Over 5 decades of reading, studying and teaching about the Bible, I have found Barnabas to be one of the most interesting characters in the book. His real name was Joseph, but his friends the apostles called him Barnabas (which means "Son of Encouragement") because of his knack for encouraging others. What can we in the 21st century learn from this man who lived millennia ago? Lots!
Here are 5 lessons from the life of Barnabas that teach us how to reach out to others and build them up:
1. Take a chance on someone
Acts 9:26-27 gives a brief account of an interesting event that, at first, seems incidental to the rest of the text. Later information illustrates that this encounter actually changed history! The 2 men in the story are Barnabas and Saul.
Barnabas was among the leaders in the new Christian faith, while Saul was a Jewish leader and member of the Sanhedrin (sort of a Jewish supreme court), dedicated to imprisoning and killing Christians for their faith.
When Jesus miraculously appeared to Saul, changing both his name and his life, the lives of these two men intersected. As soon as he was converted, Saul (now named Paul) went to Jerusalem to work with the leaders of the Christian church. To his dismay, the disciples were pretty much afraid of him because of his reputation, and didn't believe he had really changed. Since it was common practice at that time for Jewish "spies" to pretend to be Christians so they could uncover believers and drag them into court, the disciples were pretty justified in being wary of him.
At this low point in Paul's life, Barnabas stepped in. Taking a chance on Paul, Barnabas introduced him to the apostles and vouched for him. They reluctantly accepted Paul because of their respect for Barnabas, and Paul went on to become one of the most influential and important Christian leaders ever. In fact, he ended up writing a huge chunk of the New Testament!
2. Work side-by-side with them
Barnabas vouched for Paul, giving him the opportunity to assume a leadership role in the church, but he didn't stop there. As we learn from the book of Acts, Barnabas actively worked with Paul for some time after that. They went on mission trips, checked on established churches throughout the Middle East, and even delivered money to and from churches.
Barnabas continued to oversee Paul's work and help him grow in the faith. Together the pair established new churches, taught about Jesus, and helped find leaders for the churches they founded. Working day in and day out with him, Barnabas was able to help Paul use his gifts to serve others.
3. Give folks a second chance
In Acts 12:25 there is a record of one of the joint mission trips taken by Paul and Barnabas. During this trip, the duo took along a young man named John. It is unclear whether John was a cousin or nephew of Barnabas, but he was related somehow.
Unfortunately, the text records a problem the trio encountered which produced some negative results: In Perga, "... John called it quits and went back to Jerusalem." (Acts 13:13, The Message) For some reason John's youth and fledgling faith were not up to the task of a missionary journey.
In Acts 15 we read of a later missionary journey Paul and Barnabas were planning. Barnabas wanted to take John along again, but Paul refused to allow it, calling John a quitter who apparently ran away as soon as the going got tough. Even though Barnabas had taken a chance on Paul, Paul wouldn't give John the same consideration.
This disagreement (along with a dispute regarding Peter) led to a split between the two friends. Barnabas took John, also called John Mark, with him, giving the young man a second chance to prove himself. Perhaps because of this very event, John Mark continued to work hard and grow in the faith. He also learned from a variety of mentors, including the apostle Peter.
John Mark did become a strong, mature believer, and he even went on to write a book you may have read: the gospel of Mark!
Throughout the Bible we see examples of people who make great strides for the faith after great failures. A perfect illustration of this second chance principle is Moses, who killed a man in a fit of rage, but went on to serve God in amazing ways. Barnabas was following a godly principle when he gave John Mark a second chance.
4. Don't hold grudges
Apparently, John Mark later became a great source of encouragement to the same man who had earlier rejected him. Paul mentions both Barnabas and Mark in his later epistles, speaking of them with respect and appreciation. In 2 Timothy 4:11 Paul asks that John Mark be brought to him because "he is helpful to me in my ministry."
While his initial response to John Mark's actions was anger and lack of trust, as Paul grew in the faith he was able to move past those emotions. Barnabas, always the encourager, returned that respect and admiration, despite his earlier split with Paul. Since we read that Paul is grateful for John Mark's encouragement, we can assume that the young man also forgave Paul's earlier lack of charity toward him. The three were able to work together again because no one held a grudge or brought up the past.
5. Teach others to be encouragers
If Barnabas had not given both Saul and John Mark a second chance, who knows how different their lives might have been? They might have become so discouraged and depressed that they would have been useless to the church--or they might have given up the faith entirely. Instead, each of these men wrote words of encouragement that are still preserved in our Bible. Apparently, they both learned a lot about encouragement from their mentor, Barnabas.
So what can we learn from this man named "Joseph" but called "Barnabas" by other Christians? Barnabas believed in others, even when it seemed the rest of the world had given up on them. He worked tirelessly to help others get ahead, and he was a wonderful mentor. This unique combination of skills produced a remarkable Christian who left us some wonderful guidelines for encouraging others.