Becoming a Barnabas Model

Gill Robins

Barnabas is first introduced into the Bible narrative in the book of Acts. We are told that all the believers were of one heart and mind in that nobody held any personal possessions; everything was shared. From time to time, people who owned houses or land sold them and gave the money to the disciples to distribute to anyone in need. For some reason, one person is singled out in this part of the story. We are told that ‘Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus ... sold a field he owned, brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet’ (Acts 4:36).  But we are also told that the disciples didn’t call him Joseph; instead they called him Barnabas, which means ‘son of encouragement’.  Can you imagine being so well known for your encouragement of others, that your community changes your name to match your actions?

We next meet Barnabas at Paul’s side, when he tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem after his conversion. Because of his track record in persecution, the disciples were afraid of Paul (perhaps they wondered if this was just a new way to infiltrate the Christian community) but Barnabas was right there as his advocate, encouraging the disciples to trust him. How different might Paul’s ministry have been, had Barnabas not done this?

When the gospel started to spread rapidly among the Greek people in Antioch, Barnabas was sent to visit them. We are told that he was ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith’ (Acts 11:24) and that he encouraged the new Gentile Christians (many of whom came to faith through his ministry) ‘to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts’ (v23).

We also see him travelling with Paul, and falling out to such a degree over John Mark’s apparent desertion of them that they went their separate ways (Acts 15:39—41). And yet, Barnabas was right to encourage Mark; Paul later acknowledges that Mark is useful to the ministry (2 Timothy 4:11). We don’t know how many people came to faith through Barnabas’ ministry, nor how many people were encouraged in their faith by him. But we do know that through shaping his life to live it in God’s way, Barnabas became this great encourager.

So what are the implications for us as Christians in education? Well, encouragement works at many levels. At the most obvious level, there is encouragement of our students.  Maya Angelou, the American poet, once observed that people won’t remember what you said and they won’t remember what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel. This is so true of our work as educators. It doesn’t really matter what mechanisms we use to encourage students (house points, certificates, written comments or conversations) – what matters is that we do encourage them.

Encouragement, though, as we can see from Barnabas’ example, is not just about acknowledgement.  Ann Maguire, the teacher killed by a pupil at Corpus Christi Catholic College in England, was an example of an encourager in action. According to her pupils, her encouragement of them was closely linked with her expectation. Less than their best wasn’t acceptable, and many students past and present have paid tribute to her insistence that half measures weren’t good enough, either for her or for them. Active, meaningful encouragement, doesn’t just acknowledge where people are, it leads them on to where they could go.

In his letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul wrote, ‘encourage one another and build one another up’ (1 Thessalonians 5:11). He knew that encouragement strengthens individuals and their relationships with those around them. So in encouraging our pupils, we are not only strengthening them as people and learners, we are strengthening our relationships with them. But we are doing more than this – we are living out Christian values in the classroom, offering a model for students to follow. Christianity is a relational faith, and we should develop a relational pedagogy.

But there are other aspects of being a Barnabas model. Barnabas was an advocate for Paul with the disciples, and later for Mark with Paul himself. Barnabas discerned the truth within the hearts of these people and he stood up for them when others would have preferred not to have a relationship with them. In doing so, Barnabas encouraged the disciples to embrace Paul, one of the greatest leaders of our faith. He continued to encourage Mark when Paul wanted to let him go and Mark clearly became a strong leader as a result of Barnabas’ support. Without this discernment and support, the ministry and experiences described within Mark’s gospel and Paul’s letters may never have existed.  Are we able to discern the hearts of those with whom we work? And do we encourage them, even if doing so brings us into conflict with others?

We have a role, too, in encouraging colleagues. This isn’t just about encouraging them in the work they are currently doing. It might also be about encouraging them to develop their skills in new roles, or in taking on new responsibilities. And how often do we encourage our managers and leaders? Leadership can be a lonely place! But leaders need encouragement, too, even when we disagree with their decisions. It’s all too easy to criticise, or remain silent while others criticise. What would Barnabas have done? How might he have articulated encouragement of those who were publicly moaned about?

We should also, as Christians, encourage all those in our communities. Do we remember to encourage the admin staff, the governors, the kitchen and ground staff and our parents – yes, even those parents who always seem to be on our case? But we must encourage, if we are to truly live as Christians in community.

The New Testament is full of examples of encouragement. As soon as Paul and Silas were released from prison, they went straight to Lydia’s house ‘to encourage and strengthen’ the believers (Acts16:40).  Acts 20:1—2 tells us that before leaving on one of his journeys, ‘Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said goodbye and set out for Macedonia. He travelled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people’.

Encouragement strengthens people. Encouragement strengthens relationships. Encouragement builds people up and develops their skills. So as we seek to live out kingdom values as Christians in education, let’s be known as people of encouragement, as Barnabas models, good people full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.


Gill Robins has worked in a wide range of different schools, teaching children of all ages across the Primary and early Secondary spectrum. She is now ‘Teacher Turned Writer’.