I’m embarrassed to admit that if I were asked to list down the names of all the apostles, St. Barnabas would be one of the last ones I’d remember. He’s simply not top-of-mind as far as apostles go. On the one hand, that’s understandable because one automatically thinks first of Simon Peter, Andrew, John, and James–not to mention Paul and even Judas Iscariot (!). But it’s also strange because what we know about St. Barnabas–mostly from the Acts of the Apostles–is so moving.
Barnabas is first mentioned in the New Testament as Joseph, a Jew from Cyprus who had sold his property in order to support the early Christian community in Jerusalem. “Barnabas” was the nickname given him by the apostles, a name that means “son of encouragement,” a name that, when you think about it, Barnabas really lived up to.
After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul—at the time still Saul—tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem, but of course the brethren were afraid and suspicious. After all, Saul wasn’t just a Pharisee but one notorious for persecuting Christians with a frightening zeal. Barnabas took one look at Saul and decided that the new convert deserved to be given a chance despite his checkered past. So he took Saul under his wings and convinced the early Church to accept him.
Barnabas and Paul became an outstanding missionary duo in Antioch and later, Asia Minor. But when they were preparing for their second missionary journey, they got into a serious disagreement: Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along to assist them, but Paul refused because just years before John Mark had left them to go back home for reasons unknown to them. Barnabas typically refused to give up on John Mark, and as a result, he and Paul agreed to part ways: Barnabas and John Mark went off to Cyprus, while Paul brought Silas with him to Syria and Cilicia.
They never saw each other again, but they retained a civil relationship as evident in Paul’s letter, when he affectionately endorsed Barnabas to the Corinthians for financial support, and in his letter to Timothy, when he recommended that John Mark, the same young man he had rejected, be recruited for the ministry. It turned out that Barnabas was right, after all.
Also, a subtle but significant shift happens in Acts 13. Whereas Luke begins the chapter by referring to the two missionaries as “Barnabas and Saul,” towards the middle–and from then on, he generally calls them “Paul and Barnabas,”–a testament to Paul’s growing prominence over the more senior apostle. Barnabas didn’t seem to mind getting second billing.
Recalling his story, I can’t help but be struck by two things: First, Barnabas was the type of apostle who didn’t mind playing second fiddle–something a number of us might have an issue with. But not so for this apostle: He didn’t mind letting his ego fade into the background; he foregrounded the ministry, the mission, and God himself. For me, that’s a measure of true holiness.
I remember one of my favorite quotes from Dag Hammarskjöld: “to vanish as an end and remain purely as a means.” That’s exactly what St. Barnabas was able to do, and perhaps that’s his invitation to us today.
Secondly, Barnabas was the “apostle of second chances.” He refused to give up on John Mark the same way he didn’t give up on Saul. The lesson for us is pretty self-evident. Ours is a God of Second Chances. Barnabas knew what it meant to be a recipient of His mercy, so he never begrudged that to others.
We are invited to do no less. Maybe there are people in our lives who are in need of second chances, desperate for new beginnings. Perhaps we are the ones who ourselves need those second chances. May we serve as God’s channel of mercy and instrument of encouragement. Let us be Barnabas to them and to ourselves.