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The Barnabas Factor

We can reap great rewards for God and his kingdom by acting as encouragers, like Barnabas did.


Life is difficult. Most of us know this only too well. There are few who skate by on good looks and a large trust fund. It is a given that broken people (which we all are) living in an imperfect world (which this is) will face headaches, heart aches, and hassles throughout the course of their life. Sin is an attractive option. We are likely to sell ourselves short. We are likely to step back when we should charge forward.

Because of that, I submit to you that it is imperative that we encourage one another to love and good deeds. It is imperative that we come alongside each other and comfort and console and challenge and applaud and urge forward—that we encourage people to do the right thing. How do we do this?

Barnabus was a man of encouragement.

In answer to that question, I turn to a relatively minor player in the New Testament—a man by the name of Joseph. He's a Jewish Cyprian who, while he doesn't get a lot of ink in the Book of Acts, does deserve to get some attention when we talk about encouragement. In the Book of Acts, Joseph goes by the name Barnabas and is first mentioned in Acts 4 as one of those who sold a piece of land and gave the money to the apostles to give to the poor. He shows up next in Antioch as someone who gets a very tough assignment.

Up until this moment in the gospel narrative, we are standing right at the tipping point when the Good News of Jesus Christ has been reserved exclusively for the Jews. Now Christianity is jumping the tracks. There is an outbreak of Gentiles coming to faith, and the apostles don't know what to do with it. They send Barnabas to go to Antioch to figure this out. Barnabas will then go down about 100 miles to Tarsus to get Saul.

Barnabas' move to pull Saul into the action is a bold and significant one. Up until this point, Saul has been on the ministry bench. Remember, Saul had made a name for himself by persecuting Christians. He has had this dramatic conversion experience, but more than a few thought he was lying. Most thought claiming conversion was just Saul's way of infiltrating "The Way." And so Paul, after his conversion, was treated like kryptonite for a while until Barnabas, who has a revival on his hands, looks around and says: You know who I need? I need to go get Saul.

Barnabas, spotting potential that nobody else can apparently see, pulls Saul into the game. And then, because Paul turns out to be so good in his new role, Barnabas quickly steps into Paul's shadow and lets him lead.

Barnabas will show up later as one of the first two missionaries—Paul and Barnabas. It will always be that way—Paul and Barnabas were sent out together, but Paul is always mentioned first. Barnabas started out as the leader, but he goes and gets Paul, and then, apparently pretty quickly, he seems content to step back and to be in the shadows. He takes his joy not from being the leader, but in seeing other people use their gifts.

It is certainly worth noting that Barnabas is not a quiet and retiring guy. One of the things we see next about Barnabas is that he and Paul have a falling out. Paul and Barnabas are about to go on their second mission venture. Barnabas wants to bring John Mark, who later goes simply by Mark and ends up writing the Gospel of Mark. Mark washed out on their first venture. When it comes time for a second trip, Barnabas wants to give him a second chance, but Paul says no.

Paul and Barnabas part company over the issue. Obviously, given Mark's later contributions, Barnabas was right and Paul was wrong. And I think the fact that Barnabas stood up to Paul, who is not a timid guy, shows that Barnabas doesn't step into the shadows because he is weak, but rather, because he takes real joy in the success of others.

Now we know from an account in Galatians 2 that Barnabas wasn't perfect. There are no perfect people in the Bible, except Jesus. We get the true story about people in the Bible, including Barnabas—faults and all. Barnabas sides with Peter against Paul over the issue of Gentile circumcision. In this case, Barnabas is wrong. Nevertheless, Barnabas turns out to be a key player in the spread of the gospel in the early church. From the little we know of him, we see that he is an optimistic man, full of the Spirit of God, who brings out the best in others and who is an ongoing source of encouragement.

We all have opportunities to encourage others.

