Barnabas is key in the missionary work of the Spirit in Acts 11

The first Sunday after Trinity (or Pentecost 2) is also the feast of St Barnabas, who was responsible for receiving, encouraging, and working with the apostle Saul/Paul. In our lectionary reading, Acts 11.19–30, he performs a vital role in encouraging the believers in Antioch and advocating for them to the leadership of the church in Jerusalem. (Although this is not strictly the gospel reading for Sunday, since Acts is really ‘Luke Part II’ then we can think of it that way!).

Our chapter divisions once more do not quite reflect the natural breaks in Luke’s narrative. Many English translations start our reading in v 19 with the disjunctive preposition ‘Now…’, as they have done at the beginning of the chapter in Acts 11.1. But the break and change of focus here is much stronger; in verse 1 Luke uses de but in verse 19 the much stronger μὲν οὖν men oun which has the sense of ‘on the other hand…’

The reference back to the persecution ‘that arose over Stephen’ takes us all the way back to Acts 8.1, so these different aspects of the narrative are leap-frogging over one another. First we hear about Philip in Samaria, then the controversy between Peter and Simon Magus, then Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch/official, then the conversion and initial ministry of Saul, and the raising of Dorcas. We then have a chapter and a half of Peter and Cornelius; this is so significant that Luke includes two full accounts of the event, one as he narrates the events and the second one as Peter gives his own account.

The persecution has driven Jewish followers of Jesus up the coast to Phoenicia, and from there is was a natural boat trip to Cyprus, as stop on the way West towards Rome. Further north, in the ‘elbow’ of Syria and Turkey, was Antioch. Founded in the fourth century BC, it was on key trade routes including the Silk Road from the East and spice trades routes, and it was now the third largest city in the Empire after Rome and Alexandria. It was also a leading centre of Judaism in the Diaspora; Josephus (in The Jewish Wars) tells us that between 20,00 and 40,000 Jews were there.

Jesus has predicted that his disciples would ‘be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ The irony of Luke’s account is that this has been achieved not by the intention of the disciples but by persecution, who have been driven to Judea and Samaria in Acts 8 and now move even further afield. When we are slow to follow God’s intention, he finds ways of making it happen!

The practice of sharing the gospel only with Jews follows Jesus’ ministry ‘only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel’ (Matt 10.5, 15.24). Yet even in this ministry, Jesus’ teaching and healing spills over to the Gentiles, and parts of his northern ministry were in non-Jewish territory across the Jordan. The term ‘Hellenists’ is translated by some ETs as ‘Greeks’, and we need to remember that the world was divided into two groups: ‘Jews’ and ‘Greeks’, meaning all non-Jews (who throughout the Roman Empire spoke Greek, even on the streets of Rome). In Acts 6.1, the term must mean Greek-speaking (that is, diaspora) Jews, but here in context it must surely refer to non-Jews.

What is striking is that those taking the good news to this new group are people who themselves straddle this divide—diaspora Jews who have one foot in a Jewish camp, so to speak, but culturally another foot in the Greek-speaking gentile world. It is people who stand on the boundaries, in the ‘liminal’ spaces, whom God uses to spread his boundary-crossing love.

There is a striking repetition of ‘the Lord’ in this section. Luke is the only gospel writer who refers to Jesus as ‘the Lord’ without qualification. The Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene preach ‘the Lord Jesus’; the ‘hand of the Lord’ was with them; many ‘turn to the Lord’; Barnabas encourages them to ‘remain faithful to the Lord’; many were ‘added to the Lord’.

This is a fascinating collection of sayings, not least because ‘the hand of the Lord’ is an OT phrase denoting the demonstrable presence of the power of Yahweh (see 1 Sam 5.3, 6, 9, 2 Sam 3.12). The power of God amongst his people is now the power of the Lord Jesus by the Spirit. Repenting and believing in God is now repenting and believing in Jesus; the phrase ‘they believed and turned’ in Acts 11.21 echoes Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom and the right response to it (‘repent and believe’) in his own early preaching (see Mark 1.15). (Some translations suggest these are two distinct actions, but the grammar of the phrase suggests these belong together.)

