Saint Barnabas, Apostle

Barnabas (whose original name was Joseph) was born of Jewish parents on the island of Cyprus about the beginning of the Christian Era. As a Levite (from which tribe the Temple priests came), he naturally spent much time in Jerusalem, probably even before the death of Jesus. He even seems to have settled there, where his relatives (the family of John Mark) had their homes (Acts 12:12). As well, he also had land which, following his conversion, he sold and donated the proceeds to the Christian community (Acts 4:36-37). Probably because of his success as a preacher he was given the name Barnabas, meaning “son of encouragement or consolation” by the community. Though little is known of his early life in the Church he seems to have been a person of some influence in the community.

When Saul, now preaching Christ as Saviour, had to flee from Jews in Damascus, he went to Jerusalem where the Christians did not want to approach him, being highly suspicious of the genuineness of his conversion. It was Barnabas who brought Saul to the leaders and guaranteed Saul’s conversion as real (Acts 9:27), although Saul (by then called Paul) said later on that he had only met Peter and James on that occasion (Galatians 1:18-19). Saul, probably feeling he was not yet accepted, then withdrew to his home town of Tarsus, while Barnabas seems to have remained in Jerusalem.

The event that brought them together again and opened to both the door to their lifework was ironically an indirect result of Saul’s own persecution. Among those who fled Jerusalem were some Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene who began preaching the Gospel to non-Jews in Antioch with great effect (Acts 11:20). When the news reached the leaders in Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas (who was a Cypriot himself) to investigate. Although a Jew, he saw the hand of God in what was going on. He then went to Tarsus to look for his friend Saul and persuaded him to go back with him to Antioch. Together they spent a whole year in Antioch preaching and labouring at Antioch and “taught a great many people”.

About this time too, when a severe famine struck Jerusalem, the Christians at Antioch made a collection and sent it to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Saul. (At this point in the story, Barnabas is being mentioned before Saul.) At the end of their mission, they returned to Antioch, bringing Barnabas’ cousin, John Mark, with them.

The church at Antioch now felt emboldened to reach further afield. So Barnabas and Saul, together with John Mark, were sent on what is now called Paul’s First Missionary Journey. They went first to preach the Gospel in Barnabas’ homeland, Cyprus, and then moved to Perge in Pampyhilia on the mainland (South Turkey today). Here John Mark left them; the reason is not given, but we know Saul felt it was a kind of desertion. From here the two apostles continued inland visiting a number of towns. They usually evangelised their fellow Jews first in each place but often met with fierce opposition and then would turn to the Gentiles. At Lystra, after they cured a lame man, they were taken for gods (Paul for Hermes or Mercury and Barnabas for Jupiter), but when the apostles told them to stop, the crowd turned against them and Saul was attacked and left for dead. They then retraced their route and set up Christian communities with local leaders in each place. On reaching Antioch again, they reported to their community on how God:

…had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. (Acts 14:27)

However, some of the Christians in Jerusalem were not happy with what they had heard and were insisting that circumcision was obligatory on all non-Jewish converts. This led to the “Council of Jerusalem” where the Christians from Antioch defended their policy and in the end won the approval of the whole assembly. But it was not quite the end of the controversy. Peter, after being criticised for socialising with Gentiles, stopped doing so and so apparently did Barnabas. For this they were publicly criticised by Paul.

Soon after this, Paul (now mentioned first) and Barnabas decided to repeat their earlier missionary journey. However, Barnabas wanted to take his cousin John Mark with them. Paul disagreed strongly, so they split. Paul continued on with Silas while Barnabas with Mark went to their native Cyprus.

From this time on, we know little or nothing of Barnabas’ life story. He still seems to be working as an apostle in the year 56 or 57. In 1 Corinthians (9:6) we learn that he is earning his own living, with the indication that he is on good terms with Paul. Later, we know that John Mark, in another sign of reconciliation, was with Paul (who was then a prisoner in Rome during the years 61-63). John Mark’s presence has been taken as an indication that Barnabas is no longer alive.

Various traditions tell of Barnabas as the first Bishop of Milan, preaching at Alexandria and Rome. He is said to have converted Rome’s fourth bishop, St Clement and, finally, to have suffered martyrdom in his native Cyprus. None of these stories can be validated. Tertullian (with little support) thinks Barnabas wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, and there is also an Epistle of Barnabas attributed to him. After the Twelve and Paul, Barnabas is one of the most esteemed figures among the first generation of Christians. Luke, in a rare moment of candour, speaks of Barnabas with affection, saying:

…he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.
(Acts 11:24)

Barnabas is remembered not only for his missionary zeal but for his openness (as a Jew) to the Gentiles, and for his seeing in the former fanatical Pharisee, Saul, the potential to be a great apostle for Christ and the Gospel.

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