Do you have what might be called “bleacher people” in your life? These are people who stand in the bleachers, cheering you on as you run the race of life. We all need them and we can become them for others. Join us this week as we explore how.
I’m really excited about this message.
Today I get to talk about one of the most endearing characters in the Bible. His name is Barnabas.
And he leads us into one of the greatest subjects in the world — the life-giving power of encouragement.
So, what we’re going to do today is just follow the life of Barnabas in the book of Acts.
The first time we meet Barnabas is in Acts 4, where Luke has been writing about how the whole church is experiencing oneness. People are giving everything they have to make sure there isn’t a needy person in the community.
And Luke points out an extraordinary example of this kind of sacrificial giving in verse 36. Acts 4:36
Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Alright, a couple of things to notice about Barnabas:
First of all, he was a Levite of the country of Cyprus.
Now at this time in the history of Israel, the Levites served as kind of assistants to the priests. They didn’t make up the chief priests, or the highest castes of the priests, but they served, for instance, as musicians at worship, or as doorkeepers, or as what were called temple police — temple guards.
And every male Levite was to devote a part of his time to the service of the temple. It was an important thing to be a member of the tribe of the Levites.
However, Joseph could not do this. The text says he was from the country of Cyprus.
He was among several of the people of Israel who had been exiled, who had been forced to leave their homeland. And so they were scattered and had to live away.
Well, some of these Israelites made their way back to the homeland, and Barnabas was one of them.
He was what was called a Hellenic Jew — that is, he had grown up somewhere other than Israel; so he had learned to speak Greek.
Hellenic Jews were considered by the people of Israel to be less devout because they often picked up foreign ways.
There would be some hostility between these two factions.
But from Barnabas there was no hostility.
He could have, legitimately, focused on the injustice of growing up in exile — the fact that he couldn’t play the role that Levites were able to play in their homelands.
He had been exiled, through no fault of his own, and then made his way back home; and again, faced the hostility of the native-born.
But he didn’t focus on that.
Instead, he devoted himself to building up people who were around him.
There’s this wonderful kind of self-forgetfulness about him. He’s not preoccupied with his status or his standing. His constant focus or desire is on the well-being of other people.
He wants people to flourish.
And the first example of that is in Acts 4 —
He sees people who are in need, and so he takes what rightfully belongs to him and sells it and just gives the money away.
And the people in this community decide, “We need to give this guy a new name for that one.” So, they give him the name Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.”
And what they’re saying by giving him this name is — he’s like the child of encouragement; like encouragement is the parent that conceived and gave birth to him; like he’s got encouragement in his genes.
And the phrase I want to use to describe this kind of person is — “bleacher people.”
Barnabas is a bleacher person.
I grew up in Chicago attending Cubs games at Wrigley field when I was a kid.
We would buy the cheapest tickets possible, which were bleacher seats — where we would sit on a bench in the outfield in the hot sun for three dollars and fifty cents.
I like to think we were the diehard fans. We would cheer the Cubs on no matter how bad they were losing, and sometimes they were losing pretty bad. We would throw opposing team home run balls back on the field, primarily because the entire bleacher section would chant — “Throw It Back. Throw It Back” if we didn’t.
We would sing “Take me out to the ball game” with Harry Carry, which was always a strange thing to me — singing “Take me out to the ballgame” when we were at the ballgame.
Bleacher people were the diehards — rooting for the Cubs, win or lose, rain or shine — always hopeful, always present, always cheering them on, always believing in them.
Well, in every life, everyone of us needs to have what I want to call “Bleacher people.”
They’re people who stand in the bleachers, watching you run the bases of your life, and they cheer you on; they believe in you.
They’re realistic about your failings and your shortcomings, but they also have a vision for what God made you to be.
And when you have these bleacher people in your life, these people who cheer you on, you have this deep sense that they’re for you.
Their very words breathe life and encouragement into you.
When you win, they cheer, as though they had won themselves.
They rejoice with you when you rejoice, and they mourn with you when you mourn.
They are a living, breathing incarnation of Paul’s advice in Romans: “Rejoice with those who rejoice. Mourn with those who mourn.”
They would say to you, “You can do it. Don’t give up. Don’t quit.”
When bleacher people tell you they’re praying for you, you know they mean it. You know they really are.
When you feel defeated or tempted by sin, or discouraged by failure, you know that God will use their presence to strengthen you.
