The Barnabas Factor
June 3, 1990
If someone were to give you a name indicative of your personality, what would it be? What nickname or adjective would sum up who you really are?
We do that sort of thing all the time. For instance, if I mention Honest Abe, you immediately know that I am talking about Abraham Lincoln. If we are discussing the Chicago Cubs and I mention Amazing Grace, you know that I’m talking about Mark Grace. If it’s basketball and you say Air Jordan, I know you mean Michael Jordan. If it’s entertainment and someone mentions The Chairman of the Board, you immediately say “Frank Sinatra.”
And do you remember two brothers named Little Joe and Hoss? Sure you do. They were the Cartwright brothers on the TV series Bonanza. While we’re on the subject of television, can you name the series that featured a wife who was affectionately called Dingbat and a son-in-law called Meathead? It’s easy, isn’t it? The answer is All in the Family.
Sometimes the nicknames fit and sometimes they don’t. Back in the glory days of Monday Night Football there was Dandy Don Meredith and Humble Howard Cosell. One name fits, the other one doesn’t.
In the Bible names were often used in the same way. That is, a name was often given to a person in order to reveal his character, personality or destiny. For instance, Abraham means “Father of Multitudes,” Jacob means “Cheater,” Peter means “Rock,” and Nabal means “Fool.” On the distaff side, Naomi means “Pleasant” and Delilah means “Sweetheart” or “Sweetie” or (if you prefer something more modern) “Cupcake.”
He Was Named For His Spiritual Gift
I’m thinking this morning of a man who was named for his spiritual gift. Do you know who I am talking about? Let me give you a few hints. His given name was Joseph. He was from the island of Cyprus. He was a Levite. He was an early convert to the Christian faith. He was a great friend of the Apostle Paul. Do you know who he is? If not, let Dr. Luke introduce him.
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)
Joseph was his given name; his nickname was Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement.” He was named for his spiritual gift because it perfectly reflected his character.
We’ll get back to Barnabas in a little while. For the moment, let’s look at his spiritual gift. Romans 12:8 says, “If it (a person’s gift) is encouraging, let him encourage.” The Greek word is very interesting. It is parakaleo. Para is a preposition meaning “alongside of” and kaleo is a verb meaning “to call.” So parakaleo means “to call alongside of.” It has the idea of coming to the aid or assistance of someone else. In particular, it implies an ability to help someone in an area where he cannot help himself.
It’s the picture of a weary traveler stumbling down the highway with a heavy load on his shoulders. His head is low, his shoulders stooped, his knees wobbly, his feet barely moving. Each step is an agony. As you watch him, he staggers and begins to fall. You can see that he will never make it. So you rush from your place, come alongside and you lift the load from his shoulders and place it on your own. Then you put your arm around him and say, “It’s all right, my brother. I’ll help you make it.” And together you walk on down the road. That’s parakaleo. It’s coming alongside another person to help him in his moment of need.
The person who does that is called a paraclete. That’s the Greek word used in John 14:16 for the Holy Spirit and in I John 2:1 for the Lord Jesus Christ. In the first case, the word means that the Holy Spirit comes alongside to give us strength to live the Christian life. In the latter case, it means that the Lord Jesus is our Advocate who speaks up in our defense.
So this gift could be called exhortation or comfort or consolation or advocacy or encouragement. It is the divine ability to lift the load from a brother or sister and help them along the way.
There are at least two places in the New Testament where all Christians are commanded to encourage each other. I Thessalonians 5:11 says, “Therefore, encourage one another and build up one another, just as you are doing.” Hebrews 3:13 says, “But encourage one another day after day.” This work of load-lifting is something all of us are to perform for each other as we see the need and have the opportunity.
The spiritual gift simply means that some of us will have a special ability in this area. In the Spiritual Gifts Inventory, we call this gift “Exhortation” and define it this way: It is the special ability God gives to certain members of the body of Christ which enables them to come alongside another person to give encouragement, challenge, counsel or earnest advice as needed in such a way that the person is helped. That last phrase is worth pondering—”in such a way that the person is helped.” Let’s face it. There are too many people whose definition of encouragement is backing up the dump truck, pulling the lever and unloading on somebody. That’s not encouragement; it’s just dumping on people.
