In the Christadelphian community,it is not uncommon for brothers and sisters to admire the contributions of gifted public speakers. Brethren blessed with the ability to communicate from the platform in exhortation and exposition are certainly worthy of respect. Their efforts play an essential part in teaching the gospel message and strengthening the faith of our members. Quite often, a capable speaking brother also possesses many other qualities that make him a natural leader in our ecclesias.
However, our community’s traditional emphasis on eloquent public speakers can, at times, overshadow other vital roles in ecclesial life. It is important that brothers and sisters remember there are many different contributions needed to have a fully functional, healthy ecclesial family (Rom. 12:4-8). In fact, many times the development of our more recognized brethren could not happen without the patient mentoring of those who work behind the scenes.
A standout in Jerusalem
An example of complementary roles in action is the relationship between Barnabas and Paul – two men whose lives were intertwined while preaching the Gospel. We readily acknowledge the staggering contributions of the apostle Paul, a man who stands second only to the Lord Jesus as the dominant figure of the New Testament. What we should consider, with careful reading, is the role that Barnabas played in helping Paul mature as a brother. It is likely that Paul would not have grown into the spiritual leader we have come to know without the help of Barnabas.
The extraordinary gift of Barnabas was his positive, uplifting personality. When first mentioned in the book of Acts (Acts 4:36), Barnabas is designated by the apostles as the “Son of Encouragement.” It is particularly noteworthy that Barnabas’s character had earned him this reputation. The growing ecclesia in Jerusalem had a truly amazing spirit, as Acts 4:32 records: “…the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things that he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” In that atmosphere of absolute cooperation and brotherly love, the Levite from Cyprus, Barnabas, stood out as a positive influence.
His early influence
The next mention of Barnabas occurs in Acts 9. This chapter is quite familiar to us for in it we read the account of Paul’s stunning conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-22). We may recall that the disciples in Jerusalem were at first wary of their new brother Paul and did not believe that his conversion was genuine (Acts 9:26). In fact, many were afraid of Paul and likely felt that his professed commitment to Jesus was no more than an attempt to infiltrate their inner circle. What we may not have noticed previously is that Barnabas is identified as the one person who reached out to Paul and helped him gain acceptance in the ecclesia (Acts 9:27). Barnabas made the effort to get to know Paul, learn about his dramatic change of heart, and accompanied him to meet the apostles.
In Acts 11, the gospel message was preached with great success in Antioch. When word of the progress reached the ecclesia in Jerusalem, Barnabas was sent to Antioch to help the cause. True to his name, Barnabas proved to be the right man for the job, as Acts 11:23 reads: “When he [Barnabas] came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord.”
Barnabas was a perfect fit as a leader for Antioch’s zealous group of recent converts “For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24). However, the growing ecclesia in Antioch needed more than just one experienced brother to handle the workload, so Barnabas sought out Paul. Acts 11:25-26 tells us that Barnabas went to Tarsus to find Paul and then convinced him to join the effort in Antioch. Although Paul had returned to his hometown after encountering violent resistance in Jerusalem (Acts 9:29-30), Barnabas realized Paul had too much ability not to be on the frontlines of spreading the word. The two of them went on to work side-by-side, teaching and ministering in Antioch for the next year (Acts 11:26).
The first missionary journey
The shared experiences in Antioch laid the foundation for their team approach to preaching in the missionary field. Their messages were often communicated together, as cited in Acts 13:43 “…many of the Jews and proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God.” And again in Acts13:46: “Then, Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.’” Both the words of encouragement to the believers and rebuke to the unbelievers were delivered together – as a team.
As time went on, Paul took on a greater role and became the primary public speaker (Acts 14: 8-12). In fact, we find that Barnabas is never directly quoted in the book of Acts. Many quotes are attributed directly to Paul, while Barnabas’s comments are referred to only in a general sense. This does not diminish the contributions of either brother, but rather highlights the distinctive manner in which each made his mark.
In the Jerusalem council
When the dispute arose concerning the law of circumcision (Acts 15), Barnabas and Paul continued to work together to speak on behalf of the Gentile believers. They traveled to Jerusalem where they met with the ecclesia’s leadership and described the “…many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12). As a result of their support for the Gentile converts, Barnabas and Paul were among those brethren selected to convey a letter from the elders in Jerusalem to the Gentile-Christians calming their fears regarding any requirement to be circumcised. When the conciliatory message was delivered to the ecclesia in Antioch “…they rejoiced over its encouragement” (Acts 15:31). Once again the scripture bears out Barnabas’s role in building up and strengthening his brethren.
Parting with Paul
Sadly, the last incident recorded concerning Barnabas is the one that most of us remember. Acts 15 closes with a story of Barnabas and Paul arguing over the selection of team members for their next missionary journey. Barnabas insists on taking John Mark with them, while Paul refuses to travel with John Mark after he had left them in a previous preaching campaign (Acts 12:25; 13:13). We can easily make the mistake of assuming that Paul was right and Barnabas was wrong. After all, we only read about Paul’s exploits from that point forward in Acts and he is regarded as one of the greatest leaders in scripture.
Before rushing to a conclusion, however, we should consider what we have learned about Barnabas. As the “Son of Encouragement” it would seem only natural for him to provide a fellow brother with a second chance. Perhaps it was in an effort to restore John Mark fully to ecclesial life by giving him an opportunity to complete the Lord’s work. It is also very likely that John Mark was not simply another young, immature brother to Barnabas, but a close relative. Among the brethren mentioned by Paul in his closing remarks in the Colossians is Mark “the cousin of Barnabas” (Colossians 4:10). It is quite possible that this is the same Mark that Paul asks Timothy to accompany him, noting that “…he is useful to me for the ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:11) It seems quite probable that the Mark referenced in both Colossians and 2 Timothy is the same John Mark of Acts. If this is true, then John Mark remained faithful, a brother mentored by Barnabas and who later grew into someone that Paul felt he could depend upon.
Perhaps the separation of Barnabas and Paul was also a matter of timing. Paul was ready to move on to other challenges that God had in store for him. He was always a capable orator, well-schooled in the Law of Moses, and familiar with life in Gentile lands. Paul’s background and skills made him uniquely qualified to witness the gospel to the secular leaders in Jerusalem and Rome. He was already able to handle public preaching soon after his conversion (Acts 9:22-23, 29), but it may have been the influence of Barnabas that prepared him to be a pastoral leader. The instruction that Paul provides the Colossians is an example of his sensitivity to daily struggles of discipleship, asking the brethren to work together so that “…their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love” (Colossians 2:2). Those words seem to echo the work of Barnabas, a man dedicated to encouraging the best in other people.
Not many in our community are destined to be great speakers – those who will lead study weekends, teaching seminars or Bible School classes. However, by following the example of Barnabas all brothers and sisters are capable of vital being a source of encouragement to others in the ecclesia.
Andrew C. Bilello