Luke has previously talked about those who were ‘added to the number’ of the disciples (Acts 2.41), but here they are being ‘added to the Lord’, which suggests an understanding of believers as the ‘body of Christ’ which we find in Paul’s writings, ultimately arising from his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road, where Jesus accuses Paul not of persecuting his followers but of ‘persecuting me’ (Acts 9.4).

The report of what is going on quickly reaches the believers in Jerusalem—a reminder that, because of the construction of Roman roads, and the busyness of trade routes, there was excellent communication between the Jesus communities in different cities, contrary to the contrived view of earlier scholarship that there were isolated groups in rivalry to one another all believing different things. (The classic exploration of communication between Christian groups in the Empire is The Gospels for All Christians edited by Richard Bauckham.)

I cannot help thinking there is some implied humour in Luke’s arrangement of the events. The leaders in Jerusalem have just been listening at length to Peter’s account of his vision from God and meeting with Cornelius, and all that has happened. And the very next moment they receive a report from a completely different location telling them that just the same kind of thing is happening. ‘Do not believe the testimony of only one witness’ we are told in Deut 19.15, but only when two witnesses agree. Surely this new move of God now has two quite distinct witnesses who testify to it!

It was natural for the Jerusalem leaders to send Barnabas; not only had he been an early exemplar of the practical sharing of resources with others, following the pattern of the early faith community (Acts 2.45, 4.36–37) but he was both a Levite, as it were a most Jewish of Jews, but also from the diaspora community of Cyprus. He would therefore have much in common with both parts of the growing community of believers in Antioch, and credibility with both.

His given name is Joseph, a good Jewish name, but he has attracted the appellation Bar-nabus; it is not entirely clear what Hebrew or Aramaic phrase this derives from, but we are given its meaning as υἱὸς παρακλήσεως, ‘son of encouragement’. When he comes to Antioch, he naturally ‘encourages’ the believers, and Luke uses the cognate verb parakaleo that fits him so well. He has seen the ‘grace’ or ‘gift’ of God which is manifest in people turning from their sin and trusting him. The exhortation to ‘remain faithful’ to the Lord uses the verb prosmeno, a compound of the important Johannine term meno, to ‘abide’ in him.

The description here of Barnabas is striking. He is the only person in Acts described as ‘good’, and this is entirely in line with Luke’s interest in God’s blessing and use of those who are pious Jews. In Luke and Acts, Jesus and his people are indeed concerned with reaching sinners and those on the margins—but he and they are also interested in piety and holiness. The further description of being ‘full of the Holy Spirit and faith’ parallels the description of Stephen in Acts 6.5. His guidance by the Spirit and his confidence in God and his work make him someone especially suited to be at the frontiers of the new thing that God is doing.

Despite his competence, it is striking that Barnabas feels the need to recruit another. This follows the consistent pattern in the New Testament, that ministry and leadership are never a solo effort, but always plural, following Jesus’ example in Luke 9 and Luke 10 of sending people out in pairs. That questions the later development of monarchical episcopacy which we have inherited to this day, and it also undermines the model of single, celebrity leaders which continue to cause so many problems in the contemporary church. Always working with another both deflects the possibility of celebrity culture and builds in a sense of accountability to one another.

Barnabas was the one who first advocated for Paul to the Jerusalem leadership in Acts 9.27, so it seemed natural for him to seek out Paul, who lived not far from Antioch in Tarsus. Remaining in a place for an extended period of time like this marked Paul’s practice later in Acts; the ‘teaching’ that they offered need not be read as merely being directed to believers on the ‘inside’, but would also have included teaching outsiders (‘a great many’) about Jesus, thus drawing them in.

