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Barnabas was a Levite from Cyprus. His real name was Joseph, but the apostles nicknamed him Barnabas meaning “son of encouragement,” because he loved to encourage others. Barnabas’ name appears 23 times in Acts, and 5 times in the letters of Paul.
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Acts 4:36 tells us that Barnabas lived on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. He probably heard the gospel when he visited Jerusalem for Pentecost.
Joseph is a Hebrew name meaning he will add or increase. But because Barnabas was notable for encouraging others, the disciples nicknamed him Barnabas, meaning the son of encouragement. (See Acts 4:36.)
According to Acts 4:36, Barnabas belonged to the tribe of Levi. Levites were responsible for sanctuary services. Most likely, Barnabas was a teacher of the law in a synagogue in Cyprus.
Barnabas sold a piece of land and “brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:37). And to avoid burdening the churches by asking them for support, he worked to support himself while in ministry. (See 1 Corinthians 9:6.)
After Paul’s dramatic conversion, the believers were hesitant to take him in because he was formerly a persecutor of the saints. Barnabas took Paul to the apostles and recommended him saying how Paul had “seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:27).
The Church leaders in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch to strengthen the members in the faith. He encouraged them to “continue with the Lord” and “a great many people were added to the Lord.” The reason for Barnabas’ great success as a preacher was that he was a “good man, full of the Holy Spirit, and of faith” (Acts 11:24).
After ministering in Antioch, Acts 11:25-26 says that Barnabas decided to get Paul who had been sent to Tarsus when his enemies tried to kill him. When Barnabas had found Paul, he brought him to Antioch where they worked together for a whole year, teaching the people.
Through Barnabas’ ministry with Paul, the believers in Antioch learned to be like Jesus in their words, actions and overall conduct. In fact, Barnabus and Paul were so much like Christ, that early “Christ-followers” were called Christians for the first time in Antioch. (See Acts 11:26.)
A great famine broke out in Jerusalem and the believers chose to send aid through Barnabas and Paul. This choice signified how much the believers trusted Barnabus and Paul and that they would deliver the aid as intended. (See Acts 11:27-30).
Acts 13:2-5 shows how the Holy Spirit separated Barnabas and Paul for a special work as missionaries, while they prayed and fasted with other believers in Antioch. After being ordained by the laying on of hands, Barnabus and Paul left on their first missionary journey together.
While at Lystra, Barnabas and Paul healed a crippled man but the citizens mistook them for their gods, they called Barnabas Jupiter and Paul Mercury. (See Acts 14:12.)
Barnabas was among the delegates who attended the Jerusalem council to discuss how to transition the new gentile believers into the early Church. In fact, Acts 15:12 shows how he and Paul shared their testimony of God working among the gentiles.
In Barnabas' and Paul’s second missionary journey, Barnabas’ cousin, called John Mark, wanted to accompany them. Paul refused since John Mark had abandoned them on their first missionary journey when things got tough. But Barnabas took John Mark and nurtured him while Paul continued with Silas. Barnabas did such a good job with John Mark that Paul later asked Timothy to take Mark to him, since he had become useful to him in ministry. (See Colossians 4:10; Acts 13:5; 15:37-39; 2 Timothy 4:10.)
Galatians 2:13 tells of how Barnabas was influenced by Peter to avoid eating with the gentiles while in Galatia. This was hypocrisy since Barnabas knew that Jesus came as a Savior for the whole world and not only the Jews. We learn that Barnabas was prone to human weaknesses, just like each of us.
In Barnabas, we find an excellent example of a Christian mentor. He encouraged Paul and believed in him when no one else trusted him after his conversion. Barnabas also provided Paul with opportunities to minister in Antioch and traveled with Paul on their first missionary journey.
Barnabas was even willing to let Paul advance as he moved on to encourage the next mentee who needed his support—John Mark.
And for both Paul and John Mark, Barnabas did an excellent job in preparing them for ministry. In fact, Paul ended up being more prominent than Barnabas and by the end of their missionary journey in Acts 15:2, they were no longer referred to as Barnabas and Paul. Instead, they were called Paul and Barnabas.
Like Barnabas, we too can be a source of encouragement to others in their journey through life. And by God’s grace, we can point them to Jesus and help them grow in ministry just as others have held our hands through different stages in our own lives.