by Allison Martin
Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do.
I Thessalonians 5:11
History is full of unsung heroes. Men and women who, through the ages, have quietly and sometimes anonymously changed the course of history. (The inventor of the Ninja coffee bar, for example.) The same is true of Scripture. My focus today is on one of the most obscure, yet inspirational men of the Bible. If I took a poll of your favorite Bible characters, this guy probably wouldn’t make the cut. You may not know much about him, and really there’s not much to know. Except that his name means “son of encouragement”- and he lived up to it.
We all know the story of Saul’s Damascus road experience, and the great apostle he went on to become. But consider for a moment the process to get there.
Saul had been transformed, and he was passionate about his new life and calling. But I don’t think it took very long before doubt crept in, and reminders of his past came knocking. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that Paul probably attended church with family members of people he had martyred. Can you imagine preaching to a congregation, only to lock eyes with a woman whose son you murdered? Or watching kids file out for children’s church, knowing that some of them would never see their mother again… because of you? Not to mention the whispers, awkward silences, and upturned noses. Saul’s salvation was instant, but gaining the trust of the church was not. Evidence of his past was everywhere.
But between Saul becoming Paul, there was Barnabas.
Acts 9 tells us how Paul risked his life in Damascus preaching the gospel, and narrowly escaped. But when he came to join the other believers in Jerusalem, no one trusted him. Actually, they didn’t want anything to do with him. Until Barnabas stepped in. He took up Saul’s case and stood up to the church. He used his influence to build Saul up, not tear him down. He didn’t elaborate on all of Saul’s mistakes - everyone was well aware of those. Barnabas simply took the good from Saul (which was very little compared to all his wrongs), and focused their attention on that. The church took Saul in and sent him out to minister- not because they had confidence in Saul, but because Barnabas did.
Between Saul the new convert and Paul the world changer, was a man of encouragement.
And if you’ve ever read the gospel of Mark, you’ve got Barnabas to thank for that too. Acts goes on to tell us that a young John Mark went with Paul and Barnabas on a missionary journey, and presumably chickened out. Next time a missions trip comes around, who does Barnabas recruit but a washed up, shamefaced John Mark. Paul refuses to let him come along, and both men are so stubborn about their position that they split up: Paul takes Silas, and Barnabas takes John Mark. This trip changed something in John Mark. The support from Barnabas was just the boost he needed to get back in the fight. He took his second chance and ran with it. The gospel he wrote is proof that he rose to the potential that Barnabas saw in him. Later, Paul specifically requested John Mark to come work with him because he was “profitable for the ministry”. (2 Timothy 4:11)
Encouragement bridges the gap between what was and what could be. There is something powerful in the comfort that someone believes in you. Not passively, but actively. We leave so much unsaid that could change everything. Bridge builders don’t just think encouragement; they speak it and live it.
Can’t you just hear Barnabas as he reassures a discouraged Saul, or embarrassed John Mark? “You’re not there yet, but look how far you’ve come. You have a past, but that’s not who you are anymore. So you stumbled? Get up and try again. You have too many amazing things ahead of you to stop right here.”
The Bible sums up the character of Barnabas like this: “For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith”. (Acts 11:24) That’s really all it takes. A heart full of God’s Spirit, to love people where they’re at. And a heart full of faith, to see what they could become.
The Spirit that filled the heart of Barnabas is desperately needed in the church today.
So much potential lies untapped in our church pews. So many hearts could find their place in the work of God, if only there were someone to believe in them.
This is the one time when it’s good to get in the middle. Not of people’s business, but in their story. Between what was and what could be. Take a good, hard look at your church and its people. Then ask God for a heart like Barnabas, and look again. You just might have missed something.