After Stephen's death many followers of the Way fled Jerusalem and settled in places such as Antioch. Here converts were made, even amongst Gentiles, and to help in the reconciling of Jews and Gentiles the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas. In this work he sought out Paul and together they toiled for a year building up a community in service and fellowship, so much so that it was in Antioch that the followers of Christ were first called Christians. Rightly too, for their Christian commitment was not only to its own people, but also to the wider Church as indicated when Barnabas and Paul, journeyed to Judæa with supplies to help Christians suffering from drought the.re The church in Antioch under the guidance of Barnabas and Paul certainly challenged us to reassess our lives as Christians.
They returned from Jerusalem, with John Mark, who soon would cause a rift between them. Mark was Barnabas' nephew (Col.4.10) and perhaps Barnabas took him back as the church in Jerusalem was being persecuted as the death of James and the imprisonment of Peter shortly afterwards showed. On returning to Antioch the Holy Spirit made known that Barnabas and Paul were to undertake a new task, what we have come to call the first missionary journey. [the journey took them firstly to Cyprus and then into modern day Turkey and down into Syria back to Antioch]. This journey marked a turning point in that embryonic church. Facing hostility from the Jews in Antioch in Pisidia, they turned away from preaching in the temple to the Gentiles. Another significant point was that the journey began in Cyprus, Barnabas' native country, another is the departure of Mark in the early stage of the trip, and another is a foretaste of the sufferings that the early Christian leaders endured for Christ, mainly from the hands of the Jews at this stage.
Back in Antioch, Jewish Christians from Judæa were causing trouble by demanding that Christians observe the Jewish rite of initiation, circumcision. To settle this dispute the Antiochene Church sent Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem to converse with the Christian leaders. In the history of the Church this meeting is significant. Known to-day as the Council of Jerusalem at which the Jerusalem Christiains under the leadership of James, the brother of the Lord, after listening to Barnabas and Paul's account of their work among the Gentiles, as well as Peter's recommendation that salvation for non-Jews was God's will, agreed not to make the Christian Church an extension of Judaism. In freeing Gentiles from the Jewish laws, it meant that the Church soon became a separate identity of its own. As already seen through that first missionary journey Barnabas and Paul were building up local Christian communities with strong Gentile membership.
So Barnabas and Paul were able to return to Antioch with good news for the brethren. That good news was clouded when Barnabas and Paul disagreed over taking Mark with them when they decided to revisit those centres of their first missionary journey. Barnabas wanted to take Mark but Paul refused and they parted [it would appear the rift was mended as Paul speaks of their being together later on in Corinth].
Barnabas instead went to Cyprus with the young Mark. We don't know whether he is the Mark who wrote the earliest gospel that was the basis for the other two synoptic gospels. lf he is the evangelist it is feasible to assume that he learnt much from Barnabas about faith and being a "good man" but I do not think he is.
I have always regarded Barnabas as one of the most loving apostles of the Lord. "For he was a good man and full of the holy Spirit and of faith." How we would like that to be said of us? He showed us what Christian living was really all about to share completely what we have with others all our wealth, property, and talents. Although not belonging to the Twelve, Barnabas was one of the many devoted followers of Christ, and it is obvious in the early church in Jerusalem that he is held in high regard. He certainly emerges from Acts as one of the most significant members of the early Church, and is recognised by the Church as an Apostle.
Known originally as Joseph, he would have been one of those waiting in that upper room in prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Afterwards he too began to do remarkable things such as selling all he had for the common good, manifested in his being renamed Barnabas, meaning 'son of consolation' or 'encouragement'.
The early Church, and the Church as a whole owe a tremendous lot to this good Cypriot. Would Paul have found a welcome within the Church at Jerusalem, let alone become such a dynamic preacher without Barnabas? Would Paul have become the tireless missionary if Barnabas had not sought him out in Tarsus and brought him to Antioch?
Tradition has him being martyred in Cyprus in 61. A.D.
In the early church there was a canonical gospel according to St. Barnabas. Yet it seems to have originated in Alexandria and not from Barnabas' pen, but perhaps it reflects some of Barnabas' teaching. Irenaeus quoted from it profusely in his work Against Heresies in the 2nd C. However at the Council of Nicæa in 325 it was rejected.
Be that as it may, what is important is the life of Barnabas, which unveils that we are to be lively and effective members of our Christian community; we too must be a "good" man or woman and "full of the Holy Spirit and of faith."
Our Lord Jesus has appointed certain people to be guides and teachers of the world and stewards of his divine mysteries. He bids them to shine out like the sun, the moon and the stars, and to cast their light not only over the land of the Jews, but on every country under the sun and all people wherever they may be scattered, in whatever distant land they reside.
When Cyril of Alexandria wrote this, he could easily have had this mind:
The Holy Spirit said, 'I want Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them.'