June 11 is the Feast of St. Barnabas and the Second Reading for the day comes from Acts 11:19-30; 13:1-3 – only a sampling of stories about Barnabas in the New Testament.
Barnabas is not a popular name in the United States. Actually it won’t show up on any search of popular names. Neither is it popular in the UK even with its derived form Barnaby. It does not appear that many people are eager to name their sons, Barnabas.
Actually, Barnabas was a nickname the apostles picked for Joseph, the cousin or nephew of John Mark, the author of the Gospel. Barnabas means – in Aramaic – “son of encouragement” or “exhortation”. It can also mean “son of a preacher”, or “son of a prophet”. Indeed, the apostles had good reasons to nickname him Barnabas. As Luke points out in Acts 11:24, “he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith”.
We learn from Acts, that he was a Jew, a native of Cyprus and that he sold his property and gave the proceeds to the church – the practice of the post-Pentecost believers.
After the martyrdom of Stephen and the persecution that followed, the disciples were dispersed throughout the Mediterranean word. Those who were dispersed took the gospel message to the Jewish communities of the diaspora. A few in Antioch, took the message to Gentiles. When the apostles in Jerusalem heard of this development, they sent Barnabas to investigate.
He was impressed by the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles and went to Tarsus and convinced Paul to get into the ministry to the Gentiles. When the mother church in Jerusalem was afflicted with famine, the believers in Antioch made an offering – what we still do today as hunger drive or famine relief – and Barnabas and Paul took it to Jerusalem.
When Paul arrived in Jerusalem following his conversion, the apostles were hesitant to accept him because of his past persecution of believers. It was Barnabas who vouched for him.
The church in Antioch felt inspired by the Holy Spirit to send out missionaries to the Gentiles. After praying and fasting they ordained Barnabas and Paul “and sent them off” (Acts 13:3). In spite of strong opposition, Barnabas and Paul made many converts, established churches, ordained elders, and on reaching Antioch in Syria, they believed God “had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27).
In the midst of this great story, some preachers arrived in Antioch from Jerusalem, threatened Barnabas and Paul’s work with their counter- teaching about circumcision for Gentiles. The two took the issue to the Jerusalem Council (believed to have taken place somewhere between 47 and 51 A.D). They got a decision in their favor (Acts 14:27- 15:30).
Thus, Barnabas’ esteem in that first generation of apostles exceeds even that of some of the twelve. There is also the legend that he was the first bishop of Milan; he preached in Alexandria and even converted Clement, and, according to Tertullian (ca.160- 230 A.D) that he is the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Barnabas’ legacy in the church is indeed greater than generally recognized.