You know that if you’re just around them, somehow God will use that to fill you with the desire to follow Him once again.
They’re one of God’s greatest gifts in your life.
They make you a better person.
They help you live more like Jesus would live if he were in your place.
And every one of us here has bleacher people in our lives.
And here’s a couple things we need to do.
Let me just get real practical for a moment. We need to identify — who are my bleacher people? Who plays the role of Barnabas in my life?
And we need to make sure we have regular contact with bleacher people. Be intentional about it.
We need to be around these people daily.
We need to identify them.
We need to be with them.
We need to take care of them.
We need to thank them. They may not know how important they are in your life.
Also we need to be bleacher people in someone else’s life.
Who are you a bleacher person to?
Who do you breathe life into?
Who are you cheering on in this life?
We are bleacher people and we have bleacher people.
But that’s not the only kind of people we have in life, right?
We also have what I’m calling “basement people.”
These people have a way of just dragging you down.
When you’re around these people, you can just feel yourself descending.
You just feel the life and energy draining out of you.
These people are joy-deflating people.
If you have good news, they’ll search for a problem in it somewhere.
Author Les Parrot gives indicators that you might have basement people in your life. Let me just run through a few of these indicators. Just see if you can identify if you have any basement people in your life.
When basement people text you or leave you a voicemail, you get an anxious feeling in the pit of your stomach. You wish that person hadn’t reached out to you.
You find yourself feeling drained or defensive or guilty when you’re around this person.
You find yourself having fantasy conversations in your mind with this person, and you just let them have it. And you feel vindicated or triumphant in those fantasy conversations.
After being with this person, you sometimes find yourself wanting to engage in negative escapist behavior — like drinking too much or eating a box of chocolates or listening to Country Western music.
How many of you have someone like that in your life?
What’s so hard about basement people is you get the sense that they’re not for you.
They’re not trying to breathe life into you and build you up.
They have this kind of smug arrogance to them, where they enjoy pointing out flaws and shortcomings.
I have a story. I doubt that this ever happened, but it might have.
A guy has a basement person, and it’s his barber. Every time he goes to his barber, his barber complains — he’s always negative, always deflating him.
Well this guy goes in one time, and he’s very excited because he’s going to go to Italy.
And the barber, in typical fashion, is just very negative about the whole thing: hotels are overrated; the food’s overpriced — it’s not very good; Italians are very rude to Americans; it’s going to be a lousy time.
The guy says, “No, it’s going to be wonderful — I’m gonna stay at great hotels, eat at great restaurants, and I’m even gonna get to see the Pope.”
The barber says, “No, it’s never gonna happen. He’s too busy. You’ll never see him.”
The guy goes to Italy, and comes back all fired up — “It was wonderful. Stayed at great hotels, ate tremendous food, had marvelous times with the Italian people. The sights were beautiful. And I got to see the Pope. I was going through a line, and he called me over, and I had a private audience with the Pope.”
And the barber, for the first time in his life, is actually impressed.
The guy said, “I knelt down. He stuck out his hand. And I kissed his ring.”
And the barber said, “What did the Pope say?”
“He said, where did you get that lousy haircut?”
I doubt that that happened. Doesn’t really sound like something the Pope would say, but who knows?
You have some basement people in your life. You have some people who just drag you down. And that means that it’s all the more important that you identify and spend regular time with some bleacher people.
Alright, now the next time we see Barnabas is in Acts 9. Acts 9:26.
In this chapter, Luke walks through the conversion of the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus.
Paul is on the road to Damascus and he’s headed to Jerusalem, where he’s looking to find Christians and either put them in prison or kill them.
While he’s on his way, he’s confronted by Christ, who says, “Why are you persecuting me?”
And then Jesus blinds his eyes so that he can’t see (wouldn’t you like to have those powers).
Then Paul meets a man named Ananias in Damascus who helps him to see and Paul is converted to Christianity.
So Paul begins to preach that Jesus is the Christ and he begins his ministry.
And now in verse 26, Paul is making his way to Jerusalem, which is where he’s going to be discipled and educated.
So it says in verse 26 that Paul attempts to join the disciples. But, you can imagine their response.
When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.
This is the guy who in verse one of chapter 9, Luke says he was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” And the reason he was on his way to Jerusalem was to find and kill Christians.
Paul is covered by the blood of the church. And now he comes to Jerusalem and says, “Who are the key believers. I want to learn under you.”
