Which five people from New Testament times (not including Jesus) had the most influence on Christianity throughout the following generations?
The Apostle Paul usually tops the list. Paul’s letter to the Romans was instrumental in the conversions of Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and George Whitfield. My conversion, too, but I don’t rank in history with Augustine, et al.—which is the point of this article. But we’ll get to that.
How often do you think Barnabas makes the list? Assuming you know who he is, did his name even cross your mind?
Barnabas is a great example of the incredible good you can do when you don’t care who gets credit. Though he is uncelebrated by history, without Barnabas perhaps there would have been no Apostle Paul, no John Mark, and no Gospel of Mark.
We first meet Barnabas in Acts 4. New converts were flooding Jerusalem to be taught by the Apostles. There wasn’t really any place else to go. They didn’t have the New Testament yet, nor a Christian church on every corner. Once you learned as much as the person who converted you, you had to seek out the apostles. Most of them were in Jerusalem.
All these pilgrims created an immediate need for food and housing. To solve this problem, members of the Jerusalem church sold what they had to provide the required hospitality. Luke introduces us to Barnabas as an example of this generosity.
And Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means, Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. – Acts 4:36-37
Barnabas was a Jew born on the Island of Cyprus. Since, as a Levite, he would have no distinct inheritance in Israel, it’s likely his land was on the island of Cyprus. If so, his gift was lavish. Cyprus was an island on the main commerce route. To own land on Cyprus was like owning a city block in downtown Manhattan.
His original name was Joseph but his nickname was Barnabas which means, “Son of Help” or “Son of Encouragement.” Barnabas was as good as his nickname because his goal was good, not glory. He is always a secondary figure, standing in the background, helping others come into their own.
Barnabas believes in Paul
The first person he helped was Paul.
And when he (Paul) had come to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.- Acts 9:26
Since he persecuted Christians with a vengeance, Paul had been the most feared man in Jerusalem. Now he appears at the church door, asking to be let in. This is like Hitler knocking on the door of a synagogue. Who would believe him?! Barnabas.
But Barnabas took hold of him (Paul) and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and the He (the Lord) had talked to him, and how at Damascus he (Paul) had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. And he (Paul) was with them moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord. – Acts 9:27
Barnabas opened his home and his heart to the friendless Paul. Convinced of the reality of Paul’s conversion, Barnabas brought Paul to the Peter. Once Peter was convinced of Paul’s sincerity, Peter brought Paul into his home (Galatians 1:18).
Luke’s account of Barnabas’ mediation is so matter-of-fact that it’s easy to miss its significance: There would be no Paul without Barnabas. The greatest missionary the world has ever known might have been lost to the church if God had not used Barnabas as a mediator and encourager.
Thanks to Barnabas’ intervention, Paul preached in Jerusalem. But his preaching provoked so much trouble, the disciples sent Paul to Tarsus. Paul lived there in obscurity for several years—until Barnabas intervened again.
At this point in the story, believers fled Jerusalem because of the persecution. Some of them went to Antioch, where large numbers of Gentiles converted.
When news of Gentile conversions reached Jerusalem, the leaders were skeptical. They sent Barnabas to make inquiries and report back (Acts 11:19-24). Barnabas’ verdict was reassuring:
Then when he (Barnabas) had come and witnessed the grace of God; he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord. – Acts 11:23
Barnabas gives Paul a chance
The church in Antioch grew so rapidly it quickly surpassed the Jerusalem church in size and influence. But the success of the church apparently burdened Barnabas. Barnabas decided he needed help. Because his goal was good, not glory, he went to Tarsus to look for his old friend, Paul (aka Saul). Paul had been in obscurity during this time. We have Barnabas to thank for bringing him back on the world stage.
. . . And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. And he (Barnabas) left for Tarsus to look for Saul. And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came about that for an entire year they met with the church, and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. – Acts 11:24-25
Barnabas set aside his own ambition to encourage another to use his gifts. Barnabas could have remained on center stage at Antioch, growing a church around his teaching. But he realized he needed help to bring the saints in Antioch to full maturity, so he went looking for another person more gifted than he. Together, he and Paul taught them about Christ.
About this time, a famine spread through the region (Acts 11:27-30). The Christians in Antioch sent a contribution to the Christians in Judea in care of Barnabas and Paul. When Barnabas and Paul returned to Antioch after delivering their gift, they bring with them John Mark, who would later author one of the gospels.
Paul and Barnabas continued their ministry at Antioch until God sent them to evangelize the west (Acts 13:1-5). They took John Mark with them as their helper. However, John Mark failed to complete the trip (Acts 13:13-15). Evidently, John Mark either could not take the pressure or lacked the faithfulness to persist in the journey. For whatever reason he turned back, leaving Paul and Barnabas to finish alone.
Barnabas believes in Mark
The two returned to Antioch. After a brief respite, Paul proposed they revisit the churches in Asia. This trip was Paul’s second missionary journey which had far-reaching results, and gave Paul his great reputation. But this time, Barnabas didn’t go with him.
But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching with many others also, the word of the Lord. And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are.” And Barnabas was desirous of taking John, called Mark, along with them also. But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and departed, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. – Acts 15:35-41
Paul wanted to begin another journey. Barnabas readily accepted the idea, and suggested that they take John Mark along, a proposal Paul stoutly resisted. Mark had deserted them on the way from Cyprus to Asia Minor. We’re not told exactly why Mark left, but apparently whatever the reason Mark left Paul found it hard to excuse (cf., Acts 13:13).
Barnabas insisted Mark get a second chance, just as he had insisted that Paul get a chance in Jerusalem and in Antioch. Paul argued vigorously against it. The disagreement turned into an impasse that only separation could resolve. Paul chose a new associate (Silas) and went to the Asia Minor and on to Europe. Barnabas took Mark under his wing, sailed off to Cyprus and passes from the story.
Barnabas gave up his chance for fame to help others become great. Silas went down in history as Paul’s companion, because Barnabas was more concerned with good than glory. Mark was a loser in Paul’s eyes, but through Barnabas’ support John Mark played a great role in Christian history — authoring the first gospel.
Interestingly enough, eventually Paul changed his mind about John Mark. In 2Timothy 4:11 he writes: “Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.” Paul later conceded that John Mark became one who was “useful for ministry”. I have to wonder if John Mark would have proved so useful if it wasn’t for the fact that Barnabas took Mark under his wing. Without Barnabas, perhaps John Mark would have passed into history as an example of failure. But Barnabas saw to it that he had another chance.
John Mark later came to Rome as Paul’s associate. After Paul’s martyrdom, Mark became Peter’s colleague, and wrote the Gospel that bears his name from Peter’s recollections. According to tradition, John Mark became the founder and bishop of the church in Alexandria, North Africa. There’s another great leader of the faith for whom we have Barnabas to thank.
After the separation from Paul, the biblical references to Barnabas cease, but church tradition says he continued in his quiet way to encourage others until some years later when he was martyred in his hometown of Salamis.
Luke’s description of Barnabas proved quite apt. Barnabas “was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” People come and go, and most of their achievements are forgotten. But the good that Barnabas did went on forever. He nurtured the ministries of both the Apostle Paul and John Mark. Without Barnabas — someone who looked for good, not glory — the world would have been a darker place.
There’s no end to the good you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.