Barnabus, Son of Encouragement
Article By: Dick Robinson
One of the significant gifts a church leader can give their congregation is the ministry of encouragement to people in physical, emotional, personal and spiritual distress. We can learn the ministry of encouragement and the leadership characdter needed to engage this vital ministry by studying Luke’s portrayal of Barnabas in “The Acts of the Apostles.” The name ‘Barnabas’ comes from the Aramaic, and probably refers to the prophetic gift of exhortation. His real name was Joseph, but the disciples called him Mr. Encouragement (Acts 4:36). But what does ‘Barnabas’ mean to you and me as we engage in ministry? What do we find modeled in the life and ministry of Barnabas of Cyprus that will inform and inspire our pastoral care-giving?
The Bible words which mean encouragement or exhortation—parakaleo and paraleisis—are found more than one hundred times in the New Testament. Interestingly, another form of this word—parakletos—variously translated as Comforter, Counselor, or Advocate, is used in John’s gospel of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16), and in his epistle to refer to Jesus (I John 2:1).
The overflow will entail real suffering on our part.
Which brings us back to Barnabas, Son of Encouragement. The word is paraklesis. This family of words, Hurding notes, describes counseling as a ministry of asking Jesus for help; appealing or encouraging or exhorting to be and to do what is right and true; aiding or comforting or consoling in times of suffering and distress (pp. 401-403). This will not be easy. Paul reminds us that “the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives,” in order that, “through Christ…comfort overflows” (II Corinthians 1:5). The overflow will entail real suffering on our part. Pastoral care is not secular counsel; we cannot remain emotionally disengaged. As a result, pastoral care is and ought to be a ministry of prayer, of encouragement, of consolation. When we understand our role as a ‘Barnabas’ to someone in crisis, in distress, in weakness, then we will model in a human way that divine ‘coming alongside’ advocated by Jesus, and promised by him in ‘another Paraclete’—the Holy Spirit.
Barnabas was a giver. He gave out of his resources; he gave of his abilities. He gave from a generous spirit because he gave himself. The first snapshot we have shows a man bringing a gift to be used by the apostles when there were needy people in the church (Acts 4:36, 37). The man’s name was Joseph, he was from Cyprus, a relative of John Mark—who possibly had introduced his cousin to the church leaders. (There is a tradition in the early church, passed along by Clement of Alexandria, that Barnabas was one of the Seventy sent out by Jesus to preach the Kingdom of God (Luke 10:1.) Like others in the early church who owned real estate, when confronted by a fellow follower of Jesus in need, he sold his property, giving the proceeds to the leaders for relief distribution. Small wonder they nicknamed him ‘Son of Encouragement’.
As we shall see, Barnabas would subsequently serve the thriving church in Antioch. When the leaders at Antioch learned of impending famine and crisis in Jerusalem, they determined to send a gift to the church there (Acts 11:17-30). Barnabas, along with Saul, was commissioned to carry the gift. He had proven himself as a man of compassion, a man of integrity. Barnabas would be their encouragement to Jerusalem.
Something inexplicable had begun to happen in this already ancient city, something new and exciting. People’s lives were being changed. They were called ‘Christians’ because they professed to be followers of ‘the Christ’. Hearing this, the church at Jerusalem, seemingly more concerned with protocol than passion, sent Barnabas to investigate. The text presents his findings simply: he “saw the evidence of the grace of God…was glad and encouraged them…” (Acts 11:23).
Two further insights from the scene at Antioch are instructive: what Barnabas was, we must be; what Barnabas did, we must do. In language reminiscent of the selection of the first deacons (Acts 6:3-5), Luke describes Barnabas as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (Acts 11:24). Goodness helps us establish sensible, secure boundaries while entering another’s story and carrying their burden. Faith enables us to believe that the same God who has graced our growth will grant the other’s good. And submission to the Spirit’s presence in our lives opens our eyes to his power at work in their life, fulfilling the potential for which God as created them.
Something exciting is happening in the church, people’s lives are being changed. Linked to the gospel, the work of pastoral care promotes renewal into the likeness of Christ, when confession of transcendence is crystallized in the person of Christ. True humanity, creation in the image of God, is recovered. To evaluate this work, we must look for evidence of the grace and goodness of God, for signs of the Spirit’s presence and power. When we see it, we should be glad.
Persecution brought the gospel to Antioch; purpose took it to the cities of the empire and the early church. The first great missionary thrust of the church was conducted by Saul and Barnabas. In their mission we find a model for our ministry. Committed to a task, they were called by the Holy Spirit and commissioned by the church. Both had already exhibited leadership and maturity in ministry at Antioch. Luke’s details are spare: in reliance on God’s presence and power, with fasting and prayer, the church “sent them off” (Acts 13:1-3).
They were met with intelligent inquiry (Acts 13:7) and pagan superstition (Acts 14:11-13), eager belief (Acts 13:48; 14:1, 21) and religious abuse (Acts 13:45). They exercised spiritual power (Acts 14:3, 10) and encountered spiritual deception (Acts 13:8). With a firm foundation in the faith, grounded in the Scriptures (Acts 11:26; 13:1), they responded appropriately and effectively to each situation.
Paul and Barnabas experienced both success and failure. In Paphos a political official came to faith (Acts 13:12); at Pisidian Antioch they were thrown out of the city (Acts 13:50). Large numbers, we are told, came to faith (Acts 13:45, 49; 14:1, 21); many others rejected their message and responded with persecution (Acts 13:50; 14:5, 19). The presentation by Luke is understated; these experiences made a deep impact on Paul. Years later, nearing the close of his life, Paul would write to Timothy of this unforgettable journey: “You [know] what kind of things happened…in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured” (II Timothy 3:11).
