Many of us were given nicknames by siblings or friends when we were young, most of which were not complimentary. “Bucky” comes to mind from my pre-orthodontic days. We still tend to identify people by their flaws or failures, but not always. You will find the remarkable story of a man in the Bible whose name was changed by the leaders of the first church. His given name was Joseph. The church called him Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.” We don’t know what led to his new name, but I will tell you what anyone who is a leader already knows: encouragers are rare jewels. They are grease to the wheels. Salve to the wounds. When the right fielder boots a fly ball and lets three runs come in, “Barnabas” is the one who meets him halfway to the dugout, puts his arm around his shoulder, and says, “Hey man, forget about it. You’ll get the next one.” Then the rest of us clowns on the bench who are not even close to being nicknamed Barnabas are shamed into saying, “Yeah, forget about it. No big deal,” as we grind our teeth and pound our gloves. I thank God for sons and daughters of encouragement. They are in the top 10 of the best Christmas gifts a church could ever receive. Let me tell you why.
Barnabas was not just a nice guy who had a good personality and said kind things to people. He had an incredible ministry that helped two men become powerful leaders and influencers in the church. He is the one who welcomed Saul when no one else in the church in Jerusalem wanted to have anything to do with him. Then, years later, Barnabas went to enlist Saul’s help for the growing church in Antioch. That launched the ministry of Saul of Tarsus who became known as the Apostle Paul. The old saying, “It’s amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit” clearly applies to Barnabas. He also stood up for his cousin, John Mark, after the young man had bailed on the first missionary journey. Barnabas wanted to give him another chance; Paul was having none of it. So, they went their separate ways, and I am convinced that had it not been for Barnabas, we would never have heard from John Mark again. As it turned out, Mark became the assistant to Peter, and later wrote the Gospel of Mark.
I believe God used Barnabas, the son of encouragement, to help produce two powerful leaders in the church because of these characteristics. First, he cared more about people than he did about things. Read about that in Acts 4. Second, he was fearless. Barnabas was not afraid to come alongside Saul when no one else would. He was also not afraid to disagree with Paul about John Mark. He took a risk in each case, and in each case, that risk was greatly rewarded. Fear is one of our greatest enemies.
That’s why you can be sure that almost any decision you make out of fear will be the wrong one. Third, he was humble. Barnabas didn’t mind taking a back seat. The first business card may have said, “Barnabas and Paul: Missionaries.” Just a month or so later, they had them reprinted, and Paul was named first. Hey, here’s an idea for Christmas: Look around for the sons and daughters of encouragement in your church, and tell them thanks. Even better, let’s ask the Lord to make us more like Barnabas, too.
J. Mark Fox is the author of “A Faithful Man” and the pastor of Antioch Community Church on Power Line Road in Elon. You can Tweet him @jmarkfox and can find all of Mark’s books on Amazon or other online sellers. Email Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org