For he was a good man, and he was filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith,” says Acts 11:24. Previously, we noted that Barnabas had been sent to the Antioch ecclesia to investigate and assist in their development by creating a bridge of trust and fellowship with the Jerusalem ecclesia. While he was there, he realised the immensity of the task before him and travelled to Tarsus on a search for Brother Saul, whom he remembered was eminently qualified to help him in this developmental work. It is important to notice that as they assisted in the nurturing of this newly formed ecclesia, it wasn’t based on the convenience of some social connections but Barnabas and Saul built it on a firm foundation of scriptural truth. The scene is set in Acts 13:1 where the narrative provides the introductory comment, “there were in the ecclesia that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers,” and then there is a list of 5 prominent brethren gifted in this area. Notably, Barnabas heads the list. His leadership in this area became the pattern for subsequent events and he continued to precede Saul: Act 9:27 says, Barnabas took Saul and 11:25, Barnabas sought Saul, while 11:30, 12:25, 13:2 and 13:7 continue to list the order significantly as Barnabas and Saul.

Barnabas obviously had a deep understanding of the Word of God and the ability to distil it correctly. This sound basis of “prophets and teachers” is in contrast to the unbalanced emphasis the Corinthian ecclesia placed on the charismatic and showy gift of speaking in tongues. Paul later wrote to them to correct this imbalance and stated, “God hath set some in the ecclesia, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that… tongues” (1 Cor 12:28). It appears that this prominence of Barnabas in the area of “prophecy” related not just to foretelling, but ‘forthtelling’ with passion and warmth. His teaching ability, blended with his enthusiasm for God, became a powerful impetus in drawing people to Christ. In addition, he harnessed this teaching aspect by the combined abilities of other brethren as Acts 13:1 lists. Simeon could connect to Greek speaking Jews and returning slaves; Lucias (from Cyrene) could relate to dark coloured immigrants; Manaen, raised in Herod’s household, had connections to Roman politicians and wealthy aristocrats; Saul could debate with traditional Jews.

So through Barnabas’ organisational ability, there was a wonderful diversity of brethren contributing to the growth of this ecclesia and they were able to avert the racial and cultural divisions that appeared to be affecting the Jerusalem ecclesia.

Barnabas a missionary supporter

This combination of Barnabas and Saul was so effective that the Spirit selected them for an even greater task. Together they were to take the Gospel to regions that had not heard Christ. Brother Boulton comments that “this was one of the greatest tasks ever set before men” and that their credentials were a “demonstration of the Spirit and power”. While we tend to focus on Saul, we should not diminish the fact that Barnabas, as his equal, was also particularly chosen by the Spirit for this unique task. It is significant that out of the resource of many brethren within the ecclesial world at that time, including the Apostles, it was Barnabas with his encouraging spirit, his tenacity and deep Bible knowledge that qualified him as the right man for the job. Additionally, it was no small task to keep up with the energetic devotion of Saul but Barnabas could! The work before them would require incredible stamina. It began at Cyprus (significantly the homeland of Barnabas) and was to continue for 18-24 months! Nor was it a tour of self promotion, for there is the repeated emphasis on the preaching of the Word of God, which was central to both these brethren. It is a worthwhile task to colour the phrases that relate to this teaching aspect, contained in Acts 13:5, 7, 12, 15, 26, 27, 29, 33, 34, 35, 39, 40, 42, 44, 46, 48 and 49.

The other factor revealed in this chapter is that Barnabas, in his fatherly role, was constantly looking to help other brethren expand and develop their skills. He had searched out brother Saul and now his attention turned to John Mark. Who was this young man? By threading Scripture together, we note that his mother was Mary (Acts 12.12); he was Barnabas’ nephew (or cousin Col 4:10); he was closely connected to Peter (1 Pet 5:13); wrote the Gospel of Mark and later became a valued worker with Paul (Phm 24, 2 Tim 4:11).