In light of Barnabas' example, I'd like us to think about the opportunity we have—even the responsibility we have—to comfort, console, implore, urge, and challenge each other. In short, to encourage one another. It is clear from Scripture that encouragement is highly valued and celebrated by God. In Hebrews, we are told to "encourage one another to love and good deeds." In his letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul repeatedly writes not only to encourage them, but also to encourage them to encourage others.

Leaders are told to encourage those under their charge. Parents are told to encourage their children. Special mention is made of the need to encourage leaders and also those who are timid. And beyond that, the ministry of the Holy Spirit is a ministry of encouragement. If you read the New Testament looking for counsel on this topic, you will quickly be surprised at how much is there. And you'll almost certainly be convicted that we are not doing enough encouragement. So, I want to start with the assumption that we are to be encouragers and then move into what encouragement looks like.

Encouragement is actually a little bit more complicated than we might give it credit for. Now, I don't want to suggest that it is rocket science, and I don't want to suggest that it is going to take all kinds of time. But I want us to think about the encouragement we are given an opportunity to do for the people that are most important in our lives.

Now, I am not talking about the simple encouragement you might offer to people you don't really know. A waitress is particularly kind and you say, "thanks." Or the quick encouragement you might offer to people you do know—"Good job." That kind of encouragement is great and needs to happen more than it does. The kinds of people who give this kind of encouragement are often people who are just naturally optimistic and are fun people to be around because they are building people up with their quick and easy words of encouragement. This kind of encouragement costs nothing and yields much—the people who are encouraged often respond positively to the encourager.

But I am thinking on a deeper level of encouragement: the encouragement you have the opportunity to offer your families and friends—spouses and children and parents. I am thinking about those in your congregations, your staff, or small group. I am thinking about the sons and daughters of your friends. As an encourager, you have opportunity to speak into their life, to help mold and shape them. This kind of encouragement takes special care and sensitivity—not, I might add, the kind of encouragement I once received from my brothers.

Let's think just for a second about the proliferation of trophies. When I was a kid, you didn't get trophies for just showing up, like seems to happen often today. I'm sensitive to this in part because of my brothers. I have twin brothers who are seven years younger than I am, and who collected a lot more "hardware," as we called trophies back then, than I did.

In fact, one moment that is etched forever on my mind was when I was standing in the entry way of our home at Thanksgiving during my freshman year in college. I had been away since August and was just now coming home for the first time. I'd caught a ride with some fraternity brothers who were driving west to go skiing. My family was standing in the doorway welcoming and hugging me. Now that I was a college freshman and had some clout, I turned to Mark—one of the twins—and said, "Would you please put my suitcase in my room." To explain his response, I must do a slight digression. Men, in a way women generally do not understand, encourage one another by putting each other down. It's a sign of affection. When other men start making fun of you about your golf swing, your tie, your receding hair line—that is probably a sign that you are being accepted.

But, back to my brothers and how this affirmation manifested itself among us. For a while, we called each other "Zero," and then it got shorted to "Ro" because it meant you were less than zero. It's how we showed our love for each other.

So, on this particular day, I was standing in the entryway of our house, just home from my first semester at college. My brother Mark said: "Ro, you've got a problem. You see, I don't think you've got a room in this house anymore."

"Sure I do," I quickly responded. "Top of the stairs, turn left, first door on the right."

"Yeah, well, that room is now mine. I moved all your hardware out. It took one trip. And then I spent days moving mine in. I suggest you accept the basement or call the Holiday Inn."

Somewhere between when I was in high school and when my brothers followed, seven years later, people started handing out trophies for showing up. And now my brothers' trophies filled their rooms. While my brothers won some of their trophies for valid reasons, some were now on their shelves just because my brothers had shown up for some event.

I maintain that trophies given for just showing up lessen their value. While my trophies were far fewer but had great value, it seemed receiving trophies was not particularly encouraging for my brothers, except maybe as decoration for their room. This isn't to knock trophies. It is to say that real encouragement—the kind that really moves someone—is more than something handed out easily. It's not something you receive for just showing up. It's not just something generic. One size doesn't fit all. We need to give thoughtful encouragement.

