William Arthur Ward once wrote, “Flatter me, and I may not believe you. Criticize me, and I may not like you. Ignore me, and I may not forgive you. Encourage me, and I will not forget you.” I believe that sentiment embodies the example of a man named Joseph who was integral to the growth of the church during its infancy.
In Acts 4:36 we are introduced to Joseph. We tend not to remember him for his surname but for his nickname, Barnabas. The name Barnabas actually means “son of encouragement.” That is a very specific nickname. Obviously he received this nickname because he possessed the natural ability to encourage others, but how did his encouragement manifest itself? In some cases it manifested itself through benevolence. In Acts 4:36-37 he encouraged the church in Jerusalem by benevolently selling his property and giving the proceeds to apostles for use in God’s kingdom. In other instances it manifested itself through a spirit of unity. In Acts 11:19-24 Barnabas encouraged Gentile converts in the city of Antioch by ministering to them despite his Jewish heritage. In other words, he ignored the cultural and ethnic divides that plagued the church in other first century communities. At other times Barnabas’ encouragement manifested itself through the responsibilities he was willing to assume. Throughout Scripture we learn that he served at one time or another as a teacher (Acts 11:26; 13:1), gift-bearer (Acts 11:30), missionary (Acts 13:2), and delegate (Acts 15:2). Thus, it appears that Barnabas encouraged the church by filling whatever role the church needed him to fill.
But Barnabas’ greatest contribution as an encourager might have been his uncanny ability to see the best in others despite their shortfalls. For example, it was Barnabas who initially vouched for Paul. After his conversion, Paul “attempted to join the disciples” in Jerusalem, but “they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26). His past as a persecutor was too prevalent for people to look past. While everyone kept their distance from Paul, fearing that he was pretending to be a disciple in order to infiltrate the church, Barnabas willingly escorted him to the apostles in order to present him as a fellow believer (Acts 9:27). Barnabas risked his reputation and safety when he took Paul under his wing. But that did not phase the Son of Encouragement because he did not see Paul the persecutor; he saw Paul the brother. Thus, the man who the church was too afraid to accept became its greatest missionary largely because an encourager saw the potential rather than the problem in him.
Interestingly, Barnabas’ ability to see the best in others became the source of his separation from Paul (Acts 15:36-40). When it came time to initiate their second missionary journey, Barnabas wanted to invite John Mark to be their partner even though John Mark deserted him and Paul in the midst of their first missionary journey (Acts 13:13). That desertion had such a lasting impact on Paul that he refused to work with John Mark anymore. But once again, Barnabas saw the potential rather than the problem. So, Barnabas and John Mark went one way, and Paul and Silas went another. In the end, Barnabas’ acceptance of John Mark proved beneficial because Paul requested Mark’s presence with him during his Roman imprisonment saying, “he is useful to me in ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). Once again, the Son of Encouragement saw past someone’s failures and found a bright future. As a result, Paul acknowledged later in life that Barnabas’ encouragement efforts transformed a deserter into a useful worker.
What do we learn about encouragement from the Son of Encouragement? Barnabas’ example teaches us that encouragement is a universal need in the church because at some point in time everyone, from the Pauls to the Marks, will need encouragement. That is why Paul instructed the church to “encourage one another and build one another up” in 1 Thessalonians 5:11. More importantly, Barnabas’ example teaches us that encouragement is an essential need in the church. Scripture indicates that encouragement serves two important functions for followers of Christ. First, in Hebrews 3:13 we are instructed to “encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” This passage indicates that encouragement serves a defensive function by preventing the hardening of hearts. A few chapters later in Hebrews we are instructed to “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (10:24-25). This passage indicates that encouragement serves an offensive function by promoting the actions of love and good works. So, in simplified terms, encouragement is designed to prevent the wrong choices and to promote the right ones, and, as a result, it is an essential to our spiritual maturation.
Our takeaway from Barnabas’ story is that all of us should strive to be like Barnabas. The church is desperately in need of encouragers because it exists in a world of put-downs, passivity, and pessimism. So, we need more people who will build others up, bring their enthusiasm, and battle negativity with positivity. We need more encouragement. We need more Barnabas’. Will you be the next Son of Encouragement?