Barnabas—The “Son of Comfort”
WHEN was the last time you received comfort from a friend? Do you remember when you last provided it for someone else? From time to time, all of us need encouragement, and how we appreciate those who lovingly offer it! Comforting implies taking time to listen, understand, and help. Are you ready to do that?
One person who displayed such willingness in an exemplary manner was Barnabas, who “was a good man and full of holy spirit and of faith.” (Acts 11:24) Why could that be said about Barnabas? What had he done to merit this description?
A Generous Helper
His actual name was Joseph, but the apostles gave him a descriptive surname that was very much in keeping with his character—Barnabas, meaning “Son of Comfort.”a (Acts 4:36) The Christian congregation had been formed only recently. Some suppose that Barnabas had earlier been one of Jesus’ disciples. (Luke 10:1, 2) Whether that was so or not, this man had given a good account of himself.
Shortly after Pentecost 33 C.E., Barnabas, who was a Levite from Cyprus, voluntarily sold some land and gave the money to the apostles. Why did he do that? The account in Acts tells us that among the Christians in Jerusalem at that time, “distribution would be made to each one, just as he would have the need.” Barnabas evidently saw that there was a need, and he warmheartedly did something about it. (Acts 4:34-37) He may have been a man of some means, but he did not hesitate to offer both his material possessions and himself for the advancement of Kingdom interests.b “Wherever Barnabas found people or situations requiring encouragement, he gave all the encouragement of which he was capable,” observes scholar F. F. Bruce. This is obvious from the second episode in which he appears.
About 36 C.E., Saul of Tarsus (the future apostle Paul), by now a Christian, was trying to contact the Jerusalem congregation, “but they were all afraid of him, because they did not believe he was a disciple.” How could he convince the congregation that his conversion was genuine and not a mere stratagem to devastate it further? “Barnabas came to his aid and led him to the apostles.”—Acts 9:26, 27; Galatians 1:13, 18, 19.
Why Barnabas trusted Saul is not stated. In any case, the “Son of Comfort” lived up to his surname by listening to Saul and helping him out of a seemingly hopeless predicament. Though Saul then returned to his native Tarsus, a friendship had been formed between the two men. In years to come, that was to have important consequences.—Acts 9:30.
About 45 C.E., news reached Jerusalem of unusual developments in Antioch of Syria—numerous Greek-speaking residents of that city were becoming believers. The congregation dispatched Barnabas to investigate and to organize the work there. They could not have made a wiser choice. Luke states: “When he arrived and saw the undeserved kindness of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all to continue in the Lord with hearty purpose; for he was a good man and full of holy spirit and of faith. And a considerable crowd was added to the Lord.”—Acts 11:22-24.
That was not all he did. According to scholar Giuseppe Ricciotti, “Barnabas was a practical man, and he immediately understood the need to get down to work in order to ensure that such a promising flowering be followed by an abundant harvest. The primary need, therefore, was for harvest workers.” Coming from Cyprus, Barnabas was probably accustomed to having dealings with Gentiles. He might have felt particularly qualified to preach to pagans. But he was ready to involve others in this exciting and encouraging activity.
Barnabas thought of Saul. Very probably, Barnabas was aware of the prophetic revelation to Ananias at the time of Saul’s conversion, that the former persecutor was ‘a chosen vessel, to bear Jesus’ name to the nations.’ (Acts 9:15) So Barnabas set off for Tarsus—a one-way journey of more than 120 miles [some 200 kilometers]—to seek out Saul. The two worked together as partners for a whole year, and “it was first in Antioch” in this period “that the disciples were by divine providence called Christians.”—Acts 11:25, 26.
During Claudius’ reign, severe famine came upon various parts of the Roman Empire. According to Jewish historian Josephus, in Jerusalem “many people died for want of what was necessary to procure food.” Thus, the disciples in Antioch “determined, each of them according as anyone could afford it, to send a relief ministration to the brothers dwelling in Judea; and this they did, dispatching it to the older men by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.” After fully carrying out that commission, the two returned with John Mark to Antioch, where they were counted among the prophets and teachers of the congregation.—Acts 11:29, 30; 12:25; 13:1.
A Special Missionary Assignment
Then an extraordinary event took place. “As they were publicly ministering to Jehovah and fasting, the holy spirit said: ‘Of all persons set Barnabas and Saul apart for me for the work to which I have called them.’” Just think! Jehovah’s spirit commanded that the two be given a special assignment. “Accordingly these men, sent out by the holy spirit, went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed away to Cyprus.” Barnabas could also rightly be called an apostle, or one sent forth.—Acts 13:2, 4; 14:14.
