I know I would be more than satisfied if it could be truly said of me at the end of my life that I was a good person, filled with God and with faith.

This was certainly not the last contribution Barnabas made to the Christian movement. As the Lord blessed the work in Antioch with great growth, Barnabas began to look around for help. He thought of his old friend Saul/Paul, so he went over to Tarsus to get him (v. 25). The joint ministry they launched in Antioch was to prove a blessing not only there, but in many places far beyond as yet untouched by the gospel. It was the formation of a great team, one that became the foundation for the first great missionary undertaking in the history of the church (Acts 13-14).

So, praise God for Barnabas, and for all the Barnabases in the world! Pray for more people like him to serve Christ. Try to become a son or daughter of encouragement yourself.