“Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.” —Acts 4:36–37
When the Old Testament prophecy One of the great blessings God brings into our lives is encouragement. The way God confers that blessing on us is typically through a person who knows how to encourage us. Some Christians have a unique gift of encouraging others. The Bible calls encouraging a spiritual gift (Romans 12:8, NKV). In the molding of our character, in the development of our abilities and talents, in helping us to attain success or to cope with failures and disappointments, and in living a godly life, a great deal of credit often belongs to those persons who have encouraged us along the way.
We may think first of our own parents, who, if they were devout believers in Christ, have probably had the greatest impact on the direction of our lives, especially when we were young and growing up. Once we get married, it is our spouses who typically become our greatest encouragers. In addition to those individuals, we can perhaps also think of others whose encouragement has made a lasting impact on us: a pastor, teacher, friend, coach, counselor, or fellow church member.
The Bible also provides some great examples of encouragers. No doubt, the greatest of them all is our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. What person can equal Him in giving us the encouragement we need to “run with perseverance the race set before us” (Heb. 12:1)? Besides Christ, however, Scripture also singles out others who were great spiritual encouragers. One of them even received a nickname in that regard. His name was Barnabas. Barnabas meant “son of encouragement.”
Who Was Barnabas?
We first read of Barnabas in Acts 4:36–37: “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.” These verses indicate that Barnabas was not his birth name. His real name was Joseph. He was a Jew, from the tribe of Levi, who hailed from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Thus he was one of the dispersed Jews of that time who resided outside the land of Palestine.
However, Joseph had come to Jerusalem. There he became a Christian when the early New Testament church began. He may well have become a believer in Jesus on the day of Pentecost, when over three thousand Jews and proselytes were converted and baptized. Soon he became a key figure in the early church—a leader, a preacher, a teacher, and a missionary. The book of Acts even calls him an apostle alongside of Paul (Acts 14:14), though he was not one of the twelve apostles.
However, the quality for which Joseph will always be remembered more than any other, an attribute that sparkled like a jewel in his life, was his ability to encourage others. He shone so much with that virtue that the early church even gave him a special name, Barnabas. Older Bible translations use the word consolation—Barnabas, “the son of consolation.” The Greek word behind consolation or encouragement is also used of the Holy Spirit in John 14:16, where Jesus assured His disciples that He would ask the Father to send them “another Comforter (or “another Counselor”) to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth.”
Literally, the Greek word for comforter or counselor means “one who is called to stand next to.” That is what a comforter does for someone in sorrow or distress. The term counselor is broader and designates one who stands next to us to lead and guide us. Perhaps the best English term for one who stands next to us is encourager, because it covers all the circumstances where we need someone to help us. Barnabas was an encourager in that broadest sense of the word. In fact, the New Testament shows his ministry of encouragement in a variety of ways. Let us note four situations where he was truly a “Son of Encouragement.”
An Encourager of the Materially Needy
The first time we read of Barnabas in the book of Acts, he is singled out as a Christian who show a special concern for the needy members of the early church. Acts 4:37 tells us that he “sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.” Acts 4 indicates that this money was given to help the poor members of the Jerusalem church, of which there were apparently quite a few. Acts 2:44 states that “all the believers . . . had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” Acts 4 tells us that from time to time the Jerusalem Christians who owned land or houses would sell them and give the proceeds to the apostles, who would distribute the money to those in the church who were needy.
These benevolent acts were not some sort of forced communism. They were voluntary gifts of love for fellow church members who were poor. It should also be noted that there was no government assistance of welfare programs for the poor in those times. The poor were very dependent on the generosity and kind assistance of others in their community. What better community to show that generosity and offer that assistance is there than the church?
Barnabas is singled out as one of those who show such Christian kindness. Apparently he had some wealth, but he willingly sold a field he owned and gave the proceeds to the church to help its poorer members. This is the first indication of what kind of person he was—a man who thought not first about himself, but about others and their needs. Acts 11:24 specifically mentions this quality of Barnabas, as it calls him there “a good man.” When Barnabas helped those in material need, he did not do so to win their praise. He was imitating Christ. In so doing, he was an encourager to the believers.
Christians today must remember the poor and needy among them as well. Some of us have been more richly blessed materially than others. We must remember those who have to struggle financially, who can barely make ends meet, and help them out with an encouraging gift, willingly and generously offered, not to win praise of men, but to imitate Christ. Galatians 6:2 exhorts Christians to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” That was the spirit of Barnabas, and his ministry of encouragement, and it is the mark of a loving Christian, a caring church, and a true encourager today.
An Encourager of the Spiritually Needy
Barnabas, however, was also an encourager of the spiritually needy—that is, of those who were young in faith and new believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. This comes out especially in his ministry in the church of Antioch. As the early church expanded beyond Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, a new Christian church was established in the city of Antioch. It consisted not only of Jewish converts but also of Gentile converts.
But they had no experienced leaders among them. Thus, when the apostles in Jerusalem heard about this new, fledgling group in Antioch, whom did they send to help them? They decided to send Barnabas to minister to them. They could not have sent a more suitable man, because he was an encourager. That is what new Christians need! “When he (Barnabas) arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts” (Acts 11:23, emphasis added). Through his faithful and dedicated work of preaching, teaching, and guiding, Barnabas encouraged these new believers to remain committed to Christ. We must remember that they lived in a pagan society, which was hostile to their newfound faith.
