We’re familiar with the 12 Apostles of Jesus in the Bible, as well as with Saul, later renamed Paul and responsible for writing most of the books in the New Testament. But there are other great men and women of faith also mentioned throughout Scripture, and one of them, Barnabas, was highly influential when it came to sharing the gospel. But who was Barnabas in the Bible, and what can we learn from him?
Who Is Barnabas in the Bible?
Most of what we know about Barnabas comes from the Book of Acts, which details his ministry both alongside Paul and in general as he travelled throughout Judea and Asia Minor spreading the Good News to all who would hear. According to the Bible Characters, Barnabas was a Levite from Cyprus who led not only Jews but many Gentiles to the Christian faith. Acts 11:24 identifies Barnabas as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” who brought “a great number of people … to the Lord”. Barnabas’s travels and ministry for Jesus are described throughout Acts, as well as mentioned in Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and Colossians. We first see his name mentioned in Acts 4:36-37, where it describes how “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”
Indeed, this penchant for encouragement, support, and generosity would stay with him. When he saw how Paul then still known as Saul had become a fervent follower of Christ, Barnabas took the then-unknown disciple under his wing and introduced him to the other apostles in Jerusalem. These other apostles were afraid because of Saul/Paul’s past actions, but Barnabas vouched for him, and because of this, the new convert “stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:28). Later passages detail how Barnabas was doing the work of God in Antioch but decided to find Paul so the two could work together for the faith (Acts 11:22-25). The church grew steadily under their leader-partnership, both in size and finances. While the two later disagreed over a ministry colleague and parted ways, their efforts for Jesus netted tremendous results and helped spread the faith far and wide.
What Is Barnabas’ Background?
As a Levite, Barnabas would have been raised a Jew, most likely wealthy, and schooled in Hebrew in religious foundational instruction. References in the Bible indicate he was a respected figure—in Acts 14:12, Barnabas was referred to as “Zeus” while his companion, Paul, who did most of the speaking, was called “Hermes.” To the Ancient Greeks, Zeus was the lead god, considered the god of sky and thunder and ruler of all other gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus, so the reference to Barnabas as Zeus would have been an acknowledgment of his leadership and authority, and possibly also his age and stature. Easton, in his Bible dictionary, noted Barnabas was born of Jewish parents of the tribe of Levi and probably educated as a Pharisee in the school of Gamaliel. And, of course, it was on Barnabas’s introduction that Paul was first welcomed into the Jewish Christian apostolic sphere in Jerusalem upon Paul’s conversion.
Was Barnabas One of the Apostles?
Yes, Barnabas was considered an apostle. While not one of the original 12, he nevertheless was set apart with Paul by the Holy Spirit and sent out by the early church to spread the Good News across the land. In that sense, sent out as an itinerant missionary to spread the message of Jesus to others, he was an apostle. In fact, in the Book of Acts, the writer titles the missionary pair as “the apostles Barnabas and Paul” (Acts 14:14). While the Bible does not mention how Barnabas died, he reportedly was martyred for his faith, like some of the other apostles; he was either stoned or burned to death in Salamis, Cyprus.
How Was Barnabas Connected to Paul?
Easton, in his Bible dictionary, believes Barnabas and Paul probably knew each other because they had been taught together in the school of Gamaliel. But while Barnabas was the one who did the primary introduction, it appears Paul, with his zeal for speaking, soon became more well-known for his evangelism efforts.
After Barnabas found Paul in Tarsus (Acts 11:25-26), they pooled their energies and established a foundational church in Antioch, which is also where the first Christ-followers became known as Christians. Their work expanded, and in Acts 13:2, the Holy Spirit called for Barnabas, along with Saul/Paul, to be “set apart” for holy work. Prior to this, the Bible named the pair in that order—Barnabas and Saul—but around this time, something clearly shifted, and they became known in reverse order: Paul first, Barnabas second.
The word of God continued to flourish, and soon they brought another disciple, John Mark, with them to many places throughout the region, from Seleucia to Cyprus to Salamis and then to Paphos. Expelled finally by the Jewish leaders for their work with the Gentiles, they moved on to spread the gospel in Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, eventually back to Antioch. Around this time, over deep disagreement with other apostles about whether or not Gentile believers needed to be circumcised, the pair travelled to Jerusalem to settle the matter.
When all was resolved—the Gentiles would not be required to be circumcised, as they were saved, as Peter said, by the grace of the Lord Jesus alone (Acts 15:11) Barnabas and Paul delivered the encouraging message to the people in Antioch. That is when the two had “such a sharp disagreement that they parted company” (Acts 15:39). Quarrelling over whether or not to bring John Mark along with them, after John Mark had “deserted” them, they chose to go their separate ways. Barnabas took John Mark, his cousin, and sailed for Cyprus, while Paul took Silas and headed through Syria and Cilicia.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul spoke harshly about his friend and brother in ministry, noting that “by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray” (Galatians 2:13). Still, it appears the quarrel resolved itself over time. In what appears to be a gesture of reconciliation at the close of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, Paul offers these forgiving and grace-filled words: “My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him)” (Colossians 4:10). While the two appear to have no longer been ministry partners, they were still brothers in Christ.
What Can Christians Learn from Barnabas?
Barnabas was someone who had worldly respect, wealth, and other standing and gave it all up for Jesus—something today’s Christians would do well to learn from. As a Levite who owned property, he heeded the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:21, when Jesus told the young man of wealth how to get eternal life: “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Barnabas sold his field and put the money at the feet of the apostles (Acts 4:37).
He then spent the rest of his life traveling as a missionary, leading others to Jesus at great personal risk. He also saw Paul, the very man he’d taken under his protection, rise to greater fame in the ministry world. Yet Barnabas did not falter. He persisted in his work, even after he and Paul parted ways over a quarrel, even after Paul blasted him for going astray from hypocrisy (Galatians 2:13). Barnabas stood fast, led others to God, and did extraordinary work for the Kingdom.
Finally, Barnabas truly was a “man of encouragement.” He gave his life to the church and sacrificed much for the faith. He, along with Paul and other Christian leaders of his time, was instrumental in spreading the gospel across the land and converting great numbers, both Jew and Gentile. Because of him, and others like him, today we know Jesus. We can honour Barnabas by sharing our testimony and sharing the Good News near and far, no matter the risk.