(September 4, 2022) Brian Bell reflects on Barnabas’example…

‘Son of encouragement’ is a tremendous accolade for anyone to receive from their contemporaries. Not that it means a person is without imperfections, but it says something special about how other people find them to be in the general demeanour of their character and daily living.

As with other biblical characters, the life and witness of Barnabas has profitable lessons for us all to consider, and I share with you those which have spoken to me.

The disciple
We are introduced to Barnabas by Luke the writer of Acts, who tells us that the early believers were of one heart and mind. They freely shared their material possessions not considering what they each owned to be their own! Some even sold land or houses and gave the proceeds to the apostles to give to others in need (Acts 2:44-45).

Among those who sold land was a disciple named Joseph nicknamed Barnabas which means the Son of Encouragement (Acts 4:36-37). Luke also tells us Barnabas was a Jew from the tribe of Levi and came from Cyprus. Clearly the Holy Spirit had done a wonderful work in the life of Barnabas since he had come to faith whether it was before or even among one of those 3,000 who responded to Peter’s message (Acts 2:41).

As believers today, we still follow the general principle of giving and, or sharing, of our substance to help others. While I do have personal knowledge of some today who have bought property for other believers in obedience to how the Lord directed them, I do not know of chartable acts of kindness to the same degree as we read about in relation to Barnabas and others in Luke’s account in Acts 4.

The mediator
The events described by Luke in Acts 4 move on to the conversation of Saul (who would soon be known as Paul) and his preaching ministry which enraged the Jewish leaders in Damascus, and they determined to silence him. This led to Saul travelling to Jerusalem in an effort to meet with the believers there.

Saul was greeted with suspicion until Luke tells us ‘… then Barnabas brought him to the apostles and told them how Saul had seen the Lord on his way to Damascus, Barnabas told them what the Lord had said to Saul and how he had boldly preached in the name of Jesus in Damascus, then (on the basis of Barnabas’ word – my emphasis) the apostles accepted Saul’ (Acts 9:26-27).

It is noticeably clear the Holy Spirit had given Barnabas the gift of discernment in relation to the transformation in Saul’s life and he in effect, put his own reputation on the line as he became a mediator on this occasion, enabling Saul to be welcomed into the fellowship of the early church family.

This gift of mediation is a rare gift, reflecting a Christ-like spirit and the church family could benefit from it being exercised today.

The evangelist
Acts 11:25-26 tells that Barnabas had led quite a number of people in Antioch to Jesus and he went to Tarsus seeking Paul to assist him instruct the new believers. Together they taught for an entire year and, verse 26 makes a historical statement: ‘The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.’

It is truly clear in Luke’s account recorded in Acts 13:2-3 that the Holy Spirit had called for Barnabas and Paul to be dedicated for the ‘special work’ He had for them.

This chapter records the first missionary journey during which they were joined by John Mark, a cousin of Barnabas, as an assistant. While for reasons we are not told, Mark chose not to continue the journey but returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13), while Barnabas and Paul continued with their ‘special work.’

The account of this first missionary journey and its events are well set out by Luke in Acts chapters 13–15 leading in time to their reporting of it to the church on their return to Jerusalem as set out in Acts 15.

The reconciler
My understanding of scripture leads me to conclude that the Holy Spirit did a very definite work through Barnabas and Paul on that first missionary journey, yet in Acts 15:36-41 we read about the strong disagreement Paul had with Barnabas about Mark’s involvement in a second journey.

I believe it is significant that the Holy Spirit led Luke to record this incident, that it’s a reminder that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth and sometimes the truth even in church life is a harsh reality!

I do not like to speculate too much, however. Paul seems to have had at that time a ‘hard line’ approach, unwilling to show grace to Mark, whereas Barnabas, consistent with his nickname for encouragement and his mediation on behalf of Paul, took what I can only call a more gracious approach.

Barnabas the encourager was not a man to disqualify another because of a mistake. And while Mark was his cousin, I do not believe Barnabas would have acted any differently even if there hadn’t been a family relationship connecting them. Barnabas was as willing to put his reputation on the line for Mark as he had done for Paul!

We may also reasonably conclude from this incident that even if people carry a ‘spiritual’ title such as apostle they are not free from imperfection or able to always be in absolute agreement with each other.

While scripture indicates that Paul was reconciled to Mark at some later point – we read in Colossians 4:10 Paul refers to ‘Mark, Barnabas’s cousin’ and in 2 Timothy 4:11, he acknowledges that Mark ‘… is helpful to me in my ministry’ – sadly, we don’t have a record to tell us specifically whether Paul and Barnabas were ever reconciled.

However, in Paul’s various letters to the early churches, we may glean some insight though. For example, in his letter to the Ephesians Paul talks about ‘…forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you’ and I believe we may say Paul would practise what he preached!

The legacy
In comparison to scripture writers such as Paul, James, Peter and John, Barnabas’s mention in scripture may seem to be quite brief and as less ‘impressive’… but I would not take that view.

The Holy Spirit knows precisely how to utilise the various gifts which are given to us, like the parable of the talents, whatever their number or variety we are expected to put them to use within the church family and as we have seen that Barnabas–

  • Had given freely of his substance;
  • Been the instrument the Lord used to ensure Paul was welcomed among the early church family;
  • Helped opened the door for the Holy Spirit to fulfil His purpose through Paul’s ministry;
  • Demonstrated his commitment to reaching out to others in evangelism;
  • Was a source of encouragement to those early believers.

The example
Years later, while Paul was imprisoned in Rome, he met a young slave named Onesimus. This young man had made a mistake and also ran away from his master Philemon (a believer known to Paul).

Paul became a mediator and even a mentor when he asked Philemon to receive Onesimus back and the story is contained in Paul’s letter to Philemon.

This is a vastly different reaction from Paul towards Onesimus than the harsh attitude he demonstrated towards Mark all those years before. It is surely a work of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s life and a reflection, I believe, of how Barnabas would have had encouraged Paul.

Indeed, it’s a fine example – as is Jesus’ teaching in what we call the Lord’s Prayer – to all of us of how we ought to act in such circumstances. And other aspects of Barnabas’ attitude mentioned above are also excellent examples of how we Christians today should live!

May we all in our daily living be like Barnabas – ‘Sons… and daughters… of Encouragement!’ Ephesians 4:16NLT encourages: ‘As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.’

Barnabas’ example, not just to Paul but to every Christian, is to make deliberate decisions, work hard, be strong in the faith, be perceptive of needs and be devoted to the Lord! Let’s all be…

Oh… one other thought – who’s your encourager?
Brian Bell is a diaconate member, Christ Church (Congregational) Abbots Cross, Northern Ireland, and a volunteer with Disabled Christians Fellowship Ireland. Brian describes himself as ‘grateful for the privilege and opportunity given me to serve my Lord.’

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