How To Spot This Gift
That, I think, is a key sign of this gift. When a person with the gift of encouragement spends time with you, you inevitably feel better. Even if they are counseling you about some weakness in your life, their words somehow make you stronger.
Here are a few other marks of the gifted load-lifters:
1. They genuinely like people.
2. They are strongly relational.
3. They root for the underdog.
4. They are open-minded, forgiving and tolerant.
5. They are quick to respond to human needs.
6. They are quick to give the benefit of the doubt.
7. They are usually well-liked by others.
8. They are talkative.
9. They are quick to spot spiritual potential.
10. They are good coalition-builders.
This is the “How-to” gift. People who have it are hands-on, practical types. They don’t like a lot of theory and get bored with doctrinal discussions that have nothing to do with real life.
This is also the “Counseling” gift. People who have it enjoy spending hours helping other people work through their problems.
It is also the “Cheerleading” gift. People who have it love to shout encouragement to those on the field—”You can do it. We’re behind you all the way. Don’t quit now.” Encouragers are often good leaders, but they don’t feel like they have to lead. They are just as happy to cheer on someone else.
Thank God for the men and women who encourage the rest of us. What a sad and dreary world it would be without them. They light the way and lift us up when we fall down. Many of us would have quit long ago if someone hadn’t encouraged us to keep on going.
Exhibit A: Barnabas
In all the Bible there is no better example of this gift in action than Barnabas. He is “exhibit A” of the gift of encouragement.
The biggest part of his story is told in the book of Acts. In fact, there are seven different occasions when he used this spiritual gift and proved himself to be a true “Son of Encouragement.” For our purposes this morn-ing, we are only going to focus on one of those seven examples.
He Sponsored An Unpopular Convert
This particular part of his story is found in Acts 9, the story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. It begins like this:
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. (He is in Jerusalem where he has been hunting down converts to Christianity and putting them in jail. Now he wants to take his diabolical crusade to Damascus and attack the church there.) He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way (an early name for Christianity), whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:1-6)
This is the most amazing conversion in the history of the Christian church. In the beginning, Saul is bent on murdering the followers of Jesus. By the end, he has become a missionary of the gospel of Christ. First he would kill them, then he became one of them, then his former friends wanted to kill him.
The next few verses detail how a reluctant Ananias began to disciple this new convert. He must have done a good job because verse 20 tells us that “At once he (Saul) began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.” Not surprisingly his former colleagues were first astonished, then baffled, then angered, then enraged. How could Saul dare to go over to the other side?
After many days had gone by, the Jews set out to kill him. But Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers (the Christians he had formerly sworn to kill) took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall. (Acts 9:23-25)
So he leaves Damascus to return to Jerusalem. The last time he was there he rampaged through the city, dragging believers out of their homes and putting them in prison. Now he returns, a follower of the same Way he had once tried to destroy.
There is only one catch. The Christians in Jerusalem know nothing about his conversion. They haven’t heard a word about it. To them, Saul is still Public Enemy # 1. They remember what he did and they have been praying he would never come back.
But he does. Verse 26 tells us what happens then. “When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was really a disciple.” And who could blame them? After all, what better way to destroy the church than to fake a conversion, infiltrate the ranks, gain the trust of the leadership, and then put them all in the jail. It’s exactly the kind of nefarious plan the old Saul would have dreamed up.
So they don’t want anything to do with this so-called convert. He has a reputation. He has a dirty past. Not that long ago he was trying to kill them. Now he claims to be converted. The Christians in Jerusalem smelled a rat. They would just as soon he be de-converted and leave them alone.
At precisely that moment Barnabas enters the scene. Verse 27 tells the story:
But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly the name of Jesus.
