Today, Christianity is the world’s largest religion, a global community with over 2 billion believers. But in the early days, it was a completely different story. The Book of Acts gives an account of a small and brave group of apostles traveling around, preaching the Gospel even in the face of tremendous hostility and persecution. The life and teachings of Jesus might be forgotten today were it not for the tireless work and strong character of those early apostles.
Barnabas is one of the evangelists mentioned frequently in the Bible’s account of the early Church. Although less well-known today than his fellow apostle Paul, Barnabas’ wide-ranging missionary work and his sterling character were essential to the early spread of Christianity. His generosity, steadfast faith, bravery, open-mindedness, and encouraging spirit made him a model Church leader and an example for Christians to emulate to this day.
Barnabas was born to Jewish parents on the island of Cyprus. Though his given name was Joseph, his fellow apostles nicknamed him “Barnabas,” which meant “son of encouragement.” The disciple Luke described him in Acts 11:24 as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” He first appears in the Bible for his act of financial generosity. In the early Church, the believers shared everything they owned freely to take care of those in need. Acts 4:37 mentions that Barnabas “sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.” His act exemplified both his own generosity and the Christ-like spirit of giving that made the early Church so remarkable.
I mentioned earlier that Barnabas has been overshadowed by the apostle Paul. But Paul likely never would have become an apostle if not for the support of Barnabas. When Paul (then Saul) came to Jerusalem after his road-to-Damascus conversion and tried to join the disciples, they were wary of him. Who could blame them for being skeptical of their former tormentor? But Barnabas vouched for him, telling the apostles “how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.” (Acts 9:27). This moment demonstrated Barnabas’ open-mindedness in trusting Saul’s conversion as sincere and his courage in urging the apostles to welcome their former persecutor into their midst.
As the Church began to spread and attract new converts, they faced some important questions: Should Jews and Gentiles worship together? Should Gentiles who convert be required to be circumcised and to obey Jewish laws? Barnabas advocated for openness and inclusion, helping set the standards the church would follow thereafter. When Church leaders in Jerusalem learned that Jews and Gentiles were worshipping Jesus together in Antioch, they sent Barnabas to check things out. Just as he had with Saul, Barnabas trusted that the faith of the Gentiles was sincere: “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)
Later, when the Council at Jerusalem met to discuss whether Christians needed to be circumcised in order to be saved, Barnabas came from Antioch with Paul to argue that the Christian faith is universal, transcending the traditions of Judaism. They held the assembly spellbound as they spoke “about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.” (Acts 15:12). Thanks in no small part to their testimony, the Church elders decided not to require Gentile converts to follow Jewish laws.
Following their success at Antioch, Barnabas and Paul felt called by the Holy Spirit to travel far and wide to spread the Gospel. They made a terrific team, with Paul’s eloquence complementing Barnabas’ warmth and encouragement. They traveled to Cyprus and through Asia Minor, preaching and winning converts wherever they went. They achieved these successes in spite of the harassment and persecution they faced from Jewish leaders at every stop. Their ongoing ministry was a testament to their faith and courage.
When Barnabas was martyred for his faith, he left behind a tremendous legacy. His travels with Paul helped to spread the light of Christ far beyond Jerusalem. And his encouragement and advocacy helped build a Church that was welcoming and inclusive of Jews and Gentiles alike.
Whenever we need encouragement in our faith, we should remember Barnabas and his exhortation to remain true to the Lord with all our hearts.
Watch this segment on video (starting at 3:52):