By Nicholas Carrigg
St. Barnabas appeared in the wake of St. Stephen’s death. Tradition tells us that he was a Cyprian Jew of the Levite tribe, but we know nothing of Barnabas' childhood, or how he looked, or what his occupation was before becoming a Christian. St. Luke tells us that he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith. Early Church historians claim that Barnabas was one of the 70 disciples commissioned by Jesus to preach in Luke's Gospel, but of this, we cannot be certain. What we can be certain of is that the Apostles in Jerusalem sent Barnabas on a mission to investigate a novel phenomenon in Antioch that forever changed the course of Christianity.
After Stephen's martyrdom, the nascent Church scattered to evade persecution. Yet out of this dangerous period, a miracle occurred. Some of the scattered disciples felt the Holy Spirit well-up within them so mightily that they couldn't help but preach the Gospel to everyone around them—including Gentiles. When the Church in Jerusalem received word that Jewish Christians were converting the Greek pagans of Antioch, the Apostles chose Barnabas to examine the matter.
St. Luke doesn't tell us much about Barnabas' first journey, but we do know that when he got to Antioch, the situation well-pleased him. As a Levite, we can presume that Barnabas followed all the precepts of the Law. And perhaps he believed—like many in the early Church—that true conversion to Christianity necessitated circumcision and eating a kosher diet. But instead of evoking prejudice in him, the conversions at Antioch impressed Barnabas, convincing him that God was calling all peoples to salvation through His Son. With this new outlook, Barnabas blessed the people of Antioch, and then immediately ventured to Tarsus in search of a man named Paul. He would later come to be known as the Apostle to the Gentiles, but it wasn't until Barnabas sought him out that Paul began his prolific ministry.
The name Barnabas famously means “son of encouragement,” which was aptly given to the disciple due to his ability to see the potential in people. This was true of his relationship with Paul, who was received cautiously by the Church in Jerusalem following his conversion, but quickly found a friend in Barnabas. Perhaps their friendship was also due to their similar backgrounds as faithful Jews—indeed, perhaps they had even studied the Torah together. Nonetheless, when Barnabas led a blind Paul to the Apostles and was met with fear and suspicion, only Barnabas had the courage to see beyond the ex-persecutor's reputation.
The latter part of Barnabas' ministry is threaded throughout the epistles. We know that he and Paul built up the Church at Antioch so that it would become a stronghold of Christianity for centuries to come. We also know that the two men stood ardently against circumcision for Gentile converts at the Council of Jerusalem. After quelling this dispute, Barnabas and Paul journeyed with a young John Mark to Anatolia on their first missionary trip. Although this sojourn proved fruitful for the disciples, Mark abandoned them early on, leaving Paul to believe that the soon-to-be Evangelist was a flake. Here, however, Barnabas' foresight concerning his cousin trumped Paul's doubts. On their second missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas decided to take different routes and assistants. It is of note that the two great missionaries did not let their disagreement get the better of them, but rather, put the Gospel first. Paul journeyed further into Anatolia with Silas, while Barnabas—seeing Mark's potential—took the young man with him to Cyprus to evangelize their own people.
Upon sailing to his homeland, Barnabas fades into the background of the New Testament, and, unfortunately, into the less-frequented crannies of hagiography. For contemporary Catholics, St. Barnabas may not be at the top of their devotional list. He didn't give us the Rosary or found Monasticism or even receive visions so far as the Scriptures tell us. Nonetheless, we ought to ask for St. Barnabas' intercession—especially in today's world. For Barnabas had the gift to see beyond a person's exterior, and towards the image of God in their soul. How often do we pass up opportunities to spread the Gospel due to fear that it will fall on deaf ears, and that we will be persecuted? Christ does not tell us to evangelize only those that look like they will listen to us. Rather, he says to make disciples of all nations, and only to kick the dust off our sandals if we are rejected—not before we even try. St. Barnabas reminds us that even the most unlikely persons (like ex-persecutors and flakes!) can become shining disciples to our Lord. We need only open our minds and share with them the Good News.