This was a risky step to take. After all, what if Barnabas is wrong about Saul? If he is wrong, hundreds of innocent people will die. So you ask yourself, did Barnabas know how Saul would turn out? No. Did he have any inkling that he would someday write 13 books of the New Testament? No. Did he know that he would preach the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome? No. For that matter, was he totally, 100% sure about Saul’s conversion? No. But he had a hunch, a conviction based on solid evidence. And he acted on what he believed to be true.
You see, the early church looked at Saul and saw a problem; Barnabas looked at him and saw incredible potential. The early church looked at him and saw his past; Barnabas saw his future. The early church saw what he had been; Barnabas saw what he could be.
That’s what encouragers do. They see potential, they look to the future, they focus on what people might become given time and the power of the Holy Spirit.
You can see in Barnabas several of the characteristics we talked about earlier. He was quick to respond to a human need; he was quick to give Saul the benefit of the doubt; he was quick to spot spiritual potential. And most importantly, he spoke up in Saul’s favor when the early church wanted nothing to do with him.
Dirt On The Welcome Mat
Things haven’t changed all that much in 2,000 years. All too often new people come into our churches and feel unloved and unwelcome. They come in and look around and wonder why no one comes up and says hello; they come in and wonder why people seem to be looking at them funny; they come in and we stand off to the side and say, “Hmmm, I wonder where they came from?”
We’re just like the early church. We’re happy to see new people as long as they pose no threat to us. And we especially like new people who look like us, talk like us, dress like us, and act like us. We like people who are polite enough to come to church with the same skin color we have. And if they have our socioeconomic back-ground (a fancy word for social class), all the better.
But pity the poor fellow who comes from a different part of the world. Maybe he’s not the right color or maybe he doesn’t talk like we do or maybe he wasn’t raised in church like we were. That fellow’s going to have a hard time in most of our churches.
Not that he’s not welcome. He is, in a sense. Not that we won’t let him come. We will. But we won’t embrace him like we embrace someone who comes from an “approved” background. We’ll make him stand off by himself, we’ll watch him for awhile, we’ll make him prove himself before he can be accepted.
When new folks come in to the church, they bring three specific pieces of baggage with them:
1. They are untaught. They don’t know our language. They’ve never heard of an Invocation or of Premillennialism. They don’t know what a narthex is. And they think Haggai is another name for Psoriasis.
2. They are unpolished. We do so many things that seem strange to them. In our services, we stand up, sit down and stand up again. They come to church in blue jeans because nobody told them you have to dress up on Sunday morning. If they happen to come when we serve the Lord’s Supper, they are scared to death. They can’t figure out what to do with that little shot glass full of grape juice.
3. They often have offensive habits. They smoke and they drink and sometimes they swear right in public. They listen to raunchy music and they drink beer and sometimes they argue about the Bible instead of just believing it’s true like the rest of us do. They aren’t always the easiest people to deal with because their lives are so messed up.
So it’s no surprise that new people often don’t feel welcome. Frankly, we would be happy if some of them would go somewhere else or at least clean up their act before they come to our church.
Barney, Where Are You?
Thank goodness, Barnabas never felt that way or we might not have half the New Testament. Do you realize what he accomplished? Although he never wrote a word of Scripture (so far as we know), he was responsible for over half the New Testament. Think of it this way. The two people he influenced the most were Saul of Tarsus (later called Paul) and John Mark. Paul wrote 13 books of the New Testament and John Mark went on to write the gospel which bears his name. That’s 14 out of 27 books. Not a bad record for a man most people would consider a “minor” Bible character
How we need his kind today. Would that we had a whole raft of modern-day Barnabases who could encourage the unloved and unlovely among us. He was the “Apostle of the Second Chance.” We could use a lot more like him because the people of the world need a whole lot of encouragement when they first come into the church.
Two key qualities shine out from his life like beacons piercing the midnight darkness:
1. He insisted on believing the best about people.
2. He never held a person’s past against him.
His slogan was, “No man need stay the way he is.”
