Today, we take for granted that the Church exists and thrives around the globe. But in the first century a.d., the situation was very different. In less than 15 years after Jesus’ resurrection (a.d. 30), His followers experienced the first wave of persecution. In turn, Stephen and James were martyred (a.d. 35 and 44, respectively), and Peter was imprisoned (a.d. 44).
It would have been easy for believers at that time to feel despondent and paranoid, that is, unless the Spirit had raised up a courageous and kindhearted Christian named Barnabas. Here are just a few of the amazing things the Savior accomplished through this remarkable disciple:
- Barnabas gave generously to the fledgling Christian movement (Acts 4:36-37);
- Barnabas vouched for the integrity of a persecutor-turned-Christian named Saul (later known as Paul; 9:26-27);
- Barnabas partnered with Saul to teach believers at Syrian Antioch (11:25-26);
- Barnabas joined with Saul in bringing famine relief to the Christians in Judea (11:30); and,
- Barnabas took a lead role with Saul in the first recorded missionary journey of the early Church (12:25; 13:1-3).
In the next section, we will discover how this unappreciated believer made a tremendous contribution in helping the early Church to become established, grow, and thrive for generations to come.
The life of Barnabas gives us many examples that we can use both in our personal lives and our ministries. I have put together a list of things we can learn about Barnabas from the Bible, as well as lessons that we can apply to our own lives.
By the way, you can feel free to use this list for any of the following:
- Preparing sermons on discipleship
- Writing Sunday school lessons
- Refreshing and customizing an existing Sunday school curriculum
- Personal or family devotions
Let’s get a closer look at Barnabas!
Interesting facts about Barnabas
- “Joseph” (Acts 4:36) was the birth name of Barnabas. “Joseph” means “may [God] add” and brings to mind the better known biblical character by the same name in Genesis (specifically, chaps. 37, 39–50). Barnabas, like his Old Testament counterpart, wholeheartedly lived for God and sacrificially served His people.
- The name “Barnabas” (Acts 4:36) was given by the apostles and could mean either “son of encouragement” or “son of exhortation.” This fact spotlights his aptitude for offering consolation to his fellow believers in times of affliction and his giftedness in teaching others the truths of the gospel.
- Barnabas was a Levite who came from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Throughout the period of the Old Testament, there were three main categories of clergypersons: high priests, priests, and Levites. Levites such as Barnabas were subordinate sanctuary officials who oversaw the minor duties performed in the Jerusalem temple.
- Barnabas was a Jew of the dispersion, which refers to those forced out of Israel after various foreign conquests. His Levite heritage meant he knew the Mosaic Law. Furthermore, Barnabas probably spoke Greek and was familiar with Gentile life and Hellenistic Judaism. The latter refers to religious customs practiced by Jews who spoke Greek and observed Greek culture.
- In addition to his kind and generous spirit, Barnabas maintained an openhanded attitude toward material wealth. For example, rather than hoard his possessions, Barnabas sold a field he owned and gave the money he received to the apostles (vs. 37). Even though Levites traditionally lived off the temple system, Barnabas owned real estate (evidently on Cyprus). Yet, when he trusted in Jesus for salvation, Barnabas freely donated the proceeds from the sale of his property to meet the needs of others.
- Initially, only Barnabas was willing to associate with Saul (Paul) after his conversion (9:26-27). Barnabas helped Saul by taking him to the apostles in Jerusalem and explaining that the Lord had revealed Himself to Saul and spoken to him. Barnabas also testified that when Saul was in Damascus, he had evangelized courageously in the name of Jesus. Because Barnabas was highly respected by the Christians in Jerusalem, they accepted what he had to say about Saul. As a result, this once-violent opponent of the church was able to associate freely with Jesus’ disciples and proclaim the gospel to the unsaved (vs. 28).
- Barnabas possessed exceptional spiritual qualities. In particular, his life was under the control of the Spirit, and Barnabas had an unshakable confidence in God. Moreover, Barnabas had the understanding and affirming nature required for making an honest appraisal of the flourishing church ministry at Syrian Antioch (11:22-24). This was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, after Rome and Alexandria.
- After Barnabas spent some time in Syrian Antioch, he became convinced that the Gentile conversions occurring there were real. He was overjoyed to see the grace of God at work. In addition, Barnabas exhorted the believers to remain faithful to the Lord with all their hearts (vs. 23).