And, of course, they’re not too excited about that idea. They’re all afraid of him. They don’t believe he’s a real disciple. They think he wants to kill them.
Picture what’s going on here: we have this guy who’s been persecuting the church. He comes in and says, “Guys, I want to be with you. I want to learn from you. I want to join your team of disciples.”
Can you imagine them huddling up together: “Okay, who’s going to sponsor this guy? Who’s going to take this guy home with them? I’m not going to do it. There’s no way I’m doing it.”
Remember the old cereal commercial? Mom says, “This cereal’s good for you. Try it.”
“I’m not going to try it. You try it. I’m not going to try it. Let’s get Mikey.”
Well, they have this conversation: “I’m not going to take him in. You take him in. I’m not going to take him in. Let’s get Barnabas.”
Look at Acts 9:27
But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.
Barnabas vouches for him, and for these guys, that’s enough.
The disciples know the character and integrity of Barnabas to such a deep level that all he has to do is say the word.
So they say, “If he’s good enough for Barnabas, he’s good enough for us.”
So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.
“Moved about freely in Jerusalem” is a technical phrase. It means he became part of the fellowship. Paul became part of the disciples fellowship; and it was because Barnabas was his bleacher person.
Now, bleacher people have a wonderful gift, and that is: they believe you can change.
They believe that through the power of God what Paul wrote is really true — that you can become a new creation. “Old things are passed away. Behold, all things are new.”
Who you were yesterday doesn’t limit who you can be today. You have a new life in Christ.
Bleacher people give the gift of believing people can change.
And Barnabas is willing to take that risk with Paul.
Barnabas says, “Look at the change in his life. Look what’s happened between him and God. Look how’s he’s devoting his life to the gospel. Take it from me: he can be trusted.”
Now the whole spread of the gospel to the Gentiles, to all of us in this room, happened because of Paul.
And what enabled Paul to have entrance into this community was the fact that Barnabas believed God could change even the worst of sinners.
Paul’s acceptance into the church happened because one bleacher person gave him this wonderful gift of starting over — the gift of the second chance, the gift of a new day, the gift of believing in him.
Alright, the next place we see Barnabas is Acts 11. Acts 11:19.
There has been some persecution of the church, so Christians scatter from Jerusalem to many different places.
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 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.
So, there’s a fundamental shift in the spread of the good news. They now begin to speak to Gentiles.
The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
Now, news of this gets back to the church in Jerusalem, and here’s what’s going on — this is an absolutely critical moment in the life of the church, and we need to see the drama in this.
Up to this point, the gospel had been spread essentially among Jewish people, and now we have these daring souls who say, “If it’s good for the Israelites, maybe it’s good for the Gentiles.”
And so they do something that had been unheard-of up until this point.
And amazingly, the Gentiles begin to respond. The hand of God is with them, and these Gentiles, these pagans, commit their lives to Christ.
And word gets back to the church in Jerusalem.
So how’s the mother church going to respond? Will they stop this movement? Will they say, “No, the faith needs to be restricted to our ethnic group.”
Or will they allow the faith to become a global, universal call to all men and women?
And who are they going to send to Antioch to investigate this new movement?
Of course, they send Barnabas.
News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.
And then look at his response. You can guess what it’s going to be.
When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.
He was glad. He’s the first one to welcome the Gentiles into the church.
Where others held back, because they felt the Gentiles were unclean, Barnabas has God’s heart for people. He’s just filled with joy.
And the key word in this verse, of course, is “encouraged.”
What’s interesting about the word encourage is — it’s a Greek verb, “parakaleo,” and it can be translated in a lot of different ways.
Encouraged here means challenged, which is another thing bleacher people do. They don’t allow you to settle for anything less than spiritual greatness.
Encourage in other places means, “to comfort,” like in Acts 16 where Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus is dying and he’s taken up to heaven where Jesus says, “He is comforted.” It’s the same word.
So Parakaleo sometimes means “to encourage”, sometimes it means “to challenge”, sometimes it means “to comfort.”
So, sometimes, when you have a bleacher person in your life, there’s a high degree of challenge, and sometimes, pain. Sometimes confrontation happens.
But you always have this sense that this person is confronting you because he/she loves you, and they know you.
And they love you so much — as God loves you so much — that they share God’s passionate conviction that you don’t stop; you don’t quit; you don’t let up, before you’ve become all that God made you to be.
