Would you like a nickname like that? The powerful biblical example of Barnabas shows us what it means to stand beside your brothers and sisters.
Imagine being so well known for comforting and encouraging the people around you that people stop referring to you by name, choosing instead to call you by a nickname. Suppose that nickname becomes so common that some people who hear about you don’t even know your real name!
That’s exactly what happened to Joses, an influential leader of the early Church.
Luke, the author of Acts, introduces us to this Levite from Cyprus at the end of the fourth chapter, explaining that Joses was also known as Barnabas (verses 36-37). Depending on the Bible translation you read, Barnabas is defined as “son of encouragement,” “son of consolation” or “son of exhortation.”
Luke never again refers to this individual as Joses, but calls him Barnabas 23 more times. The apostle Paul refers to Barnabas five times in his epistles, but never once by his real name.
Called to one’s side
Barnabas did not earn this nickname with a few pats on the back or “attaboys.” What he did was far more significant, as suggested by the Greek word translated “encouragement.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary defines paraklesis as “a calling to one’s side.” The word is closely related to parakletos, which is used in the New Testament only to describe the Holy Spirit as the “Comforter.” In a legal setting, according to Vine’s, the parakletos was “a legal assistant, counsel for the defense, an advocate.”
If we want to be more like Barnabas, we will also be faced with choices about how we view our brothers and sisters. In essence, Barnabas was known not for just offering a few words of encouragement or comfort, but for standing beside people in their trials. He was not emotionally detached from them, but joined with them in their troubles. It is altogether fitting that we first hear of this man selling a parcel of land so the money could be distributed among people in need.
Several incidents in the book of Acts demonstrate Barnabas as an advocate, defending someone who was not trusted, or who had fallen out of favor.
Standing up for John Mark
Surprisingly, this characteristic of Barnabas actually resulted in his separation from Paul at the beginning of what we now know as Paul’s second missionary journey. Barnabas wanted to take “John called Mark,” but Paul was against the idea of asking someone who had left them during their first journey (Acts 15:36-38, 39-41).
Today we do not know the reason John Mark “departed from them … and had not gone with them to the work” (verse 38) during that first journey. Whether or not John Mark had good reasons to leave, Paul did not want the young man along on his second journey. Barnabas did. His support of John Mark was so passionate that Barnabas refused to acquiesce to Paul, who also refused to yield to Barnabas. Their “contention became so sharp that they parted from one another” (verse 39).
As it turns out, Barnabas recognized the potential of this young man, whom most scholars believe authored the Gospel of Mark. Not only that, but John Mark eventually proved himself worthy to Paul, who mentions him as a companion and coworker three times in his letters (Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 1:24).
When Paul was feared and mistrusted
Earlier Paul himself had been the beneficiary of such support from Barnabas. The early Church did not trust Paul (also known as Saul), who had vigorously persecuted early Christians. The first incident mentioned was the stoning of Stephen. When this occurred, “the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58).
The very next chapter tells us that Saul “made havoc of the church” (8:3), which scattered throughout the region. In his zeal, Saul volunteered to travel to Damascus to arrest “any who were of the Way” (9:2) and to bring them back to Jerusalem for trial. Ironically, it was on this journey that Saul became a Christian.
It’s no wonder, then, that when Saul returned to Jerusalem, the disciples there “were all afraid of him” (9:26). They did not trust him. They believed his claim of conversion was merely a ruse that would make it possible for him to capture more believers.
Then Barnabas stepped in. Taking Saul before the apostles and presenting evidence of his conversion, Barnabas acted as an advocate. He stood by Saul when no one else believed or trusted him. He saw the potential in Saul, as he later saw the potential in John Mark.
Barnabas acted on Paul’s behalf a second time. When the church at Jerusalem heard that a great number of gentiles in Antioch had “turned to the Lord” (11:21), the church sent Barnabas there to teach. After his initial visit, Barnabas traveled on to Tarsus, searching for Saul and recruiting him to assist in this work. Together they returned to Antioch, where they spent an entire year teaching (verses 25-26).
Seeing beyond the trial
In all of these examples, Barnabas did far more than offer a few choice words of encouragement while maintaining a comfortable distance from the problems of other Christians. So how did he become such an effective comforter?
To stand beside someone, we must be prepared to share the burden and to endure the struggle with that person. He looked beyond the immediate situation, evaluating not only the problem, but the needs of the people facing those trials. In John Mark’s case, Barnabas looked beyond the mistakes of a young man. Instead, he considered the potential benefits of giving John Mark another chance to serve. John Mark benefitted, gaining valuable experience while traveling on a second missionary journey with Barnabas, but the Church also benefitted.
In Paul’s case, Barnabas set aside any fears and distrust, focusing instead on the preaching Paul had done in the synagogues of Damascus before arriving in Jerusalem. Barnabas was not ignorant of Paul’s history, but he chose to believe that Paul had changed.
If we want to be more like Barnabas, we will also be faced with choices about how we view our brothers and sisters. If we want to be advocates, standing beside them, we must first believe in them. We must believe in their value before God, and we must choose to consider their future rather than dwell on sins and mistakes of the past.
In addressing the church at Corinth, Paul described this very trait. Love, he wrote, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
To stand beside someone, we must be prepared to share the burden and to endure the struggle with that person. We must believe in the person, and we must hope for the best, always realizing that love entails risk.
When we do all this, we will be the kind of comforter Barnabas was.