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Who is St Barnabas?

Also see: Barnabas - An Unsung Hero of the Faith? - A Biblical Reflection

Barnabas was an important person in the foundation of the early Church and the spread of the gospel. He is mentioned fairly often in the Acts of the Apostles and in several of Paul's letters. He is honoured with the title 'Apostle'.

Barnabas was born in Cyprus. His given name was Joseph; the apostles gave him the Hebrew name Barnabas, which means "Son of Encouragement," in honour of his work in the Church (Acts 4:36). Joseph Barnabas was born into a Jewish family, members of the tribe of Levi. As Jews of the Diaspora living outside of Palestine, they would have spoken Greek. We don't know when Barnabas came to Palestine. He may have been in the company of disciples who travelled with Jesus; some of the early church writers thought so. If he did not know Jesus before the crucifixion, Barnabas heard the apostles' preaching very soon after Pentecost.

Barnabas believed in the power of the gospel message to change people's hearts. He was the one who persuaded the apostles and the church in Jerusalem that Paul had been converted from a persecutor to an apostle (Acts 9:26-27). Barnabas was one of the first to understand that the mission of the church was universal. He argued forcefully that Gentile converts did not have to be circumcised or follow the Jewish dietary customs (Acts 15). The apostles sent him to strengthen the Christians in Antioch. He invited Paul to join him in this work (Acts 11). Barnabas and Paul were leaders of the church at Antioch, in present day Turkey. They decided to preach the gospel to Gentiles for the first time, rather than to Jews. This was a momentous decision which has obviously had far-reaching consequences. The followers of Jesus were in separate groups - Jewish and gentile. Paul and Barnabas joined them together by removing the differences between them. The words, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3.28), are thought to have begun as a statement of the church at Antioch.

The church then separated from the synagogue. They realised that a name was needed for followers of Jesus. It is certain that the new name originated in Antioch during the time when Barnabas was there. They were called 'Christians'. The Antioch community sent Barnabas and Paul on a missionary journey together.

They preached in synagogues throughout Asia Minor. When the community wanted to send them on a second journey, Paul and Barnabas found that they could no longer work together. Their disagreement was over a person, Mark, who had deserted them in the middle of their first journey. Barnabas wanted to give him another chance, but Paul didn't. So, Barnabas and Mark set off for Cyprus, while Paul and Silas went in a different direction.

Our parish patron is a Christian with a foot in two cultures, a bridge between the Greek-speaking converts and the Hebrew speaking Jews of Palestine who were Jesus' earliest followers. Barnabas gives us a powerful example of openness in his sponsorship of Paul. He is a team player who knows the value of working with others, a collaborator in ministry. His willingness to give Mark a second chance shows us that Barnabas is a person of reconciliation. Barnabas faced many of the same challenges that we face now. As we celebrate his life and feast (June 11), let's pray that we will have the same spirit that he did. Across the centuries, Barnabas is still a "Son of Encouragement."

The meaning of Barnabas is something to keep in mind as we interact with others. Encouragement can be a great act of Grace. Each of us can remember many who had great impact on us because of their encouragement of us. Being a member of Saint Barnabas Church means being a son or daughter of encouragement, too.

St Barnabas Monastery, Cyprus: 

In about 478 AD the Patriarch of Antioch wanted to bring the Church of Cyprus under his control. Bishop Anthemios and the other bishops of Cyprus were in a difficult position. They prayed for God's guidance. One night St Barnabas came to Bishop Anthemios in a dream revealing where his body was buried. Anthemios and his followers found the Holy remains of St Barnabas, along with a copy of the Gospel of Saint Matthew. They took all they found to Constantinople and gave them to the Emperor Zinonas. Zinonas was so pleased that he issued a number of decrees including that the Patriarch of Antioch should not interfere in the business of the Church of Cyprus. Anthemios was also made Archbishop and was given authority to sign in red, like the Emperors of Byzantium. When he returned to Cyprus, Anthemios built a big church where the remains of St Barnabas were found. Upon this site grew the present day monastery, the burial place of St. Barnabas; the patron saint of Cyprus and the patron of our church in Waunarlwydd.

Brief outline of St Barnabas' life

St Barnabas Icon - note the scroll in his left hand. This is the Gospel of Matthew, burried with St. Barnabas on the island of Cyprus

Stained glass window depicting St Barnabas holding a manuscript of St Matthew's Gospel

St Barnabas Monastary, near Famagusta, Cyprus

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