If you like to read Agatha Christie novels you know that overlooked, but ever-present, details can be the key to solving the crime. St. Barnabas is one of those often overlooked details. Much of the time when we read about St. Paul’s adventures in the Acts of the Apostles, Barnabas is right there with him. But since Paul is so famous, Barnabas remains in the background. So when we look more closely at Barnabas, we may be surprised at how important and influential a figure he was.
Without Barnabas, Paul may well have remained an overzealous convert in faraway Tarsus. It was Barnabas who convinced the Apostles to accept Paul after his dramatic conversion. It was Barnabas who brought Paul to Antioch, enlisting his help and placing him in his first leadership role. The two traveled together, evangelizing, establishing churches, braving persecutions, and working out what it meant to be a Christian in the pagan world outside Jerusalem.
Barnabas was the epitome of generosity. He gave much of his wealth to help the poor in the Jerusalem church, and he gave John Mark a second chance when Paul was ready to reject him. His gift of gentle persuasion also helped Jews and Gentiles overcome centuries of animosity as they forged a new church in Antioch.
Luke tells us that Barnabas’ real name was Joseph, but that the Apostles nicknamed him Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement”. It’s possible he earned this title because he had a talent for saying just the right thing at the right time. It’s also possible that he earned the name because of his godly character. Dedicated, generous, and faithful—anyone who demonstrated these virtues must have been very welcome among the first believers as they worked to build up the Early Church.
In a world that is often hostile or indifferent to the Gospel, those who manifest a strong Christian character—even the “hidden” “backroom boys” like Barnabas—can play a vital role in evangelizing and in encouraging other believers. May we all follow St. Barnabas’ example and take up the call to become sons and daughters of encouragement.