- Barnabas encouraged Saul to become a missionary leader. Indeed, the great spiritual awakening occurring at Syrian Antioch provided Barnabas an opportunity to contact Saul, who was ministering at his hometown of Tarsus. Barnabas was even humble enough to step aside when it became evident to him that Saul was the best person to lead the church in the new mission to the Gentiles (vss. 25-26).
- Barnabas, along with Saul, organized the collection of funds among Gentile Christians to help their fellow Jewish believers in Judea. They were languishing under a severe famine. Though one faith community was primarily Jewish and the other mainly Gentile, both groups strove for unity by helping the other in any way they could. Barnabas and Saul took the monies collected to Jerusalem, and the funds were distributed in an appropriate manner to the believers in need (vss. 27-30).
- Barnabas was one of the gifted prophets and teachers in the church at Syrian Antioch (13:1). The Prophets were authorized spokespersons and representatives of God before His people. The message of the prophet could contain elements of proclamation (namely, forthtelling) or prediction (namely, foretelling). Teachers were believers who instructed others in godly truth.
- The Spirit appointed Barnabas, along with Saul, to bring the gospel to the Gentiles living in the eastern Mediterranean region of the Roman Empire (vs. 2). While the church at Syrian Antioch was gathered together to worship the Lord and fast, they held a commissioning ceremony. This included the whole assembly laying hands on Barnabas and Saul before they were sent on their journey (vs. 3). That act was a way for the congregation to join with the missionaries in their work, as well as recognizing God’s call upon them.
- During their missionary journey, Barnabas and Saul evangelized on Cyprus, as well as in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (13:4–14:20). While at Cyprus, Saul started using the Roman form of his name, Paul. Also, initially, Barnabas was the prominent member of the pair. Yet, by the time he and Paul left Cyprus, the latter became the more prominent member.
- During one episode, a crowd at Lystra mistook Barnabas for Zeus and Paul for Hermes (14:12). Zeus was a Greek sky deity, while Hermes was a messenger deity. The evangelists did all they could to restrain the pagan priest of Zeus from offering sacrifices to them (vss. 13, 18).
- God used Barnabas, along with Paul, to bring many Gentiles to faith in the Savior. It is not difficult to imagine the excitement felt among the disciples in the church at Syrian Antioch, especially as they heard the missionaries recall the wonderful things the Spirit accomplished through them (14:26-27). In turn, Jesus’ followers welcomed the news that other congregations had been successfully established by the evangelists on their first missionary journey.
- Barnabas, along with Paul, supported himself on his missionary excursions by earning a living (1 Cor. 9:6). The two could have asserted their right to be sustained by the donations made by other Christians, especially since doing so would have enabled Barnabas and Paul to operate as full-time evangelists. Yet, at times, the two voluntarily set aside this option in order to offer the gospel freely to the unsaved (vss. 12, 18).
- Fourteen years after Paul’s conversion, Barnabas, along with Titus (an uncircumcised Gentile Christian), accompanied Paul to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1). The goal of this trip was to secure the acceptance of the other apostles in the holy city for the gospel of grace the missionaries proclaimed to non-Jews. During a private meeting, the leaders of the congregation in Jerusalem affirmed the message the evangelists preached at the church in Syrian Antioch (vss. 2-10).
- On one occasion, Barnabas and Peter were led astray by religious legalists who claimed that faith was not enough for salvation (vss. 11-13). Evidently, Peter was among the first persons who openly refused to eat with Gentile Christians. Accordingly, Paul publicly rebuked Peter. Undoubtedly, Paul thought that by doing so, he could change the minds of others, too, including his former mentor, Barnabas (vs. 14).
- When religious legalists from Jerusalem again came to Syrian Antioch, Barnabas, along with Paul, vigorously opposed them. The two missionaries had witnessed the Spirit at work among uncircumcised Gentiles and lives changed in ways the Mosaic Law could never have accomplished. Barnabas and Paul joined a delegation of believers sent by the church at Syrian Antioch to Jerusalem to deliberate the matter among the apostles and elders there. Along the way, the entourage told Christians about the conversions of Gentiles in Antioch, along with the places Barnabas and Paul had visited (Acts 15:1-3).
- The Jerusalem church and its leaders welcomed Barnabas, Paul, and the rest of the delegation from Syrian Antioch (vs. 4). Then, during the Council that followed, Barnabas and Paul described how God had showed His acceptance of uncircumcised, believing Gentiles by enabling the missionaries to perform many signs and wonders among them (vs. 12). Undoubtedly, the evangelists mentioned the blinding of a sorcerer on Cyprus, the healing of a crippled man in Lystra, and the large numbers who followed the Lord in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe.
