The Barnabas Ministry

The Story of Barnabas
Barnabas first appears to us in Acts 4:36 as a Levite named Joseph from Cyprus. He apparently had some wealth, for he sold a field and gave the money to the apostles for their distribution. Apparently, he got to know the apostles fairly well in time, for his next appearance is boldly introducing a former persecutor named Saul of Tarsus to the apostles as a brother in the Lord (Acts 9:27).

Later, Barnabas was sent to Antioch to lead and encourage its young church (Acts 11:22-24). It is at this time that he recruited Paul from Tarsus for the work in Antioch (Acts 11:25). From the church in Antioch, Barnabas and Paul visited the church in Jerusalem with a gift for those suffering from a famine in Judea (Acts 11:30), and returned to Antioch with John Mark (Acts 12:25).

It was during this time in Antioch that Barnabas and Paul were selected by the Holy Spirit for missionary work (Acts 13:2). Taking John Mark along as a helper, the first stop was Barnabas' native Cyprus (Acts 13:4) and its city of Paphos (Acts 13:6). After ministry in this city, they sailed to Pamphylia, from which John Mark returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). By the time of their next stop in Pisidian Antioch, Paul apparently had risen to prominence in this missionary effort, as subsequent references refer to the team refer to "Paul and Barnabas" and no longer  "Barnabas and Paul" (Acts 13:42). This might possibly have been related to Paul's speaking ability (Acts 14:12).

In time Paul and Barnabas finished their missionary efforts and returned to Antioch (Acts 14:26). During this time, the circumcision controversy and the Jerusalem conference took place (Acts 15:1-2). Interestingly, during this discussion Barnabas returned to a role of prominence, possibly due to his long relationship with the apostles (Acts 15:12,25). After this matter was resolved, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch and carried on ministry there for some time (Acts 15:35).

It was during this time that Paul and Barnabas discussed visiting the churches they had established from their previous missionary efforts (Acts 15:36). Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along, but Paul objected due to the fact that John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia (Acts 15:38). Barnabas and Paul sharply disagreed and parted company over this matter (Acts 15:39). Instead, they appear to have divided  up the terrirory under consideration, with Barnabas and John Mark going to Cyprus (their ancestral homeland) and Paul and Silas went to Syria and Cilicia (Paul's ancestral homeland). At this point, Barnabas departs from the book of Acts.

Incidental Information
Barnabas was probably unmarried (1 Corinthians 9:5-6), he is also mentioned in Galatians 2:1,9 in reference to a visit to Jerusalem and again in Galatians 2:13 in reference to being led astray by Peter in drawing back from the Gentile believers in Antioch.

In Colossians 4:10, we learn that Mark was in fact Barnabas' cousin, and that Mark was a companion of Paul's during later missionary efforts (also see Philemon 1:24). Later still, 2 Timothy 4:11 records that Mark was known to Timothy and was summoned by Paul during his last days. And Mark is also seen with Peter during his later years (1 Peter 5:13).

Barnabas Was a Trailblazer and a Nurturer
Barnabas was an effective leader, first leading the young church at Antioch and then leading the first missionary journey from Antioch with the inexperienced Paul at his side. Together they were reckoned as apostles (Acts 14:4) who had "risked their lives for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 15:26). Possibly deceased by the time Acts was written, Luke warmly remembers Barnabas as "a good man, full of faith and the Holy Spirit" (Acts 11:24).

Yet, the best measure of his work may be seen in the lives of individuals he had a personal impact upon. He took Saul, who was completely disconnected with the other apostles, and persuaded them to recognize him. He later found Saul in Tarsus and personally recruited him for the work in Antioch, where he could develop his teaching and leadership skills. Lastly, while on the missionary journey from Antioch, Barnabas had the wisdom to know when Paul's gifts and abilities had exceeded his own in certain areas, and he allowed Paul to shine to the glory of God instead of keeping him down to maintain his own prominence. While we easily recall what Paul has meant to the church, we rarely recognize that Barnabas was instrumental in three major circumstances in his rise to prominence.

If we fail to appreciate what Barnabas meant in the life of Paul, we are likely to misunderstand Barnabas' involvement with John Mark.Having seen how Barnabas worked with Paul, we should consider the similarities to how he worked with John Mark. But before moving on, we need to understand the conflict discussed in Acts 15 surrounding John Mark.

Another Look at Barnabas, Paul and John Mark
Some scholars have advanced all sorts of speculative opinions regarding what was "really behind" the conflict over John Mark, but none of these rises to a significant degree of possibility for consideration here. Mark's departure from the team is plainly described by Luke as a "desertion" (Acts 15:38, Greek aphiemi, leave, forgive). It is regarded as a moral or character failing on the part of John Mark at that time in his life.

