In our final article we bring to a conclusion our thoughts on this wonderful brother. His sup­portive work was mostly in the background rather than the foreground but, nevertheless, he made a considerable contribution to the building up of the ecclesia of God and the extension of the Gospel to the Gentiles. His work alongside the Apostle Paul was outstanding; however, as we observed in our previous article, there was the danger that this work would be sidelined due to the detrimental influence of “certain men which came from Judea”.

Barnabas was not just a passive observer

The apostles determined that this matter should be sorted out, so the Antioch Ecclesia appointed Paul and Barnabas as the best representatives capable of presenting the scriptural position. This was no trivial issue for Barnabas, for if it was he would have waved it away for the sake of peace, but he recognised this was a fundamental question concerning salvation:

  • If it was necessary for Gentile brethren to be circumcised as well as believing in Christ, then the death of Christ had been insufficient and lacked efficacy.
  • It would have meant that many brothers and sis­ters converted on their first missionary journey were unsaved and would need to revert back to aspects of the Mosaic Law.

The Jerusalem Conference was to be a serious gathering which would have huge ramifications, including the possible capacity to split the ecclesial world. Yet with all this background tension and ferocity, we note that on their way to Jerusalem as they passed through ecclesias they did not burden them with negative rumours and gossip but instead “caused great joy unto all the brethren”. What an incredible spirit and attitude of love! It’s the work of ‘the encourager’ again! When brethren become bogged down in issues and controversy it’s very rare that a happy and joyful disposition is maintained. But these brethren were still bubbling over with enthusiasm and joy at the results of their missionary work among the Gentiles that occurred two years before! Do we have such a positive effervescent spirit? Can we rejoice in the activity and practical support of our ecclesia? Do you remember special efforts and ecclesial activities that were spiritually uplifting and helpful? We must retain such experi­ences in order to sustain our faith, otherwise our faith will dehydrate and shrivel, we will become indifferent discouragers and all the joy of the Truth will evaporate. Barnabas encourages us to remember the joy!

The tension mounts

We can imagine the scene as the brethren gathered to consider this matter (Acts 15). Tension, anxiety, concern for the ecclesial world … then (v5) those of the “sect of the Pharisees stood up” and facing them across the table was Barnabas, a Levite whose original duty it was to teach the Law. Imagine the pressure Barnabas felt! However, Peter first addressed the gathering and confirmed the work done among the Gentiles. (It is not our task to ana­lyse the subject matter of the Jerusalem Conference but to focus on the presence of Barnabas.) Notice now how we are introduced to the next item of the proceedings in verse 12. The record says, “all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul”. Did you notice the significant reorder of the names? – Barnabas precedes Paul! Barnabas was greatly respected by the Jerusalem Ecclesia as a founding member and generous donator. He was a man known for his balanced responses, his deep scriptural knowledge and was a lover of the brotherhood. Paul stood alongside him. What a powerful combination! There are no direct citations of his speech in this verse but just simply the comment that they both declared what God had done. It’s not just what we say but what we do, and in view of their activity and the results, nobody arose to challenge their commitment and God’s blessing on that work.

The summary of the conference is later provided in verses 23–29 and gives another special mention of the role Barnabas played alongside Paul in a phrase laced with affection: “our beloved Barnabas and Paul” (v25). Notice again the significant reversal of the name order – Barnabas precedes Paul.

Undoubtedly, as they returned to their home ecclesia there would have been exclamations of relief and joy when the brothers and sisters assembled to hear the letter from Jerusalem. The friendships and relationships that had transcended the barrier be­tween Jew and Gentile had been resolved and their connection together as one united ecclesia would now be without any further transitional obstacles. The ecclesia at Antioch “rejoiced for the consola­tion” (Greek paraklesis v31), the same word as used in Acts 4:36: “Barnabas, the son of consolation.” It’s his signature of joy to the resolution of this whole incident. Whether providing for the needs of broth­ers and sisters financially or encouraging young Saul in the Truth or being sent to diplomatically bridge the gap between the Antioch and Jerusalem ecclesias or confronting false teaching and bringing factions together – Barnabas played a pivotal role and was a remarkable brother.

