Barnabas the Encourager

For Sunday April 12, 2015

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Acts 4:32–35

Psalm 133

1 John 1:1–2:2

John 20:19–31

           Barnabas wasn't even his real name. His real name was Joseph, a name that bespoke his Jewish ancestry. But Joseph so distinguished himself among the earliest believers that they nicknamed him Barnabas, which in Greek means "Son of Encouragement." Barnabas had a reputation for coming alongside people, especially sketchy people, with consolation and comfort. He was a bridge-builder who brought people together. He "had your back" in tough times.

           We meet Barnabas for the first time in this week's reading from Acts. He "sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet." As a leader in the post-resurrection community of Jesus people, he was, as the poker expression puts it, "all in." He didn't hold back or hedge his bet. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul says that Barnabas refused financial assistance as an itinerating apostle, and instead worked to support himself.

           The next mention of Barnabas in Acts 9 describes his pivotal role in the conversion of Paul. This part of his story requires a bit of backtracking.

Wall painting of St. Barnabas and St. Luke, El-Souryan Monastery, Egypt, c. 9th century.
Wall painting of St. Barnabas and St. Luke,
El-Souryan Monastery, Egypt, c. 9th century.

           In his autobiographical remarks, Paul describes his former self as a violent fanatic who tried to exterminate the early Christian movement. He supported the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. "Breathing threats of murder," he collaborated with authorities to track down believers from house to house, drag them back to Jerusalem, and imprison them in an effort to make them renounce their faith.

           To the Galatians Paul wrote, "For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers." To the Corinthians he admitted that he didn't deserve to be called an apostle, and was at best the "least of the apostles" because of his violent past.

           To the Philippians he bragged, "as to zeal, a persecutor of the church." Even as an old man Paul was haunted by memories of his abusive past. Near the end of his life when he wrote to his protege Timothy, he regretted that he was "formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor."

           So, when rumors that Paul had converted trickled back to Jerusalem, the leaders there were justifiably sceptical. "People only heard the report," he writes in Galatians, "'the man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.'"

           Luke describes how believers were "astonished" at these conversion reports: "Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who called on his name? And hasn't he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?" When Paul did show up in Jerusalem, "he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple."

           Enter Barnabas. Barnabas vouched for Paul. The Son of Encouragement reconciled him with the wary leaders in Jerusalem. From then on, Barnabas and Paul ministered together throughout Asia Minor. 

           When news reached Jerusalem that Gentiles (!) in Antioch were following the Jewish Jesus, they sent Barnabas to them as their emissary. They found him to be "a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith." He "encouraged them," Luke writes, and brought Paul from Tarsus back to Antioch for an entire year.

Martyrdom of St. Barnabas.
Martyrdom of St. Barnabas.

           It was in Antioch with Barnabas that "the disciples were first called Christians." And when the believers in Antioch collected money for famine relief, they entrusted their gift to Barnabas and Paul. Luke then concludes this Antioch story with a telling detail — at the end of their year together, Barnabas and Paul "returned to Jerusalem, taking with them John, who was also called Mark."

           The young Mark later joined Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. Luke describes him as their "helper." This was no trip for the fainthearted. Barnabas and Paul trekked 1400 miles planting churches across Asia Minor. They experienced opposition and persecution all along the way. In Lystra, Paul was stoned and left for dead.

           Early in this grueling journey, Mark dropped out and returned to his mother's house in Jerusalem. We don't know why. Mark the "helper" apparently wasn't very helpful. In Paul's eyes, Mark was a quitter. He was unreliable, and so he threw him under the bus.

           When Paul proposed to Barnabas a second missionary journey, they argued about what to do with Mark. Paul refused to take him because "he had deserted them them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work." This feels harsh, especially when you consider how Barnabas defended Paul before the dubious leaders at Jerusalem.

           Barnabas the Encourager insisted on taking Mark with them. Maybe it was because they were cousins, and blood was thicker than water. Maybe Barnabas saw something other than a ministry failure. Maybe he knew that failure need not be fatal, and that every last one of us needs second chances.

           Whatever the case, Paul and Barnabas "had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, while Paul chose Silas and left." Once again, Barnabas the Encourager had lived up to his name.

           The story of his "sharp disagreement" with Paul is the last mention of Barnabas in the book of Acts — consoling a young, failed ministry "helper." Mark might have disappeared from the early Christian story were it not for Barnabas. But in three subsequent footnotes to this saga, Paul admits that Barnabas was right and he had been wrong.

           In Philemon 1:24, Paul refers to Mark as his "fellow prisoner," which means that Mark had later rejoined Paul's team.

Saint Barnabas with the Virgin and Child, Sandro Botticelli, 1490.
Saint Barnabas with the Virgin and Child, Sandro Botticelli, 1490.

           In Colossians 4:10, Paul describes Mark as the cousin of Barnabas, and says parenthetically, "You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him." We don't know what those "instructions" about Mark were, but Paul's remark shows that the Colossians knew that Mark was in Paul's dog house. But now their relationship was mended, and Paul wanted to be sure that the Colossians knew that.

           And finally, there's 2 Timothy 4:11, written when Paul was an old man and near the end of his life. He tells Timothy, "Do your best to come to me quickly. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry." The junior "helper" who had deserted Paul is once again "helpful" to the senior missionary.

           The story of Barnabas provokes questions about counter factual or hypothetical history. "What if" Barnabas had never vouched for Paul, or failed in doing so? But the connection was made, and Paul eventually traveled 10,000 miles speading the good news of the love of God. No one shaped the future of the Jesus movement more than he did. And "what if" Barnabas had not encouraged Mark, and he hadn't later re-joined Paul, and gone on to write one of our gospels?

           Barnabas's legacy flourished long after his death — in art, like the images with this essay, and in various traditions surrounding his name. Some people identified him as one of the seventy apostles in Luke 10:1. Tertullian said that Barnabas wrote the epistle to the Hebrews. The non-canonical "Epistle of Barnabas" from the end of the first century is often ascribed to him. And a fifth-century text mentions a "Gospel of Barnabas." Tradition says that he was martyred in his home country of Cyprus.

           These are all historical conjectures that scholars debate. What's not debatable is Barnabas's legacy as a conciliator. And among believers who too often shoot the wounded, we need more encouragers like him today.

Image credits: (1) Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States; (2); and (3) Women for Faith & Family.