He was central to some of the most crucial moments in early Church history. He smoothed the entry of Saul, (St. Paul), the recent persecutor, into the Christian community, and summoned him to his first ministry. He sallied forth with Paul on the first great missionary outreach to the Gentiles and gave critical testimony at the Council of Jerusalem that welcomed Gentile converts as Gentiles. And then, quite suddenly, and for a rather sad reason, he disappears and we hear all but nothing of him again.A rift in the Christian community takes him from our sight.
Who was St. Barnabas and what can we learn from his story and near disappearance?
St. Barnabas was a Jew, a native of Cyprus, and was of the tribe of Levi. As such he likely served in the Temple as a priest, depending on his age at his conversion to Christianity. His given name was Joseph, but the Apostles called him Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement” (cf Acts 4:36).
Likewise he was probably a wealthy man, for St. Luke presents him early in the book of Acts as a generous man who sold land to support the growing Church.
Most critically, it was he who vouched for the new convert Saul of Tarsus later known as Paul. For Paul was viewed with suspicion by those in Jerusalem, including the Apostles, who only been recently targets of his persecutions (cf Acts 9:26).
Talk about one of the most pivotal introductions in history! Indeed it may be argued that this introduction changed the course of Western History and surely that of the Church. Barnabas smoothed the way for the Church’s most zealous missionary and her greatest Biblical Theologian, St. Paul. After Barnabas’ introduction, Paul was able to move freely about the disciples.
Some time after this, the apostles in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch which was now growing and thriving congregation of both Jews and Gentiles. It seems clear he was not considered yet to be of the rank of apostle or bishop, (for Acts 13:1 calls him a teacher), it appears he went more to observe and be of help. Under his leadership and the leadership of others, the Church there thrived and grew quite quickly.
So Barnabas sent for Paul to come and join him. They work together for the period of at least a year, and it was at Antioch the disciples were called Christians for the first time (Acts 11:26). In so doing he continues to advance and build up Paul’s ministry in the Church. Frankly this too is a stunning moment in Church history, given us by Barnabas. It is not wrong to call St. Paul the protege of Barnabas.
At a certain critical moment leaders at Antioch laid hands on Barnabas and Saul. And while it is debated by some, this is the clearest moment when we can now say they are ordained, and given the rank of Bishop and the title “Apostle.”
Missionaries – Having done this, the Church leaders at Antioch, directed by the Holy Spirit, send them forth on missionary work. This journey is what is now come to be known as Paul’s first missionary journey. It is interesting to note, that early in the missionary journey, Barnabas is always listed first, and then Paul. But rather quickly, in Acts 13:43, the order changes, and Paul is always listed first. This suggests a change in leadership.
They took with them on this first journey the cousin of Barnabas, John, who was called Mark. Somewhat early on this missionary journey, Mark decides he can no longer go on and turns away from the missionary trip. This will prove significant later on.
The last major role for Barnabas was in Acts, in the 15th chapter, at the Council of Jerusalem which was called to decide whether Gentile converts could become full members of the church without converting to Judaism. Barnabas, along with Paul, provided important evidence as to the zeal and conversion of the Gentiles.
A Sad moment – After the Council in Jerusalem Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch in triumph, their ministry vindicated. They planned another missionary journey together. But here comes the critical and sad moment, that sets forth our teaching:
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left….(Acts 15:36-40)
A sad moment, but illustrating the human situation. Here are two men who have been like brothers. Paul owes his inclusion in leadership largely to Barnabas, and together they had taught together, and journeyed hundreds of miles by ship and then by foot into the northern mountains making converts in effective ministry together. And, more recently they have just returned from Jerusalem, their vision and ministry approved and vindicated against nay-sayers among the brethren. And yet, at this magnificent moment Paul and Barnabas argue and part company over Mark, the cousin of Barnabas.
One of the things I admire most about the Biblical text is that it does not “clean up” stuff like this. Our heroes are not perfect men, they are flawed, and emblematic of the human condition: gifted and strong, but struggling too with the same issues and demons that haunt us all.
The lesson? God uses us even in our weakness. Who was right and who was wrong here? It is difficult to say. Two gifted men unable to overcome an impasse, alas, the fallen human condition. But God will continue to work. He can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines.
Even more sad, this is the last we hear of Barnabas in any substantial way. He who had been so instrumental in the life of his protege Paul, and in the early Church, now exits the stage in the heat of an argument. The text says he and Mark sailed for Cyprus, then silence……
There is mention of him in Galatians but, given the vague timeline it is difficult to assume it takes place after the disagreement. It likely took place earlier and may illustrate that there were already tensions between Paul and Barnabas before the “Mark incident.” For it would seem that Barnabas was following Peter’s weak example of not eating with Gentiles, and this clearly upset Paul (cf Gal 2:13).
Healing? Yet, It would also seem that Barnabas continued to labor as a missionary for Paul makes mention of him to the Corinthians (cf 1 Cor 9:6). And although his reference is passing, it is not unrespectful. This suggests some healing of the rift, even if it does not mean they labored together again.
More healing? And even for John, called Mark (likely the same Mark who became secretary to Peter and authored the Gospel of Mark), it would seem Paul and he overcame their difficulties. For St Paul wrote to Timothy, likely about the same Mark: Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry (2 Tim 4:11). Something of a redemption here for Mark and a healing for Paul. The “useless” deserter Mark, now one who is helpful to Paul.
So, there is some sadness in the Story of Barnabas, Paul and Mark. Yet, God’s work continues. And, it would seem, healing came later. Yes, even in our weakness God can use us and heal us. And for those who despair of sin in the Church, and sin among the clergy, factions an infighting, always remember that, though sinful it is, God can make a way out of no way. Even in our weakness, (and often only because our weakness keeps us humble), God can do great things.
Maybe Barnabas (“Son of Encouragement”) can encourage us too. For if even saints struggled, were still used by God, and overcame, perhaps for us too. Be encouraged.