The introduction of the term ‘Christians’ here (repeated only in Acts 26.28 and 1 Peter 4.16) is fascinating in several respects. First, Luke is clear that this is a term given to them by outsiders, not one that they have chosen themselves; up until now, Luke has described them mostly as ‘followers of the way’, or disciples, holy ones (saints) or brothers (and sisters). It follows the usual way of designating people with reference to the person they are following, devoted to, or distinguished by their allegiance to—and it appears to have a slightly mocking tone to it.

But within Luke’s narrative, it identifies for the first time this group as distinct from the Jews in the city who do not respond to the good news and are not followers of Jesus. Does this mark the first sense of this new community beginning to pull away from its Jewish roots? If so, this is not something that Luke would support, given the shape of his gospel’s narrative which begins and ends with Jerusalem and is centred there.

Yet the narrative of Acts now moves away. This section, from Acts 11.19 to the end of chapter 15, is described by Ben Witherington as ‘The Antioch Chronicles’. Although accounts of Peter’s continued ministry are still woven in, this is the point from which the focus shifts decisively from Peter, and the Jewish church in Jerusalem, to the ministry of Paul, and the growth of the Jesus movement amongst a predominantly gentile context. And this is, of course, in fulfilment of Jesus’ words at the very beginning; the disciples will indeed be his witnesses ‘to the ends of the earth.’ This episode in Antioch is a literal turning point, as the movement of the gospel, having headed north, now turns West, as well as a figurative one.

And Barnabas, with his mixed heritage and bridge-building skills, his encouragement of both dynamic leaders like Paul and ordinary believers in Antioch, and his exemplary life of generosity and teaching, plays a key part at this crucial turning point.

Join James and Ian as they discuss the issues arising from this passage:

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9 thoughts on “Barnabas is key in the missionary work of the Spirit in Acts 11”

  1. Dear Ian,

    1. It of interest that the persecution that began with the death of Stephen, and continues thoughout chapters 8-12, is interrupted by the pericope regarding Antioch and Barnabas.

    2. Chapters 9 is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus; 10-11 is the preaching of Peter to the Roman Centurion, Cornelius, which generates some questioning from the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. That same group would cause trouble later in Antioch in Acts 15 and Galatians 2.

    3. What I do find important is that Barnabas took one look of thje situation and knew that there was only person who could work in the situation that was developing in Antioch, Paul of Tarsus.

    4. Finally, there are several reasons that the Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesusj were called Christians.
    a. They reflected the unity that was “in Christ.”
    b. They reflected that they were no longer known as a Jewish sect called, “The Way” or “naarenes.” As long as they were known as a sect of Judaism they would be under the authority of the High Priest in Jerusalem and under the Law of Moses (which would a bone of contention in Acts 15. The Judaizers as represented by the Pharasaic party of the Jewish berlievers in Jesus would be a problem to Paul even to this day (c. Hebrew Roots Movement).
    c. This new group, Christians, was to show that the Jews and Gentiles, now one in Christ, worshipped the same God of Israel, and the same Lord, Jesus Christ.

    • Bryant –

      Your last point (c) parallels 1 Chronicles 29:20, where all the assembly :

      ” Worshipped Jehovah and the king [as Jehovah’s Representative]”.

      The First century Christians had exactly the same one Father God of the Jews (cf. Isa. 64:8; Deut. 6:4; John 17:3; 1 Cor. 8:6), otherwise the New Testament would have mentioned major binitarian and trinitarian disputes, with the Jews.

    • I am not sure that the appearance of the term Christian necessarily represents a decisive break with the authority of Judaism and the Law and the end of their status as a Jewish sect. Firstly, Paul’s behaviour in Acts shows he does not consider that he has ceased to be Jewish or to belong, in some sense, still to Judaism. Paul’s description of his sufferings (in 2 Corinthians) shows that he twice submitted to flogging by Jewish authorities. Apparently, this was a punishment that a Jew who had broken the Law could accept rather than be expelled from the synagogue. Unfortunately, this is not unpacked and at first sight it seems strange that Paul, who could rebuke Peter so fiercely about table fellowship with Gentiles, would submit to the Law in this way. However, I think it is part of his commitment still to try to reach Jews, even after they have rejected the Gospel. He accepts the Jewish evaluation of his actions and the resultant punishment in order to continue to witness to fellow Jews.
      Despite the decisive break where Paul says “from now on, we turn to the Gentiles” we find him still engaging with the synagogue and fellow Jews and this continues right to the end of Acts – and this is not presented as an attempt by a member of a new and alien religion to proselytise, but as a debate about the Jewish Messiah and the Kingdom of God.

