Bible Study

Who is Barnabas in the Bible?

At the beginning of the life of the early church we read of one man who stands out because of his generosity towards the poor. This was a man from Cyprus, a Levite, called Joseph. He was recognized by the Apostles as a man with the gift of encouragement. But who is Barnabas in the Bible, wasn’t he the man who was known as an encourager?

Who is Barnabas?

In Acts chapter four, we read that in the early church no one was in need. There was such unity among the believers that they were willing to share all that they had. Those who owned land or property sold their possessions to provide for the poor. They would bring the money they gained to the Apostles to be distributed to those in need.

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”

Acts 4:32 NIV

Barnabas Means Son of Encouragement

Joseph of Cyprus was a Levite who had converted to be a follower of Jesus and was a member of the early church in Jerusalem. He sold a field that he owned and gave the money to help feed the poor. This man was such an example of someone with the gift of encouragement that the Apostles changed his name to Barnabas. They gave him a ‘nickname’, one that they felt described him perfectly because the name Barnabas means son of encouragement.

This is our first encounter with Barnabas the encourager. But to really understand who is Barnabas in the Bible we need to read on through the book of Acts. He appears in the narrative four to five times, always in a supporting role working to encourage others.

Through Barnabas’ story, we can see the bigger picture of God at work weaving His plan together. The significance of the things we are asked to do now might not always be obvious. But when we serve the Lord faithfully, to do what is in front of us, and then the next thing, nothing is ever wasted.

Barnabas Son of Consolation

Barnabas’ gift was a declaration of faith and trust in God to provide for all his needs in the future. The field that he sold may well have been his financial security, set aside to provide for him in his old age. He showed his full commitment to God by what he did. His love for his fellow believers and trust in God was greater than his love of money and possessions. Barnabas was willing to give what he had to bring consolation, help and comfort, to others.

This first account of Barnabas is a testimony about the gift of giving generously. The person who is held up as an example of being a great encourager, by his actions, teaches us about giving.

True encouragement is a practical action, that always has a cost.

Who is Barnabas in the Bible?

Barnabas – A Friend to Saul

One definition of encouraging, by the Cambridge English dictionary, is ‘to make someone more likely to do something, and to make something more likely to happen.’ This is encouragement in action.

In Acts chapter nine, we read the account of Saul returning to Jerusalem sometime after his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus.

The believers in Jerusalem did not seem to be aware of his turnaround from being a persecutor of Christians to a follower of Jesus. They were wary and suspicious of him, understandably so! This was the same Saul who had tried to destroy the church, who had arrested Christians, forcibly dragged them from their homes, and put them in prison.

When Saul came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles….

“But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.”

Acts 9:27

Barnabas acted as an intermediary, he did not have to, he chose to. He brought Saul to the Apostles and acted as his spokesman so that he was accepted. Barnabas was generous this time in forgiveness and, more than that, in friendship. He was willing to take a risk and reach out to Saul.

Barnabas gave freely of his time and risked his own reputation to champion Saul, a man who was disliked and feared. He made the introduction, and a former enemy became accepted as a friend. Saul was unable to stay in Jerusalem, and for his own safety the Apostles sent him back to his hometown of Tarsus.

Barnabas – An Emissary

Four to five years later due to the persecution of the church the gospel had started to spread out from Jerusalem. (Acts 11:19-30).

Some men had gone to Antioch, a Greek city. They shared their faith with the locals there who were Gentiles. Several people believed the gospel – and God blessed them. The numbers in this new fellowship began to grow.

The news travelled back to the church in Jerusalem – and the leaders wanted to know more. Barnabas had a good reputation among the church in Jerusalem and so the leaders turned to him to go and investigate what was happening in Antioch.

Antioch was approximately 300 miles north of Jerusalem. Traveling was a whole different undertaking in the first century, and mostly on foot. Walking about 20 miles a day it would take 15 days to get to Antioch. This was no small task!

When Barnabas arrived in Antioch and saw what God was doing, he was glad for the people there. He encouraged them in the faith “to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts”.  This is the only time in Scripture that we have a quote of Barnabas speaking ‘encouraging words.’ The words that he shared, were true encouragement as they pointed the people to the Lord.

Barnabas the Gospel Teacher

Barnabas realized that there was a need for teaching in this new church and he remembered Saul. Saul had left Jerusalem about five years earlier, for his own safety, and gone back to his hometown of Tarsus. But Barnabas was willing to travel again and he went back on the road to Tarsus to find Saul. He brought him to Antioch so that the needs of the fellowship of believers could be met.

It was here in Antioch that Barnabas and Saul co-worked together for over a year. They experienced a time of peace, blessing, stability, and friendship. The new church was hospitable towards them both and they taught a substantial crowd.

Barnabas – Trusted Envoy

During Barnabas and Saul’s time in Antioch God spoke a prophetic word to the church. A severe famine was coming which would spread throughout the Roman world. The new Christians in Antioch decided to provide help for those living in Judea with a generous gift. They sent the gift to the elders of the church in Jerusalem with Barnabas and Saul.

