John Ortberg points out that we are surrounded by basement people—folks who drain the life from us. This reality makes it all the more sweeter that God has graciously provided balcony people—folks who will shout encouragement our way when we need it most. To show the power of his point, Ortberg examines the life of "the patron saint of encouragement": Barnabas. One of things you will probably enjoy most about this sermon is Ortberg's ability to work in insightful connections between the story of Barnabas and those of Paul, John Mark, and the early church as a whole. Barnabas was lurking about in some of the most pivotal moments in early Christian history. If not for his encouragement from the balcony, who knows what would have happened—as evidenced by Ortberg's final, moving illustration about an imagined funeral of honor for Barnabas.
One of my lesser flaws is that I hate going to the gas station and filling up the tank of my car. I will ride that gauge as low as I can get it. My wife's car has a little button that will tell you how many miles you can go before you will run out of gas. I will ride that down until the car has about three blocks left before I take it home and switch cars with somebody else.
We have a propane gas barbecue grill, and I hate taking that propane tank in. There's a little gauge strip that changes colors, and I'll let it get down to bone dry before I get that tank refilled. One time last year, our home group was going to bring food to a homeless shelter. I thought, I want to put all the meat on our Weber grill at once, and that way I won't have to use that much propane out of the tank. I covered every square inch of that grill, but I didn't realize how much juice drips down from that much meat on the coals—and how much fire that generates. Our backyard was completely blanketed in smoke. The paint was completely blistered inside that Weber grill, but at least I didn't have to fill up the tank again. That was my primary goal.
The people who fill—or deplete—our tanks
Cars and grills aren't the only things that have fuel tanks. People have them, too. Everybody you know has a fuel tank, and it's in their inner being, in their spirit. You can read their gauge. Look them in the eye: some are alive and their eyes have fire in them; some are just glazed over. Look at their shoulders: some people are walking with shoulders squared and straight; some are all hunched over. Look at their gait: some people are marching and have energy; some people are just kind of trudging along.
You have a fuel tank, and there are some people who fill your tank. There are some people who breathe life into you. They remind you of how good God is. They call you to live up to the best you can be. When you're with them, you find your anxiety going down, and your hope and sense of trust and faith just go up.
Gregory of Nyssa was one of the early church fathers in the fourth century, and he painted a beautiful picture of this way of living. This is what he writes: "At horse races, the spectators intent on victory shout to their favorites in the contest. From the balcony they incite the rider to keener effort, urging the horses on while leaning forward and flailing the air with their outstretched hand instead of a whip." With that picture in mind, he says: "I seem to be doing the same thing myself. Most valued friend and brother, while you are competing admirably in a divine race, straining constantly for the prize of the heavenly calling, I exhort, urge, and encourage you vigorously."
Gregory is basically saying, "I'm up in the stands. I'm watching my friend run the race, and I'm cheering him on. This is your life. This is your race. God is with you, so don't stop. Keep running the race." Some people do that for you. They're what you would call your balcony people. When you're with them, they fill your tank.
Then you have other people in your life, who—when you're not looking—stick a hose in your tank, take a deep breath, and start siphoning the fuel out. They drain you of life. They are basement people, because they bring you down. These are the people who are joy challenged, dream squashing, and fault finding—slow leaks in the hot air balloon of your life. We're called to love them, but we've got to guard our hearts. Each of us can be basement people for other folks; there's a basement person inside all of us. But that's not God's plan for human life.
Encouragement, correctly understood, is the language of the New Testament. The word "to encourage" is used more than a hundred times in the New Testament. One of the great characters in the Bible—perhaps the patron saint of balcony people—is the guy we're going to look at today. His name is Barnabas, and we find him mostly in the Book of Acts. We're going to look at him and dream about what you and I can be.
Barnabas was a balcony person by giving.
We meet Barnabas for the first time in Acts 4. Here's how his story starts: "Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus whom the apostles called Barnabas, sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet." Now, Joseph was a Levite. Levites were a tribe of Israel, and in this day they served as assistants to the priests—as doorkeepers in the temple or musicians or something else. But Joseph could not do that. He was from Cyprus, which meant he hadn't been born in Israel. He was a Hellenist—a name given to Israelites born overseas. They were regarded as foreigners. They did not speak Aramaic, and they were considered to have picked up Gentile ways. There was a lot of hostility between native-born Israelites and the Hellenists. Because of the tension, Joseph wasn't allowed to serve in the temple like his people the Levites normally were allowed.
We'd expect Joseph to be kind of sour about this, but he's a balcony guy, and he becomes a part of this new community. He sees a need, and he says: I've got some property; I could sell some of my stuff to help people out.
Joseph is the first recorded donor in this new community. When the text says he put the money at the apostles' feet, he was saying: You'll know what to do with it best. No strings attached—you don't have to build a building with my name on it. Just use it to bless people.
There is an encouragement that comes when somebody gives. So many of you here know the joy of giving. Some of you have not just given; you have given sacrificially. You put yourself in touch with a spiritual power when you do that—it puts you in touch with deeper realities of the kingdom than money. People who give, even though they have less money, worry less about their money than people who never give, whom you would think would worry less.
