BARNABAS – A CHARACTER SKETCH

Barnabas is a very interesting fellow, he comes across as a concerned, mature individual. In Acts chapter 4, we learn that he was one of these believers who sold their properties and put the proceeds to the disposal of the Apostles. His real name was Joses (Jewish name is Joseph), but he was nicknamed Barnabas. He was a Levite but he was not necessarily a priest. Things had changed in his day because in the Old Testament, Levites were not supposed to keep property, but he was not a priest. It’s possible to be a Levite and not be a priest, but it’s not possible to be a priest without being a Levite. He came from Cyprus, a large island off the coast of Northern Palestine, west of Syria. Barnabas was later named as an apostle, and his name means ‘son of encouragement’ because every time we find this man in the pages of the New Testament, he’s encouraging people. Eusebius, the early church historian says that Barnabas was one of the 70 that Jesus sent out in Luke chapter 10. I don’t know where and how Barnabas first came to know the Lord; none of his background tells anything about it, he just appears on the scene as someone who is willing to share of his material possessions with the others in the church. He gave all of the money out of the proceeds from the sale of his farm, all of it to the apostles (in contradistinction and in comparison to Ananias and Sapphira who tried to keep part of it back, and wanted the praise of the church). Barnabas appears again in Acts 9:27 where he really is an encouragement to the Apostle Paul. We find that the apostles in Jerusalem were a little nervous about Saul of Tarsus’ conversion. It was Barnabas and his influence in Jerusalem in the early church that introduced the new convert, Saul of Tarsus around and let him begin to give his testimony. It was the start of the close friendship of Paul and Barnabas. It’s surprising but Barnabas is often mentioned first, but later on Paul’s leadership and obvious gift from the Lord is acknowledged. But you know when they were in Asia Minor, the people there thought they were Greek Gods. They called Barnabas, Zeus and Paul, Hermes. So they still recognize Barnabas’ sense of leadership in that group, and that’s the kind of man he was.

In Acts 11 beginning in verse 19 and following, we learn that a persecution developed around the death of Stephen, and everybody was scattered except the apostles, and they went preaching the word, and some of these men who went were Greek speaking Jews. This is such an important aspect of Scripture because they’re going to break the barriers down to the pure pagans. And this is very significant for several reasons, It wasn’t the apostles that has the world vision of the church, it was these unnamed Greek speaking Jews who took the final step of preaching the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah to pure pagans. These men had such great faith and they’re not even mentioned by name. They proceeded to proclaim the Good News and the Hand of the Lord was with them. And a large number of these pagans with no background at all in the Old Testament turned to the Lord. They heard that simple message of faith in Christ and responded. Now, the news about them came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and Barnabas was sent all the way to Antioch to check up on this revival that was happening at Antioch. This is the final wedge that broke the tie between the synagogue and the church; between rabbinical Judaism and Christianity. The Jews could just not take these pure Greek pagans becoming believers. There’s still going to be a fight in the early church around a wide range of theologies. You have James (half-brother of Jesus) as the leader of the Jewish church; the Judaizers of which Peter is involved; and then as we move toward the left, there’s Barnabas; and then there’s Paul. And so we’re moving from the most radical Jewish, to the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul. The Jerusalem council in Acts 15 was later on convened because of this fight. Barnabas was the perfect one to send, although we find a little later he is still influenced by his Jewish background when in Galatians 3 Paul chides him for not eating with the Gentiles. Barnabas is not presented without warts in the New Testament, but he was a great guy to send, that’s what he does. When he reached there and saw the spiritual blessings God had given them, he was delighted and continuously encouraged them. Living up to his name as the ‘son of encouragement’ he blessed them even though it was so different these pagans coming into the church without becoming Jews first. And Barnabas continued to be devoted to the Lord which speaks of his continual maturity and excitement toward the Lord. He was good man and an upright man filled with the Holy Spirit and faith. Then Barnabas went over to Tarsus to search out Saul. We do not know what Paul was doing these years. We hear of him in Jerusalem and giving his testimony after he’d been in Arabia for 3 years. But then we lose him for a while and he’s back in his hometown in the Tarsus mountains; what he was doing, we really don’t know? But Barnabas knew him in Jerusalem and said, “This is the man i need to help me here in Antioch”. So he went to Tarsus which is up in Asia Minor to search Paul out, and brought him to Antioch to get him to help him with this new church. Paul was the perfect person, and this set the stage for Paul’s ministry. He came in contact with Barnabas and worked with him first in Antioch. It’s really amazing to see God’s miraculous hand in putting these people where they need to be with their spiritual gifts.

In Acts chapter 13, we pick up again with Paul and Barnabas and their ministry in Antioch Syria, a very large city near the Mediterrenean coast north of Palestine. It was infamous for immorality in the form of lustful sports and pleasures, and a center for the worship of Daphne. In the church of Antioch were prophets (proclaimers of the Gospel) and teachers (those who helped strengthen and mature the new believers). There are many Christian leaders in this church, not just Barnabas and Saul, but many other men, leaders who were not to do the work of the ministry, but were to train the members of the church in Antioch to do the work of ministry. They were player coaches, and that’s a concept i think we need to catch. There are gifted people whose focus is not necessarily the Christian ministry but as trainers for believers to do Christian ministry. As these men were fasting, the Holy Spirit told them to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work for which they have been called. This is really important for us to realize that we don’t decide what we’re going to do to the church. God tells us what we’re going to do. He gives us the spiritual gifts. We don’t pick which one we want, God chooses our ministry for us, and all we can do is to yield ourselves to Him. And God sets holy men for a special purpose or task within the church.

In chapter 15 beginning about verse 36, we pick up Barnabas again, and we see Him and Paul had a real fight. Please don’t make these Biblical characters bigger than life. Although Barnabas was a Jew from Cyprus, his cousin John Mark lived in Jerusalem. And if you remember the story, Barnabas and Saul took John Mark with them to Cyprus, but something happened to John Mark and he did not go on to Asia Minor with them but went back home. When they started on the second journey, Barnabas wanted to take his cousin, and Paul would not let him, and the Bible says a sharp contention arose between them. As a result they’ve grown snotty to each other, split the mission team, and they never again went together. Paul took Silas and went back to Asia Minor. Barnabas took John Mark and went to Cyprus. So here, we have two mission teams instead of one, and God used this even though i’m sure He was real ticked off with these 2 men. The attitude of Barnabas seems to have been too lenient while Paul seems to have been too strict. But thanks be to God, John Mark, as we learn later became the author of the Gospel of Mark, and even later on in Paul’s ministry, sent for John and said he’s useful for the ministry. So they made up and got over it, and it is not for us to think that these New Testament characters are like super saints, they are just like us with ‘warts and all’. I hope you’ll remember that if God can use people like these, God can use you and me as well.