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Acts

Encouragement

Acts  11:19-30

Encouragement is still a word in common use, but few Christians realize the importance of being an encourager. Barnabas - the name means "son of encouragement" - is the great example of the virtue, as found in the New Testament. Let's look at his story:

(Acts 11:19-30 NIV) Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. {20} Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. {21} The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. {22} News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. {23} When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. {24} He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. {25} Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, {26} and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. {27} During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. {28} One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) {29} The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. {30} This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

Background

We need to know a little more about the time and the place.

Antioch

Antioch today is a small village in Syria. But at the time of this writing it was a prosperous city of the Roman Empire. Indeed, with half a million people, it was third in size after Rome and Alexandria. Its character, however, says little to its credit.

·         Temple prostitution was very common here. As a trade center, its brothels were well known in the ancient world.

·         It was a city which had a sacred grove which gave it the "right of asylum." In other words, if a criminal could reach this grove, the city of Antioch would take him in and protect him from his pursuers. This must have done wonders for the crime rate in town.

·         The ancient reputation was so bad that when Lew Wallace, who wrote Ben-Hur, needed a site of wickedness in which to set his chariot race, he chose Antioch.

·         All in all, it very much parallels Los Angeles today. The sights and thoughts of our area today would go very well in ancient Antioch.

The church at Antioch

Out of this area came a church which was destined to be a leader in Christianity for almost six hundred years, until it was almost completely destroyed by Islam. We can see a little of their character here:

·         Despite the fact that they were not Jewish, they clearly shared the life that Jesus taught, for we see the Lord's hand was with them.

·         They also proclaimed Jesus in public - so much so that the name "Christian" was applied to them. The point is not one of divine appointment; "Christ" is the Greek form of the Hebrew "Messiah." These folks spoke Greek - so what else would you call those who preached this man?

·         They taught, and were taught, by the Scriptures. If you would seek the weakness of the church today, this example might serve you well.

·         Finally, as we see, they were a church that shared with others, and did so sacrificially.

The character of Barnabas

We see in this brief account three chief characteristics of the "son of encouragement:"

·         He is described as a "good man" - the word is a general one in the Greek - meaning one whose character gives out goodness. We might say today that he was "good hearted." An older word would be "virtuous."

·         He is full of the Spirit, and thus one who follows the instruction of the Lord.

·         He is also full of faith - and therefore will do extraordinary things that ordinary men might not think wise.

Not wise? After all, Saul was the man who persecuted the church. Wouldn't it be better if we left him in quiet retirement in Tarsus - out of harm's way and discreetly out of sight? The man of the world would see it that way. The man of faith sees what God can do. So the man of faith is the man of encouragement to this sinner.

The Nature of Encouragement

So then, just what do we mean by encouragement? In its roots, it means to help someone by raising their courage - the willingness to overcome obstacles. But in this passage we can see some additional things:

Encouragement is rooted in who you are

One reason encouragement is so difficult to define - and so easy to identify - is that it springs from deep inside those who are the encouragers.

·         Note that the giving by the church here is according to each man's ability. The measure of encouragement is not how much you gave, but how much you had to give.

·         Encouragement is given by sacrifice. If you think not, consider this: Suppose you are trying to get the money for college. The state comes along and grants you a scholarship; you are duly grateful. But then your brother gives up his hopes for college and goes to work to help you go to school. For which act do you feel the most encouragement?

·         Encouragement is not just by giving of material things, but also by the things you do. None of us is too poor to be an encouragement to another.

Encouragement springs up in time of trial

Tribulation is what brought the church to the Gentiles in the first place - the persecution which broke out at the time of the stoning of Stephen. God often uses tribulation and persecution for his purposes. There are two things we know about this from this passage:

·         We have no idea who the evangelists were. God uses the ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

·         They do them because the hand of God is with them.

Tribulation brings another great benefit to the church. It unites the Jewish and Gentile sections of the church - for we see here no distinction between the two, and indeed it is the Gentiles who are helping the Jews. The famine in question happened about AD 44-45; as they were collecting in view of it, that pretty much dates this passage.

Tribulation is such a bother - but consider:

·         As parents, we put our children into tribulation of an artificial sort: it's called Little League.

·         We do that so that they will learn to deal with the situations of life. Indeed, we are quite convinced of the benefits of their suffering.

·         God does the same - with us.

Personal Encouragement

So then, we are to be those who encourage others, and follow the example of Barnabas. I submit to you three questions:

"How do I identify the 'Paul' in my life?"

·         One good test is natural ability. Paul is a learned man, brought up in all the right schools. Sometimes we ignore people because they don't have the "right" background - after all, I personally have never been to a Bible college. I was trained in physics. How then could I teach adults the Bible - if someone had not encouraged me to do so?

·         Another test is secular experience. Many skills - such as the ability to deal well with people - are quite useful in the church.

·         But the real test is this: if you are faithful in small things, you are faithful in much. Look for the one who is faithfully doing the small things.

How do I encourage the 'Paul' in my life?"

·         Don't send; go. Barnabas doesn't send a letter - he takes the time and trouble to persuade in person. If you are serious about encouragement, they will know it by what you are willing to sacrifice to do it.

·         Find a fitting place of service. Don't encourage someone to take "next available." Rather, encourage them to a place of service where they can be really effective. Barnabas brought Saul back to Antioch, not Jerusalem.[1]

·         Be willing to overlook past failures. The truth is that we are all sinners; we all have past failures. This is no place for "you advance until you make your first mistake."

"How do we assist a 'Paul' we have encouraged?"

·         Obviously, we must be willing to help. It is not sufficient to encourage someone to do something - and then stand back and watch.

·         But we must also be willing to be eclipsed. Barnabas is mentioned first during the first part of Acts; then there is a switch, and Paul is mentioned first. We need to remember just whose kingdom this is.[2]

·         Sometimes - as Barnabas did when he argued with Paul about Mark - we need to part company with those we've encouraged. Even if the one we've encouraged seems to disapprove, we must do what God calls us to do.

The Challenge

In the next few weeks some of you will be encouraged to do things you have not done before, or have not done in a long time. Listen to the example of Barnabas here. You will not be asked to teach in front of a group; you will not be asked to preach - but you will be asked to encourage others. Take this not as a burden but as a share of the kingdom of heaven. The names of the encouragers are often lost; the results are recorded with God.


[1] A great counterexample of this is the Peggy Eaton affair in Andrew Jackson's administration.

[2] If Barnabas was worried about this, it didn't show. After all, he went to get Saul in the first place because of the great numbers being converted. He needed the help.

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