When you start giving, you never know what's going to happen. You're putting yourself in the flow of a reality that's much bigger than you. Joseph does this. It's not just that he gave; it's the spirit he did it in. It's infectious. Some of you know that spirit, and some of you could. The disciples say to each other: Joe is just not an adequate name for this guy, so we're going to give him a new name. We're going to call him Barnabas—"son of encouragement," balcony boy. Every time he hears his name, then, he thinks, Yeah, that's who I am; that's who I want to be.
Barnabas encourages the community, the community encourages him, and it spirals upward like that. That's how encouragement works. That's how giving works.
Barnabas was a balcony person by showing grace.
After all of this, Barnabas disappears. The next time we see him is in Acts 9, alongside a man named Saul who had been terrorizing Jesus' followers. Saul had been breathing out murderous threats and finding men and women to take as prisoners, and then he met Jesus. He repented and trusted Jesus. He now believes, but he has a problem. When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him. They could not believe he was really a disciple. He had murdered their friend Stephen, and he had threatened, persecuted, imprisoned, and killed their husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters. How do they know this is for real—that he's not faking it just to get inside and damage them even more? Nobody's going to touch him with a ten-foot pole. This is the guy that's been dragging them off to prison! So the disciples say, "I'm not going to touch him!" But then they get an idea: Let's get Barney to try it. Barney will like anybody!
So they sent Barnabas to check out Saul. Balcony people give you this wonderful gift: they believe you can change with God's help. They do not let who you were yesterday limit who you might be today—or who you might become tomorrow. This is a fabulous gift. Barnabas was willing to take a risk on Paul. He became his friend and got to know him. He was inclined to see the best and to call it out. He went to his brothers and sisters and said: Look at the change in his life. Look at what happened between him and God. Look at how he's devoting his life to the gospel. Take it from me: this man can be trusted!
Because Barnabas said Saul could be trusted, the disciples embraced Saul. Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.
What would have happened to Saul if he had not had Barnabas? His acceptance into the Jesus community is because of one balcony person who gave him this wonderful gift of starting over. You can do that for somebody.
At the end of that story, there's this wonderful little summary: "Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit." That's what God does. They also "grew in numbers." People said: I want to be a part of that community, living in the fear of the Lord.
After all of this, Barnabas disappears until another critical moment in the history of the church. Acts 11 says: "Some from Cyprus and Cyrene went to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord."
You must see the drama at this moment. This is a hinge point in world history. Up until this point, the good news about Jesus had spread essentially among Jewish people. But this is where some daring soul says: You know, if it was good for Israel, maybe it would be good for the Gentiles. Maybe it would be good for the whole world. Let's try this new experiment. Let's tell the Gentiles.
They do, and, amazingly, these Gentiles—who don't know Torah and don't know Israel—respond and begin to enter into this new Jesus community. The first major city outside Israel where the Jesus movement begins to take root is Antioch. It's a little north of Israel and Syria. Word soon gets back to Jerusalem: In Antioch this Jesus movement is spreading, but it's kind of going Gentile, and we're not sure about that. If we let the Gentiles in, this is going to change everything!
Religious communities are not always great about change. So, in a sense, everything hinges on who Jerusalem is going to send to check this out. And who do they send? They send Barnabas: "When he arrived and saw evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord."
Barnabas was a balcony person by serving.
Antioch is where the Bible first says that God opened the door of faith to the Gentiles, because he's a God of open doors and spiritual opportunity. It wasn't long before Barnabas realized he was going to need somebody to help him deal with this new opportunity—somebody who knew the Scriptures, could speak to the Gentiles, possessed great courage and energy, and had a formidable mind and quick tongue. As he reflects on his needs, he remembers the brilliant convert named Saul from some time ago. This was ironic, because no one had been more Jewish than Saul. No one had more zeal for Torah than Saul. But Barnabas says: I think there's something in him that could be developed here.
Saul soon became Paul. The reason for that name change was simple: Saul was the Jewish version of his name, and Paul was the Greek or Gentile version. He would become the great missionary to the Gentiles and the rest of the world. Paul would change the world, but it only happened because of Barnabas—because balcony people can see things in others that no one else can see.
Paul and Barnabas do ministry together, and an interesting thing happens. In the ancient world, it's very significant to look at the order of people's names, because that order tells you who's in charge, who's the boss, who carries the prestige of the mission. We see in Acts what we would expect: "For a whole year Barnabas and Paul taught great numbers of people," because Barnabas was the leader. "They sent their gifts to the elders by Barnabas and Paul," it says in Acts 11. Look at Acts 13: "Set apart for me Barnabas and Paul for the work that I have called them." But something happens in this process. Paul's gifts begin to flourish, his maturity begins to blossom, and in Acts 14 it says, "At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went to the synagogues." Did you catch what happened there? The names have been switched. Now Paul is the one leading.
From a human standpoint, this is terrible. It seems Barnabas has done a bad job of career management. He has not positioned himself properly. The mission's been a big success; he should have been making sure he was getting credit for it.