Bleacher people have that vision for you. And they just can’t stand to think of you falling short of that, because they love you so much. And they long for you to taste the fullness and the goodness of God in this life.
So they just say, “You can go farther. You can fly higher. You can trust Christ more. You can think deeper. You can love more fully. Set the bar higher. Try it again.”
They just play that role in your life.
Now look at Barnabas in Chapter 11. Acts 11:25.
Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 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.
Barnabas remembers Paul. He remembers his potential. He’s a bleacher person. He’s got a vision for what God could do through Paul. So he goes back, gets him, takes him under his wing — even though it means more work for him. He’s not only going to help these new believers in Antioch, he’s going to develop Paul into a great leader.
Now, notice this — this is a significant thing in Greek literature — notice the order of their names.
Acts 11:29 and 30.
The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
Notice whose name is first: Barnabas is the leader, so he’s listed first.
Look at chapter 12, verse 25. Acts 12:25. This is after another mission.
When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.
Barnabas and Saul — Barnabas is the leader.
And the same thing in Acts 13:2.
The Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
Now in chapter 13 something begins to happen. Paul’s gifts and maturity begin to flourish, and their roles become reversed. The mantle of leadership passes from Barnabas to Paul.
Look at Acts 13, verse 13.
Paul and his companions sailed to Perga.
Paul and his companions — Barnabas doesn’t even get mentioned; he’s just one of the companions. Paul’s the leader now.
And from here on out, Paul’s the leader — and, generally, his name is first.
Now, think about this from a human perspective.
Barnabas hasn’t done a great job of career management. He’s not positioned himself properly.
His mission was a success. He should have been making sure he got the credit for it. He should have gotten his name out more prominently.
But here’s the deal — he’s a bleacher person. His life is not about career management.
His life is about what Henry Nouwen called, “downward mobility.” His life is about descending into greatness.
As followers of Christ, and as we grow and mature in our faith, our lives should become more and more about descending into greatness.
Think about Barnabas. He could have been jealous; he could have longed for Paul’s status. Instead, he rejoices in it. His joy is in recognizing and developing someone else’s greatness.
And now Paul’s ministry will go on to become far more visible and substantial than his own. And no one rejoices in this fact more than Barnabas. That’s a bleacher person.
Do you want to be that kind of a person? It’s descending into greatness.
And there’s nothing petty or small about him. His life is about something bigger than where he stacks up on the ladder.
And we live in a world of people who keep trying to climb, and what they discover is — life just keeps getting smaller and smaller the higher they climb. They get higher and higher, and it means less and less.
And Barnabas, this bleacher person, has learned the great secret — just give it up! For God’s sake, just give it up.
Alright, another thing about bleacher people — Acts 13:13.
From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem.
Now what’s going on here is — John deserts them. For whatever reason, he leaves them. But then later on, he decides, he wants another chance.
Look at Acts 15:36
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.”
Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.
They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Now, imagine for a moment this confrontation between the two of them. Imagine Barnabas telling Paul, as he may have done — we don’t know, but I suspect he probably said something to this effect:
“Paul, who stood by you when no one else would? Who believed in you, when everyone else said you’d never change? How can you deny a second chance to John?”
He’s a bleacher person — and, again, he’s got great strength. He stands up to Paul when he disagrees with him.
And Luke doesn’t say that one of them was wrong or one was right, that one was sinning or one was not sinning.
But, look at 2 Timothy 4:11 real quick. Paul is giving instructions to young Timothy. He says:
Only Luke is with me.
Then, look what he says:
Get Mark and bring him with you,
This is the same guy — John Mark. “Get Mark and bring him with you.” Then he pays him a great compliment:
because he is helpful to me in my ministry.
Now, why is Mark even available? The same reason Paul is there. Because of the life of this bleacher person.
What if Barnabas had given up on Mark?
Bleacher people are people who do not give up on you.
Bleacher people are people who stand with you when you fail.
When you blow it – they’re the ones that don’t run away.
They’re the ones that say, “I’m your sister. I’m your brother.”
They know how to make it through conflict and bring out the best in people.
Let me give you a couple ideas about how to be a bleacher person to people you may be in conflict with. And some of you may be in conflict with some very difficult people.
And the first idea is so basic I almost hesitate to mention it. And that is, in conflict, bleacher people give the gift of prayer.
Bleacher people give the gift of prayer. Jesus says in Matthew 5:44 about people you may have difficulty with:
Pray for those who persecute you.
