Who would we identify as the individuals responsible for the legacy of the New Testament era? Probably the apostle Paul, surely Peter, and the gospel writers. But how about Barnabas? We vaguely recall him as a figure whose name means “son of encouragement.” But how did he act as an encourager? And what lasting impact did his attitude make? Let’s consider this underrated individual and explore the role of encouragement in the early church, see the substantial perspectives on Jesus it has granted us, and remember its spiritually enriching power.
Barnabas: The Link of Encouragement
Barnabas was instrumental in the overall growth of the fledgling church. When introduced in Acts 4, what is he doing there? He is selling land and offering its proceeds to support the struggling community. Barnabas also was a missionary preacher. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith and gladness, exhorting the church (Acts 11:23-24). Barnabas’ generosity in money, time, teaching, and preaching encouraged the church, and it grew.
Would we have the gospel of Mark were it not for Barnabas? Acts 15 explains that Barnabas stood up for a vulnerable Mark when Paul refused to take Mark on a mission trip because he had previously abandoned them. Had Barnabas not encouraged the lad and taken him on his own missionary journey, Mark might have disappeared into obscurity. Instead, God used Mark to write what most scholars agree is the first written canonical account of Jesus of Nazareth. This gospel portrays Jesus as the suffering Messiah King. In contrast to the other three gospels, the theme and event of crucifixion dominates. Could we say Barnabas was the critical link that enabled Mark to write his portrait of Jesus?
Next, consider the ministry of the apostle Paul. Barnabas was instrumental in ensuring the newly minted apostle took up the mantle of the church’s first missionary. After Paul’s dramatic conversion, Barnabas alone had the courage to believe Paul and persuade a skeptical church in Jerusalem that he could be trusted (Acts 9:26-31). Consequently the apostle planted churches throughout Asia Minor all the way to Rome. Paul’s epistles (nearly half of New Testament writings) reveal a wealth of knowledge about life in Jesus: justification by faith alone (Romans); being new creations in Christ (Corinthians); law and gospel (Galatians); the church as the body of Christ (Ephesians); joy in Jesus (Philippians); the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ (Colossians); and the hope of Jesus’ return and our resurrection to new life (Thessalonians). God used Barnabas as an encouraging link in affording us this treasure from the first century to today.
If Paul and Mark had not been encouraged by Barnabas, would we possess this rich revelation? I imagine God in God’s sovereign will would have arranged it. But God chose to use the person of Barnabas as a key figure in bringing it about, perhaps to show us the fruitfulness of organically giving encouragement. What a powerful difference the practice of encouragement can make in bringing the kingdom!
The Perfect Priestly Encourager
Barnabas’ ancestral family was the Levites, the priestly tribe (Acts 4:36). By nature and calling, priests are helpfully encouraging; their primary role is to serve the Lord and others. Barnabas embodied his Levitical name. His testimony points us to a greater priest.
In fact, Jesus is the perfect priest. In the eternal order of Melchizedek (Gen. 14:17-20; Heb. 7:1-18), Jesus offered himself without blemish to God, securing our redemption and cleansing our consciences (Heb. 9:11-14). As our intercessor, he is forever before the Father (Heb. 9:24). The Belgic Confession says that as our high priest, Jesus loves us more than anyone (Art. 26). What encouragement for all of us who are imperfect each day!
One outstanding example of the redemptive effect of encouragement was Jesus’ restoration of his disgraced disciple Peter, who denied Jesus at his lowest. Did Peter wonder if Jesus would still ask him to be his disciple? The answer comes in an exchange between Peter and the resurrected Jesus one morning. Jesus began, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Three times Peter confessed his love. Then came words of forgiveness in a call to mission: “Feed my sheep.” Restored by the perfect encourager, Peter became a leader, began to bring the gospel to the world, wrote two biblical letters, and became the eyewitness of Jesus for the first gospel writer, Mark John. What fruit of priestly encouragement!
Encouraged to be an Encourager
Failures in our relationship with Jesus might not be as public as Peter’s, yet they harm no less. Still, when we disappoint Jesus, he always invites us to come to him in repentance, assuring that he will never give up on us. He loves us more than anyone. His sacrificial love restores us eternally to him and calls us to follow.
An extracanonical writing purported to be from Barnabas, the General Epistle of Barnabas, was written to encourage readers. He explains that when the Lord “chose his disciples, afterwards to publish his gospel, he took men who had been very great sinners; that they might plainly show, that he came not to call the righteous but sinners” (4:12). Choosing broken sinners, Jesus remits our sins and puts us “into another frame, forming us again by the spirit” (5:11). We find ourselves in a new “frame” or spiritual space in which we are enabled to love each other (14:18). Even through our missteps, Jesus loves us and calls us to feed his flock. Barnabas’ letter reminds us to be encouragers as we have been encouraged.
The word “encourage” means to give courage, and the word courage comes from the Latin word cor, which means “heart.” To encourage means to give someone heart. This can come in innumerable ways: visiting the lonely, praying for another, sharing the gospel, or saying “I love you,” for example. Our acts might ostensibly go unnoticed but are actually used by God as a means of deepening faith. Giving courage makes present the experience the first-century church enjoyed: generosity, building community, and the saving presence of Jesus, our suffering King.
Through encouragement we spread the gifts of Paul: we share the news of being justified by grace, of being new creations in Christ, of the law and gospel, of life in the body of Christ, of the joy of the Spirit, of the supremacy and all-sufficiency of Christ, and of the hope of his return. Encouragement acts as a conduit, drawing on the past riches of God’s redemptive work and causing them to play in the present.
Barnabas’ proper name was not Barnabas, but Joseph (Acts 4:36). But he has been known by his nickname throughout the ages. His encouraging nature warranted it. Imagine that: to be known by our Christian character rather than our proper name! As unsung heroes, let us encourage one another with the heart of Barnabas. In doing so, we are the presence of Jesus, our perfect High Priest.
- Recall a time when someone encouraged you. What was said or done that encouraged you? What did you learn from that experience?
- How much encouragement happens in your church community? Do we need to be more encouraging?
- Do you see much encouragement happening in our culture and society? Why do you think that is?
- To whom do you feel God is leading you to encourage today?
About the Author
Tony Maan is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of St. Albert, AB. He is very thankful for the many who have encouraged him through 33 years of ministry.