A number of years ago, Judson Swihart wrote a book entitled How Do I Say I Love You? In more recent years, Gary Chapman and Ross Cambell have written several books on what they call "Love Languages." The premise of these books is that people express and receive love and affirmation in different ways. Some people hear they are loved when the words are spoken. For others, it's time spent with the person. Others feel loved when they are given a gift. For some it's touch. For others it's acts of service. What's interesting is that we tend to give love in the way in which we wish to have love expressed to us. I believe it works the same way with encouragement. Some people are encouraged by words of affirmation, whereas others could care less what you say—it's about what you do.

The popular press doesn't spend nearly as much time talking about encouragement as they do about motivation, which is related, although not exactly the same. Motivation considers encouragement as one of several ways to get people to do what you want them to do, which may or may not be a good thing depending on what you are trying to get them to do and why.

When I was a management consultant, I had a few clients who were always trying to figure out how to motivate their employees. Usually, it seemed to me, by gimmicks or by pep talks. During this time, I ended up reading a lot in this field. As I read, I was impressed by several things. One was that the best way to motivate (encourage) people was to stop de-motivating or discouraging them. Words that are kind and affirming probably help more if the words preceding them were not cutting and critical. The second thing I was impressed by in the motivational books I read was that affirming the right behavior generally works a lot better than trying to punish the wrong behavior—which is why so many child psychologists tell us to catch our children doing the right thing and praise them.

A third impression I had from the books was that we can really shape people's performance by believing in them. The expectations of parents with children, teachers with students, doctors with patients, and managers with employees are almost always self-fulfilling. When the expectation is that someone will go to a certain level, that is often the level to which the person goes. When the doctor thinks you are going to get healthy, you have a better chance of getting healthy. When parents are loving and affirming and lifting up their kids, those kids will often rise to that level.

It is also interesting to see that the best encouragement is very specific to the person. The way we are really affirmed is if we get the impression that someone really understands who we are. To really understand a person takes time—time to invest in another's life. Encouragement is a bit more complicated than just a simply "good job." Encouragement needs to take into account who the person is who is going to receive the encouragement.

In a classic Harvard Business Review article entitled "Pygmalion in Management" (named after the George Bernard Shaw play that was turned into the musical My Fair Lady), the author talks about how powerful people's expectations are in shaping the performance of others. A coach or a parent or a friend who believes you will take your game to a new level can actually radically shape the outcome of your efforts.

Another important point of encouragement is that what works to encourage one person may not work to encourage other. Best friends or parents or spouses or leaders are able to encourage when they pay special attention to the other person and then customize the encouragement to fit that person. This means two things. First, the form of the encouragement is meaningful to the person receiving it. Second, the encouragement reinforces the right behavior—it pushes them in the right direction.

Encouragement is powerful stuff. It can be used in wonderful or in harmful ways. And so we need to be sure that our encouragement moves people towards Christ and towards love and good deeds. We need to encourage each other to live today in the light of the fact that we are going to live forever. This requires some wisdom and reflection.

Let me put it another way. There are people sitting on the sidelines of life, perhaps literally sitting on the couch watching hour after hour of TV and doing little else because they are beat up and can't take any real steps forward. They really do not believe that they have anything to offer. They have no encouragement that God has given them unique gifts and that they have opportunities to use those gifts to serve him and to serve others. They need someone who is going to come alongside them, someone who is going to offer lots of affirmation and patience and love and encouragement. And this may be delivered in any number of simple ways—maybe with no words at all. For the person who has just suffered a great setback or loss, it's probably best not to say much. Not to say, "I know how you feel." But to say, "I can't imagine how you feel. I am so sorry." And just sit with them. Or take them for a walk.

And then there are some people who are sitting on the couch watching hour after hour of TV because they are lazy and self-indulgent and content to waste their life. They need a bit of a push. Instead of: "You're a great guy. God loves you, and so do I," it would probably be more helpful if you said something like, "You're a good friend and I care deeply for you, so I need to tell you that you were made for more than this. You need to take the gifts God has given you and serve others."

