June 11 is the day Christians East and West commemorate someone who deserves a great deal more attention: St Barnabas.
“Barnabas” was actually his nickname: it means “son of encouragement.” That captures his ministry quite nicely. Barnabas encouraged other people to grow to their full potential.
People like the Apostle Paul.
I’d read the Bible cover to cover long before I gave Barnabas a second thought. He has become one of my heroes. When I was a university student my pastor, the late Steve Hayner, pointed Barnabas out as a model of Christian leadership.
You meet Barnabas in Acts, where the Church named him one of the Apostles (Acts 14:14). Even if he wasn’t the most famous, not even one of the original twelve, he was one of the most influential.
Compare Paul. Everybody knows who Paul was: he wrote nearly half of the books in the New Testament, so he’s hard to miss. And most of us are indebted to Paul for our own faith, since he’s the one who brought the Good News of Christ beyond the bounds of Judaism.
But here’s the deal: if there had been no Barnabas, you wouldn’t have Paul.
The way Steve Hayner told it, Barnabas’ story is a paradigm of a four step process of developing leaders:
1. I do it.
In the first phase, Barnabas simply lives and serves faithfully and effectively.
Early in Acts, Barnabas is a leader among the Christians. In chapter 4 he’s a role model of generosity.
By chapter 9, when the fire-breathing persecutor Saul is miraculously converted, the Jews plot to kill him and the apostles don’t trust him — except Barnabas, who takes Saul under his wing.
Barnabas is the established leader who can vouch for the newbie with the bad past.
Every one of us who comes to new faith or to leadership needs a Barnabas, someone who can be the model of mature faith and faithfulness.
2. I do it, and I bring you along with me.
In the second phase, Barnabas brings Saul into the work of ministry with him.
In chapter 11, numbers of non-Jews begin to follow Christ. Barnabas is sent to teach and encourage the emerging Greek church in Antioch.
Barnabas has no lack of success on his own, but he sees an opportunity to help Saul. Barnabas travels to Tarsus to find the former persecutor, and brings him to Antioch to join in the work.
It was under their shared ministry that Christ’s followers garnered the name “Christian.”
Everyone who comes into healthy leadership can look back to someone who opened a door. Steve Hayner was my Barnabas, drawing me into the leadership team of a ministry that trained small group leaders. I didn’t know much, but I got to sit close and learn from him, and to stretch my abilities bit by bit.
3. You do it, and I’m there to help.
In the third phase Saul takes center stage. There is a clear switch.
Back in Antioch when the two are commissioned to bring help to the church back in Judea, the text calls them “Barnabas and Saul.” At the start of chapter 13, a list of teachers and prophets places Barnabas first and Saul at the very end. By the end of the chapter, Saul is renamed Paul, and the references switch to “Paul and Barnabas.”
Paul grows strong and bold, preaching and healing, while Barnabas willingly plays a supporting role.
Observers still saw Barnabas as the greater figure: when pagans mistook them for gods, it was Barnabas they called “Zeus.” But Paul is clearly the center of the action.
A great mentor allows the one he’s helping to flourish, but remains available to encourage, to guide when needed. Steve Hayner eventually let me serve as the head of the leadership team for that small group ministry. He remained there for me, but he exercised leadership by allowing me room to grow.
4. You do it, and I’m way in the background cheering for you.
The partnership between Barnabas and Saul ended on a sad note. In chapter 15 they decided to travel back and encourage communities of believers they had worked with. They disagreed about whether to take Mark with them. Mark had joined them once before but he had abandoned the mission.
True to character, it was Barnabas who wanted to bring Mark along.
Ever the encourager, Barnabas chose to give Mark a second chance. He would build Mark up and help him grow, even if it meant severing ties with Paul.
Who knows? Maybe by going separately with new partners they did more than they could have together.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: Who was your Barnabas?
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