June 11 – Barnabas

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Barnabas, apostle

Joseph was nick-named “Barnabas” by the apostles, the translation of this name given as “son of encouragement”. We first hear of him in Acts 4:36-37 where he generously sells a field, bringing the proceeds to the early church for the needy. He was a Jew (tribe of Levi) and a native of Cyprus.

In Acts 11 we hear that the early believers had been scattered because of the persecutions which had happened after Stephen’s stoning. Some had spread from Judea as far as Antioch. The church in Jerusalem heard the stories of the gospel message spreading and so Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem. Seeing the “grace of God” working, Acts 11:23 says that he exhorted the people there to remain faithful to “the Lord with steadfast devotion;” Acts then glowingly describes him as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith”.

An encourager by nature, he finds Saul in Tarsus (after Saul’s transformative encounter with the risen Jesus on the way to Damascus). Even though many believers had been afraid of Saul, now Barnabas brings him back to Antioch where they both encouraged and taught the people in the ways of Jesus (Acts 11:26). That Barnabas is listed first in the list of prophets and teachers in Acts 13:1 suggests he could have had a primary role in these ministries even ahead of Saul at this stage. Apparently times were tough for the church back in Judea and so Barnabas and Saul brought aid from Antioch.

After spending a year ministering in Antioch with Paul they are set aside for further sharing about Jesus abroad. Here they travelled to Barnabas’s home island of Cyprus and on to Asia Minor, following the lead of the Holy Spirit in their evangelical outreach before returning to Antioch. Eventually they report to the church in Jerusalem about the signs and wonders which had accompanied their mission, predominantly among the Gentiles.

A second journey is anticipated, however Paul and Barnabas have a falling out regarding whether they should take John Mark with them. We then read of Barnabas going back to Cyprus with John Mark. This is the last we hear of him in Acts. He most likely continued to evangelise widely as Paul speaks of him as being known to the Galatians (Gal 2:1, 2:13), the Corinthian church (1 Cor 9:6 – where Paul speaks favourably of him) and to the Colossians (Col 4:10).

Paul will describe Barnabas as an apostle (1 Cor 9:6) and was very much surprised that even Barnabas could be influenced by false teachers when Paul wrote Gal 2:11-14. Later legendary stories attribute the writing of the Book of Hebrews to Barnabas. Other traditions suggest that John Mark wrote The Acts of Barnabas which describes Barnabas’s execution in Cyprus. (This work was probably written much later in the 5th century.) Tradition also says he was the founder of the church in Milan, being its first bishop, and that he was martyred in 61CE. Barnabas was faithful alongside of Paul in sharing the good news of Jesus in the early days of the church. A powerful encourager and a Spirit-filled vessel he was committed to this great news of life in Jesus which he shared tirelessly.

Malcolm Coombes