St Barnabas the Apostle – Matthew 10:7-13
We celebrate the feast of St. Barnabas today. Barnabas was an ‘apostle’ and a missionary and was among Christ’s earliest followers. He is traditionally regarded as one of the 72 disciples of Christ. Though not one of the 12 apostles chosen by the Lord, he comes as close as anyone outside the Twelve to being a full-fledged apostle. Barnabas was the most respected man in the first century Church after the Apostles themselves. It was Barnabas who was responsible for welcoming St. Paul into the Church and introducing him to Peter.
St. Barnabas was born to wealthy Jewish parents on the Greek-speaking island of Cyprus. Barnabas is the saints Surname, which when interpreted means “son of exhortation” or “consolation”. Traditional accounts hold that his parents sent him to study in Jerusalem, where he studied at the school of Gamaliel (who also taught St. Paul). Later on, when Christ’s public ministry began, Barnabas may have been among those who heard Jesus preach in person. At some point, either during Christ’s ministry or after his death and resurrection, Barnabas decided to commit himself in the most radical way to the teachings he had received. He sold the large estate he had inherited, contributed the proceeds entirely to the Church, and joined Christ’s other apostles in holding all of their possessions in common.
When we speak of St Barnabas you cannot but speak of St Paul. Both Paul and Barnabas received a calling from God to become the “Apostles of the Gentiles,” although the title is more often associated with St. Paul. When a Christian community developed at Antioch, Barnabas was sent as the official representative of the church of Jerusalem to incorporate them into the fold. Barnabas reached out to Paul and invited him to help him care for their community. Paul and Barnabas, both charismatic leaders, were the sent by Antioch officials to preach to the gentiles. In Antioch, they instructed the Jews and the Gentiles for a year building up the Church community whose members were the first to go by the name of “Christians”
Travelling with Barnabas and Paul was Barnabas’ cousin John Mark, who would later on write the Gospel. For many years, the two apostles and St Mark travelled and preached among the Gentiles, suffering persecution and hardships for the sake of establishing Christianity among those of a non-Jewish background. After a miracle at Lystra, the people wanted to offer sacrifice to them as gods—Barnabas being Zeus, and Paul, Hermes—but the two said, “We are of the same nature as you, human beings. We proclaim to you good news that you should turn from these idols to the living God” (see Acts 14:8-18).
The remarkable success of Barnabas and Paul led to one of the earliest controversies in Church history, regarding the question of whether Christian converts would have to observe Jewish rites. During the landmark Council of Jerusalem, recorded in the book of Acts, the assembled apostles confirmed St. Peter’s earlier proclamation that the laws of the Old Testament would not be mandatory for the Gentiles who now followed Christ as ‘Christians.’
But even the best of friends can have differences. Mark became discouraged and returned to Jerusalem. The question of Mark’s dedication to the mission arose later, and cause a significant personal disagreement between Paul and Barnabas. When Paul wanted to revisit the places they had evangelized, Barnabas wanted to take along his cousin John Mark, author of the Gospel, but Paul insisted that since Mark had deserted them once, he was not fit to take along now. The disagreement that followed was so sharp that Barnabas and Paul separated: Barnabas taking Mark to Cyprus, Paul taking Silas to Syria.
In death, however, the “Apostles to the Gentiles” were reunited. Mark is said to have buried Barnabas after he was killed by a mob in Cyprus around the year 62. St. Paul and St. Mark were, in turn, reconciled before St. Paul’s martyrdom five years later. He is said to have been stoned to death in Salamis in the year 61. St. Luke described Barnabas as ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’ (Acts 6:24), and he was known for his exceptional kindliness and personal sanctity, and his openness to pagans.