After traveling through Cyprus and converting Sergius Paulus, the Roman provincial governor of the island, they proceeded to Perga, on the southern coast of Asia Minor, where John Mark withdrew and returned to Jerusalem. (Acts 13:13) It seems that until then Barnabas had a leading role, perhaps as the more experienced partner. From this point on, it is Saul (now referred to as Paul) who takes the lead. (Compare Acts 13:7, 13, 16; 15:2.) Was Barnabas hurt by this development? No, he was a mature Christian who humbly recognized that Jehovah was also using his partner in a powerful way. By means of them, Jehovah wanted still other territories to hear the good news.
In fact, before the two were thrown out of Antioch in Pisidia, the whole area heard God’s word from Paul and Barnabas, and a number accepted the message. (Acts 13:43, 48-52) In Iconium, “a great multitude of both Jews and Greeks became believers.” This moved Paul and Barnabas to spend considerable time there, ‘speaking with boldness by the authority of Jehovah, who granted signs and portents to occur through their hands.’ On hearing that a plot had been hatched to stone them, the two wisely fled and continued their work in Lycaonia, Lystra, and Derbe. Despite life-threatening experiences in Lystra, both Barnabas and Paul kept on “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to remain in the faith and saying: ‘We must enter into the kingdom of God through many tribulations.’”—Acts 14:1-7, 19-22.
These two dynamic preachers were not going to let themselves be intimidated. On the contrary, they returned to build up the new Christians in places where they had already encountered fierce opposition, likely helping qualified men to take the lead in the new congregations.
The Circumcision Issue
Some 16 years after Pentecost 33 C.E., Barnabas was involved in a history-making episode regarding the circumcision issue. “Certain men came down [to Antioch of Syria] from Judea and began to teach the brothers: ‘Unless you get circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” Barnabas and Paul knew from experience that this was not so, and they disputed the point. Rather than asserting their authority, they recognized that this was a question that had to be settled for the good of the whole association of brothers. So they referred the question to the governing body in Jerusalem, where their reports helped to settle the issue. Thereafter, Paul and Barnabas, described as “loved ones . . . that have delivered up their souls for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” were among those assigned to communicate the decision to the brothers in Antioch. When the letter from the governing body was read and discourses were delivered, the congregation “rejoiced over the encouragement” and was “strengthened.”—Acts 15:1, 2, 4, 25-32.
“A Sharp Burst of Anger”
After so many positive accounts about him, we might feel we could never possibly live up to Barnabas’ example. Yet, the “Son of Comfort” was imperfect just as the rest of us are. While he and Paul were planning a second missionary journey to visit the congregations, a disagreement occurred. Barnabas was determined to take along his cousin John Mark, but Paul did not think it proper, since John Mark had departed from them on the first missionary journey. There occurred “a sharp burst of anger, so that they separated from each other; and Barnabas took Mark along and sailed away to Cyprus,” while “Paul selected Silas and went off” in another direction.—Acts 15:36-40.
How sad! Even so, the incident tells us something else about Barnabas’ personality. “It stands to Barnabas’ undying credit that he was prepared to take a risk and put trust in Mark a second time,” says one scholar. As that writer suggests, it may well have been that “the confidence Barnabas placed in him helped to restore his own confidence and served as a spur to renewed commitment.” As things turned out, that confidence was fully justified, for the day came when even Paul acknowledged Mark’s usefulness in Christian service.—2 Timothy 4:11; compare Colossians 4:10.
Barnabas’ example can stimulate us to take time to listen to, understand, and encourage the downhearted and provide practical aid whenever we see the need. The record of his willingness to serve his brothers with mildness and courage, as well as the excellent results this produced, is an encouragement in itself. What a blessing it is to have people like Barnabas in our congregations today!
a Calling somebody “son of” a certain quality underlined an outstanding characteristic. (See Deuteronomy 3:18, footnote.) In the first century, it was common to use surnames to draw attention to a person’s qualities. (Compare Mark 3:17.) It was a kind of public recognition.
b Considering what had been established by the Mosaic Law, some have asked how Barnabas, a Levite, came to own land. (Numbers 18:20) It should be noted, however, that it is not clear whether the property was in Palestine or in Cyprus. Further, it is possible that this was simply a burial plot that Barnabas had acquired in the Jerusalem area. Whatever the case, Barnabas gave up his property to help others.
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Barnabas “was a good man and full of holy spirit and of faith”