Barnabas is one of the most significant members of the early church outside the 12 disciples. Our information about him comes mainly from the Acts of the Apostles, with some further details from Paul’s letters. Luke tells us how in the early church in Jerusalem everything was held in common, and adds that Barnabas sold an estate and gave the proceeds to the church (Acts 4:36-37).
Barnabas was a Cypriot and a Levite. His original name was Joseph. It was the apostles who called him Barnabas (son of encouragement). Like Paul, he was a Jew from the Hellenistic world, not Palestine. Barnabas seems to have been warmly accepted by the church in Jerusalem and vouched for Paul to them when Paul joined the church (Acts 9:27). Further evidence of Barnabas good standing can be seen in the fact that he was able to stay on in Jerusalem when many of the Greek-speaking Christians were scattered (Acts 8:1).
We next meet Barnabas when the church in Jerusalem entrusted him with the task of leading the church in Antioch, where Gentiles as well as Jews were beginning to respond to the gospel (Acts 11:22-24). To help him with his work, Barnabas went to Tarsus to bring Paul to Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). The church in Antioch then sent the pair of them to Jerusalem with relief funds (Acts 11:30), and commissioned them to undertake a missionary journey, which took them to Cyprus and then to Asia Minor (Acts 13:13-14). John Mark, who was also from Cyprus, accompanied them part of the way. Paul and Barnabas were mobbed in Lystra, with Barnabas being called “Zeus” and Paul “Hermes”, but Barnabas appears to have escaped the stoning that Paul received (Acts 14:8-20).
Eventually Barnabas and Paul (with Barnabas appearing to be the leader) reported their successes to the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35). They then returned to Antioch with the decision of the Christian Council at Jerusalem on the rules required of Gentiles joining the church. When it was suggested that Barnabas and Paul revisit the churches seen on their first missionary journey, Barnabas wanted to take his cousin John Mark, but Paul refused. Paul went off with Silas, and Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus, which is the last we hear of Barnabas, though later tradition has it that he was martyred on Cyprus about 61 CE. He is regarded as the founder of the church on Cyprus.
In the difficult debates over the treatment of Gentile converts to the church, Barnabas seems to have held a centrist position, relating warmly to the Gentiles, but not willing to eat with them in the presence of more conservative Jewish Christians. For this, Barnabas, along with Peter, received a sharp rebuke from Paul (Galatians 2:11-14). Although Paul undertook no further missionary work with Barnabas, he nevertheless regarded him with respect as another apostle who, like himself, worked for his living (1 Corinthians 9:6).
DIED: 61 AD, Salamis, Cyprus