In the days of the apostles, Barnabas was one of the most important missionaries besides them. He converted many Gentiles. The Bible calls him an apostle (Acts 14:14), saying that “he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith” (Acts 11:24).
Barnabas, an Israelite of the tribe of Levi, born in Cyprus, was the uncle of Mark the Evangelist (Col. 4:10). His original name was Joseph, but he was named Barnabas (“the son of consolation”) by the apostles (Acts 4:36). The New Testament does not mention his conversion, but according to early Christian writers he was one of Jesus Christ’s seventy disciples.
After the Holy Ghost was poured out at Pentecost, the Christian Church was founded. The members of this first Christian community in Jerusalem shared all their possessions: they sold their properties and gave the money to the apostles, who distributed it righteously among the believers. Concerning Barnabas, we read that he sold his field and laid the money at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:32–37). His next significant act was that he defended Paul before the disciples in Jerusalem, who did not trust Paul on account of his past persecution of the Christians. “But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:27). As a result, Paul was accepted into the congregation.
When large multitudes of pagans started to turn to Jesus Christ in Antioch, the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to preach there. He took with him Paul from Tarsus, and they taught the believers in Antioch together for a year (Acts 11:19–25). The believers in Christ were called Christians for the first time in Antioch (Acts 11:26). There was a famine in the land at that time, and the Christians in Antioch sent relief funds to the Christians in Judea by Barnabas and Paul (Acts 11:27–30). They returned with Barnabas’ nephew, the young John Mark (Acts 12:25).
At the direction of the Holy Ghost, the teachers and prophets of the church in Antioch sent forth Paul and Barnabas to preach God’s Word. They went together on their first missionary journey and took Mark with them (for description and map, see Paul). A detailed account of their journey is given in Acts 13:4–14:28.
Barnabas and Paul returned to Antioch, where they had a dispute with some Jewish Christians from Judea, who were teaching the Gentile Christians in Antioch that they must be circumcised and must adhere to the Laws of Moses in order to be saved. To clarify this issue, the church in Antioch sent Paul, Barnabas and some other Christians to Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-3). The apostles and elders held a council in Jerusalem, and inspired by God they stated that Christians of non-Jewish origin are equal to Christians of Jewish background. All people are purified by faith in Jesus Christ, they need not keep the Laws of Moses or be circumcised. However, they should “abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood”. The church leaders in Jerusalem sent an epistle with their decrees by the hands of Paul, Barnabas and two prophets, Judas Barsabas and Silas to the Christians in Antioch (Acts 15:4–32).
Barnabas did not accompany Paul on his second missionary journey, because of a disagreement concerning John Mark. Barnabas wanted to take him with them, but Paul did not agree. Finally, Barnabas went on a missionary journey with Mark, and Paul with Silas (Acts 15:36–15:40). Barnabas and Mark sailed to Cyprus. The Bible doesn’t say anything about Barnabas’ further activities.
According to early Christians, Barnabas preached mainly in Cyprus and he was martyred in Salamis, being stoned by the Jews.