ST. BARNABAS was not one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, but he is generally included among the Apostles, like Ss. Matthias and Paul. St. Luke gives a thumb-nail sketch of his character in Acts 11:24, when he describes him as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith”. He was a Levite from Cyprus, and thus a Jew with a Greek background. His original name was Joseph, but he was given the Christian name Barnabas by the Apostles, its meaning being explained as “son of consolation/exhortation”. In fact the Greek word is cognate with the word “Paraclete”, used as a title of the Holy Spirit, and one can easily imagine how he might have been regarded as someone readily “called alongside to help”, which is the basic meaning of the Greek word.
St. Barnabas’ generosity emerges in the first incident in which his name is mentioned in the Acts. He is singled out among those who sold property and gave the proceeds to the Church for the support of its poorer members. It is not surprising to find him taking a leading role in the later famine relief operation for impoverished Jewish Christians in Judaea. Nor is it surprising that he was sent to Antioch to help in the growing mission work there among Greek speaking Jews.
Perhaps the generosity of his character is illustrated most clearly in his relationships with Ss. Paul and Mark. When St. Paul first went back to Jerusalem after his conversion, and tried to join the Christian community there, it is hardly surprising that they were wary of their former persecutor, and unconvinced that he had now become a Christian disciple. It was St. Barnabas who stood by him and sponsored him, recounting how he had been converted and had spoken out boldly in Jesus’ name in Antioch. On their first missionary journey the pair were accompanied by St. Mark, but he abandoned the tour after their visit to Cyprus and went back to Jerusalem. When they set out on their second missionary tour St. Barnabas was determined that his nephew St. Mark should be given a second chance, and when St. Paul refused they split up and went on different itineraries. There is a happy footnote to this incident, for in one of St. Paul’s later letters he commends St. Mark to his readers. Twice then we see how St. Barnabas stood by a fellow Christian when others had their doubts, and who can say whether the services of Ss. Paul and Mark might not have been lost to the Church had he not done so?
St. Barnabas may seem to belong to the background of the early Christian mission. But it is clear that he played a vital role. He recognized the open doors of opportunity. He gave loyal support to his fellow Christians. He was generous in his judgements and with his property. He had faith in people as well as in God. We need more people like him!
Tony Gelston is Emeritus Reader in Theology in the University of Durham