Monday, June 11, 2012

St Barnabas . . . Son of Encouragement

Today is the feast day of St Barnabas, one of my favourite Biblical characters. A Jew of the tribe of Levi, born on Cyprus, Barnabas was, according to Clement of Alexandria and the early historian Eusebius, one of the seventy sent out by Jesus to preach the gospel and heal the sick (Luke 10:1). His original name was Joseph or Joses. But because of the kind of person he was, he became known in the Church community as “ Barnabas” which means “Son of Encouragement” (Acts 4:36)

He is described as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith,” (Acts 11:24) meaning that not only was he was good in the sense of being understanding and kind, but he knew the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in his life, and he was full of faith (which I take to mean not just in the sense of believing the right things, but in trusting God’s promises in difficult situations). 

Barnabas started out as a man of means. But he was among those who sold their property, placing the proceeds at the feet of the apostles for the support of the needy (Acts 4:36-37)

We next see Barnabas when Saul of Tarsus has become a Christian. On account of Saul’s reputation as a key persecutor, the Church in Jerusalem had trouble trusting him when he arrived back there three years after his conversion (see Acts 9:26). Barnabas, however, gave Saul the benefit of the doubt. He had the faith to believe that God could turn someone’s life around. So he encouraged Saul and got close to him. He introduced him to the apostles, defending him and urging them to accept him (Acts 9:27)

Some time later when news reached Jerusalem that Greeks who lived at Antioch were being converted to Christ (Acts 11:20), the apostles sent Barnabas to see what was happening and care for the work there. When Barnabas saw the sincerity of those who had became believers, he began nurturing them into a real community of faith, and expanded the ministry, (Acts 11:23). Feeling that he needed help in this task, he went without delay to the city of Tarsus to find Saul and brought him back to Antioch (Acts 11:25). Barnabas and Saul were a very successful team. They spent a year there during which time the Church went from strength to strength . . . they “taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (Acts 11:26)

Around this time it became clear that a famine was on the way that would make life hard for the Christians of Judea. So the Church at at Antioch took up a special collection and gave it to Barnabas and Saul to take to Jerusalem. (Acts 11:29-30). When Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch (Acts 12:25) they had with them John Mark, Barnabas’ cousin (see Colossians 4:10), in whose mother’s house we know Jerusalem Christians would gather for prayer (Acts 12:12)

Eventually, the Church at Antioch sent out Barnabas and Saul on a missionary journey. John Mark went with them. They travelled to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. While at Cyprus, Saul began to be called Paul, and Barnabas allowed him to take over the leadership role. (Acts 13:9). They continued their journey to Salamis, to Paphos, and then to Perga. It was here that John Mark left them to go home to Jerusalem, while Paul and Barnabas completed their journey. 

When a second missionary journey was planned, Barnabas agreed to go with Paul (Acts 15:36) and suggested taking John Mark with them. But Paul refused on account of John Mark’s failure to fulfil his commitment on the first journey. A big argument ensued that resulted in a parting of ways. Barnabas, ever the encourager, took John Mark with him to Cyprus. It seems that whatever the problem was, Barnabas was able to restore him, for Paul himself, some years later, writes to Timothy, "Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry" (2 Timothy 4:11)

Acts doesn’t talk about Barnabas again after the big argument. But he is mentioned several times in Paul’s letters (1 Corinthians 9:6; Galatians 2:1,9,13; Colossians 4:10)

According to ancient tradition Barnabas was stoned to death in 61 AD at Cyprus, and as he was dying he held onto a copy of the Gospel of St Matthew that he had copied by hand. 

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Grant, we beseech thee O Lord, that we may follow the example of thy faithful servant Barnabas, who, seeking not his own renown but the well being of thy Church, gave generously of his life and substance for the relief of the poor and the spread of the Gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


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