Maybe it’s because his name means “son of encouragement.” I’ve always thought of Barnabas as a conciliator, a behind-the-scenes guy, not one to make waves. Looking a little closer, I see that one of the Bible’s best examples of a mentor didn’t just sit around uttering platitudes and smoothing the tidal waves stirred up by people like Paul.
For example, when we’re introduced to Barnabas in the book of Acts, he is held up as a model, an early mentor through his generous giving, selling his land and turning over all the proceeds so the apostles could help the needy. Acts 4 says it was generally true that “all the believers were of one heart and mind,” but then goes on to identify at least two exceptions. Their names? Ananias and Sapphira. I can hear Sapphira saying: “Why did Barnabas have to go and do that? Now people are looking at us and wondering why we haven’t sold our property.” Her husband had a come-back. “Don’t worry, I have a plan. They won’t know that we are holding back a good bit of the proceeds …” Worthy mentors prove themselves an example to follow, or not.
Later, the church’s most feared persecutor showed up, applying for membership. Everyone knew better than to trust Saul … except Barnabas. He ignored the danger, discerned Saul was indeed sincere and became Saul’s advocate to the church leadership.
How striking that God used this godly businessman to show the apostles their error in judgment. It says a lot about Barnabas that the apostles listened to him and took the risk of bringing Saul into their midst, when some of them fully expected him to rip off his sheep skin and reveal a wolf in their midst. God knew Saul needed a strong, mature advocate to nurture him through his infant faith. Wise mentors look beyond an unsavory past to a transformed future, in Christ.
When the church in Jerusalem asked Barnabas to investigate startling reports of Gentiles accepting Christ, he made the two-week journey to Antioch and was overjoyed at what he saw. He affirmed those new converts, aware it would be an uphill battle to convince his fellow Christians in Jerusalem to fully accept Gentiles as anything more than toads. Barnabas joined Paul in this battle, a battle probably full of all the emotion and rancor of some of the worst church fights you and I have ever seen. Good mentors are like frog kissers.They can look at a frog and see the next Prince Charming.
It takes sacrifice to be a Barnabas. You must work time into your schedule and do things that many find uncomfortable. Naturally we, the church, want newcomers to be just like us. But like Barnabas, mature mentors in the name of Christ must have the faith to journey into the uncomfortable. The elderly need to reach across to the young, the married need to get to know singles; African-American, Hispanics and Anglos need to embrace each other; Christians need to start conversations with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. Insightful mentors see beyond jarring differences to the rich unity Christ wants to bring. Barnabas did.
I love the humility of the man as he gracefully transitioned from star status to a supporting role. Early in the book of Acts, Barnabas’ name generally appears first on the marquee. Later it becomes “Paul and Barnabas.” I am certain he knew, early on, that his immensely gifted protégé́ would not remain long in his shadow. godly mentors are humble and take great pleasure in the achievements of their mentees.
As mentoring relationships progress, disagreements may arise. In the case of Barnabas’ cousin, John Mark, Paul probably had good reason to cut the young man from his team because of his failure on a previous trip. Barnabas insisted cutting off John Mark would be a waste to the kingdom and as a result, parted ways with Paul. Mentoring is not spiritual cloning. God sometimes leads co-workers on separate paths. Later, Paul mentions John Mark in a letter to Philemon, seeming to indicate a change of opinion. Effective mentors are able to think outside the box and have faith in the transforming power of God to do the unexpected.
Oh, that we all could have (and be) mentors like Barnabas. People who don’t “tickle ears,” saying nice things to make others feel good, but who speak the truth with a love that builds up and points past what is to what can be, in Christ. We need, and may each of us be, true sons and daughters of encouragement who stand by our convictions, worthy examples for others to follow, humble, able to think outside each box. We need more frog kissers.