Once their mission to deliver the gift to Jerusalem was completed Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch. This time they brought John Mark with them.

Barnabas The Missionary

After over a year in Antioch, Barnabas and Saul were appointed by the Lord to work as itinerant evangelists. (Acts 13). They became missionaries, sent out by the Antioch church to travel and spread the good news about Jesus. With the blessing of the church Saul and Barnabas, with John Mark, went to Cyprus.

This was Barnabas’ home island, and they started by teaching among the Jewish people in the synagogues. The group travelled slowly across the island until they reached Paphos, the headquarters for the Roman rule of the province.

It was the conversion of the Roman Proconsul in Paphos that brought a turning point for Saul. From here on he spoke with a new authority – his ministry to the Gentiles had finally began.

Related Post: Being Transformed the story of Saul to Paul

The time in Cyprus had come to an end and the group left the island. They crossed over to the mainland where John Mark decided to leave them and return to Jerusalem. But Paul and Barnabas continued their missionary journey. They travelled for another two years until finally they returned to Antioch to report to the church the work that God had done. The door of faith was opening to the Gentiles.

Sometime later Paul and Barnabas part company, initially, with a disagreement as to who would travel with them on their next trip. Paul did not want to take John Mark, who had left them last time, he chose Silas to travel with him.

Barnabas did what he had always done – he encouraged someone else. He chose to take John Mark and gave him another opportunity. The result of the disagreement was two missionary trips!

The Gift of Encouragement

Barnabas was a man with the gift of encouragement. He reveals to us that true encouragement is more than just kind words. The spiritual gift of encouragement is when our actions, and words, draw others closer to the Lord. Barnabas demonstrated this throughout his life by giving generously of his finances, time, friendship, and service to the Lord. He inspires us to be an encourager and willing to serve the Lord wholeheartedly with whatever task is laid before us!

“May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word,” 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17

2 Thessalonians 2:16-17
Picture of a group of people from behind with their arms linked around each other and the text 'Barnabas gift of encouragement'
Who is Barnabas in the Bible?

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33 thoughts on “Who is Barnabas in the Bible?”

  1. You’re right that encouragement isn’t just about words. It often includes a more tangible act as well. Thanks for reminding me of this today. It’s been such a crazy year that my ways to encourage others seem limited, but there are always multiple ways when God is involved!

  2. I agree–kind words are wonderful, but sometimes God wants us to take another step. I was just reading an article about how easy it is to promote we “love the world” or mankind in a big way–but then we neglect those ways right in front of us.

  3. Thank you for describing how encouragement can be more than kind words. I love the verse from Acts: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” What a statement about how we should live our lives today – for each other.

  4. This is such a good post. Barnabas >>> “He started with a servant heart, willing to respond to the immediate need before him, and he went on from strength to strength.” Praying I can do the same right where I am.

  5. This is something that has been on my heart and I’ve really had a focus on recently…
    A recent example is when a friend (with 7 kids: 3 biological, 3 adopted at different times from foster care, 1 foster care baby) came down with COVID. I sprang to action to 1) round up as many prayer warriors as I could and 2) to prepare a bunch of food for the family. I didn’t really have the time for all the extra cooking and delivering the boxes out to their new home 20’ish minutes away (one direction) and our grocery budget did in no way allow for this – but my husband and I gave it to God knowing that this was HIS will for stretching my time and blowing our grocery budget. We have to believe that He is faithful to provide all our needs and will ensure that giving beyond what our worldly view might deem reasonable will not drag us under but rather we will be rewarded greatly for being obedient.
    Thank you for this beautiful post – we need our social media feeds flooded with encouragement and calls to action just like this!

  6. They say that “talk is cheap.” It is great to speak words that build others up with encouragement, but if you want to really see someone’s priorities, just take a peak into their checkbook or bank statement. We need to make an impact with our time, talent, and treasure. Great reminder!
    Blessings,
    Bev xx

  7. We had an I tersti g discussion in Biblr study about the difference between encouragement and flattery! And how to be encouraging while also discerning and truthful when we must shed light on a difficult situation. A good word here! Blessings!

    1. That is such a good point, flattery does not build up our faith and sometimes the truly encouraging words may not always be easy to here….Thank you for responding 🙂

  8. There is a word in Hebrew…chesed. It is loving kindness and it can be seen quite often in reference to the Lord’s love for us. But one of the things that characterizes chesed is showing loving kindness when there is no expectation of anything in return. One of the greatest acts of chesed in Judaism is caring for a corpse upon death because a corpse can do nothing in return. Many times we offer encouragement or give to people because it makes US feel good. I hope we can all develop the trait of chesed and give because He commands us to care for others, not because we feel we have to or expect accolades or recognition. Great post!! Thank you for sharing it!

    1. That was so interesting, I had read of the Hebrew word ‘chesed’ as sometimes it is translated mercy and sometimes loving-kindness – but I had not realised that depth of meaning of ‘action with no expectation of return’, which adds another dimension! Thank you for responding, appreciated.

  9. This was such a wonderful post. Thank you for this insightful look at Barnabas and how he was an encourager. Love the questions you posed to us too!

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