Part II—Barnabas: An Encouraging Early Church Leader

Part two of a two-part character study

This is the second of two posts written by Dr. Robin Branch on Barnabas, an early church leader. The blogs are condensed from a longer article by Dr. Branch titled, “Barnabas: Early Church leader and model of encouragement,” In die Skriflig 41.2 (2007): pp. 295-322. To read part one, click here.

Claude-Guy Halle (1652-1736), “The Deliverance of St. Paul and St. Barnabas”

A noticeable trait of Barnabas, a prominent early church leader fondly nicknamed Son of Encouragement (Acts 4:37), is that he seeks out and assists others. The Biblical text highlights this twice with Saul/Paul (9:26-28; 11:25–26), once concerning the vibrant church in Antioch, Syria (11:19–30) and once in connection with his younger kinsman, John Mark (15:36–41). Often these other individuals and groups are believers in Jesus who, for whatever reason, run a bit against the grain of mainstream thought and action. Instead of ostracizing them, Barnabas not only deliberately encounters them, but also listens to them and welcomes them warmly.

First, Barnabas befriends Saul. Acts introduces Saul as a persecutor of believers in what was then known as the Way (Acts 7:58; 8:1–3; 9:2). Saul obtains letters from the high priest in Jerusalem to officials in Damascus synagogues authorizing him to bind new believers and bring them to Jerusalem. On the road to Damascus, he has a literally blinding conversion experience with the risen Lord Jesus, becomes a believer himself and starts preaching that Jesus is the Son of God in the Damascus synagogues (9:1–20)!

Saul’s sudden change of character and bold preaching lead the Jews to conspire to kill him. Saul travels to Jerusalem after being lowered from the walls of Damascus in a basket to escape the city by night (9:21–26). The disciples in Jerusalem fearfully avoid him, not believing he really is a believer (9:26). Luke writes: “But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus” (9:27).

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This verse merits scrutiny, for it illustrates leadership in action. Barnabas seeks out Saul, and thus Barnabas exhibits personal courage, for he risks his life and reputation. Barnabas brings Saul to the apostles. His ethical attitude of listening, testing what he hears Saul say, and then acting with courage and nobility is consistent in the texts about him.

Some time later, the Jerusalem Council sends Barnabas to Antioch, Syria, to investigate something new: believing Jews and Greeks (Gentiles) worship Jesus together! Believing Jews had been scattered as a result of persecution, with some settling in their new exiled homes (Acts 11:19–30). These scattered believers evidently talked to their neighbors, many of them Greeks, telling them news of the risen Lord Jesus (11:20). Luke writes that “the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord” (11:21).

Luke portrays Barnabas’s mission as fact-finding rather than as hostile. When Barnabas arrives in Antioch, he displays the same characteristics he exhibited in earlier stories: he acts openly, listens and makes ethical decisions. The text says that when he “saw the grace of God, he rejoiced” (Acts 11:23). Typical of a man of honorable character, Barnabas’s mind looks at the facts: these people—some of them uncircumcised Gentiles!—really are new converts! Barnabas sees that they, like himself and other Jewish converts, believed in this radical new faith; he sees this as evidence of the work and grace of God. He tells the Antioch believers “to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion” (11:23).

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Barnabas pastors the church but its demands are too many for one. So he seeks out Saul—yet again—and journeys to Tarsus to find him (Acts 11:25–26). Barnabas’s action shows his humility and discernment. The text indicates that Barnabas’s overriding concerns were the needs of the people and the furtherance of the gospel. Yet he must have realized that Saul’s skill in debate and Saul’s incredible mind might overshadow his own qualities. Luke, however, gives no indication of jealousy on Barnabas’s part, only an indication of his desire to promote the name of the Lord Jesus.

Barnabas offers the younger man a job: co-pastoring the dynamic Antioch believers. Saul accepts. The young church grows even more under their joint leadership (Acts 11:26). It must have been a glorious and fruitful time for both congregation and teachers. Most likely, this time shaped much of Saul/Paul’s theology.