- At the conclusion of the Council, Barnabas, as well as Paul, Judas Barsabbas and Silas, carried a letter from the Jerusalem church to the congregation at Syrian Antioch. The letter apologized for the disturbance created by the legalists, discredited them, affirmed the integrity of Barnabas and Paul, explained why Judas and Silas had come to Antioch, and asked the Gentile Christians to avoid several behaviors offensive to Jewish believers (vss. 22-29).
- Barnabas and Paul had a sharp disagreement over whether to take John Mark (the cousin of Barnabas; Col. 4:10) with them on a second missionary journey. Previously, during the first missionary journey, as the group began to evangelize in Perga, John Mark abandoned the team and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 12:25; 13:5, 13). Paul looked so dimly on this turn of events that he parted company with Barnabas over giving John Mark another chance. Consequently, while Barnabas returned to Cyprus with John Mark, Paul took Silas with him to evangelize Galatia (15:36-41).
- The legacy of Barnabas not only included him being a prophet and teacher, but also an apostle (13:1; 14:14). Also, according to the Acts of Barnabas (possibly written in the fifth century), Barnabas was martyred for the Christian faith on Cyprus in 61 d.
Practical lessons from the life of Barnabas
- During the years of Barnabas’ service in the early church, there is no record of him obsessing about his reputation. Instead, he focused on living wholeheartedly for God, especially in unselfish ministry to others. Likewise, our main objective is not to build up our distinctive “brand identity” (so to speak) as Christians. Rather, it is to be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading and invest our time and talents in evangelizing the lost, edifying the saints, and exalting the Lord.
- Barnabas put others first, especially in providing encouragement and exhortation. His example reminds us that Christian service is primarily not about us, but about those whom the Spirit directs us to serve. Regardless of the circumstances and how we may feel, the Spirit empowers us to console those who are demoralized and implore those who are wavering in their faith.
- Barnabas ministered effectively in both Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts. Today, more than ever, the Spirit calls us to minister in diverse, cross-cultural situations. This requires us to be students of the world in which we live, along with the Word we seek to proclaim. It also necessitates us remaining flexible and adroit, especially as we encounter the unsaved in unfamiliar cultural contexts.
- While Barnabas lived in the present, his heart was planted in the soil of God’s eternal kingdom. Similarly, our existential horizon is not limited to our brief life on earth, but includes the Lord’s everlasting reign. As such, we should follow the kind and generous spirit Barnabas modeled, including the cultivation of an openhanded attitude toward our earthly possessions. Doing so frees us to operate responsibly and charitably toward others in need.
- Barnabas’s ministry in the church was distinguished by his substantial generosity. One of the hallmarks of salvation is letting go of our greed and right to control our own finances. Barnabas showed the Savior’s lordship in this regard.
- Barnabas was willing to take prudent risks, such as when he vouched for Paul’s integrity as a genuine disciple of Jesus. We, too, may have the God-given privilege of putting our lives on the line for the sake of the gospel. This does not mean being foolhardy in our risk-taking. Instead, we are to be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading in ministering on behalf of others, even when it may contradict the shortsightedness of conventional wisdom.
- Barnabas stands out for his exceptional character qualities. This can also be true of us as Jesus’ disciples. The process involves our maintaining an unshakable confidence in the Lord and living in the power of the Spirit. When we follow His lead through every life circumstance, He enables us to grow in Christlikeness and flourish as faithful followers of the Savior.
- Barnabas was energized by the ministry opportunities the Spirit summoned him to undertake. Likewise, ministering to others in the power of the Spirit need not be a source of drudgery for us. The Spirit can fill us with joy, particularly as we see the grace of God at work among the saved and unsaved around us.
- Rather than work alone, Barnabas sought the help of others, such as Paul. Admittedly, such an attitude is out of sync with our contemporary, independent-minded culture. Nonetheless, the Spirit invites us to embrace a team-oriented approach to Christian ministry. This includes proactively seeking out other believers with whom we can partner in reaching the lost with the gospel and building up Jesus’ disciples in their faith.
- Barnabas did not feel it was necessary for him to remain in the limelight of Christian ministry. Concededly, this disposition is not embraced by today’s “me-first” society. Still, the Spirit can give us the humility and fortitude to set aside our personal agendas. This includes standing behind other disciples whom He raises to take on positions of leadership within our faith community.
