The apostle Paul charged through the open door to reach the gentiles, but God used Barnabas to open it! Why was Barnabas called the "son of encouragement"?
The apostle Barnabas bent over the bloodied body, perplexed and distressed. At the first moan and stir of what had appeared to be a corpse, the little coterie of Christians gasped in disbelief. Then the short, stocky torso turned. Paul slowly sat up among the blood-stained stones. An ecstatic Barnabas helped Paul to his feet. Paul had survived a stoning! Astonished, the group heard Paul announce he was all right, and watched him turn back toward the city again (Acts 14:19-20)! Such was the character of the man God chose to get the Gospel to the uttermost parts of the known gentile world. But what of the character of his relieved and grateful partner? What was the role of Barnabas in the Work at that time? What value does his example hold for us today? Some may be surprised to learn that Barnabas was the major human instrument God used to employ Paul in the ministry, and to get the gentile Work off the ground.
Barnabas's unique qualities
Barnabas was genuinely humble. He was able to see the good in others. Because of this, he became a prime factor in the growth of the early Church. Cultivation of his qualities in our lives can enhance our impact as Christians today. Scripture makes some unusual statements about Barnabas. One concerns the special name he was given by Church leaders — a name that seems to have characterized his ministry. In the early weeks of the fledgling Church, the wealthier converts sold real estate and other possessions to share with the more needy brethren. Curiously, the only person named as an example of this generosity was a certain Joses. We are told that he "was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement)" (Acts 4:36). The use of this name Encourage men! is significant. The Greek word has also been translated "consolation" or "comfort." John 14:26 uses a slightly different form of the Greek: "But the Comforter, which is the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things" (Authorized Version). The name Barnabas, then, has essentially the same meaning as the word Jesus used to describe the presence of the Holy Spirit. The personification of encouragement as the "father" of Barnabas is also significant. He must have manifested this trait in an outstanding way. This unique individual was a warm and encouraging person. He was positive and uplifting. He was able to see the best in people — to overlook the differences that could produce personal prejudice. This very virtue was used to open the possibility of membership in the early Church to converts of all nations.
Reaching the gentiles
Jesus Christ had shown His intent, just before His ascension to heaven, to ultimately reach all nations with the Gospel of the coming Kingdom of God (Matthew 28:19-20). After He provided His Church with sufficient human and material resources to evangelize foreign lands, Christ had a major hurdle to overcome. Many Jews were prejudiced against non-Israelites. Many felt superior, being the chosen of God, and harbored bias that would have weakened their willingness to reach out to gentiles. God revealed first through the leading apostle, Peter, His will for the gentiles, through the incident of the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10). Yet the Jews were still hesitant to admit that God must be dealing with gentiles (verse 28). There was some plain foot-dragging going on. Whom would God use to get things going in the Work to the gentiles?
Saul of Tarsus had been public enemy No. 1 to the Christians. He led a gestapo-like group of Jewish zealots on a crusade to completely eradicate the Christians (Acts 8:1). While on his way to Damascus, Saul was struck blind and brought to repentance by Christ Himself (Acts 9:1-22). Jesus made it clear He had chosen Saul to "bear My name before Gentiles" (verse 15). After a narrow escape from would-be assassins at Damascus, Saul went to Jerusalem to join himself to the Christians there. But his reputation as their chief tormentor kept him on the outside looking in (verse 26). God began to use a certain man to champion the cause of suspect Saul. Barnabas had perhaps believed Saul's story, perceiving in him the Holy Spirit. Or he had heard of his conversion and powerful preaching in Damascus. He was able to put aside fear and bias to see the good in Saul. Barnabas stuck his neck out to help Saul win acceptance from the apostles (verse 27). But Saul's time had not yet come. After more threats on his life, Saul was sent home to Tarsus. God let a number of years go by while He further prepared His Church for the entrance of the gentiles. Growth continued, but no real effort was made to take the Gospel to gentile lands. Something did finally happen far up the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, in a gentile city called Antioch. When the Church was scattered after the initial severe persecution, some of the believers journeyed as far as Antioch and took up residence in various gentile cities. These brethren witnessed to Jews only, until certain ones of them preached to some Greeks. God backed up their effort, and "a great number believed" (Acts 11:19-21). When the Church leaders at headquarters in Jerusalem heard this news, they decided to investigate, and selected Barnabas for the trip (verse 22). Barnabas arrived at Antioch and found that the Work of God among the Greeks was genuine. Being the positive, warm fellow he was, Barnabas was delighted. He "encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord" (verse 23). Unhampered by pride and preconceived notions, he could see the potential for good in gentiles. Barnabas lived up to his name, welcoming the new