Ministry with people in emotional and spiritual crisis always includes both joy and sorrow.
Ministry with people in emotional and spiritual crisis always includes both joy and sorrow. While few of us are likely to experience the persecutions endured by Barnabas and Paul, we will encounter hostility and rejection as some turn aside from the hope offered in the gospel. Or we may face the secret temptation of being put in the place of God by someone who wants another to take responsibility for their life. We need the courage, determination, and endurance which comes from the Spiri6’s empowerment of our ministry (Acts 13:4).
Like Barnabas and Paul we must remember our limitations: “We too are only…human like you” (Acts 14:15). At the same time we must speak a clear message: “We are bringing you good news…” (Acts 14:15). We must speak to people in their language, meeting them where they are. We will encounter an inquiring ‘Sergius Paulus’ (Acts 13:7) confront cultured traditional ‘synagogue rulers’ (Acts 13:15), be faced with outright, twenty-first century ‘Lyconian’ pagans (Acts 14:11-13). The faith of some will be strengthened (Acts 13:52; 14:22), others subverted (Acts 13:50; 14:19). In any case we must be ready to ‘get up and go back into the city’ (Acts 14:20).
As we work with people who are making new choices. As we encourage them to “continue in the grace of God” (Acts 13:43), we must be straightforward in our counsel: Christian living entails both discipline and difficulty (Acts 14:22). Spiritual growth is possible, however, because our lives are lived in the context of the kingdom, under pastoral care, and by the commitment of a trustworthy Lord (Acts 14:22, 23).
Paul and Barnabas returned, finally, to Antioch. Luke tells us that they “reported all that God had done through them” (Acts 14:27), and “stayed there a long time with the disciples” (Acts 14:28). Accountability and continuity are the watchwords of effective ministry. We cannot make sporadic forays in and out of people’s lives and expect quick fixes. Discipleship is an arduous and long-term process. Nor may we conduct ministry in isolation from community. ‘Sent out’ by the church in the service of God, we ‘return’ to report on the ‘doors of faith’ opened in the lives of God’s people (Acts 14:27).
Shortly after Saul was converted, he was, at best—as far as the disciples in Jerusalem were concerned—an unsavory character. Trust is gained by being trustworthy, and Saul—in their opinion—deserved nothing but distrust. Barnabas, however, was a mentor and man of faith. He understood the surprising ways of the Spirit, saw potential in Saul, took a personal risk, and stamped his endorsement on Saul’s ministry (Acts 9:27, 28).
When unprecedented numbers of Gentiles were turning to Christ in Antioch, Barnabas—we saw earlier—was sent to investigate. And he continued to do what he did best. He encouraged the young and growing church, finding and bringing Saul to be their teachers (Acts 11:22-26). And he mentored Saul. From a position of personal confidence and spiritual strength, he would find people with ability and give them responsibility. He saw evidence of the grace of God and nurtured their gifts.
Barnabas formed a close working partnership with Saul. Together they carried Antioch’s famine-relief gift to Jerusalem (Acts 11:30). Later they would comprise a joint delegation from Antioch to Jerusalem to contest a crucial question of Christian doctrine and practice (Acts 15). Barnabas and Saul built an evangelistic team. The first planned missionary venture of the early church recorded for us found them risking their lives in the bold proclamation of the gospel (Acts 15:26).
A rift formed in their relationship—Luke describes it as a “sharp disagreement” (Acts 15:37-40)—and they parted company.
Mentoring was not without personal and emotional risk to Barnabas, however. He had invited his cousin, John Mark (Colossians 4:10), to be a part of that missionary team, to help on that first journey (Acts 13:5). Not long into their trip, Mark deserted (Acts 13:13; 15:38). Luke does not tell us why he abandoned the task, but it was evidently a serious matter. No doubt it was a difficult time for Barnabas, caught between friend and family member. When Paul later proposed a return visit to the churches they had planted, Barnabas again wanted to bring Mark. Paul objected; a rift formed in their relationship—Luke describes it as a “sharp disagreement” (Acts 15:37-40)—and they parted company.
Paul chose Silas to accompany him, but Barnabas invested time with John Mark, taking him to Cyprus. He saw the potential in his cousin, an investment which would reap dividends for Paul. Eventually Paul came to refer to Mark as his “fellow worker” (Philemon 24). And, at the end of his life, imprisoned, discouraged, deserted by all but his closest friends, Paul wrote to Timothy to “get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me” (II Timothy 4:11).
There is one last way that Barnabas encourages us, and that is in our failings. For even he—to borrow Paul’s felicitous phrase—carried his treasure in [a jar] of clay (II Corinthians 4:7). Once, at Antioch, when men came from Jerusalem and caused division in the church, Peter—out of fear and hypocrisy—turned away from his friends and fellow Christians. It was a sad time, a discouraging scene, and caused such crisis that, as Paul put it, “even Barnabas was led astray” (Galatians 2:13). Even those of us in pastoral work or missionary life may be “led astray”. While there is no room for moral failure in ministry, there are other ways that we wander. The most optimistic sometimes grow discouraged. Those with the greatest strength sometimes grow weary. Those who exhibit deep empathy occasionally experience cynicism. There is no need for despair in a ministry of encouragement. Barnabas learned from this mistake, and changed his behavior (Acts 15:2).
So Barnabas mentors us, modeling insight, compassion, patience, persistence, and risking-taking. In our counseling we are often faced with people who make hasty and ill-formed choices. We need to learn how to see them through eyes of faith, to seem them as God sees them, as people with potential, and stick with them. Sometimes our own thinking is unclear, our decisions unwise. We too need a continuing good measure of God’s grace. We find it in the encouraging example of Barnabas, Son of Encouragement.
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