Barnabas: An Encouraging Early Church Leader

Part one of a two-part character study

This is the first 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 two, click here.

Robin Branch posits that Barnabas may have resembled representations of Zeus: middle-aged but physically powerful and muscular man who is both regal and commanding.

Acts presents the evangelizing apostle and church leader Barnabas as a model of integrity and character. Calling him a good man (Acts 11:24), a prophet and teacher (13:1), an apostle (14:14) and one through whom God worked miracles (15:12), Acts loads him with accolades. Acts recounts the times he faced persecution (13:45; 14:19) and risked his life for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (15:26). Barnabas believed Saul truly had been converted (9:27), saw the potential of his kinsman John Mark (12:25), and championed them both at different times (11:25-26; 15:36-41). 1 Corinthians 9:6 affirms his character by noting he worked while serving congregations in order not to burden them. The apostles nicknamed him Barnabas, Son of Encouragement (4:36), and it seems like he earned it!

Yet despite the many times Barnabas appears in the Biblical text, he lacks the scholarly attention accorded to his evangelist and writing colleague, Saul/Paul.

According to early traditions that are not recorded in the Bible, Barnabas was taught by Gamaliel and became a follower of Jesus. Among his first converts was Mary, his kinswoman and John Mark’s mother. Barnabas accompanied Jesus during his travels in Galilee and Jesus chose him as one of the Seventy Apostles. Evidently he tried to convert Saul, also Gamaliel’s pupil, but Saul rejected his teaching and chose instead to persecute the new believers.

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The Bible typically remains silent about physical descriptions. Yet clues provide boundaries for the imagination. On a missionary journey with Paul to Lystra, a miracle takes place—a lame man walks!—and the astonished people call Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes, because Paul was the chief speaker (Acts 14:11–13). Busts of Zeus, the supreme ruler of Mount Olympus, depict a middle-aged but physically powerful and muscular man who is both regal and commanding. Perhaps that describes Barnabas.

Acts introduces Barnabas as Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, with a story about money and giving (Acts 4:36–37). In this first mention of Barnabas, Luke, traditionally regarded as the writer of both Luke and Acts, recounts his generosity: Barnabas sells a field and places the money at the apostles’ feet. This public gesture and his humbleness stand in sharp contrast to the subsequent Lucan example regarding money: the conniving, lying, hording attitude of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1–11).

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.

The text gives no indication that Barnabas’ gift responded to a call from church leadership for money. Unlike other New Testament situations (1 Cor. 16:1, 3), there seems to have been no pressing need for a large financial contribution. Instead, Barnabas’ gesture sparkles with spontaneity and joy. Barnabas gives the gift without stipulations and for the use of the community.

Evidently the field’s sale and the donation of its proceeds put Barnabas in an immediate leadership position, even though he is not part of the original Twelve disciples or a member of the Seven, the Greek-speaking servants of the widows who dealt with the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1–2, 5).

However, his single act of generosity unquestionably earned him lifelong favor and standing in the community. Through his action, he acknowledges the apostles’ authority and submits to it.

Click here to read part two 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.


15 Responses

  1. Pam says:

    Since Barnabas was from Cyprus, why does the photo imply he looked like Europeans?

  2. bulent arslan says:

    would u read and believe original barnabas bible?

  3. bulent arslan says:

    barnabas bible located at turkey

  4. bulent arslan says:

    barnabas bible located at turkey

  5. Dorothy Brown says:

    It would have been nice to have identified the writer of the icon.

  6. j lloyd says:

    Barnabas is a major influence in my life, people in churches today don’t know how to be in encourager. Let’s introduce them to barnabas.

  7. Gordon Rogers says:

    Thank you for the wonderful information about Barnabas. He is one of my favorite people in the Bible. He was certainly an encourager. It is what we need in the church, in our homes, with our friends and at our work sites. Barnabas had a tremendous life changing experience upon many because of his love, compassion, authenticity grace and encouragement. What a powerful influence he had on others. How blessed we are because of the people like Barnabas in our lives.

  8. David says:

    To me Barnabas has always had my earnest respect because of the serving man he was recorded to be.
    As for the “contradictions” of Paul. Paul was man then be was born of water and the spirit and because an appostle and therethrougb the circumcision is of the flesh, not the spirit. Paul was Born again as thr Christian/follower and teacher for Christ Jesus. No contradiction. Jesus tells us tbat we must be born again of water and the spirit to see heaven.