- Barnabas invested his intellect and energy to bring relief to others who were afflicted. In order for the Spirit to work through us in similar ways, we must first jettison the impulse to be self-absorbed. Next, we need to take into account how others around us are doing. Then, the Spirit can enable us to partner with other Christians to alleviate the suffering of people in distress. In turn, this becomes a tangible way for us to show the love of Jesus and the power of the gospel to transform lives.
- Barnabas recognized that serving as a disciple of Jesus involved more than just meeting the temporal needs of people. As an apostle, prophet, and teacher, he was committed to proclaim the gospel to the lost. We are also wise not to diminish or ignore heralding the good news to the unsaved. While acts of beneficence have their place, they are an inadequate substitute for sharing the saving truth about Jesus with our family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.
- Barnabas understood that the effective spread of the gospel was centered in prayer. The importance of prayer for our lives and ministries is equally important today. Jesus wants us, as His Spirit-filled disciples, to go before the Father’s throne of grace with our petitions. Our Christian service is immeasurably enhanced when we bathe all our efforts in prayer to the Lord.
- Barnabas realized that he was not able to control events as they unfolded before his eyes. We, too, may be unable to rein in seemingly chaotic episodes we encounter as a result of telling others about Jesus. The best course of action is for us to trust the Savior to watch over us and depend on the Spirit to keep us clearheaded in our thoughts and aboveboard in our actions.
- For Barnabas, the ultimate goal was bringing as many unsaved as possible to faith in the Son. In a similar vein, this continues to be our foremost objective. As we walk in step with the Spirit down an uncharted path of Christian service, He will accomplish wonderful things through us, for the glory of God.
- Barnabas did not insist that other believers financially support him in his ministry endeavors. Perhaps the Spirit is prompting us to take a similar stance. This does not mean that our status as Jesus’ disciples is somehow diminished, especially in comparison to His other followers. Rather, it means we have the distinctive privilege of offering the good news to the lost based on the monetary resources God has made available to us through our current employment.
- Barnabas cared about how other believers perceived his beliefs and actions. This fact reminds us that what we do as Jesus’ disciples impacts a wider circle of saved and unsaved people. On some occasions, the Spirit allows us to be affirmed in our ministry endeavors. Then, on other occasions, He may permit us to be corrected for maintaining unsuitable attitudes or participating in ill-advised actions. Regardless of the situation, God can give us the grace we need to become more effective servants to the lost.
- Barnabas willingly faced the controversies that arose in the ministry of the gospel. From this we see that being a faithful follower of Jesus may involve disagreements with others who have distorted views about the teachings and priorities of the Church. We need not fear moments of dissention and debate. As with the first generation of Christians, the Spirit can also guide us to remain humble in our attitude, biblically grounded in our theological convictions, and civil in our responses to others who disagree with us.
- Barnabas was willing to forgive other believers. He was also eager to give them another opportunity to become more effective in their service for Christ. Though Barnabas had seen the failures and limitations of John Mark in other settings, Barnabas also saw the potential for growth and restoration. He was right. Even Paul later admitted that John was a valued colleague in the work of the ministry.
- The trajectory of Barnabas’ life included his work as an apostle, prophet, and teacher. Similarly, the legacy of our accomplishments as Jesus’ disciples spans the arc of our decades-long walk with the Lord. It requires that we remain committed to serve others in His name and for His glory.
Want to learn more about Barnabas?
Be sure to check out the following print and web-based resources:
- Barnabas 2015. Wikipedia.
- Bruce FF 1985. The Pauline Circle. Eugene: Wipf and Stock.
- Burge GM 1993. Barnabas. In GF Hawthorne, et al (eds.), Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 66–7. Downers Grove: InterVarsity.
- Daniels JB 1992. Barnabas. In DE Freedman (ed.), The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:610–1. New York: Doubleday.
- Easton MG 1897. Barnabas. In Easton’s Bible Dictionary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
- Enslin MS 1962. Barnabas. In GA Buttrick (ed.), The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 1:356–7. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
- Fenlon JF 1907. St. Barnabas. In K Knight (ed.), The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- Hiebert DE 2009. Barnabas. In M Silva (ed.), The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1:508–9. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
- Jacobs HE 1979. Barnabas. In GW Bromiley (ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1:432. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
- Saint Barnabas 2015. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
- Barnabas: Son of Encouragement 2015. Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States.