People Become What We Think Them To Be
A while back I ran across this statement: “If you treat a man as he is, he will stay as he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to become and could be, he will become that bigger and better man.” That strikes me as an entirely true statement. People tend to become what we think them to be. They either live up to or down to our expectations.
If you treat a man as trustworthy, he will strive to prove himself worthy of your trust. If you treat a man like a friend, he will become friendly to you. If you say to a child, “You can do it,” pretty soon he’ll start to believe it. If you tell a women she is beautiful, she will be transformed before your eyes. If you treat a friend as if he were an enemy, before long that’s exactly what he will be. And it is a fairly well established fact that if you regard a man as a criminal, he will prove it by robbing you blind.
I repeat. People tend to become what we think them to be.
AIDS: 20th Century Leprosy
That brings me at last to the subject of AIDS. As you know, today is AIDS Education Sunday at Calvary. A lot of us aren’t comfortable with the topic. We would rather not hear about it on Sunday morning. And many of us are afraid of what might happen if people with AIDS start coming to church. We’re afraid of what they might do, we’re afraid of what they might say, we’re afraid we might catch the disease somehow or that, God forbid, our kids might catch it somehow. And just below the surface lurks the fear that people with AIDS might somehow contaminate our pure congregation.
There is a risk involved. There is always a risk when you start ministering to people who don’t fit into our pre-approved categories. Sometimes things happen we wish wouldn’t happen. The only way to avoid that is to start checking I.D.s at the door, wrap the church in cellophane and take down the sign in front that calls us “A Friendly Evangelical Church.”
Once There Was A Man With AIDS
Didn’t Jesus tell a story about all this? You remember it, don’t you? Something about a man who had AIDS who was suffering alone because no one would visit him. A certain pastor came along—a graduate of Moody Bible Institute—took out his red Bible, waved it under the man’s nose and said, “You’re just getting what you deserve, buddy!”, and went on his way whistling “Every Day With Jesus Is Sweeter Than The Day Before.” A few minutes later an old friend came along. This old friend had graduated from Wheaton College. But when he saw the man with AIDS, he stayed on the other side of the street so he wouldn’t get too close to him. The man with AIDS called out to his old friend, but he pretended not to hear him. Finally a Mormon came along and saw this poor man crying by himself. He stopped and talked with him and put his arm around him. He said, “Come with me” and off they went. The Mormon gave the man with AIDS his phone number so he could call him anytime.
Jesus said, “Which of these was brother to the man with AIDS?” The answer is, it was the Mormon who showed him compassion. Then Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
We are just like those two religious fellows. We know all the right answers and we have all the right theology. But when we see someone with AIDS, we don’t want to get involved.
Here’s the truth. When people with AIDS come to Calvary, all we see are the problems. We see the past, the kind of life they’ve been living, where they’ve been sleeping, what kind of people they’ve been hanging out with.
Not Jesus. When he looks down from heaven, he doesn’t see the problem. He sees the potential. He doesn’t see their past; he sees their future. He doesn’t see what they have been; he sees what they could be.
That leads me to ask a question. When someone with AIDS visits Calvary, we know he has a past. Does he have a future as well?
If we answer no, we’re not really a Christian church at all.
The More You Give, The More You Receive
I close by mentioning the most encouraging fact I know about the ministry of encouragement: The more you encourage others, the more you are encouraged. The more you give, the more you receive.
By helping others, you help yourself.
By strengthening others, you are strengthened.
By lifting someone else’s load, your own load becomes lighter.
Like the miracle of the loaves and fish, the more you give, the more you have. By giving encouragement to a fellow traveler, the spigot of God’s blessings is opened to you. So far from running out, before long you are running over with God’s blessings.
Encouragement is not something that perishes in the using. The way to get more is to use what you’ve got. It increases by giving it away.
So it is in the kingdom of God, that the way up is down, the way to become great is to become a servant, the way to life is by dying to self and the way to have more is to give away what you have. He who would find his life must lose it for Jesus’ sake. And the road to the kingdom goes by way of the cross.