Barnabas does not have the biggest part to play in the unfolding story of the spread of the gospel, but everyone notices him and everyone loves him. We first come across him in Acts 4, when he sells a field he owns and donates the money to the church. We learn that he is a Levite whose real name is Joseph, but he has earned the nickname “Barnabas” because it means “Son of Encouragement”. Everybody – but everybody – needs encouragement, and it turns out that Barnabas is not only generous but also trusting and kind.
He is the one man willing to take a chance on Paul after his spectacular conversion (“Saul” and “Paul” are the same person – he changed his name from Saul to Paul to show he had been born again), a courageous act that showed he had good judgment and wise insight. “Full of the Holy Spirit and faith”, our passage says. Barnabas’ faith and Holy Spirit discernment was evident in his trusting Paul, and also in his enthusiastic willingness to accept Gentiles into the faith community when he saw for himself the evidence of God’s grace in their lives. As a Levite, he had been raised in the heartland of Jewish tradition, but his interest was not in preserving ritualized external forms of religion but in rising to the challenge of the new thing God was doing.
Ever since the book of Acts was written, Christians have been recognizing a wonderful role model in Barnabas. He was not rash – in each case we see him going to take a look for himself before making up his mind; he did not rely on hearsay – but he was trusting and optimistic, kind and full of faith. He had the lovely gift of being happy for other people.
When you think about the modern-day church, do any circumstances come to mind that are similar to those in our passages? Can you think of any people traditionally beyond the pale in whose lives God’s grace can be seen – individuals or groups – who could do with a Barnabas to help them get past prejudice and suspicion in the church?
Have you had cause to give thanks for a Barnabas in your own life? If you had a Barnabas Award to hand out in your church, to whom would you give it?
Barnabas took a chance on Paul when everyone else hesitated, and he welcomed in the Gentiles when no one had imagined they’d ever be part of the Jesus Movement. If you were asked to offer the hand of friendship to someone everybody considered seriously dodgy, how would you make up your mind what to do?
O God of hope and love and kindness, we thank you so much for the Barnabas people in our lives – the ones who have encouraged and welcomed and accepted us when we were newcomers and strangers. Give us grace to develop in our own lives this lovely ministry of trust and acceptance, healing old wounds of rejection and helping the community to grow. For we ask it in Jesus’ holy name; Amen.