Barnabas could have been jealous. He could have longed for Paul's status. Instead, he rejoiced in it. His joy was in recognizing and developing greatness in somebody else. Paul's ministry went on to be far more visible than his own, and nobody rejoiced more than Barnabas did. He's just a balcony person.
Jesus had said it was going to be that way. There is a kingdom and it is real, and the reality in this kingdom is that the last really are first, and the people who are the servants of all are really greatest. That's where greatness is, and ultimately, that's where joy is. It's not in clawing your way to the top of recognition and fame and money and so on. This is the deepest reality in the kingdom. In Barnabas, this is true. Barnabas is a kingdom kind of guy. He's a balcony guy, and because of this, the world experiences the kingdom in the present.
Barnabas was a balcony person by developing others.
Another wonderful, redemptive thing happens through Barnabas. Paul and Barnabas would often travel with other folks to develop their ministries. It's part of who Barnabas was. Balcony people have this gift. One of the young men they reached out to was named John Mark (or Mark). We see a brief glimpse of him in the Gospel of Mark (which, most likely, he wrote). There's a story of a young man who, just before Jesus is crucified, gets afraid, runs away, and deserts Jesus, leaving his cloak behind. That's probably Mark.
When Mark comes back to faith, he travels with Paul and Barnabas to help them for a while. However, Luke writes, "Paul and his companions"—notice Barnabas doesn't even get his name in here anymore—"sailed to Perga where John left them to return to Jerusalem." John Mark deserts them. We don't know why. In Acts 15, Paul says to Barnabas: Let's go on another trip to strengthen the churches.
Now, notice this: "Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them. But Paul did not think it was wise because he had deserted them … . They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company." I imagine Barnabas saying: Hey pal, you remember in Jerusalem when nobody would touch you with a ten-foot pole because you had done awful things? Who was it that gave you a second chance? Now you're going to tell me that you're not going to give a second chance to John Mark?
It's interesting that the Bible doesn't say that one was wrong or the other was right. Often in the Scriptures, that kind of judgment will be made. The Bible doesn't say that the Holy Spirit led one way or the other. Sometimes it is up to us to decide, and that's part of what God wants for us, because then we grow. But notice what Paul writes to Timothy in what was perhaps the last letter he ever wrote: "Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is helpful in my ministry." Old Barnabas saw something in Mark that turned out to be right all along.
The life of John Mark is one more tribute to the power of a balcony person. Mark was to write one of the Gospels. Most scholars think that the Gospel of Mark was the first one written, and that both Matthew and Luke used it as they were writing their Gospels. What if Barnabas had given up on Mark? But balcony people stand with you when you fall.
We need to be balcony people for each other.
We need to be balcony people for each other. This idea is all over the New Testament: Hebrews 3:13 says, "Encourage one another daily, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness." When we're not encouraged, sin starts to look good. Paul says, "Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up, just as, in fact, you are doing." The writer of Hebrews says, "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another and all the more as you see the day approaching."
This is not a human power deal, because the main person who wants to be in your balcony, cheering you on, is Jesus. If you've never done it before, just confess your sin and ask him, and he'll do that for you. He'll run the race with you. He'll be your friend and Savior and leader and cheer you on.
Do you ever think about what you want folks to say at your funeral? I think about what Barnabas's funeral must have been like. A man gets up to speak, and it's the apostle Paul. Everybody nudges each other, because it's Paul. He's famous. He says: I persecuted the church. I put followers of Jesus to death and in prison. Nobody trusted me. No one would touch me. But then Barnabas came along, put his arm around me, and he said, "I'll vouch for him." I stand before you today because of Barnabas.
Then John Mark gets up. He's an old man by now, and people nudge each other. He wrote the gospel. He's famous. He says: The truth about me is, I was a quitter. I had run away from Jesus and ministry, but Barnabas wouldn't give up on me. He saw something in me—I don't know why or what—and he took me under his wings and said, "I'll vouch for him." I'm here today because of a man named Barnabas.
Then a Greek guy from Antioch gets up. He says: I was pagan. I was so lost it wasn't funny. Then I heard about Jesus and I wanted in, but I didn't know Torah. I could never be Jewish. I didn't fit. But then Barnabas came along, and he said that Jesus came for a guy like me. He put his arm around me and said, "I'll vouch for him." I'm here today because of this man, Barnabas.
Then an old widow stands up. Nobody nudges anybody else, because she's not famous. She says: I lost everything when my husband died. I had no income. I had young children. I didn't know if I'd make it. And then Barnabas came along, and he quietly sold his own property so that I could have something to live on, so that I could feed my children. I'm here today because of Barnabas.
That's a kingdom funeral. That's the funeral of a man who never tried to be great, but just tried to call out greatness in others. The spread of the gospel from this one little ethnic group where it had been housed for so many centuries to the whole world—and the collective writings of Paul and Mark that comprise about half the writings of the New Testament—all happened because one man stood in the balcony and said: Keep going; you can do it. In the kingdom, that's what greatness looks like. It's something God does to you when you're looking the other way.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism")
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.