The National Catholic Review

You can tell that the earliest Christians were inspired, and not just because Pentecost was about to fall upon them; you can tell they were inspired because of their nicknames. Some of these were given by Jesus himself: "Peter" for Simon and "Sons of Thunder" for James and John jump immediately to mind. The inspiration is not just "spiritual," though, in the truest sense of that word, but inspired at the human level, for nicknames are signs of love, admiration, and even a bit of fun, as Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch, Walter "Sweetness" Payton, Ervin "Magic" Johnson, and Shaquille "The Big Aristotle" O’Neal might attest. Nicknames emerge from close knit groups who spend a lot of time together, which is why you find so many amongst athletes, families and college dorms, and why you find so many amongst the earliest Christians. You find, for instance, fewer amongst college professors, at least ones students will tell to your face, and my request to be known as "The Professor Formerly Known as Martens" when Prince changed his name fell on deaf ears.

And so we come to "Barnabas," which means the "son of encouragement," named so by the apostles according to Acts 4:36. What a great nickname! The early Christians were a fairly hopeful and faithful bunch, so to be singled out as "the son of encouragement" by the apostles indicates a vocation and gift that was clear and obvious to all. It also indicates what a wonderful gift "encouragement" is and how essential it is to have it in one’s life. Sometimes those who encourage are seen as standing alongside the action, on the sidelines, riding the bench, not essential to the task at hand, but we all need encouragement in our lives, especially at our lowest points. Barnabas was that man for the early Christians. This passage from Acts 11:19-26 exemplifies his character and mission:

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called "Christians."

Barnabas is sent first of all to those new Christians in Antioch, Gentiles it seems, who had been converted by those who had left Jerusalem due to persecution. Barnabas does not see "Gentiles," though, he sees "the grace of God" and rejoices and "exhorts" ( "encourages": NAB) them. Barnabas is described as a "good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith." His next task, after encouraging those new Christians converted by the ones who had been persecuted? Simple, track down their persecutor - "then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul" - and bring him to Antioch. Their teaching must have had an impact for they gained another nickname in Antioch, this time for the whole movement: Christians.

Barnabas is actually mentioned thirty times in the New Testament, which is a significant number of times as Thomas (11) and Bartholomew (4), for instance, are mentioned far less. Barnabas is often shown in his role as a teacher and preacher, which is precisely where encouragement can be given and so often needed. He is shown as the companion and co-worker of Paul all throughout Acts 13-14, indeed, in Acts 14:14 they are both called "apostles." At the Jerusalem Council, described in Acts 15, at which the decision was made to welcome Gentiles into the Church as Gentiles, it is both Paul and Barnabas who speak on their behalf as described in 15:12:

The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.

This speech of Barnabas and Paul is a turning point in the Council’s decision and Barnabas and Paul, described as "beloved," are sent back to Antioch with the Council’s decision (15:25), which I suspect was encouraging to all concerned and perhaps influenced by the encouragement of Barnabas himself.

Now, Acts 15: 36-39 and Paul in Galatians 2:13 describe a later falling-out between Barnabas and Paul. Paul describes this as hypocrisy on Barnabas’ part for his desire to pull away from Gentile Christians, while Acts speaks of Barnabas’ wish to travel with John Mark, later called his cousin in Colossians 4:10. Acts 15:38 says that "Paul decided not to take with them one {John Mark} who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work." That sounds like Paul and so too does it sound like Barnabas to be hopeful that John Mark had changed and to have faith that they could work together again.

Ultimately, 1 Corinthians 9:6 and Colossians 4:10 both mention Barnabas in contexts in which there is no hint of animosity remaining between Paul and Barnabas and both of these letters are later than Acts or Galatians, which makes me believe that Paul, John Mark and Barnabas patched up the differences that divided them. If I had to look to the one person who from the textual record would be the one who encouraged everyone to come back together, I would have to say Barnabas. I can see him now, cheering, exhorting, encouraging us on, smiling and laughing, saying, "You can do it!". Those people can sometimes drive you crazy, but does not everyone need a "son (or daughter) of encouragement" in their lives? Go Joseph "Barnabas" Levite, you can do it! No wait, you did it! Well done, well done.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

Comments

Leo Zanchettin | 6/10/2011 - 9:58am
Thanks, John, for reminding me about yesterday's memorial. I've always considered Barnabas to be one of the greatest unsung heroes of the early church. As I read about his work in Acts, one thing stands out: St. Paul owes a huge debt of gratitude to Barnabas.

Much of what follows is speculative, but just imagine what Paul's life would have looked like if it weren't for Barnabas.

Paul's story until Barnabas meets up with him is the story of a man with a penchant for causing trouble. Right after Saul's Damascus-road encounter with the risen Lord, he begins preaching the gospel in Damascus-with all the fervor of the newly-converted. Luke tells us that Paul "stayed some days with the disciples in Damascus" (Acts 9:19), and that he began preaching in the synagogues. But then Luke says, "After a long time had passed, the Jews conspired to kill him" (9:23). So there seems to be a considerable amount of time that Paul is on his own, not as connected with the church in Damascus as he could have been, running his own ministry, and agitating the Jewish community there. It's telling, too, that "his disciples" had to sneak him out of the city in a basket (9:25) to avoid being killed-not Ananias or any of the church leaders there. 

Then, fleeing for his life, Paul arrives in Jerusalem, but nobody is willing to trust him-not until Barnabas "took charge of him" and eased his entry into the Jerusalem church (Acts 9:27). So with Barnabas to vouch for him, Paul is free to minister in Jerusalem. And yet he couldn't stay out of trouble. He "spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord"; he "debated with the Hellenists, but they tried to kill him" (9:29). Finally, it got so bad that the elders in Jerusalem "sent him on his way to Tarsus" (9:30). They seemed more than relieved to be rid of the fellow. If we connect this with Galatians 1 & 2, there seems to be a lag of between three and fourteen years when Paul disappears from the scene.

Fast-forward to Acts 11, where we see a new way of being church sprouting up in Antioch: Gentiles and Jews are living together as believers in Jesus. The elders in Jerusalem learn of it, and they send Barnabas (who else?) to investigate. He is thrilled with what he sees, encourages them (of course!), and presumably helps them strengthen their ties as a community of faith-a community that evangelizes "a large number of people" (Acts 11:24).

Seeing such growth, Barnabas heads out to Tarsus "to look for Saul" and bring him back to Antioch, where the two of them spend a year working with the church (Acts 11:25-26). Barnabas, it seems, takes Paul under his wing and mentors him in pastoral leadership. No more "bold proclaiming" of the gospel. No more incendiary preaching that alienates and enrages potential converts. No more lone-ranger ministry. Paul learns how to minister with more compassion and less bombast. He becomes part of a community, experiencing the ups and downs of everyday life, with Barnabas to guide and encourage him. 

So with Barnabas' help and encouragement, Paul developed some of the skills that would prove to be essential as he began his missionary work: pastoral sensitivity, patience, diplomacy. Of course, Paul didn't always excel in these areas, but I like to think that Barnabas played a key role in helping him. 

And as it is always the case, Paul becomes the hero, and Barnabas-the key man behind the scene-fades into the background. But no matter. He probably would not have wanted it any other way.