I’m no stranger to background checks, although that “last 5 addresses” part stumps me. We’ve lived a lot of places! More personally, it’s hard to know someone until you know their backstory. Barnabas has come up a few times in our walk through Acts, so this week, I offer you four descriptors for Barnabas as his own man, separately from Saul/Paul. I hope you see him in a fresh light when we’re finished.
Barnabas was content to let
Paul be the life of the party
and draw most of the attention.
I think Barnabas was an introvert. I think he was content to let Paul be the life of the party and draw most of the attention. But Barnabas was thoughtful, spiritually mature (partially because he was such a thinker), and sensitive to others’ feelings. His default was to believe people and give them a second chance.
We first see Barnabas in Acts 4, when Luke describes that sweet spot in the growth of the church.
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.
Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. –Acts 4:32, 36-37
What do we learn?
- His given name was Joseph.
- He was a Jew—a Levite, actually, like Moses and Aaron, like Samuel, and like Zechariah (father of John the Baptist).
- He was from the island nation of Cyprus, which will be the first place he and Paul go on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:4).
- He owned a field. This is remarkable because Old Testament Levites didn’t own land. The commentators aren’t sure why or how our Joseph/Barnabas owned this field.
- By the time the church developed this mutual support system (probably a few years after Jesus’ ascension), Barnabas was already well known, with a reputation for encouragement.
Luke probably includes this short episode for two reasons. First, he wants to acquaint us with Barnabas, who will become prominent after a few more chapters. Second, Barnabas’ authentic generosity stands in stark contrast to Ananias and Sapphira’s deception (Acts 5:1-11).
The next time we read about Barnabas, it’s probably four years later. He has either returned to Jerusalem or has lived there all this time. Stephen has been arrested and stoned (Acts 6-7). The church has scattered (Acts 8)—but not Barnabas! Saul’s conversion is a 3-year-old rumor drifting down from Damascus (Acts 9:1-25).
When the disciples were afraid
to meet Saul, Barnabas took him
by the arm and vouched for him.
Except Barnabas knew it wasn’t a rumor. When the disciples were afraid to meet Saul, Barnabas took him by the arm and vouched for him (Acts 9:27). On Barnabas’ word, Saul was able to stay.
So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. –Acts 9:28
That “so” means, “as a result” of Barnabas’ advocacy.
Before long, however, Saul had gotten himself into trouble, and the Hellenistic Jews tried to kill him. The believers in Jerusalem (maybe including Barnabas) made him leave (Acts 9:29-30). But Barnabas didn’t forget about Saul.
Encouragement (of course)
Not much later, news started trickling down from Antioch. Jews and Greeks were believing in Jesus there! The church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to investigate. He liked what he saw.
When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. –Acts 11:23
Do you see that? He encouraged them. It’s kinda his thing. (For more on Barnabas in Antioch, see Antioch: First Church of…well, Everything.)
Barnabas’ influence, however, extended beyond encouragement. Because of his influence… Well, just read for yourself:
He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. –Acts 11:24
Can we just pause here for a minute? “A great number of people were brought to the Lord” not because Barnabas was a great evangelist. In fact, we could argue he didn’t have the gift of evangelism.
- He was a good man.
- He was full of the Holy Spirit.
- He was full of faith.
We have no recorded sermons preached by Barnabas, no miracles performed by him, no letters penned by him. Instead, these are the aspects of Barnabas’ character which led people to Jesus. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.
Barnabas lived out his filled-up
faith in encouragement and goodness.
Do you beat yourself up because you’re not “good at” evangelism? Very few people are. I’ve met…maybe two…real evangelists in my life. (Not tele-evangelists. I mean people with the spiritual gift.) Barnabas made sure to keep his spiritual “tank” full of the Holy Spirit and faith, then he lived out his filled-up faith in encouragement and goodness. When the right time came, I’m sure he gently spoke Truth into people’s lives. I’m equally sure they came away feeling encouraged, not condemned. In this way—this natural, genuine way—a “great number” believed.
Wait: Barnabas just encouraged me from 2000 years away!
After a little while, Barnabas left the awesome work in Antioch and traveled around the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea to Tarsus, Saul’s hometown and where Saul had been sent when he left Jerusalem. Barnabas knew Saul’s story and perhaps knew God had appointed him to preach to Gentiles. These non-Jews in Antioch seemed like a good place to start!
Barnabas didn’t dwell on how Saul had to be smuggled out of Damascus in a basket (Acts 9:23-25). He didn’t draw a line when Saul was run out of Jerusalem because Hellenistic Jews were trying to kill him (back to Acts 9:29-30). He gave Saul another city…another chance. This one is going to turn out much differently! I wonder if a full year with Barnabas’ steady hand on Saul’s shoulder is what made the difference.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Barnabas and Saul spent a year in Antioch, meeting with the church and teaching people. Then, because of a famine, they delivered a monetary gift to the believers in Judea (Acts 11:26-30). When they came back to Antioch from Jerusalem, they brought Barnabas’ cousin with them (Acts 12:25). He was none other than John Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark. Shortly after their return, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).
Are you encouraged by Barnabas’ back story? I hope so. I hope you see him as more than Robin to Paul’s Batman. In the end, Paul’s would become the better-known figure in church history, but he wouldn’t have been the man he was without Barnabas. And don’t forget that God called both men to that first trip around the region.
Connect the dots on Barnabas, sent alongside Paul for that first-ever Gospel journey, and see him as his own person for perhaps the first time. My #backstory is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)
What aspect of Barnabas’ life encourages you today? What small act of encouragement, of faith in another person (advocacy), of inclusion, or of generosity can you practice this week? Let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!