Barnabas was an important early Christian disciple and missionary companion of the apostle Paul. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Barnabas was an early Christian believer mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters.
He was a Levite from Cyprus who sold his property and gave the money to the church. Barnabas brought Paul to the apostles after his conversion and later joined him on missionary journeys to spread the gospel.
In this comprehensive article, we will explore Barnabas’ background, his early support of the fledgling Christian church, his fruitful partnership with Paul, and the legacy he left as one of the most influential early Christian missionaries.
Barnabas’ Background and Conversion
His Jewish roots
Barnabas, originally known as Joseph, was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Cyprus. As a Levite, his family belonged to the priestly tribe responsible for assisting in worship and taking care of the Jerusalem temple. Young Joseph received religious training in Jewish laws and scriptures.
Growing up devout likely gave Joseph a deep foundation in the beliefs and practices central to Judaism.
Early conversion to Christianity
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christianity quickly spread from Jerusalem to other areas like Cyprus. When the faith reached the island in the early years, Joseph converted and became an ardent follower of Christ.
Adopting the new name Barnabas, meaning “son of encouragement,” he eagerly learned from the apostles and other believers. His spiritual zeal led him to live devotedly in voluntary poverty like other Christians.
Generous gift to the Jerusalem church
Barnabas generously sold a field he owned and donated the entire proceeds to help the fledgling Jerusalem church amid poverty and persecution (Acts 4:36-37). His charitable act gave much-needed relief to struggling believers.
It also reflected how wholeheartedly this former wealthy Jew embraced Christ and a community founded on love and sharing. Barnabas’ selfless example surely inspired and strengthened the early Christians in Jerusalem and beyond.
Barnabas’ Crucial Role in Paul’s Ministry
Barnabas played a pivotal role in introducing Paul to the Jerusalem church leaders and validating his conversion, inviting Paul to assist the church in Antioch, and embarking on the first missionary journey to share the gospel with Gentiles.
Though not one of the twelve disciples, Barnabas’ encouragement and advocacy for Paul helped launch his ministry to the Gentiles.
Introduction of Paul to Jerusalem Church Leaders
After Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, the disciples in Jerusalem were understandably wary of this former persecutor of the church (Acts 9:26). Barnabas bridged the divide by bringing Paul to meet with the apostles and advocating for him, explaining how Paul had seen the Lord and boldly preached in Damascus (Acts 9:27).
Barnabas’ endorsement convinced the apostles to welcome Paul, launching his ministry. According to church tradition, Barnabas and Paul studied together under Gamaliel, so Barnabas could uniquely vouch for Paul’s transformation.
Invitation to Assist the Church in Antioch
When a thriving church developed in Antioch, Barnabas traveled there from Jerusalem and saw great potential for ministry. Recognizing the need for leaders, Barnabas immediately thought of Paul and went to Tarsus to recruit him (Acts 11:25-26).
Together they spent a “whole year” teaching “large numbers” in Antioch, laying the foundation for this church to become a vital early center of Christianity. Barnabas’ invitation gave Paul an open door to grow in his gifts and calling.
First Missionary Journey with Paul
The church leaders in Antioch, led by the Holy Spirit according to Acts 13:2, commissioned Barnabas and Paul for the first organized missionary journey to spread the gospel outside Israel. Though Paul later took the lead, Acts 13-14 refers to “Barnabas and Paul” undertaking this pivotal journey together to proclaim Christ in Cyprus and Asia Minor.
They shared the gospel boldly despite persecution, and planted fledgling churches that they returned to strengthen (Acts 14:21-23). By taking a chance on Paul and sticking with him through challenges on the journey, Barnabas helped catalyze the expansion of the early church.
Later Missionary Work and Legacy
Disagreement with Paul over John Mark
Barnabas had a major disagreement with the apostle Paul over whether to take John Mark with them on their second missionary journey. John Mark had abandoned them during their first journey, and Paul did not want him along this time. Barnabas, however, wanted to give his cousin a second chance.
Neither would relent, so Barnabas and Paul parted ways, with Barnabas taking Mark and sailing for Cyprus while Paul chose Silas and headed for Syria (Acts 15:36-41). This split demonstrates Barnabas’ grace and willingness to give people second chances, though it meant he and Paul would no longer minister together.
Subsequent missionary activity
After the disagreement over John Mark, the Bible does not mention Barnabas again. However, early church tradition holds that he continued his missionary work independently of Paul. According to some accounts, he preached mainly in his native Cyprus and was stoned to death by hostile Jews in Salamis around 61 AD.
Other traditions maintain that he traveled more widely, even reaching Italy and Egypt. Whatever the extent of his later travels, the evidence indicates Barnabas remained true to his calling as a missionary even after splitting with Paul.
Significance as one of the earliest Christian missionaries
As one of the first to embrace the commission to spread the gospel beyond Judea, Barnabas played a pivotal role in the growth of early Christianity. Some key contributions include:
- Introducing Saul (Paul) to the apostles and affirming his conversion, enabling Paul’s acceptance and ministry (Acts 9:26-27)
- Being commissioned along with Paul by the church in Antioch to undertake the first formal Christian missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3)
- Taking the gospel to Cyprus and establishing churches there (Acts 13:4-6)
- Mentoring John Mark and giving him a second chance at missionary service
- Demonstrating personal sacrifice by selling property to provide for the poor (Acts 4:36-37)
- Showing faith to welcome Gentile converts like Cornelius (Acts 11:24)
His example of faith, perseverance, generosity, grace toward others, and passion for spreading the gospel established ideals for mission work that continue to inspire Christians today.
In conclusion, Barnabas played a vital role in the early Christian church. His generosity enabled the poor Jerusalem congregation to grow. His advocacy ushered the former persecutor Paul into church leadership. His missionary travels with Paul spread the gospel across the Roman Empire.
And his commitment to disciple John Mark displayed his dedication to raising up the next generation. Barnabas richly lived up to his nickname as the “Son of Encouragement,” leaving an enduring legacy as one of the most influential early followers of Jesus.