Barnabas means “son of encouragement.” Who wouldn’t want to be a son of encouragement? Everyone wants to be encouraged. Everyone needs to be cheered up, believed in. For years, my perception of Barnabas was that he was the old guy who accompanied the apostle Paul on his first missionary journey. I picked his name for our Center because it was so neutral, implying our distinctly Christian beliefs while not being offensively Christian. It was… well, an encouraging type of name.
It turns out Barnabas wasn’t very neutral. He wasn’t mamby pamby or vanilla either. He was actually strong and confrontational. He lived large, took risks, and in ways changed the course of his world. Recently I was studying a Greek word that is often translated “encourage.” The word is “parakaleo.” Sometimes it is translated as “to comfort.” But sometimes, the encouragement is confrontational. It is more assertive. Encouragement isn’t just saying nice things…
Barnabas first appears in the book of Acts, selling his property and giving all of it to the church. Don’t miss that – “all of it”. He laid it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:37). Remember there were no tax exemptions back then. There really wasn’t the kind of history of philanthropy that we have today. One measured carefully one’s gifts. But Barnabas quite literally “sold the farm.” He gave big! And he gave big to this brand new, not yet formed group we have come to call the “church”. He really gave big to Jesus!
Barnabas is the one willing to take a risk on a wild young preacher named Paul. Paul was the firebrand who had persecuted the nascent church, going into homes rousting out new Christ-followers and brutally persecuting them, sometimes murdering them. Paul had had some strange “enlightenment” encounter where he claimed to see Jesus on the road to Damascus. Barnabas was the one who vouched for Paul with the apostles in Jerusalem. He believed that Paul’s dramatic transformation was real and Barnabas put his own name on the line for Paul. The apostles trusted Paul based on Barnabas’ credibility.
So it was only appropriate that Barnabas would go with Paul on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-4). The older, wiser, more settled believer with the younger firebrand – they made quite a team. Together they launched the ministry to the Gentiles. They were persecuted together and established the first churches in Cyprus and Asia Minor. They attended the Jerusalem council together (Acts 15).
But then they broke up. They had a falling out and parted company. Over what? What could be so bad? John Mark was Barnabas’ cousin (Col. 4:10), and for reasons unknown, had bailed out on the first missionary journey. John Mark went home early (Acts 16:38). We don’t know why. So Paul didn’t want to take him on the second journey. But Barnabas believed in his kin, in his faith and his call to ministry. So Paul and Barnabas parted company, both going on separate missionary journeys. Barnabas stood his ground, as he was committed to his principles and to his people.
So Barnabas was a leader, but he wasn’t “the guy.” He contributed meaningfully, followed hard after Jesus, but he wasn’t a superstar. That encourages me. I can’t be Paul. But I can believe in people. I can live boldly in my little world. I can stand by people. I can be an encourager in my world, believing in them and the work God is doing regardless of their past failures, and speaking words of life in whatever ways are most encouraging.
Palmer Trice is an ordained Presbyterian minister. He is married to Lynne, has three children and has been in Charlotte since 1979. In his spare time, Palmer enjoys golf, tennis, walking and reading.