Although Luke does not devote extended passages to him, as he does to both Peter and Paul, Barnabas figures prominently in the Acts of the Apostles. In fact, aside from Peter or Paul, there is more about Barnabas than anyone else. Stephen gets a long chapter and part of another chapter, and Philip gets most of a chapter about him. But Barnabas is mentioned in Acts 4, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15. He was the key person in bringing Paul to the church, as well as Paul’s first missionary companion.
The early church believed that Barnabas wrote the book of Hebrews. He was educated and was a Levite – someone who would know about the intricacies of the Old Covenant so thoroughly discussed in Hebrews. Hebrews 13:22 may include a cryptic reference to Barnabas, the “son of encouragement,” where it reads, “And I appeal to you, brethren, bear with the word of exhortation (encouragement).”
What is it that made Barnabas so special in the life of the early church? Actually, he had many wonderful virtues, but the one that his name bears is that of encouragement. His given name was Joses, and so he was privileged to have the name of one of the brothers of Jesus Himself. But the apostles named him “Barnabas,” that is, “son of encouragement.” What a wonderful name! Wouldn’t you like to be known as the son or daughter of encouragement?
The first word to describe Barnabas might be “generous,” for the first thing we find him doing is selling some of his land and laying the money at the feet of the apostles (Acts 4:36). The second word to describe him might be “courageous,” for it was Barnabas who dared to bring Saul to the disciples and make him a part of the church (Acts 9:27). Without Barnabas, how much longer would it have taken for Saul to do the work the Lord had called him to?
In this same passage, we might also begin to apply the name “son of encouragement” to him because of the tremendous encouragement he must have been to Saul. And so the one who was full of the Holy Spirit, the Encourager, is en-couraged to be able to face Saul of Tarsus, and then by the Spirit becomes the encourager of Saul and others.
It is then that we come to today’s story of Barnabas from Acts 11. Barnabas is the one the Jerusalem church sends out to Antioch, the place where believers in Jesus Christ were first called Christians. How appropriate that one of the men who so manifested the grace of Jesus Christ in his life and faithfully followed him was there to be called a Christian when this name was first applied. Who knows – it may even have been the son of encouragement who first used the name Christian!
In Antioch, Barnabas was privileged to see the grace of God at work. Being a man receptive to the Spirit, he was glad. Being a man filled with the Spirit, he encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. Verse 24 records Luke’s summary of the character of Barnabas, and as a consequence I’ve just changed what I want written as my epitaph from, “He tried,” to this verse: “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” What a wonderful testimony to Barnabas!
The story gets interesting here, when we remember the reason that Barnabas and Paul are reunited. Way back in Acts 8, after witnessing the martyrdom of St. Stephen, Saul initiates his own persecution. As a result of this persecution, the Christians were scattered, as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus (where Barnabas was from), and Antioch. So first, it seems as if Saul’s persecution caused the gospel to come to Cyprus, where Barnabas probably heard the Good News. And then Barnabas helps bring Saul, the chief havoc creator and Grand Persecutor, into the church.
And now, here in Acts 11:25, it is Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, who departs for Tarsus to find Saul. He then brings Saul to Antioch, so that together the Dynamic Duo can assemble with the church and teach in Antioch for an entire year. Further demonstrating his gift for encouragement, Barnabas (with Saul) took the money for relief to the Christians in Judea.
Barnabas was so important in the early church that he is listed first among the prophets and teachers there (another case for his possible authorship of Hebrews). As Barnabas, Saul, and others ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit told the Antiochian church to set apart – guess who? Barnabas and Saul. Where is the first place they go? To Barnabas’ home of Cyprus. How encouraging it must have been to him to preach to his homeland and how encouraging for those who heard a native Cypriot preaching Jesus Christ to them! Somewhere around this time, Saul is also renamed as Barnabas was, and from then on was known as Paul.
Barnabas was to continue ministering with Paul until Acts 15 and his division from Paul over John Mark’s abandonment of the mission trip. This Son of Encouragement held such an important place in the early church that he is one of the few privileged to be called an “apostle” (Acts 14:14, which is also another argument that he wrote Hebrews, for those who are keeping score at home).
Peter and Paul are justly celebrated by Christians everywhere, but today we celebrate the life of Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement. May his life act continue to encourage Christians everywhere. May we seek, like him, to be sons and daughters of encouragement, seeking to further the Kingdom of God in whatever ways we can. And like Barnabas, may we lead such holy lives that at the end of them it may be written of each us: “He was a good man (woman), full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.”
Prayer: Grant, O God, that we may follow the example of your faithful servant Barnabas, who, seeking not his own renown but the well-being of your Church, gave generously of his life and substance for the relief of the poor and the spread of the Gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Point for Meditation:
- What Barnabases have you had in your life? How did they encourage you in the Lord?
- In what ways is the Lord calling you to be like Barnabas, especially in the ministry of encouragement?
Resolution: I resolve either to give thanks for the encouragement I have received in the Lord or to seek to encourage one person in the Lord today.
Paul and Barnabas at Lystra – U.S. Public Domain