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What Would Barnabas Do?

Often the best place to look for a role model is just outside of the spotlight.

Jamie A. Hughes November 18, 2022

As a child growing up in the early 80s, I was raised on a steady stream of Sesame Street, 3-2-1 Contact, Schoolhouse Rock!, and The Electric Company. But none of those shows could hold a candle to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I loved the puppets, the songs, and the trips around the neighborhood to spend time with wonderful people like Mr. McFeely, Handyman Negri, and Officer Clemmons—all of whom taught me the value of creativity, patience, and kindness. But one thing Mr. Rogers said that has always stuck with me was from his own life story: “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would always say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Illustration by Adam Cruft

It gave me a sense of security, knowing those good and righteous souls would always be there no matter what. And it inspired me to be one of those people Mr. Rogers was on the lookout for—a woman who did the right thing regardless of the situation and who kept people’s spirits up, even in the darkest times.

Maybe that’s why Barnabas has always been one of my favorite characters in the Bible. Unlike Peter, he never walked on water. He didn’t bear witness at the foot of the cross like John, nor is he known as a great teacher like Paul. But Barnabas is undeniably present throughout the New Testament, constantly giving of himself for the sake of the Good News.

He sold his land and gave the money to the church (Acts 4:36-37), vouched for the soon-to-be apostle Paul when the disciples wanted nothing to do with their former persecutor (Acts 9:26-28), and traveled with Paul on his missionary journeys, sharing in his many hardships. In every story, he’s assisting someone else and helping to shoulder the load.

He may have been born with the name Joseph, but it’s easy to see how Barnabas earned his new moniker, which means “son of encouragement.” After all, to encourage someone means to give him or her confidence. Such a person is a source of reassurance, one who urges others on and stands willing to help in whatever way is needed. That’s precisely what Barnabas did for so many people who came into his orbit.

“You will always find people who are helping.” 

Today when we’re looking for sermon examples or teaching illustrations, we tend to be drawn to the “big screen moments” and the men who took part in them. But I firmly believe Barnabas deserves more credit—he has a lot to teach us. And we need to recognize the men and women like him who are already in the pews, making sure everything’s humming along and in good working order.

As Mr. Rogers predicted, I’ve found helpers in every place imaginable. Look around, and I bet the same will be true for you. They’re in church nurseries changing diapers or in kitchens preparing a meal. They’ll be the ones visiting shut-ins or volunteering for outreach initiatives because they enjoy being around people and assisting others in any way they can. Watching these wonderful souls cheerfully carrying out tasks that others ignore lifts my spirit. Their attitude inspires me to look at my own ministry jobs in an entirely different light.

But helpers aren’t skilled only at tangible tasks. They also know when to stop and speak a kind word to someone who’s hurting or admonish a soul on the wrong path. And the wisdom they impart in those moments can carry just as much weight as anything that comes down from the pulpit.

Unlike Peter, Barnabas never walked on water. He didn’t bear witness at the foot of the cross like John, nor is he known as a great teacher like Paul. But Barnabas was constantly giving of himself for the sake of the Good News. 

Helpers of the encouraging sort aren’t bossy by nature, but that doesn’t mean they’re pushovers. For example, after a difference of opinion about his cousin Mark, Barnabas chose to amicably part ways with Paul (Acts 15:36-41). The apostle wasn’t willing to give the young man a second chance and bring him on another missionary journey, but Barnabas thought differently. He made a difficult choice and, as a result, was able to mentor Mark, who was later the first to author one of the four gospels.

In time, Paul came to agree with his old friend. In 1 Timothy 4:11, he wrote to his own protégé, telling him to come soon and bring Mark, whom he described as “useful to me for service.” Yes, godly helpers know how and when to be brave when it comes to helping others, and quite often, they’re proven right in the long run.

There is a lot of wisdom to be gained from the “Barnabases” God has placed in our paths, but it can be easy to overlook them because they’re often doing good without drawing attention to themselves. Like Mr. Rogers, we need to always be on the lookout for the helpers, watching what they do and how, and using their example as a model for our own lives.

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