A humble man

While he took on a fatherly role, as this chapter unfolds, we additionally see his wonderful humility. Acts 13:9 shows the predominance of Paul as he vigorously confronted Elymas the false prophet and verse 13 describes his distinctive work with the phrase, “now Paul and his company”. This is the first time Paul’s name precedes Barnabas’ but notably there is no evidence of jealousy, personal ambition, ego or envy. Barnabas was the type of brother who accepted and relished the prominence of others in the work of Christ. This is further highlighted with the departure of John Mark in the same verse, which must have placed Barnabas under incredible pressure. As John Mark was his nephew, there was a family connection here and it would have been very easy for Barnabas to side with family. He could have criticised Paul for his excessive determination and strong-mindedness and say that he needed to slow down and make allowances for others. But there was none of that. Barnabas made the choice and rather than side with family, he sided with the Apostle Paul. He chose to go on because he wasn’t simply a ‘people person’ but a ‘God-focused person’. He was obviously not unaffected by emotion but, like the choice between Abram and Lot, he recognised the greater importance of the task ahead of him. We can use the natural family sometimes as an excuse to draw back our support of the Truth and neglect opportunities to encourage other members of our spiritual family. Jesus had a similar challenge when his family “stood without” and he gave a definition of those who were important to him, using the rhetorical question as to who was his mother and brothers. Family is important and these are relationships we need to build and nurture but the balance must be correct and in this situation, Barnabas gave support to Paul. Through this incident, we observe that Barnabas was not easily distracted, he was prepared to make tough decisions, he knew the hardships ahead and moved forward to face them with Paul, even if it meant leaving a family member behind. That is a magnificent spirit.

A man of determination and inner strength

So they journeyed together crossing the Taurus mountains, one of the wildest, most dangerous stretches of road in the Roman Empire, known for the marauding gangs of bandits and robbers from which travellers would need the protection of Roman soldiers and perhaps referred to by Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:26, 27. When they came to Antioch, Paul “stood up” (Acts 13:16) and presented a powerful appeal which resulted in a vigorous dispute (v43). Again, in this matter, Barnabas was not a silent shadow. The record notes that both were involved in defending the Truth and that both “Paul and Barnabas waxed bold” (v46) as they confirmed, engaged and defended the Truth. This same word is used of Apollos in Acts 18:24-26, who spake “boldly in the synagogue” but it required Aquilla and Priscilla to correct and teach him the way of God “more perfectly”. Paul didn’t have to do that with Barnabas. The calibre of this man sustained neither a reticent delivery nor a deficient knowledge: like Paul he had been chosen by the Spirit to promote the Gospel message in hostile lands. Their powerful presentation resulted in a “persecution against Paul and Barnabas” (Acts13:50). He was right there alongside Paul. He was no dark shadow. While a young John Mark could not keep up with the pressure of a preaching tour with Paul, Barnabas relished in it! He defended the Truth alongside Paul. Think about that level of determination and support. It was a relationship that was being forged in a furnace of stress and tribulation and is the mark of great Bible characters. The final verse completes the picture as the disciples “were filled with joy” (v52). That’s the work of an encourager. We need more brethren like Barnabas who can be open, bold and frank, yet leave a message of hope and joy!

Lesson for us

We may not have the gift of eloquence and the courage to present a public lecture but, like Barnabas, we can be there. We may not be able to present a deep and motivating Bible study but we can attend and give support to brethren who have spent time exploring the Scriptures. We may not be going through a tough time but, like Barnabas, we can come alongside those who are and give support. We may at times be pushed out of our ‘comfort zone’ but, like Barnabas, we will use the experience to bring us closer to our God.

The journey continues – Barnabas: a persistent preacher

The two brethren were thrown out of Antioch and the record notes, “they went both together” (Acts 14:1). While we may dismiss this as an unimportant fragment of narrative, the record is indicating the incredible spirit of unity these brethren had forged together. Eighteen years later, Paul was specific about the difficulties he went through: “persecutions and afflictions which came unto me at Antioch, Iconium and Lystra; what persecutions I endured”. If Paul found them difficult, what about Barnabas! So there’s an emphasis here that, although Barnabas’ nephew, John Mark, had deserted them, Barnabas was still very much at one with Paul. This phrase, “they went both together,” is a reflection of the intimate bond between a father and son, duplicated from Genesis 22:6 as Abram and his son engaged in a difficult task and “went both of them together”. It is used in John 20:4 as Peter and John ran excitedly together with the news of the resurrection of Christ and so it becomes an apt phrase for this work of Paul and Barnabas. The lesson for us is that we too need to strive to work with others and strengthen their hands in God: “That ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil 1:27). “I beseech you, brethren… that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10).