Pray for those who hurt you.
Pray for those who wound you.
Pray for those who say bad things to, and about you.
Pray for those who cause you trouble.
Pray for those people you can hardly even tolerate–that you don’t admire.
Pray for them.
I’ll tell you why this is so important. When I have conflict with people because they’re difficult people, maybe they’re troubled people — I see bad habits or patterns in their lives — my desire is I want to fix them.
And I often have, what I think, are wonderful ideas about how to do that.
The truth is, I can’t fix anyone. I can’t change anyone.
And it’s a very good thing that I can’t, because if I had that kind of power over another person, I would do very serious damage to them.
I can’t be trusted with that kind of power, and neither can you, and God knows that.
God has placed a key to every human heart in the hands of every human being.
And if you’re real clever with people, and some of you are, you may be able to control people or manipulate them or coerce them or flatter them.
You may be able to get behavioral compliance, but you can’t control someone’s heart.
That door is only opened from the inside. You can’t change anyone. Only God can do that.
And God, himself, will not do that unless the person asks him to — unless the person allows it.
Therefore, the single most important thing you can do for someone, especially for a difficult someone, is pray.
Jesus had one of the most amazing conversations in human history with his friend Peter, just before Jesus died.
Jesus knew Peter was weak. He was about to deny him. So Jesus said these words: “Peter, Satan has asked to sift you like wheat.” That is, “You’re going to be tempted and you’re going to fall short.”
And then, Jesus says this: “But I have prayed for you, Peter. I’ve prayed for you that your faith will not fail.”
This is an amazing thing. Jesus himself, the Son of God, when he sees his beloved friend about to make the greatest mistake in his life, doesn’t fix him — doesn’t try to control him, doesn’t use condemnation or shame or a long lecture, doesn’t use supernatural power to rewire Peter’s brain.
He loves Peter.
He deeply wants Peter to make the right choice. But he steps back and allows Peter the freedom to succeed or fail on his own.
And this one thing is the main thing Jesus does. — “I have prayed for you.”
Now, if Jesus, the Son of God, doesn’t fix Peter, what in the world makes you and I think we can fix the people in our lives? We can’t.
And sometimes that’s so painful with your children or your spouse or someone you’ve known a long time. You can’t fix them. The single most important thing you can do is pray for them. So do that.
“Especially,” Jesus says, “pray for those who persecute you.” Because when you do that, not only does that set in motion God’s work in that person’s life, but something also happens to you.
It’s real hard to hang on to bitterness and resentment and hostility and judgment towards someone you’re authentically praying for. It’s just real hard to hold both of those things in the human heart.
If you have conflict with someone, if you have a difficult person in your life — the first thing I’m asking you to do is pray for them.
Then, there’s a second way you can be a bleacher person to someone who you’re having conflict with. And really this is a gift you can give them.
Writers of Scripture, talking to broken human communities often put it like this: “Accept one another. Bear with one another.” Jesus said, “Judge not.”
This is how Dallas Willard put it. I wish we could have these words tattooed on our brains this week.
If we would really help those close to us, and if we would learn to live together with our family and neighbors in the power of the kingdom, we must abandon the deeply rooted practice of condemning and blaming.
Just abandon the deeply rooted practice.
“Don’t judge anymore,” Jesus said.
It doesn’t mean that you tolerate bad behavior. You may need to confront.
Just give up contempt.
Give up looking down.
Give up labeling.
And remember, this person, this difficult person is no different than you — an imperfect, fallen human being who must be loved as is.
“Therefore,” the writer of Scripture says, “accept one another.”
So give up trying to fix them.
Pray for them.
And accept them.
That’s how you can be a bleacher person to the person you’re in conflict with.
I need to be a bleacher person in the life of someone else. And I need bleacher people in my life.
I don’t know how else to say this — you can’t live, you can’t grow, without bleacher people in your life.
So you need to find them, you need to spend time with them, you need to take care of them.
The greatest gift in my life is my wife. Kathy is like Barnabas to me. She is the primary bleacher person in my life. When I want to give up, Kathy is the one cheering me on.
I can’t tell you what a gift that is. It offers such security.
Bleacher people are the greatest gifts that God can give to you and me. So find them, hang out with them, care for them and thank them — let them know how much they mean to you.
And be one — be a bleacher person to someone else.
Alright, let me pray as Christian and the team come to lead us in a closing song.
Blue Oaks Church