The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26). But they were not given that label out of respect or honor. Nor was it a neutral name, as it may be in our world today, simply describing one’s religious affiliation. Rather, in Antioch it was a mock word, like the label right-wing extremists which secularists often give for Bible-believing Christians in our day. The new believers in Antioch could easily fall away from the faith and return to their former pagan beliefs and ways. But by his diligent instruction in the truths of the gospel and his constant spiritual encouragement, Barnabas helped these new Christians to remain true to Christ. It seems most of them certainly did, for the church in Antioch multiplied in numbers and grew in faith and knowledge.
Such encouragement of new believers is still essential today. There are Christians among us who have a special ability to teach and encourage new converts to remain true to the Lord. They know how to help them face the temptation of forsaking Christ and the church. They know how to stand beside them in their spiritual struggles and disappointments. They know how to teach them and deepen in them a knowledge of God’s Word.
This remains one of the chief callings of Christian parents as they rear their children in the grace and knowledge of Christ. They also are called to be spiritual encouragers, who constantly guide, warn, and instruct their children in a loving yet firm way to remain true to Christ as they grow up in a world hostile to their faith. All Christians must encourage one another at all times to persevere in the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
An Encourager of Church Leaders
The New Testament indicates that Barnabas was truly a “son of encouragement” in a third manner. He was that also by interestingly being a “father of encouragement,” that is, a spiritual father to future leaders in the church and kingdom of God. This is evident from Barnabas’s special relationship to one of the church’s greatest leaders and missionaries of all time, the apostle Paul. Behind the rise of this “spiritual giant” stood another “spiritual giant.”
The story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is well known. But it is important to remember what happened to Paul after his conversion. The leaders of the early church did not trust Paul initially after his conversion, for he had been a fierce persecutor of the Christians. When Paul went to Jerusalem and tried to join the disciples, the church leaders were understandably afraid of him and wondered if he was truly one of them.
Barnabas came to Paul’s aid. Acts 9 indicates that it was Barnabas who introduced Paul to the apostles and convinced them that Paul was indeed a changed man, a genuine disciple of Christ, so that they all accepted him as a Christian brother. Thereafter Paul went back to his hometown of Tarsus for a time, while Barnabas went Antioch. After the church at Antioch had grown considerably under the ministry of Barnabas, he thought again of that capable, potential Christian leader—Paul. So Barnabas went to Tarsus, found Paul, and persuaded him to come with him to Antioch and become his coworker there. The encourager knew Paul’s abilities and was ready to use them. And this was the beginning of an important relationship between the two of them.
Soon after this, Barnabas and Paul were sent out by the church of Antioch on a missionary journey. We refer to it as Paul’s first missionary journey because it was the first of three he made. Yet we must not forget that it was Barnabas who had been his teacher and encourager. Barnabas receded into the background as Paul came to stand in the foreground.
How blessed the church was, and continues to be, to have those who discern and know how to encourage others to serve Christ with their gifts and abilities. Teachers, pastors, and others have been greatly used by God—not only in their own ministries but also by their encouragement of others—to follow them in the ministry and service of Christ and His kingdom.
An Encourager of Those Who Have Failed
We must note yet one more way in which Barnabas was truly an encourager. Barnabas was an encourager not only of those who came to serve Christ effectively but also of those who failed the Lord and His church at some point and needed to be restored to service. Barnabas gave persons like Paul not only a first chance to prove themselves but also a second chance if they did not succeed the first time.
A young man by the name of John Mark (also called simply John or Mark) was a cousin of Barnabas. He had gone along with Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey, but after a relatively short time Mark gave up and left them. He could not or would not continue the work. After Paul and Barnabas had returned to Antioch from their first missionary journey and were ready to embark on a second one, they got into an argument. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along with them again, but Paul did not (Acts 15:36–40). In fact, Barnabas and Paul disagreed so strongly over this that they parted company themselves. Paul took another companion, Silas, with him, while Barnabas took John Mark with him to work in Cyprus. Except for a few passing references, that is the last we hear of Barnabas in the New Testament. We can be sure that he remained a faithful servant of Christ to his dying day. Despite his disagreement with Paul, he and Paul no doubt remained steadfast brothers and friends.
I have always admired Barnabas for sticking up for John Mark and being willing to give him another chance. It shows again the nature of a true encourager. Just as I wonder what Paul would have become without Barnabas, I wonder what would have happened to John Mark if Barnabas, like Paul, had given up on him. As it turned out, John Mark became a faithful servant of Christ, too, who later wrote the second Gospel in the New Testament.
What we can learn from Barnabas is to be patient and encouraging with those who may fail, who may for one reason or other be unable or unwilling to continue their service. Was this quality not true of our Lord Jesus Himself? He did not give up on His servants who had failed Him. Think of Peter who had denied Him. Yet Christ restored Peter to his office as an apostle. How wonderful is the encouragement of our Savior for all of us sinners who have failed Him. Christ is still willing to receive us, renew us, and reuse us for His service. Barnabas reflected Him Who is the supreme Son of Encouragement, our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us strive to be such sons and daughters of encouragement as well.
Rev. James Admiraal is a retired pastor in the URCNA. He served most recently as pastor of Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI. He also served for several years on the board of Reformed Fellowship.