Barnabas was born in Cyprus. He was Jewish and a Levite and this would have brought him to Jerusalem where he seems to have become a Christian shortly after Pentecost. His real name was Joseph but his fellow apostles gave him the nickname ‘Barnabas’ meaning ‘the encourager’. We know about him from Acts, and Paul refers to him in two of his letters.
Barnabas played a key role in persuading a frightened church to accept that the recently-converted Paul was genuine. Barnabas was among the first to realise that non-Jews could also become Christians, and he persuaded Paul to come and work with him in Antioch.
This experience set them both off on their life-mission, spreading the gospel to gentile communities throughout the Mediterranean world. They worked extensively together, though they did fall out over Barnabas’ nephew, John Mark, who had let them down on one occasion. Barnabas travelled to Cyprus while Paul went back to work in the east. In the event, Barnabas was vindicated and John Mark turned out well. Nothing is known of Barnabas’ later career, except that he was still alive in 57 when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians.
Barnabas appears to have been one of the most esteemed of the first generation of Christian leaders. He and Paul were both called apostles, a title only otherwise given to the twelve. Luke speaks of him as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith”. His feast day is 11th June.
How is it that this church is dedicated to St Barnabas? Currently there are only 150 Anglican parishes in England with the name. We haven’t set much store by patron saints in our part of the tradition but in the Victorian period it was universal for churches to have one. Our forbears would have wanted a New Testament saint but wouldn’t have had many to choose from.
Ours was the last Battersea parish to be created and the favourite names were already in use elsewhere in Battersea and Clapham. Maybe Barnabas was chosen because there was no one else left
The founders of the parish gave a more spiritual reason for their choice. They had thought that St Matthew’s – built nearby in 1877 – would become the parish church and were disheartened to be told that it was not well-enough built. Faced with the prospect of raising money and running two churches instead of one, they needed plenty of encouragement. As Barnabas was the great encourager, he was the obvious saint to choose.
Ancient traditions say that Barnabas was martyred in 61 and that he went to his death carrying a copy of St Matthew’s Gospel which he had written out by hand. Whether that had anything to do with the decision, in the absence of records, nobody knows.