The Word Among Us

May 2024 Issue

Peacemaker Extraordinaire

St. Barnabas Brought Stability to the Early Church

By: Patricia Mitchell

Peacemaker Extraordinaire: St. Barnabas Brought Stability to the Early Church by Patricia Mitchell

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Have you ever found yourself having to take on the role of peacemaker? It’s not easy to bring opposing sides together and come to some kind of agreement. Even “lowering the temperature” in a situation can be difficult. And yet we all know that divisions inflict damage wherever they exist—whether that’s in our families, in our communities, or in the Church. That’s why Jesus calls those who are peacemakers “blessed” and “children of God.”

But how do we begin the work of healing the divisions that surround us? Rather than providing a set of instructions, it’s often better to look to someone who acted as a peacemaker and learn from them. We all know of modern-day figures like Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet we can also find an amazing example of someone in the New Testament whose efforts helped to save the early Church from breaking apart just as it was beginning to take off.

“Son of Encouragement.” This peacemaker’s name was Barnabas, a trusted companion of St. Paul. We are first introduced to him in Acts 4:

There was no needy person among [the community of believers], for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need. Thus Joseph, also named by the apostles Barnabas (which is translated “son of encouragement”), a Levite, a Cypriot by birth, sold a piece of property that he owned, then brought the money and put it at the feet of the apostles. (Acts 4:34-37)

Why did Luke, the author of Acts, single out “Joseph, . . . a Levite, a Cypriot by birth,” from among all the other believers who had donated their property (Acts 4:36-37)? This man must have stood out, both for his example and for his ability to build up the other members of the community. The apostles even gave him the nickname “Barnabas,” meaning “son of encouragement.” So already we know something important about Barnabas: he was a positive influence on the community, someone who helped the other disciples live their new life in Christ.

Barnabas Takes the Initiative. We next meet Barnabas in Acts 9, after Paul’s stunning conversion. Paul had stayed with the disciples in Damascus for a time (9:19), but fearing for his life, he traveled to Jerusalem to join the disciples there. However, the Jerusalem community was still afraid of him (9:26). They didn’t quite believe his conversion story—what if Paul was planning to arrest them? But Barnabas decided to take matters in hand and meet up with this new disciple:

Barnabas took charge of [Paul] and brought him to the apostles, and he reported to them how on the way he had seen the Lord and that he had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. He [Paul] moved about freely with them in Jerusalem, and spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord. (Acts 9:27-28)

Barnabas recognized the impasse between Paul and the members of the Jerusalem community. But rather than allow the situation to continue, he trusted in God and tried to work things out. Because of his respected status in the community, he was able to reassure the disciples in Jerusalem that Paul really had changed. And so Paul was able to live among them and preach the good news (Acts 9:28).

This story shows us two qualities that enabled Barnabas to broker the peace between Paul and the Jerusalem community. First, he was courageous. He didn’t hesitate to step out in faith even when he didn’t know what the outcome would be. Second, he refused to be a passive onlooker but instead took the initiative to seek out Paul.

Led by the Spirit. The early Church was growing quickly—even among the Gentiles. This must have been quite a shock to the Jerusalem disciples, who were Jews. How had that happened? Luke tells us that because of the persecution that followed Stephen’s martyrdom, some of the Greek-speaking Jewish disciples had fled to Antioch (Acts 11:19). The “hand of the Lord was with them” as they preached the gospel there, and many Gentiles converted (11:21). When news of these events reached Jerusalem, the disciples there sent Barnabas as their ambassador to investigate:

When he [Barnabas] arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart, for he was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith. And a large number of people was added to the Lord. (Acts 11:23-24)

Gentiles and Jews had a long history of enmity between them, so Barnabas certainly could have been stepping into a volatile situation. Instead, he found a new community of disciples! It’s interesting that Luke would interrupt his narrative in this passage to describe Barnabas as “filled with the Holy Spirit and faith” (Acts 11:24). Clearly, Luke thought it was important to include this observation! It was the Spirit who helped Barnabas be open to the idea that God was doing something new. Barnabas took the time to observe and listen rather than act rashly or make wrong assumptions about the people in Antioch.

Because they knew him to be a man of goodness, faith, and loyalty, the Jerusalem community thoroughly trusted Barnabas. And so they believed the positive report he sent back about these new believers. Thus, Barnabas became an agent of peace among the Jewish and Gentile disciples. He even brought Paul with him to Antioch to preach the gospel there: “For a whole year they met with the church and taught a large number of people” (Acts 11:26).

The Limits of Our Efforts. We can learn much from Barnabas’ example. He shows us that in order to be peacemakers, we need to be faithful, trusted disciples, unafraid to take the initiative and open to the Holy Spirit. However, the reality is that even when we do all these things, we might not achieve the outcome we desire. One last scene shows us that Barnabas wasn’t always able to make peace:

After some time, Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us make a return visit to see how the brothers are getting on in all the cities where we proclaimed the word of the Lord.” Barnabas wanted to take with them also John, who was called Mark, but Paul insisted that they should not take with them someone who had deserted them at Pamphylia and who had not continued with them in their work. So sharp was their disagreement that they separated. Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus. (Acts 15:36-39)

Paul considered John Mark unreliable; after all, he had deserted them in the middle of one of their earlier missionary journeys (Acts 13:13). But Barnabas wanted to give this young man, who was also his cousin (see Colossians 4:10), another chance. So after a “sharp . . . disagreement,” Paul and Barnabas—such close companions through previous missions—went their own ways (Acts 15:39).

Did Paul and Barnabas ever reconcile? Some scholars believe that they did because Paul mentions Mark several times in his letters. So it seems quite possible that Paul eventually forgave Mark for his desertion—and maybe by extension, reconciled with Barnabas as well. This episode shows us, however, that no matter how skilled or gifted we are as peacemakers, we can’t always expect a peaceful solution. Many things are out of our control.

Called to Be Peacemakers. Barnabas is a hero of our faith, and maybe an underrated one at that. God used him in many ways to keep the Church united and help it flourish and grow. Who knows? Without his intervention in some of the Church’s earliest and most challenging situations, we might not even be Christians today!

You might not want to compare yourself with a saint like Barnabas, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a peacemaker. Perhaps your initiative and courage could help resolve an impasse among some groups in your parish. You might be called to help reunite two family members who haven’t spoken in years. Or you could be the first one in a disagreement to step back and look at the situation objectively to see how you could break the logjam and bring about peace.

In all that he did, Barnabas was convinced that Jesus is the source of peace because he is the ultimate peacemaker. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus made “peace by the blood of his cross,” reconciling us to his heavenly Father (Colossians 1:19-22). When we follow Barnabas’—and Jesus’—example and act as peacemakers, we are taking up a call that God has given to all his followers. Blessed are we when we do so!

Patricia Mitchell is the content editor of The Word Among Us magazine.