We first meet Barnabas as a generous Levite who sells some land and gives the proceeds to the disciples (Acts 4:37). Landowners from Cyprus were known as wealthy and influential. It is easy to imagine how this benevolent and compassionate man would befriend a former persecutor like Saul. Barnabas quickly discerns the sincerity and integrity of this new convert and is the first to extend a hand of friendship to him. Jerusalem Believers had good reason to be afraid of Saul (8:3; 9:1 & 26). However, Barnabas testifies how Saul saw and heard the Lord on the Damascus road and thereafter preached boldly in Damascus (9:27). The high esteem in which Barnabas is held by the other disciples is proven by the influence he exerts: their acceptance of Saul is almost immediate.
In the East, it is common to give a person a nickname which best reflects their character. Such was the case with Abraham, Sarah, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas. Luke informs us the apostles christen him “The Son of Consolation” (Acts 4:36 KJV). However, the word “consolation” (parakletos) also means “one who encourages and comforts; counselor, intercessor, helper”. It is the same word Jesus uses when He refers to the Holy Spirit (Jn.14:26).
It is Barnabas’ nature to be gracious. Although he is soon eclipsed by the dynamic ministry of Saul (Paul), he displays no trace of envy. His first ministry assignment is to discover the level of spiritual growth among the Believers at Antioch (Acts 11:22). True to his name, he encourages them to remain faithful to God. Realizing his own inadequacies, Barnabas soon seeks the help of Paul to strengthen the Believers in Antioch. They co-teach for an entire year (v.25-26). The Church there starts a relief fund and Paul and Barnabas deliver the contributions to Jerusalem. The success of this ministry team is demonstrated by the way in which the Antioch Believers generously respond to the needs of others (v.29).
Barnabas is sent with Paul on what has come to be known as “The First Missionary Journey” (Acts 13:1-2). The Holy Spirit specifically chooses these two to minister in Seleucia, Cyprus, Salamis, Paphos and other cities (13:4-6). At Antioch in Pisidia, Paul and Barnabas persuade the people to continue in the grace of God. The following Saturday, almost the entire city comes to hear them preach (13:43-44). Working together, they will come to be known as “beloved brethren who hazard their lives for the sake of the Gospel” (15:25-26). Many of Paul’s finest ministerial accomplishments are achieved in the company of Barnabas. Their combined efforts result in a chain of Gentile churches stretching deep into Asia Minor.
During this initial journey, young John Mark leaves Paul and Barnabas when they reach Pamphylia and returns to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). They wade bolding into the dangerous waters of heathenism, pressing on through Lystra, Iconium and Derbe. In these towns they find groups who embrace them and groups who oppose them (13:45 & 14:1). Paul and Barnabas teach, pray, minister and suffer together. They visit churches and appoint elders (14:23). When a lame man is healed at Lystra, the people attempt to worship them, calling Paul Jupiter and Barnabas Mercury. They return to Antioch, where their journey began, having traveled together nearly 1,400 miles. Barnabas does not condemn non-Jewish converts, but embraces them as living examples of the grace of God. He is happy to report how God has opened the door of faith to them (v.27). But the conversion of the Gentiles is an enigma to the Jewish disciples back in Jerusalem. The situation has to be addressed and decisions must be made.
Were it not for Paul’s comment in the book of Galatians, we might imagine Barnabas to be almost faultless. But we discover he is capable of compromise. The question regarding unclean and kosher foods is an important matter in the early Church. If it remains unsettled, young converts may stumble. Paul is determined Christianity will not be reduced to a cultic form of Judaism. Peter is accused of hypocrisy in this matter and Barnabas is influenced by his actions (Gal 2:13). Although Paul and Barnabas have dined together with Gentiles countless times during their journey, Barnabas now withdraws to eat only kosher food. It is difficult for Paul to grasp how a man with whom he has traveled so extensively can now compromise. Paul’s language in this passage shows he is surprised one as spiritually strong as Barnabas can be so easily influenced. Regardless of his frustration, Paul’s choice of words concerning the temporary wavering of Barnabas implies a deep affection for his friend. The life of a disciple cannot be judged by one mistake.
Paul and Barnabas are active participants at the Jerusalem Council where the controversy regarding Gentiles converts is rectified (Acts 15:2). They return to Antioch to preach and teach God’s Word (v.35). A second missionary journey is in the planning stages, when a disagreement breaks out between Paul and Barnabas (v.36-40). Barnabas is determined to take along his cousin John Mark, but Paul opposes the idea (Col. 4:10). His reasoning is simple: John Mark had previously abandoned them in Pamphylia. The generous character of Barnabas manifests as he seeks to give John Mark a second chance to prove himself. The dispute concludes and Barnabas sails off with John Mark to Cyprus and Paul chooses Silas as his traveling companion.
This decision must have been difficult for Paul, for it was Barnabas that befriended Paul when others were skeptical of him. But Paul realizes John Mark needs to learn a bitter lesson in ministerial fidelity. Paul demands of others the unswerving loyalty and dedication he demands of himself. At this point in his life, Paul accurately determines John Mark is not yet ready to commit his life to ministry. While Barnabas remains true to his own tender nature, Paul is true to his own resolve. In the end, John Mark learns from his mistake and profits from it. The gospel he will later write is the most succinct and dynamic account of Christ’s life extant. As Paul approaches his final days, he specifically sends for John Mark, describing him as “profitable for the ministry” (II Tim. 4:11). The young man Paul refuses to take with him as his ministry begins is the man he wants with him as his ministry draws to a close.
The rest of the New Testament provides little additional information about Barnabas, but it is clear that he continues to minister. Paul makes a favorable comment to the Corinthian Believers that Barnabas supports himself in the ministry, refusing to live on the charity of the Church. He willingly accepts physical labor rather than place undue financial pressure on others (I Cor. 9:6).
The Scriptural record shows how the finer characteristics of Barnabas begin to emerge when he first befriends Saul. But a greater attribute manifests as he allows himself to be eclipsed by the stronger character of Paul. Like Jonathan and John the Baptist, he is content to yield his prominent position to one he knows to be the better man. As the saga in Acts unfolds, Barnabas fades into obscurity. Church tradition holds that John Mark and Barnabas return to his native island of Cyprus. Later they are sent by Paul to Corinth where unbelieving Jews seize, insult, torment, and finally stone Barnabas to death.
The Son of Encouragement is characterized by a gracious and generous disposition who rejoices in the spiritual growth of new converts (Acts 11:23). A review of the entire panorama of his ministry leads us to conclude he is indeed “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith – a man who led many to Christ” (v.24). This disciple was free from petty jealousies, saw the best in people, and was ready to give them a second chance. Following his example, let us lend a hand to those who stumble and be quick to see their potential.
Compared to Barnabas, how do I rate?
The following is a list of Barnabas’ characteristics and attributes.
Using this “checklist” rate yourself from 1 to 5, with “one” representing “not very much” and “five” representing “all the time”.
1. I rejoice in the spiritual growth of others _______
2. I see the best in others _______
3. I am free from petty jealousies _______
4. I lend a hand to those who stumble spiritually _______
5. I am ready to give others a second chance _______
6. I recognize the potential in others _______
7. I am ready to mentor young disciples _______
8. I am eager to help others to teach _______
9. I am willing to take risks in order to win souls _______
10. I am quick to encourage others _______
11. According to your responses, what spiritual adjustments do you need to make?