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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters


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BARNABAS, I am afraid, is little more than a bare name to the most of us. Paul so eclipses every one of his contemporaries, that it is with the utmost difficulty we can get a glimpse of any one but Paul. How much do you know about Barnabas? Who was Barnabas? Why was Joses called Barnabas? You would have some difficulty, I am afraid, in giving answers to all these questions. And I do not blame you for your ignorance of Barnabas. For, Paul is so great, that the very greatest and the very best men look but small when placed alongside of him. At the same time, there were great men before Agamemnon, and Barnabas was one of them.

"Barnabas, a Levite, of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet." Cyprus is a large and fertile island situated off the coast of Syria. In ancient times Cyprus was famous for its wines, its wheats, its oils, its figs, and its honey. To possess land in Cyprus was to be a rich and an influential man. Many men who possessed houses and lands sold them under the Pentecostal fervour, and laid their prices at the apostles' feet. But Barnabas stood at the head of them all; such was his great wealth, such was his great generosity, such was his high character, and such were his splendid services in this and in many other ways to the apostolic church.

As we read on in the Acts of the Apostles we come to the sad story of Ananias and Sapphira; then to the creation of the office of the deaconship; then to the great services and the triumphant translation of Stephen; and, then, the east begins to break in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. And it is in the first rays of that fast-rising sun that we see for once, if not again, the full stature and the true nobility of Barnabas. It was but yesterday that Saul was seen setting out for Damascus, breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord. And, today, he has fled back to Jerusalem, the most hated, the most feared, and the most friendless man in all that city. And, with the blood of so many martyrs still on his hands, it was no wonder that the disciples in Jerusalem were all afraid of Saul, and would not believe that he really intended to be a disciple. Saul of Tarsus a disciple of Jesus Christ! Saul of Tarsus converted, and baptized, and preaching Jesus Christ! No! Depend upon it, this is but another deep-set snare for our feet! This is but another trap baited for us by our bitter enemies! So all the disciples said concerning Saul, and they all bore themselves to Saul accordingly.

Barnabas alone of all the disciples and apostles in Jerusalem opened his door to Saul. Barnabas alone held out his hand to Saul. Barnabas alone believed Saul's wonderful story of his conversion and baptism. Barnabas alone rejoiced in God's saving mercy to Saul's soul. "They were all afraid of Saul, and believed not that he was a disciple, But Barnabas took Saul, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way to Damascus, and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus Christ." If Barnabas had never done anything else but what he did in those days for Saul of Tarsus, he would deserve, and he would receive, our love and our honour for ever. Barnabas so firmly believed what Saul told him, and so nobly acted on it. He so stood up for Saul when all men were looking askance at him. He so trusted and befriended Saul when every one else suspected him, and cast his past life in his face. Barnabas staked all his good name in Jerusalem, and all his influence with the apostles, on the genuineness of Saul's conversion, and on the sincerity and integrity of his discipleship. Barnabas stood by Saul till he had so turned the tide in Saul's favour, that, timid as Peter was, he actually took Saul to lodge with him in his own house in Jerusalem. And Barnabas gave Saul up to Peter, only too glad to see Saul made so much of by such a pillar of the Apostolic Church as Peter was. With Saul staying fifteen days under Peter's roof, and with James treating Saul with his cautious confidence, Barnabas's battle for Saul was now completely won. Very soon, now, it will be the greatest honour to any house on the face of the earth to entertain the apostle Paul. But no proud householder of them all can ever steal this honour from Barnabas, that he was the first man of influence and responsibility who opened his heart and his house to Saul of Tarsus, when all Jerusalem was still casting stones at him. Barnabas was not predestinated to shine in the service of Christ and His Church like Paul; but Paul himself never did a more shining deed than Barnabas did when he took Saul to his heart at a time when every other heart in Jerusalem was hardened against him. Everlastingly well done, thou true son of consolation!

