One type of mentoring role that is often overlooked is that of Barnabas. Joseph was his real name. Barnabas was his nickname. He was given that nickname because Barnabas means “son of encouragement”.
Barnabas was drawn to people he could encourage. Barnabas was one of the first to sell his possessions to help the poorer Christians of Jerusalem. (See Acts 4:36-37.) When Paul arrived in Jerusalem for the first time following his conversion, the local Christians were understandably reluctant to welcome him. After all, Paul had sought to kill Christians before his own conversion. Consequently, no one trusted his story. Only Barnabas proved willing to risk his life to meet with Paul and then convince the others that their former enemy was now a vibrant believer in Jesus. What would have happened if Barnabas had not encouraged Paul and introduced him to the apostles in Jerusalem? (See Acts 9:27.) Christianity may never have spread throughout the Roman Empire as it did or become a worldwide movement.
Barnabas was also an encourager to the Church in Antioch. He brought Paul to that Church to be a teacher there. (See Acts 11:23-26.) It was Barnabas who encouraged John Mark to accompany Paul and himself on their first missionary journey. However, in the middle of the trip, Mark deserted them. In spite of this, Barnabas later wanted to invite Mark to join himself and Paul on their second journey. He wanted to give his cousin a second chance. But Paul saw things differently. He did not want to take a chance on Mark. As a result, Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways. However, Barnabas’ patient encouragement was confirmed by Mark’s eventual effective ministry. So much so that Paul could even write at the end of his own life: “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” If it weren’t for Barnabas’ sustained encouragement of Mark, we might not have the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament, or the Gospels of Matthew and Luke which were based, in part, on this earliest Gospel.
Thanks be to God, there are many “Barnabases” in the Church of Jesus Christ. Dr. Larry Crabb recalls an incident in the church he attended as a young man. It was customary in this church that young men were encouraged to participate in the communion services by praying out loud. Feeling the pressure of expectation, young Larry (who had a problem with stuttering) stood to pray. In a terribly confused prayer, he later recalled “thanking the Father for hanging on the cross and praising Christ for triumphantly bringing the Spirit from the grave.” When Larry finished, he vowed he would never again speak or pray out loud in front of a group.
At the end of the service, not wanting to meet any of the church elders who might feel compelled to correct his theology, Larry made a beeline for the door. But before he could exit the building, an older man named Jim Dunbar caught him by the sleeve.
Having prepared himself for the anticipated correction, Larry was surprised to hear these words: “Larry, there’s one thing I want you to know. Whatever you do for the Lord, I’m behind you one thousand percent.”
Larry Crabb later reflected in one of his books: “Even as I write these words, my eyes fill with tears. I have yet to tell that story to an audience without at least mildly choking. Those words were life words. They had power. They reached deep into my being.”
That’s the power of the encourager, the one who comes alongside, the Barnabas.
Is there someone to whom you could be a “Barnabas” this week?
Will Vaus (M.Div., Princeton Seminary) is the author of several books including Mere Theology: A Guide to the Thought of C.S. Lewis and Keys to Growth: Meditations on the Acts of the Apostles.