From the very beginning of the Christian Church, from the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given to the Apostles, Christians have been missionaries. Those who believed that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, the Son of God, were compelled through their zeal to speak to others of the Good News and to bring them to know Him and to believe. St. Barnabas provides us with an example of one who, in those early days of the Church, gave his life for the spread of the Gospel.
Many of the details of Barnabas’ life can be gleaned from the pages of Holy Scripture. He is known to have been born on the island of Cyprus into a Levite family and given the name Joseph. He studied with the famous Jewish teacher, Gamaliel and through him, probably knew a fellow student, Saul of Tarsus. Barnabas is thought to have been among the “Seventy” who were converted by the teachings of Christ himself and who had followed Him during his 3-year ministry. Perhaps Gamaliel’s cautious and tolerant reaction to the followers of Jesus, as told in Acts 5:34-40, was due in part to the fact that one of his students was among that group.
As was their habit, the Apostles gave Joseph a nickname – “Barnabas” which means “Son of encouragement”. Obviously Barnabas had a cheerful personality and his enthusiasm was reflected in the fact that he sold land which he owned and brought the proceeds directly to the Apostles for the work of the Church.
Some followers of Christ (among them Cypriots) began preaching to the Gentiles in the great city of Antioch. When the Apostles in Jerusalem (still the center of Christianity) heard about this, they sent the Cypriot Barnabas to investigate. When Barnabas witnessed the conversions that were taking place there, “he was glad and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord.” [Acts 11:23]
Seeing how fertile the field was for Gentile conversion to Christianity, Barnabas remembered Saul (now called Paul) and the story of his dramatic conversion. He knew that Paul’s fiery spirit and articulate speaking would be of great benefit to this effort. So he traveled to Tarsus, Paul’s hometown (where he had been sent to study and prepare for missionary work) and brought him back to Antioch with him. There the two spent an entire year preaching and teaching together and baptizing Gentiles who were the first to be called “Christians”. [Acts11:26]
After the Church in Antioch had increased and become strong, Barnabas and Paul were sent out from there to minister in Cyprus where, although many Cypriots had already been converted, there was still much work to be done in that country. The two were ordained for this purpose, having had the Apostles’ “hands laid on them” [Acts 13:3] and they were assisted for a while by a relative of Barnabas’, John Mark, who would later be the author of the Gospel of Mark.
The adventures of these missionaries read like a novel: they not only preached and taught history and theology [Acts 13:16-41]; they encountered a sorcerer and expelled his evil spirit; they healed a lame man; they escaped from plots to do them violence; they were acclaimed as the pagan Roman gods Zeus and Hermes; and they were beaten with stones and dragged out of town. Barnabas and Paul returned to Antioch to report on all that had happened and surely, to rest a little: “so they stayed there a long time with the disciples” [Acts 14:28]
Controversy among the Jews over whether these teachings should be shared with Gentiles became extremely heated and the two missionaries were charged with going to Jerusalem to consult with the Apostles. There the two posed the question of whether a Gentile had to first comply with the laws of Moses in order to become a Christian. The Council of Jerusalem was held to decide this question and it set the precedent for all decisions in the Church in the centuries to come. The decision to admit Gentiles to the Church without any Jewish requirements was to have an immense effect on the increase of Christianity.
So that those of us who would follow in the footsteps of the saints may know that even they suffer from human frailties, make mistakes and have disagreements, Acts 15:36-49 tells of an argument between Barnabas and Paul over the next step in their mission work. Their difference of opinion prompted them to part ways, so as Paul took another companion and went to Syria, Barnabas and John Mark returned to Cyprus.
The Bible’s accounts of Barnabas end here, but we know from later writings of some of the fathers that he continued to be a missionary for Christ, spending time in Rome, in Milan (where he served as the first bishop of that city) and that he ended his life on Cyprus, the place of its beginning. He became the bishop of the city of Salamis and in a violent persecution of Christians there, he was stoned to death and his body was burned somewhere between the years 56 and 63. St. Mark took his charred body and buried it – holding a copy of St. Matthew’s Gospel which St. Barnabas had written out himself – near the western gate of the city.
The site of this grave faded into oblivion but, through the years, many people found healing and consolation at this place, calling it “the place of healing”. Hundreds of years later, a series of dreams which the Archbishop of Cyprus, Anthemius, had revealed the area as the burial place of St. Barnabas. The apostolic foundation of the Church in Cyprus by St. Barnabas has enabled that church to maintain autocephaly.
All Christians are to be missionaries and we are all commanded to strive for holiness. How many of us would, as St. Barnabas did, sell our worldly belongings in order to further the work of the Church? How many of us would be willing to travel to foreign places to spread the Gospel story, and to encourage our relatives and old acquaintances in the faith? How many of us would follow in the footsteps of St. Barnabas and suffer danger, persecution, and death for the truth of Christianity? May God grant us the courage and zeal to be missionaries and may St. Barnabas intercede for us in Heaven.