When the Antioch church fasts and prays, the Holy Spirit tells the church to “set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). This becomes what scholars term Paul’s first missionary journey. Saul’s name is changed to Paul on Cyprus midway through the journey’s account (13:9); probably the name change reflects the emphasis of his life from here on: his outreach to the Roman world. John Mark, Barnabas’s kinsman, accompanies them as their helper but leaves them in Perga and returns to Jerusalem (13:13–14:20). Paul and Barnabas continue preaching in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. During an exciting journey that includes bold preaching and miraculous signs and wonders (14:3), the two establish churches and leave behind a recognized system of elders for governing (14:23).

Read about Paul’s First Missionary Journey through Perga and Pisidian Antioch and explore the route with a web-exclusive slideshow in Bible History Daily.

barnabasA bit later, Paul approaches Barnabas about going back to visit the places where they had preached before (Acts 15:36). Barnabas, the “people person,” advocates giving John Mark another chance. Paul, however, recalls John Mark’s earlier desertion (13:13) and decides he cannot continue working with them. What Luke describes as a “sharp disagreement” erupts; Barnabas and John Mark sail for Cyprus, and Paul travels with Silas and for Syria and Cilicia (15:37–41).

This story in Acts illustrates that conflict between believers—even apostles—can happen. However, the text omits two factors many find crucial in avoiding or minimizing conflict. First, prayer: there is no evidence that Barnabas and Paul prayed—and Acts abounds with prayer examples (see 1:14; 2:42; 6:4; 9:11). Second, a mediator or peacemaker is absent. It appears Barnabas and Paul decided to argue first and talk later—something typical of people throughout the ages. Thereafter in Acts, Paul becomes the predominant character.

Luke, however, earlier gave a surprising editorial comment about Barnabas, a man we can assume was his friend. Luke (Acts 11:24) writes that Barnabas “was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” Luke also describes Joseph of Arimathea as good (Luke 23:50) and writes favorably about Tabitha/Dorcas, calling her a woman who was always doing good and helping the poor; among her good deeds was making robes and clothing for widows (Acts 9:36, 39).

Luke gave his editorial statement summing up Barnabas at Antioch, Syria. It was there, he writes, that the disciples were called Christians for the first time (Acts 11:26). Perhaps the character traits of Barnabas—his goodness, faith, big heartedness, courage, generosity, humbleness, self-sacrifice, open-mindedness, boldness and the fact the he was full of the Holy Spirit—were also stamped on other believers. If so, Luke’s praise marking this early church leader also applies to the early church.

Click here to read part one of “Barnabas: An Encouraging Early Church Leader.”

Robin BranchRobin Gallaher Branch is professor of Biblical studies at Victory University (formerly Crichton College) in Memphis, Tennessee, and Extraordinary Associate Professor in the Faculty of Theology at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas in Austin in 2000. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for the 2002–2003 academic year to the Faculty of Theology at North-West University. Her most recent book is Jereboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women (Hendrickson, 2009).

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on November 11, 2013.—Ed.


22 Responses

  1. Ray says:

    Acts 13:1 “Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria
    were Barnabas, Simeon (called Niger),,,

    Notice the comma (,) after Barnabas and then Simeon is mentioned
    who was called Niger.

    Just wanted to clear up what someone had mentioned referring to Barnabas
    also being called Niger.

  2. ruth says:

    do you know when Barnabas died i been trying fine it

  3. glinda says:

    you have to read and study your bible yourself cause other people will lead you astray i read this to and if you guys will take your bible and go to acts13 .1 barnabas simon called Niger. was black that is what this word mean in herbrew people writting these stories will leave out most of the true info shame shame glinda

  4. KWTebo says:

    what became of Barnabas after all of that were did he end up minister and die at the end of his life? Does anybody know we’re he ended up?

  5. Soe says:

    Why was gospel of Barnabs banned from the bible?

  6. lunn says:

    Why the fuss here when you can know the truth in your personal time with God

  7. Tola says:

    We should try and study all to figure out the truth

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  10. Gool says:

    All people of Scripture should read the gospel of Barnabas to grasp Jesus’ true message !

  11. Earnest says:

    Way in Acts 4:37 Barnabas sold land ?

  12. ed says:

    Da Vinci code. gotta love spell correct.

