Who was Barnabas?

Live Global teammates often function more like Barnabas than like Paul. So who was Barnabas and what was he like?

Who Was Barnabas? Learning from the Man Who Partnered with Paul

The Apostle Paul is often considered a model missionary, and we need to take a look at his life before we explore the question Who Was Barnabas?. Paul’s ministry was so multi-faceted and his influence was so vast that it overwhelms most of us when we read and think about it. Even in attempting to replicate his practices, we typically must limit ourselves to one aspect of his ministry instead of seeking to emulate all of it.

Yet even Paul at one time was, in his own words, “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” (1 Tim 1:13), the foremost of sinners (1 Tim 1:15), and one who “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Gal 1:13). Does that sound like someone who would partner with missionaries, much less become one himself?

Outside of the grace and mercy of God, which Paul readily acknowledged (Gal 1:15-16; 1 Tim 1:13-16), the person who had perhaps the most influence on Paul’s life and ministry was Barnabas. Barnabas sets a pattern for those who desire to partner effectively with national believers to advance the gospel.

The Character of Barnabas

The first mention of Barnabas comes at the end of Acts 4, where Luke points out the meaning of his name: “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36), and even indicates that this is likely a nickname he received from the apostles. His encouraging character is evident in the way he “sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:37) that it might be distributed among those in the Jerusalem church who had need of it (Acts 4:32-35). It’s also possible that Barnabas had some training as a priest, due to his belonging to the tribe of Levi (Acts 4:36). In other words, this seems to have been a man who loved the Lord, studied the Scriptures, and lived according to them.

How Paul Earned the Trust of Barnabas

After Paul’s conversion, he came to Jerusalem and “attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26). On one hand, this makes sense, because the believers there had suffered greatly at the hands of Paul (Acts 7:58; 8:1-3). The only believer who apparently did not fear Paul (or at least didn’t give into his fears) was Barnabas, who personally escorted Paul to the apostles and vouched that Paul “had preached boldly in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:27).

Though it likely took time, the other apostles came around to accepting Paul. Yet even as he continued preaching, Paul’s life was in danger, and the ones who accepted him were willing to protect him against those now persecuting him (Acts 9:28-30). Barnabas had identified Paul as a trustworthy brother because of his bold preaching of Christ. And Barnabas no doubt influenced Paul and others as he accepted him as a coworker in the gospel.

How Barnabas Included Paul

Later, as the church of Antioch was experiencing growth, Barnabas was invited to assist because “he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24). Upon arrival, Barnabas “was glad” because he “saw the grace of God” that was among them “and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord” (Acts 11:23). In other words, he didn’t go into the place where the Lord was already at work and attempt to take it over. Instead, he sought to play whatever role was necessary within his skill set to come alongside what was already happening. With his help, “a great many people were added to the Lord” (Acts 11:24).

But Barnabas didn’t just offer his own time and talents. He also made a point to include others whom he knew could also serve effectively with him. So, he brought along Paul, and together they spent a year at the Antioch church teaching the new disciples there (Acts 11:25-26). And in addition to their teaching ministry, Barnabas and Paul also helped meet physical needs as they were sent with gifts for fellow believers in Judea who had suffered through a time of famine (Acts 11:27-30).

Sent as a Team

While the ministry in Antioch was apparently effective, the Lord intended to use Barnabas and Paul in other places as well. The leaders and congregation obeyed the Lord by prayerfully sending the two of them together for cross-cultural ministry (Acts 13:1-3). Along the way, they developed other partnerships as well, such as John (also called Mark; see Acts 12:12), who seemed to abandon the work almost as quickly as he took it on (Acts 13:5, 13).

Knowing When to Separate

Just because a partnership is established in God’s providence and bears fruit for a time by his grace does not mean that it must continue forever. Though Barnabas and Paul worked well together and God brought them together to accomplish many great works for the Lord, they experienced tension that led to their separation. As they were preparing to set out on another cross-cultural assignment, they disagreed on whether to include John-Mark on the team (Acts 15:37-39).

Luke does not indicate who was right or who was wrong in this dispute. So, it doesn’t seem that this was a matter of sin but a matter of preference and conscience. In the Lord’s kindness, both men continued in ministry, but they parted ways. Barnabas took John-Mark (Acts 15:39), and Paul traveled with Silas (Acts 15:22, 27, 32, 40). In this way, the team actually grew and multiplied even through the conflict. And even Paul seemed to eventually include John-Mark at the end of his life and ministry (2 Tim 4:11).

So What?

Live Global teammates often function more like Barnabas than like Paul. Our task is to be men and women of character who seek to encourage the local and global church by using our gifts for their good and God’s glory. In our cross-cultural ministry efforts, we try to identify and include national believers who, like Paul, are equipped and able to serve the Lord faithfully and boldly where God has placed them. Then—for as long as God allows—we serve alongside them, not taking over the work but skillfully assisting and encouraging as needed. 

This article was written with the assistance of Rich M.