      (By the way, it appears that there is a consistent willingness to submit to legal authority on the part of the apostles, even when the punishment is, to our eyes, at least, unfair. Paul might appear to be an exception, but his appeal to his rights as a citizen focus on the fact that the punishment is strictly illegal; otherwise the believers submit to “lawful” authority.)

      Secondly, even if there were an early decisive break between “Christians” and Jews/Judaism, it doesn’t seem obvious to outsiders. Agitation by Jews/Judaisers(?) because of Paul’s preaching is treated by the authorities as purely an internal – that is, Jewish – matter and is only reacted to to the extent that it threatens the public peace. When Paul goes to Jerusalem, his behaviour shows that he is willing to appeal to the Pharisees on the basis of their shared belief in the resurrection. To be sure, Paul is often tactical in his dealings with others, cf. his appeal to his citizenship, but he does not appear to be dishonest, so his appeal to the Pharisees is as a Jew who shares their convictions.
      Whatever the thinking of a later generation, Paul does not think of the Church as a “third race”, separated from both Jew and Gentile, but as a new humanity, uniting Jew and Gentile in one body. To mix metaphors, this new body is an olive tree with gentiles grafted in alongside Jews to compose a new Israel.
      Thirdly, if there was a decisive break, this early, it does not seem to have had much impact on believers, since the formal separation occurs decades later – with the Church forbidding believers to continue to attend synagogues and the synagogue issuing a proscription against believers in Jesus.

      • To Charlie Hayes :

        Paul could not have attended Jewish synagogues if the Jews believed that Paul had broken the Jewish Shema (cf. Mark 12:28-34; John 17:3; 1 Cor. 8:6).

  2. Excellent article and discussion from contributors, apart from the myopic one-note flute. Of course there were binitarian disputes, reference Jesus’ dealings with Jewish rulers & disputes with the Jews regarding his Sonship and their correct confession that He made himself God. Perhaps Barnabas was crucified because he made the same claim in his own country.
    The converted Jews accepted this testimony and the person and work of God the Holy Spirit.
    Subsequently there arose a “christian cults” which arose out of Gnosticism, which that held that Jesus Christ was not one with God the Father, but instead just created by God and a holy man. The drift of all he advanced was this: to deny that in any true sense God could have a Son; as Mohammed tersely said afterwards, “God neither begets, nor is He begotten” (Koran, 112). We have learned to call that denial Unitarianism. It was the ultimate scope of Arian opposition to what Christians had always believed. But the Arian, though he did not come straight down from the Gnostic, pursued a line of argument and taught a view which the speculations of the Gnostic had made familiar. He described the Son as a second, or inferior God, standing midway between the First Cause and creatures; as Himself made out of nothing, yet as making all things else; as existing before the worlds of the ages; and as arrayed in all divine perfections except the one which was their stay and foundation. God alone was without beginning, unoriginate; the Son was originated, and once had not existed. For all that has origin must begin to be. from the very earliest times there have been binitarian and unitarian disputes. JW’s and Unitarianism are recent revivals of this cultus.

    • The first post-New Testament trinitarians held to real subordinationism and a Logos Christology.

      You need to increase your knowledge of the slow, gradual evolution of the “Trinity” idea, which occurred of course, in post New Testament period.

  3. Read the precursors of Arian. Be aware also that Arian after his excommunication and re-establishment agreed that Nicaea was correct and agreed that
    consubstantiaton [of the same substance or essence ] was indeed correct.


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