Some have attempted to paint a picture of Barnabas being weak, sentimental or over-the-hill in his advocacy for John Mark in Acts 15; yet there is no indication of any such sinfulness attributed to Barnabas anywhere in this story, just as there is no mention of any bitterness or unforgiveness on the part of Paul in the story. Paul and Barnabas disagreed sharply, yet respected each other enough to respect each other's assessments of the situation: Paul did not think John Mark should have been a part of the trip uner consideration, and Barnabas wanted John Mark to accompany him on any mission trip.

Notice the absence of any accusation of sin in this matter (in contrast to another controversial event in Antioch discussed in Galatians 2:11). This mutual respect between Paul and Barnabas explains the solution that was chosen by them. Perhaps Paul recognized that there had to be a place for John Mark, even if it wasn't on the trip Paul had in mind. The solution served to double the number of teams going out, it contributed to John Mark's continued growth, and it also brought Silas into a position to be trained for missionary work as well. In the end, God was doubly glorified.

Now back to Barnabas (after all, this article is about him). Barnabas undoubtedly was behind John Mark's move to Antioch with Barnabas and Saul prior to their missionary efforts (Acts 12:25). Barnabas clearly saw great potential in him. As Barnabas would not allow Paul's early ministry failures (Acts 9:30) to be his legacy, he would not allow John Mark's failure in Pamphylia to be his legacy. Barnabas still believed in him-- so much so that when another opportunity for mission work presented itself, he had no doubts about bringing him along. So much so that he would insist upon entire missionary plans to be altered for John Mark's benefit.

To label Barnabas as sentimental or weak in his loyalty to John Mark is not only speculative and foreign to the text, it ignores known traits about Barnabas. How can we praise the Barnabas who introduced Saul to the apostles and nurtured him, and then condemn this same Barnabas who refused to give up on John Mark? Was he not acting in the same manner in each case?

We Need More People Like Barnabas
Barnabas is a Christian hero. He sacrificed his wealth to help the needy. He sacrificed comfort and safety to travel and proclaim Christ in advancing the gospel. And yet, perhaps as a result of his age and maturity, he was entirely devoted to people on the "down" side of life and faith. Barnabas deeply loved both Saul and John Mark and found a way to help them both reach their full potential for God. Apparently Barnabas knew that failure has always been one of God's tools for training his people-- but only if that failure is followed by perseverance, adjustments and a second chance.

Rather than relegate this "gift of encouragement" (Romans 12:8) to the second-rate status (behind "glorious" missionary and evangelistic effectiveness), we ought to realize that without the great encouragers and healers of those who have failed, there is no future success. Where would Peter and the other apostles have been without Jesus restoring them after his resurrection? Where would Paul and John Mark have ended up without Barnabas' influence in their lives?

A "Barnabas Ministry" For the Church Today?
To Barnabas, the kingdom was not a "machine needing cogs" but a body consisting of individuals. It is not right to ask, "What is more important, the mission or the members?" To Barnabas, the mission was the members! A kingdom with no place for a Saul of Tarsus or a John Mark in time is a kingdom with no place for anyone. What a lesson to learn!

Failures-- sins-- in a life of faith are part and parcel of a life of faith. As Paul went to Tarsus in discouragement and John Mark returned to Jerusalem in disgrace, Christians today have experienced the same things. Many have "stepped out in faith" intending to accomplish some great thing for God-- only to meet with some sort of failure or find themselves enmeshed in an unworkable or unhealthy church situation. They dared to act in faith and later wondered if they were fools to have done so.

Sadly, in the church we haven't known what to do about them. As the psalmist became the song of drunkards (Ps 69:12), they have been mocked with "sinner" and "has-been" status by their brothers. As Peter cried out to Jesus, "Save me!" (Mt 14:30), they called out to their brothers but sometimes received an anchor instead of a hand. They desperately await a real brother-- one like Barnabas-- to help them believe and live a life of faith again.

What the church urgently needs today is people who personally practice a Barnabas-style of devotion and love that looks for those who are down and commits to the rebuilding of their faith and their usefulness. Even to the point of "changing plans" and "slowing down the ministry." Such a leadership won't let failure be the legacy of those who have tried and somehow "failed" in the past. Such a leadership realizes that today's shamed John Mark is the future author of a gospel, that today's ex-persecutor Saul of Tarsus is tomorrow's preacher to kings and Caesars.

How to best implement a "Barnabas Ministry" remains to be seen, but it surely must start with a "Barnabas Heart."

Copyright © 1999, 2006 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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