The scene now shifts to Antioch, which is soon to eclipse Jerusalem herself, and to become the true mother-church of evangelical Christianity. The apostolic preaching had an instantaneous and an immense success at Antioch, and it was its very success that raised there also, and with such acuteness, all those doctrinal and disciplinary disputes that fill with such distress the book of the Acts, and the earlier Epistles of Paul. Jerusalem still remained the Metropolitan Church, and the difficulties that had arisen in Antioch were accordingly sent up to Jerusalem for advice and adjudication. And, that the heads of the Church at Jerusalem chose Barnabas out of the whole college of the apostles to go down and examine into the affairs of Antioch, is just another illustration of the high standing that Barnabas had, both as a man of marked ability, and of high Christian character. "Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and faith; and much people was added unto the Lord." How full of the Holy Ghost Barnabas was we are made immediately to see. For Barnabas had not been long in Antioch till he became convinced that Antioch was very soon to hold the key of the whole Christian position. Already, indeed, so many questions of doctrine and administration were come to such a crisis in the Church of Antioch, that Barnabas felt himself quite unable to cope with them. And, worse than that, he could not think of any one in Jerusalem who was any better able to cope with those difficult questions than he was himself. In all Barnabas's knowledge of men, and it was not narrow, he knew only one man who was equal to the great emergency at Antioch, and that man was no other than Saul of Tarsus. But, then, Saul was comparatively young as yet; he was not much known, and he was not much trusted. And shall Barnabas take on himself the immense responsibility, and, indeed, immense risk, of sending for Saul of Tarsus, and bringing him to Antioch? And shall Barnabas take this great step without first submitting Saul's name to the authorities at Jerusalem? There were great risks in both of these alternatives, and Barnabas had to act on his own judgment and conscience and heart. There are supreme moments in the field when an officer of original genius, and of the requisite strength of character, will determine to stake all, and to do some bold deed, on his own single responsibility. He will take an immense and an irretrievable step without orders, and, sometimes, against orders. He will thus win the battle, and then he will not mind much either the praise or the blame that comes to him for his successful act of disobedience. Antioch must have Saul of Tarsus; and Barnabas, taking counsel with no one but himself, set out to Tarsus to seek for Saul. "Leaving France, I retired into Germany expressly for the purpose of being able to enjoy in some obscure corner the repose I had always desired, and which had so long been denied me. And I had resolved to continue in the same obscurity, till at length William Farel detained me at Geneva, and that not so much by counsel and exhortation, as by a dread imprecation, which I felt to be as if God from heaven laid His mighty hand upon me to arrest me. For after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to my private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from all other engagements, and finding that he could gain nothing by entreating me, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and would blast my selfish studies, if I should refuse to come to Geneva when the need was so great." John Calvin was Saul of Tarsus over again. William Farel was Barnabas over again. And the reformed city of Geneva was the evangelised city of Antioch over again. "Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus to seek for Saul. And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch." To have the heart to discover a more talented man than yourself, and then to have the heart to go to Tarsus for him, and to make way for him in Antioch, is far better than to have all Saul's talents, and all the praise and all the rewards of those talents to yourself. Speaking for myself I would far rather have a little of Barnabas's grace than have all Saul's genius. Give me Barnabas's self-forgetful heart, and let who will undertake Saul's so extraordinary, but so perilous, endowments. Luther says that we cannot help being jealous of the men who are in our own circle and are more talented than ourselves. Perhaps not. But if Barnabas had to get over any jealousy in connection with Saul's coming to Antioch, that jealousy, at any rate, did not hinder him from setting out to Tarsus to seek for Saul. He must increase, but I must decrease, said Barnabas to himself and to his subordinates as he set his face steadfastly to go down to Tarsus. Barnabas had taken his own measure accurately, and he had taken Saul's measure accurately also, and he took action accordingly. Now, noble conduct like that of Barnabas is always its own best reward. Christ-like conduct like that instantly reacts on character, and character like Barnabas's character manifests itself in more and more of such Christ-like conduct. Barnabas had done Saul a good turn before now, and that only made him the more ready to do him this new good turn when the opportunity was afforded him. "Barnabas was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and faith." And three times he publicly proved that; first, when he sold his estate in Cyprus and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet. And he proved that again when he took Saul in his friendlessness and brought him to the apostles in Jerusalem, and compelled them to believe in Saul, and to trust him, and to employ him. And still more conclusively did Barnabas prove his fulness of the Holy Ghost, when he set out to Tarsus to seek for Saul in order that Saul might come to Antioch, and there supersede and extinguish Barnabas himself.

But, as if to chasten our too great pride in Barnabas, even Barnabas, this so pentecostal and so apostolic man; even Barnabas, so full hitherto of the Holy Ghost and of faith-even he must fall at last, and that too all but fatally. For God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not, that He may withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man. We would have been too much lifted up tonight about Barnabas if we had not had his whole history written to us down to the end. For, what two chosen and fast friends in all the New Testament circle of friends, would you have wagered would be the last to fall out fiercely, and to turn their backs on one another for ever? Not Paul and Barnabas, at any rate, you would confidently and proudly have said. Whoever will quarrel, and fall out, and forget what they owe to one an other, that can never, by any possibility, happen to Paul and his old patron Barnabas-so you would have said. But you would have lost your wager, and your confidence in the best of men to boot. "Let us go," said Paul to Barnabas, "and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord and see how they do." And Barnabas determined to take with him John, whose surname was Mark. And Paul thought not good to take Mark with them. And the contention was so sharp between them that they departed asunder the one from the other. And Barnabas took Mark, and Paul chose Silas. Has Paul forgotten all that he once owed to Barnabas? And why does Barnabas's so sweet and so holy humility so fail him when he is so far on in the voyage of life? "Mariners near the shore," says Shepard, "should be on the outlook for rocks." And Barnabas was so near the shore by this time that it distresses us sorely to see his ship strike the rocks and stagger in the sea in this fashion. Barnabas's ship strikes the rocks till one of the noblest characters in the New Testament is shattered and all but sunk under our very eyes. Who was right and who was wrong in this sharp contention I have no heart to ask. Both were wrong. Paul, and Barnabas, and Mark too-all three were wrong. And multitudes in the Apostolic churches who heard of the scandal, and took contending sides in it, were wrong also. And this sad story is told us to this day, not that we may take sides in it, but that the like of it may never again happen amongst ourselves.

The grey-haired saint may fail at last,
The surest guide a wanderer prove;
Death only binds us fast
To the bright shore of love.

The last time we see Barnabas, sad to say, Paul and he are contending again. But I will not draw you into that contention. We have had instruction, and example, and warning, and rebuke, enough out of Barnabas already. Instruction and example in Barnabas's splendid liberality with his Cyprus possessions. Instruction and example in his openness and hospitality of mind and heart toward a suspected and a friendless man. And still more instruction and example in his noble absence of all envy and all jealousy of a man far more gifted, far more successful, and soon to be far more famous than himself. And, then, this warning and this rebuke also, that at the end of such a life, even Paul and Barnabas should contend so sharply with one another that they scandalised the whole Church of Christ, and departed asunder never to meet again, unless it was to dispute again in this world.

Let not the people be too swift to judge,
As one who reckons on the blades in field
Or ere the crop be ripe. For I have seen
The thorn frown rudely all the winter long
And after bear the rose upon its top;
And barque, that all the way across the sea,
Ran straight and speedy, perish at the last,
Even in the haven's mouth.

The evening praises the day, and the chief grace of the theatre is the last scene. Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Barnabas'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. 1901.

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