Children of Encouragement
We know the name Barnabas. We know he traveled with Paul—was one of his trusted companions on some of his missionary journeys. What else do we know about him? Where did he come from? What does his name mean?
We first meet Barnabas in the fourth chapter of Acts. Luke is describing the communal living arrangements of the early Christians. We should say here that they probably didn’t live together. Remember, the church started on Pentecost with 120 or so members. By the end of the day there were about 3,000 new converts. From then on, Luke tells us, new members were being added daily. While we know at least some of these new believers left Jerusalem at the end of the holiday celebration, most of them remained behind. If they were living together, where would they have stayed? There wouldn’t be a building in Jerusalem big enough to hold them except the Temple. They might worship there, but they couldn’t live there.
We do know they came together regularly for worship and for fellowship. We also know they held everything in common, even selling property to help provide for those too poor or too infirm to support themselves. It’s this activity—selling property for the relief of the poor—that first brings Barnabas to our attention.
His given name was Joseph, and he was from Cyprus. He was a Levite. That made him a member of the priestly class. Remember, Levi’s sons, beginning with Aaron, were set apart by God for the care of the tabernacle. It was their task—and their honor—to serve before the Lord, first in the tabernacle and later in the Temple. They did not have an inheritance with the twelve tribes of Israel; rather, they were set apart for holy work.
We’re introduced to Joseph, and then told immediately that he was called Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.” He is used as an example of those who sold property and laid the money at the feet of the apostles. Like many of the new believers, he thought first of the needs of others and not of his own.
Luke mentions Barnabas’ good deeds twice more in the early chapters of Acts. In chapter 9:26-27 we read of Paul’s return to Jerusalem after his conversion and his early preaching. The Jerusalem church wants nothing to do with him, remembering how he persecuted them. The apostles are both skeptical and afraid. Barnabas intervenes. He brings Paul into the gathering of believers, puts an arm around his shoulders (at least figuratively), and tells the story of Paul’s conversion. It is Barnabas who is responsible for Paul’s acceptance into the fellowship of believers.
In Acts 11:19-27 we read of the early days of the church in Antioch. Christian visitors to the city are preaching Jesus Christ to the Jews there. Others preach to the Hellenists (Greeks). The Jerusalem church is concerned about this mixing of Jews and Gentiles, so they send Barnabas to review the situation. He believes that everything is working well, and encourages the new believers—but that’s not all. He travels to Tarsus, where Paul is living, and brings him back to Antioch, where the two of them stay for a year.
Barnabas. Bar nabas. Son of encouragement. Bat nabas means “daughter of encouragement.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all could be children of encouragement? Barnabas was “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” What could we say about someone that would be more important? Paul might have been the better preacher, the more dynamic leader, the more impassioned writer, but where would he have been without the encouragement of Barnabas?