We note again verse Acts 14:3: “they speaking boldly in the Lord, which gave testimony unto the word of his grace”. Barnabas was not a passive observer standing on the sidelines, he was fully involved in supporting Paul; but the verse also says: “they abode there a long time”. Why would they do this if the results were poor and there was the possibility of better outcomes elsewhere? The reason is given in verse 2 and shows that there was persecution “against the brethren;” so the Barnabas spirit of encouragement and support was evident as the young ecclesia faced hostility and opposition. Additionally, verse 3 indicates that miracles were performed by both Paul and Barnabas. We don’t often associate Barnabas with miracles but here is the evidence that he had the full range of Holy Spirit gifts as this phrase, “signs and wonders,” is unique to the activities performed by the apostles (Acts 2:43; 5:12).

There’s a phrase in verse 5 we tend to gloss over but which indicates the extreme violence Barnabas was prepared to face with Paul: “there was an assault made… to stone them”. We need to realise that Barnabas was putting his life on the line with Paul. People wanted to physically harm them, beat them, stone them. How did Barnabas react to being attacked, reviled, expelled and threatened with stoning? He could have felt Paul was too provocative in his preaching and urged him to soften the message. There are times when such counsel may be wise but there are also situations where the Gospel needs to be presented in a forthright and uncompromising manner. Whatever Barnabas’ feelings, he stood by Paul, accepting the demands and deprivations that followed, without complaint. We need at times to respect the bluntness of others as it can help us to apprehend the apathy we often become comfortable with. And so the record says in verse 7 that they continued preaching. Very few of us would have the courage to do this so there’s an integral element of persistency in Barnabas as he faithfully endured the abuse with Paul.

A formidable physical presence

The incident at Lystra adds a further dimension to our understanding of Barnabas. The miracle of the healing of the lame man resulted in the people of Lystra deciding to initiate a ceremony to worship Paul and Barnabas as the incarnation of “the gods.” They immediately named Barnabas Zeus (the Greek god), also known as Jupiter (the Roman god) and Paul was named Hermes or Mecurius (the son of Zeus and his spokesman). Zeus was the most widely worshipped god in Galatia; temples to Zeus were ubiquitous. He is portrayed as the God of sky and thunder and frequently presented striding forward with a thunderbolt in his hand. Evidently, Barnabas’ appearance was more impressive than Paul’s and so he was looked upon as chief god, while Paul’s public eloquence led them to conclude he was the messenger of the gods! Something about Barnabas impressed the people and it appears he was a big man with an imposing appearance. In fact, verse 14 reverses the previous structures of the name order and places Barnabas first, as he was the more imposing.

However, the situation was suddenly reversed by the intrusion of Jews from Antioch and Iconium. This was rough, brutal territory and they had dogged Paul and Barnabas in order to stir up more trouble. In their hostility, they singled out Paul for attack, perhaps because he had more to say and his weaker physique made him the easier prey. The mob attacked him with stones, knocked him down until he was unconscious and dragged him out of the city, presumed dead. Imagine how Barnabas would feel. He would have been in immediate shock at the vicious trauma that had occurred right before his eyes. It’s unlikely he would have stood still as a passive observer; surely he would have tried to help extricate Paul from the danger he was in. We can only imagine the extreme distress Barnabas would have shown as his close companion went down under a hail of rocks. Perhaps he gathered together the brothers and sisters of the newly formed ecclesia to protect them, as verse 20 indicates. There was no indifference as far as Barnabas was concerned; they “formed a circle around Paul” in a combination of prayer and protection. James comments, “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the ecclesia; and let them pray over him … And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up” (James 5:14, 15). To his relief, their prayer was answered. Paul recovered consciousness and, with the encouragement of Barnabas, was helped back into the city to inspire and encourage the new converts that it is “through much affliction we shall enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

To be continued…