It's not quite this simple—as I said, encouragement is complicated stuff. But to suggest that we need to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable is a decent summary of what I believe encouragement really is. I emphasize this need to sometimes make people uncomfortable in our encouragement of them because in the last 30 years we've become so enamored with the idea that people need a high self esteem—especially in children—that we think it's wrong to do anything or say anything that might damage their ego.

On the one hand, I see real truth there. I want my children to know that they are loved, and that their value to me is not only immeasurable, but also untied to their success in school or sports or whatever. It is a given. I want them to have a high sense of self because, when they do, they are less prone to peer pressure. I want them to have a high sense of self so that they will take on big challenges. I see the value in self-esteem.

But I have two problems with it. First, self-esteem comes very close to self love, and self love is one of the definitions of sin. We need to be very careful how we are encouraging people. There needs to be an understanding of our worth and our value that is rooted in the Cross. God has declared that I am so valuable that he was willing to go to the cross for me. We have tremendous value because we have been made in the image of God.

But we are broken and fallen and sinful. God's love for us is not object-generated. He doesn't love us because we are lovable. He loves us because of his loving character. Our ordinary, everyday, unrefined, unrepentant thoughts and actions are not only not loveable, but also absolutely sinful. We do not get praised just for being who we are. Our self-image needs to understand that, while God loved us so much that he went to the cross for us, he had to go to the cross for us. We are not good people. He is a good God.

Secondly, protecting the self-esteem in others often protects them from having to go through trials, especially the trials that grow out of the natural consequences of their actions. To protect their self-esteem by sheltering them from the consequences of their actions robs them of basic life-skills. It robs them of the opportunity to face trials, when we are told that it is through trials that we are refined. Encouragement can't say to someone who is headed in the wrong direction, "You're doing great," when in fact they're not.

We can encourage people.

So how do we encourage people? Well, clearly there is no formula. But a few simple reminders can go a long way. You encourage people as you stop discouraging them, stop tearing them down. This is advice Paul finds necessary to emphasize to dads in Ephesians 6 when he says, "Fathers, do not exasperate your children … ."

And this advice probably needs to be repeated for everyone, because my rule of thumb is that it takes about seven affirmations to make up for one ill-conceived discouragement, or even just casual criticism. I don't know of anyone who likes criticism—I sure don't. But in leadership you have to develop an ability to weather the digs here or there and move on. You take a few body-shots every now and then; it comes with the job. But when you take some big hits, it can take more than one affirmation to bounce back. Then, more than ever, you need an encouraging friend. You also need to give yourself time to heal when the hard hits come.

Another way we encourage is by example. We can encourage people to love and good deeds by our own love and good deeds. We can encourage them to thoughtful words by our own thoughtful words—words that both encouraging people to keep doing what they are doing and those loving but challenging words that may recommend moving in a different direction.

We encourage by seeing the potential in people and letting them know that we see it, in the same way Barnabas did with Paul. Barnabas is a minor character in the New Testament, but he has a major legacy. He was a quiet and self-effacing person who took joy in the success of others. He was a man willing to take risks on behalf of those under his care. He was a man so determined to build others up that they changed his name from Joseph to Barnabas, "son of encouragement." And because of him, the apostle Paul got a chance to serve. And because of him, John Mark got a second chance to serve.

The world needs a lot more men and women like Barnabas. Would you make this a priority? Would you give it some thought, right now, to the three people you are going to encourage in the next week? Not just with a quick word, but with a thoughtful, prayerful investment in them? Who has God placed around you that you might be a Barnabas to? Barnabas took the step to encourage another and it reaped, for him and even for us today, great rewards.

© 2006 Mike Woodruff
A resource of Christianity Today International

Mike Woodruff is senior pastor of Christ Church Lake Forest in Lake Forest, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


Since life is difficult, let us encourage each other to love and do good deeds.

I. Barnabas was a man of encouragement.

II. We all have opportunities to encourage others.

III. We can encourage people.