  13. ed says:

    where in the world did #8 get all of this? you have got to be careful what you read as truth. if you got this from the gospel of Barnabas, there’s reason why that writing along with others was not canonized. maybe it was the gospel accordiing to the Da Vincible code?

  14. Kinto Zhimo says:

    whatever the reason and conflict between Paul and Barnabas maybe…. it is always Barnabas who had encouraged and gave the opportunity to a great man ever know in the history of Christianity after Jesus Christ, PAUL…

  15. Sandra Shack says:

    I do not understand how Barnabas could have been an “Enouraging Early Church Leader” when he denounced Jesus as the Son of God, denying that he was crucified, but that Judas was instead, and that Jesus lived on.

  16. philip tetteh says:

    in my point of view, i think God called Paul for a particular reasons , because he want Paul to convince and explain the true different between mankind rules and the word of God , that rules””Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Romans 13;1 He was chosen among all the apostles to do that , because he had insight concerning human rules and the rules of God according to Moses rules. the Romes leaders believe that Moses rules was the only true rules that any on who speak on contrary to Moses rules given to him by God ,that person must face a penalty and among all his apostles, none was chosen ask yourself why? because they never understand the different between Gods rules and mankind rule that was ;; anyone who says any other thing on contrary to Moses rule he must face a penalty, that mankind rule, telling people how to serve God. but Paul made it know to as that serving God is from the heart it doesn’t matter if you are circumcise or not, if you eat this or not and not by rules set by man, rule is the way of man, and the rule of man is death , but God is not SUCH as man , he never dies that was Paul mission not with Barnabas , he has to suffer for Christ seek

  17. Val says:

    I thought these two articles were well done and thoughtful, based on a thorough understanding of scripture.
    This contrasts sharply with the comments of #3 Willard, who by his comment makes it obvious that any reading of acts or Paul’s writings is completely without understanding. What a ludicrous statement that Paul subverted the Church and started a cult!
    Then we have the comment of #5 David, claiming there was no church? and that Barnabas required circumcision? Even the most cursory reading of Acts 15:1-2 puts this to the lie.
    What we should see from the above comments, is the theological danger of depending on the unschooled ramblings of men rather than careful reading of the word of God for oneself. Without the direction of the Holy Spirit, one can be misled by those who twist scripture but with His guidance even the most educated can be convicted of the truth!

  18. David Gottlieb says:

    Poorly researched and even worse article – the break between Paul and Barnabas was based on a disagreement – circumcision – there was no church, they were enlightened Jews and in order to become part of their new order Barnabas specified that all new comers must be circumcised – these topics can be found in their letters and Barnabas internal notes

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  20. W. Ron Hess says:

    I’ve often wondered to what degree Saul’s original mission to oppress the Church in Antioch later continued in the form of subverting the Church there and elsewhere through his claims to have superior apostolic authority (through a vision) as the others had directly from the living Jesus? This led to his “converting” pagans while not honoring the Mosaic law. In short, it is possible to reread the gospels from that perspective and find the quarrelsome, combative, self-righteous Saul-cum-Paul to have been more intent on founding his own cult than on closely complying with the one founded by Jesus. Certainly, his treatment of Barnabas and John Mark aids this view!

  21. Phillip Ledesma says:

    I think we often overlook the big picture over the split between Paul & Barnabas, because the result was two effective ministry teams spreading the gospel in different part of the world! We should also remember that John Mark was reinstated by Paul later, so I wouldn’t think that the split was necessarily 100% detrimental to the church.

  22. Brian Lantz says:

    Paul indeed became pre-eminent in the history of the Church. But I don’t think any real conclusions can be drawn about Barnabas on the basis of that. Paul was persecuted beyond the measure a normal man could take . There was an element of trust which Paul was unwilling to place in JM and apparently it roiled Barnabas the wrong way. But given his future, his doubt of JM could hardly be considered unjustified.
    The most that I can conclude is that , so….. they argued. Obviously to their detriment, the didn’t pray about it and they parted company. It was an impulsive mistake.

    If JM couldn’t even follow Paul into the mountains, he certainly wasn’t up to Iconium and Thessalonica.

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