I make no secret of the fact that I’m a Pixar fan, constantly amazed by the studio’s creativity. Who ever thought they’d get four movies out of the premise of Toy Story? That’s not to say that this summer’s Toy Story 4 was the best of the franchise; the story is a bit hodge-podge and overly ambitious. But the Randy Newman theme song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” still rings true; the heart of the movie, and of the franchise, is in its tribute to loyalty and sacrifice between friends.
If anyone ever needed a friend, it was the newly reformed Saul of Tarsus. With his program of persecution, he had sowed fear and made enemies wherever he went. And even though he carried letters giving him carte blanche to shackle people in the name of the high priest, I doubt that Saul could have counted on him as a friend. Caiaphas was too crafty a political animal to ever do anything out of purely altruistic motives. If it served his purposes, Caiaphas would have disavowed Saul in a Sadducean second.
With such a violent reputation preceding him, Saul the convert truly needed a friend to take risks on his behalf.
In Damascus, Jesus had provided one in the person of Ananias. Jesus could have met Saul on the road and commanded him to go into Damascus and immediately start preaching. But he humbled Saul first by depriving him of his sight, making him dependent on the ministrations of others. He sent faithful Ananias to him, who welcomed him as a brother and baptized him.
I imagine that those were the days in which Saul was learning his first lessons about finding strength in weakness.
Imagine, then, Saul’s situation when he finally returned to Jerusalem. It may have been three years since he first left on his mission to smoke out believers in Damascus (cf. Gal 1:18). By that time, his former associates in Jerusalem would have known all about his many acts of betrayal. He would receive no welcome from them.
Nor were his newfound brothers and sisters in the faith ready to accept him into the fold. As Luke tells us, “they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26, NRSV). He needed a sponsor, someone with clout to stick up for him.
Barnabas became that sponsor. We were briefly introduced to Barnabas back in Acts 4. He was actually a Levite named Joseph. Yet somehow, he had earned the nickname “Barnabas,” or “son of encouragement.” Thus far in Luke’s story, we know him only for a single faithful act of sacrificial generosity (Acts 4:37). But that was just a taste of things to come. Five chapters later, Barnabas would be generous with his own time, safety, and social reputation by standing with Saul and telling his story:
But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. (Acts 9:27)
As a result, Saul was able to continue his ministry of preaching the gospel, this time in Jerusalem.
We often think of “ministry” in somewhat professionalized terms: ministry is what pastors and those appointed to pastoral staffs do. It involves such notable public acts as preaching the gospel, as Saul did.
But we shouldn’t neglect other forms of ministry, less public expressions of the unity and mission of the body of Christ. Barnabas’ ministry was to encourage others. He stood with Saul at a crucial juncture in Saul’s developing identity as an apostle, and would later become one of the apostle’s closest and most constant companions.
So think about it. You may not be called to preach. But you may be called to encourage someone who does. Who is it, and what could you do?