  9. A Synoptic Study of the Book of Acts | Christopher L. Scott | Biblical Leadership says:

    […] Barnabas: An Encouraging Church Leader, part 1 […]

  10. Saint of the Day 06-11-2015 – the evening rabbit report says:

    […] Bible History Daily character study on Barnabas part one and part […]

  11. Kurt says:

    Persecution Sparks Growth in Antioch
    On hearing of developments in Antioch, the congregation in Jerusalem sent Barnabas there to investigate. That choice was wise and loving. He was a Cypriot, like some of those who had begun preaching to non-Jews. Barnabas would have been comfortable among the Gentiles of Antioch. In turn, they would have looked upon him as a member of a community familiar to them.* He could sympathize with the work being done. So “when he arrived and saw the undeserved kindness of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all to continue in the Lord with hearty purpose,” and “a considerable crowd was added to the Lord.”—Acts 11:22-24.
    “Practical reasons for the success of the early mission at Antioch,” suggests historian Downey, “may have been that in this city the missionaries had not to fear Jewish fanatics such as they encountered in Jerusalem; also that the city, as the capital of Syria, was governed by a legate, and so enjoyed a greater degree of public order, with less opportunity for mob violence such as had occurred in Jerusalem, where the procurators of Judaea seem (at this period at least) not to have been able to restrain the Jewish fanatics.”
    In such favorable circumstances and with much to do, Barnabas probably realized that he needed help, and he thought of his friend Saul. Why Saul, or Paul? Apparently because Paul, though not one of the 12 apostles, had received an apostleship to the nations. (Acts 9:15, 27; Romans 1:5; Revelation 21:14) Hence, Paul was well suited as an associate in proclaiming the good news in the Gentile city of Antioch. (Galatians 1:16) So Barnabas went to Tarsus, found Saul, and brought him to Antioch.—Acts 11:25, 26; see box on pages 26-7.
    Called Christians by Divine Providence
    For a whole year, Barnabas and Saul “taught quite a crowd, and it was first in Antioch that the disciples were by divine providence called Christians.” It is unlikely that the Jews were the first to call Jesus’ followers Christians (Greek) or Messianists (Hebrew), for they rejected Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ, and therefore would not tacitly recognize him as such by calling his followers Christians. Some think that the heathen population may have nicknamed them Christians in jest or out of scorn. The Bible, however, shows that the name Christians was God-given.—Acts 11:26.
    In the Christian Greek Scriptures, the verb used in connection with the new name, generally translated “were called,” is always associated with something supernatural, oracular, or divine. Scholars thus render it “to utter an oracle,” “divinely intimate,” or “to give a divine command or admonition, to teach from heaven.” Since Jesus’ followers were called Christians “by divine providence,” it is possible that Jehovah directed Saul and Barnabas to give the name.
    The new name stuck. Jesus’ disciples could no longer be mistaken for a sect of Judaism, from which they were quite distinct. By about 58 C.E., Roman officials knew very well who the Christians were. (Acts 26:28) According to the historian Tacitus, by 64 C.E., the name was current among the masses in Rome too.

  12. Richard Lewis says:

    Barnabas’ ministry and influence in Paul’s and John Mark’s lives is an important example of the power of encouragement – a gift that Barnabas clearly had. Read the book of Philemon and note Paul is affirming Philemon’s spiritual walk in verses 4-7 and then persuading him to accept Onesimus back just as he might receive Paul. Paul had learned the message well of the value of encouragement.

  13. Lu says:

    I would love to read a biography of Barnabas. Does anyone know if there is one available?

  14. elizabeth adams says:

    given what I have read about Barnabas who I have only just discovered through my bible study group it sounds to me that the spontaneous gesture was made because of his knowledge and faithfulness to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
    his generosity of spirit shines through like a beacon to us all if we care to take on board all the daily things we try to do through our daily lives.
    do unto others as you would have them do unto you

  15. Mark Rich says:

    Joseph/Barnabas’ gift of his field demonstrated his knowledge of and faithfulness to Jesus’ call to share possessions (Lk 18:22-29 et parr). He didn’t show spontaneity by that act, but knowledge and faithfulness.

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