Fragile friendships

Sadly, the very chapter that describes the unifica­tion of the brotherhood concludes with the tearing asunder of a solid friendship that had been forged through the heat of difficult trials. Paul was keen to revisit the Galatian ecclesias and proposed a fur­ther trip to Barnabas, who was willing but wanted to give another opportunity to John Mark as well. One of the personal priorities Barnabas had was to make sure that John Mark was not too discouraged by his early abandonment of missionary work. As Barnabas had earlier seen the potential in Paul, so now he wanted to give John Mark a similar fresh start. He had done this twice for Paul, once by introducing him to the Jerusalem ecclesia about 14 years before and around 10 years later, searching for him in Tarsus and bringing him back from ‘exile’ to Antioch. The outstanding point is that Barnabas worked with ecclesias and inter-ecclesial panels but he was never too big or too busy to forget the needs of struggling individuals. This is a necessary exhortation to us all because, although we can become more involved and perhaps prominent in the work of the ecclesia, we must always try to be aware of individual needs. Taking care of the ec­clesia also means looking after individual sheep: “Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds” (Prov 27:23).

Sadly, the issue became such that the narra­tive describes it as a “sharp contention” (v39). The Greek word has the idea of a “convulsion or spasm” in a reactive sense and, significantly it is only used on one other occasion, in Hebrews 10:24: “Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works”. However, the context here is an ac­tivity of “provoking” in love – the exact opposite of how this discussion went! Perhaps this is a challenge to each of us as to the way that we should shape our conversations carefully so friendships are not ruptured when there are disputes.

They could not resolve their differences so they “departed asunder”. They severed their partnership with each other and, to describe this action, another unique Greek word is used here and only duplicated in Revelation 6:14 where “the heavens split apart” (NET). Perhaps it is something of a comfort in our own disagreements to know that, for a time, these two great men were not of the same mind. Paul owed more to Barnabas than to any other man and Barnabas was leaving the greatest follower of Christ! But neither man walked away from the Truth in disgust; they continued their work in dif­ferent areas and both learned and matured through this situation. Rightly, they did not involve others in their personal dispute, they did not deprecate each other and there is no indication in Scripture that there was a loss of respect for the work they continued in. Each went in different directions and involved new brothers in their activities.

That’s not the end of the story!

We may be disappointed with this concluding confrontation between Paul and Barnabas and feel that it leaves a distasteful conclusion to their great friendship but we do have further information! While we hear no more of Barnabas in the book of Acts, the inspired Word yields some helpful comments. There is a further reference to Barnabas some five years later in 1 Corinthians 9:6 when Paul wrote to them about the freedom to serve Christ without cost. Paul draws on the powerful example and continuing generosity of Barnabas, who originally inspired him to preach the Truth without ecclesial financial support. While Paul argued it was scripturally appropriate to receive financial support, he illustrated his commitment with the pattern of Barnabas, who, like himself, performed this service without charge. So Paul still counted Barnabas as a fellow worker who had the same attitude and approach to life in the Truth, and he deeply appreciated that. There were very few people prepared to make the great sacrifices demanded in mission work but Barnabas was such an individual and shared that enthusiastic vision with Paul. This highlighting of Barnabas’ generos­ity indicates there was no festering disagreement or ongoing resentment or bitterness on the part of Paul. The generosity and spirit of Barnabas had left an indelible mark on him. Barnabas also must have been known to the Corinthians for Paul to use him as an example they would have been familiar with but, intriguingly, there’s no record of that link.

The other later reference is around ten years after this split, when Paul wrote to the Colossians, instructing them that if John Mark was to visit them, they were to treat him with the utmost re­spect because he was the young cousin of the great Barnabas: “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas concerning whom you have received instructions – if he comes to you, welcome him” (Col 4:10 ESV). That is a lovely commendation by the Apostle Paul! Even in far off Colossae they had perhaps heard about the issue with Barnabas but Paul commanded them to accept John Mark without prejudice. It appears, if we read between the lines, Paul was saying, ‘Barnabas was right – John Mark is a good brother in Christ; welcome him!’

Fittingly, at the end of Paul’s life, 15 years after his disagreement with Barnabas, in the very last letter we have in our possession, Paul penned a request for Luke to bring John Mark: “he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Tim 4:11 ESV). So we don’t know if it was John Mark who changed, or Paul who changed – but I have a feeling it was both of them! In fact, the way Paul writes to en­courage the young man Timothy in this extremely personal and emotional letter is a mirror reflection of what he eventually learned from Barnabas! God had a vital work for them all, which they performed admirably. May we take hold of ‘the Barnabas spirit’ and affect others for good, walking alongside and providing the encouragement that is necessary to inspire and sustain each other unto the Kingdom: “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all ...” (1 Thess 5:14).