There was a time in the early church when Barnabas held greater influence than the apostle Paul (cf. Acts 13:1,2). Some time before Saul of Tarsus was immersed into Christ, Barnabas was already expending a great amount of his own financial resources assisting needy saints (Acts 4:36,37) and he had a close relationship to the apostles (Acts 4:36; 9:27). Paul’s reputation as a persecuter and a blasphemer of Christ had preceded him and Christians were reluctant to accept him, thinking he was, perhaps, feigning his conversion to gain an advantage (Acts 9:26). Even after his conversion, up until the first evangelistic tour, when their names are mentioned together, Barnabas is always mentioned first.
After Paul and Barnabas returned from delivering aid to the poor saints in Judea, the Holy Spirit instructed the church at Antioch that Barnabas and Saul were presently to be used in the special work for which He had called them (Acts 13:2). Saul had been called to be an apostle by the Lord at his conversion and was told he would be sent to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15,16; Gal. 2:7,8). When Barnabas was called for this task, we do not know, just as we do not know when or where Barnabas was converted to Christ. Was Barnabas one of the original disciples of Christ (Acts 1:15), was he converted on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41) or was he among the five thousand men who believed (Acts 4:4)? We do not know. But we do know he was separated by the Lord very early on to take the gospel to the Gentiles along with the apostle Paul.
Immediately after the establishment of the church, when Jews from distant lands were converted by the preaching of the apostles (Acts 2:5-11), instead of immediately returning to their own countries, many of them apparently continued in Jerusalem with the apostles and the rest of the church. In order to help support these brethren, some sold their property and gave the money to the apostles to distribute to every man as he had need (Acts 4:35). Barnabas was one of those who supported brethren in need in this way and the Holy Spirit saw fit to make particular note of his contributions (Acts 4:36).
Barnabas was not his birth name. His real name was Joses (or Joseph). It was the apostles who called him Barnabas, which literally meant “son of prophecy” or, by extension, “son of consolation” (Acts 4:36; cf. Acts 15:32). His preaching, along with others’, produced many converts in Antioch (Acts 11:24) and he is listed first among the prophets and teachers in the church there (Acts 13:1). When the the apostles had heard that there was a great response to the teaching of the gospel in the regions of Cyprus, Cyrene and Antioch, they chose Barnabas to organize the work, even though Paul had already been called by the Lord (Acts 11:22). It was Barnabas who, after he had seen the work in Antioch, sought out Saul in Tarsus to assist him in that vital work (Acts 11:25,26).
Barnabas’ reputation among the apostles is further seen in the fact that it was Barnabas that brought Saul of Tarsus to the apostles after his conversion. He was able to convince them that the Lord had, indeed, appeared unto Saul and that he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus (Acts 9:27). Some have surmised that Barnabas and Saul had known each other prior to their connection in Christ. They had a close relationship and both truly seemed to admire the other.
It was during their first evangelistic tour that Barnabas begins to recede into the background. In Paphos, Sergius Paul, the deputy or proconsul of the country, called for Barnabas and Saul to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith” (Acts 13:8). Saul then stepped up and struck Elymas the sorcerer blind as a punishment for his opposition to the gospel (Acts 13:8-11). It is during this time that Saul begins to be called Paul (Acts 13:9). It seems also as though Paul begins to take the lead because the group is now called “Paul and his company” (Acts 13:13). Further, it is no longer “Barnabas and Saul” but “Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 13:43).
Some time later, when Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch, Peter visited and was eating with the Gentiles until certain came from James in Jerusalem. Then Peter, fearing them of the circumcision, “withdrew and separated himself” (Gal. 2:12). Paul observed that Barnabas “also was carried away with their dissimulation” (Gal. 2:13). Paul then had to confront Peter to his face before them all, including Barnabas (Gal. 2:14). This all happened after the conference in Jerusalem in which it was determined by the Holy Spirit that the Gentiles need not be circumcised (Acts 15:28, 29).
After some days had passed, Paul purposed to go and visit the brethren to whom he and Barnabas had preached on their first evangelistic tour (Acts 15:36). Barnabas wanted to take with them John Mark, but Paul thought it not good because John Mark, who had begun with them on their first tour, left the work prematurely (Acts 13:13), making him untrustworthy. Because of this sharp disagreement, the two men parted ways. Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus and Paul and Silas, whom the brethren recommended, went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches (Acts 15:41). Later, Paul would acknowledge Barnabas’ wisdom when he told Timothy “Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry” (II Tim. 4:11).
Eric L. Padgett