converts. Another unusual statement is found in the following verse. Luke was so impressed with Barnabas that when he compiled the book of Acts, he stated, under inspiration, "For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith" (verse 24). Barnabas was filled with the Holy Spirit, known also as the Comforter, which his name meant. He literally stands out for his special ability to see the good in others and encourage them. Acts 11:24 ends with, "And a great many people were added to the Lord." The growth was so rapid that Barnabas realized he was overextended. Assistance was needed to properly pastor the new brethren and allow additional growth. Barnabas was about to make a second major move that would ensure the great impact of Saul of Tarsus on the future of gentile Christians. Remembering what had been predicted about Saul, Barnabas realized that now was the time, and that Antioch was the place, to activate Saul's ministry. So, "Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul" (verse 25). Together they returned to Antioch, staying there for a year. Saul probably acted as a kind of associate pastor, subject to the leadership of Barnabas. When the two are mentioned together, Barnabas is named first (verse 30). Meanwhile, "The word of God grew and multiplied" (Acts 12:24). By the time chapter 13 opens, we find five ministers operating out of Antioch. God's time had come to expand the Work into other parts of the world. While the ministry there was fasting and praying about this matter, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit made it plain that God had set apart Barnabas and Saul for a special mission (Acts 13:2-3). A new phase of the preaching of the Gospel was about to unfold. The pair took along young John Mark and set sail for Cyprus, Barnabas' home country. It is ironic that a major change in the roles of Barnabas and Saul occurred on this very island. They preached the Word at Salamis on the eastern end, then crossed the entire island to the city of Paphos (verses 4-6). Here, the party encountered Elymas the sorcerer. It was through a confrontation with this false prophet that assistant Saul became leader Paul.
Paul emerges as leader
Elymas withstood the efforts of the missionaries to preach the word to an interested deputy of the country. "Then Saul, who also is called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, 'O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?'" (verses 9-10). Paul, perhaps remembering the impact of his own bout with blindness on the road to Damascus, used God's power to smite Elymas with blindness. On this occasion he stood out as a dynamic spokesman. But consider Barnabas' position. He had been in charge over Paul. He had championed the cause of Saul and helped him into the fellowship of the Church. He was the one who dug Saul out of the woodwork at Tarsus and reactivated him. He was the pastor at Antioch. He was the leader of this evangelical tour. What if Barnabas had dwelt on all these things? Barnabas had to decide there at Paphos whether to humble himself and submit to God's greater purpose. All we know is that verse 13 simply records, "Now when Paul and his party set sail from Paphos, they came to Perga." Previously it had always been "Barnabas and Saul." Now it was "Paul and his party." Paul was the leader. The entire focus of the rest of the book of Acts is on Paul. But let's focus on the example of Barnabas. Perhaps he was willing to admit that Paul had certain characteristics that were better suited for the job at hand. Barnabas was a warm and encouraging sort, which is a necessary quality of leadership. But he may have been of such a temperament that he tried to avoid confrontations. On the other hand, Paul was like a seething volcano, always ready to erupt with powerful, convicting preaching or debate, and never backing down from a battle. Perhaps Barnabas realized this once and for all at Lystra, the city on that first missionary tour where Paul was stoned. Watching beleaguered Paul struggle to his feet and head right back into the city may have convinced Barnabas of the unique qualities Paul possessed. At least it is safe to say that he had a similar attitude to that of John the Baptist. Submitting to the new leadership of Jesus Christ, John said, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). Barnabas practiced what Paul later preached: "Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself' (Philippians 2:3).
Are you like Barnabas?
What about you? Are you content to play second fiddle while someone else blows the trumpet? Or do you smart under emotional wounds when someone else is promoted, feeling you are more qualified or deserving? Do you feel overlooked and mistreated? Barnabas' humility is also seen in his freedom from feelings of prejudice. Had he been biased, perhaps Paul would not have gotten anywhere with those at Jerusalem. Barnabas was willing to welcome into the Church brethren of other nationalities and cultures. He didn't let petty differences keep him from serving God's people. What bias is still in your thinking that may be keeping God from using you to a greater extent? Do you pray for God's Work in other countries? Do you warm up to those of other races? Would God have been able to send you to Antioch to serve the needs of new brethren of other cultures? God is no respecter of persons (Romans 2:11). Barnabas manifested this same attitude by seeing the good in people. He dwelt on positives. He saw potential for the future. Exactly how much he had to do with Paul's development, and therefore with the growth of the gentile Work, we don't know at this time. We do know enough that we can benefit from his sterling example. What else, after all, would you expect from a man called the Son of Encouragement?