While the disciples were waiting for the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:7-8), they occupied their time by electing a new member to fill Judas’ spot in The Twelve (Acts 1:15-26). The criteria for the job was longevity, someone who had been with Jesus since his ministry’s incipience (Acts 1:21-22). As such, the candidates were drawn from Jesus’ wider circle of followers (Luke 10:1-17).
Whether only two candidates qualified or the pool was somehow reduced, two finalists were chosen - “Joseph called Barsabbas (who was also called Justus)” and Matthias (Acts 1:23 NASB). (The fact that the author felt the need to supply so many names to identify Barsabbas is a clear tip off he was not going to get the job.) The final decision was made via prayer (Acts 1:24) and casting lots (Acts 1:25-26), a traditional method of determining God’s will in Judaism (Leviticus 16:8; Numbers 26:55-56, 33:54; Joshua 19:1-40; I Chronicles 26:12-16; Jonah 1:7-8; Micah 2:5). The lot fell to Matthias (Acts 1:26).
This incident marks Barsabbas’ only appearance in the New Testament. There is a Judas Barsabbas who appears later in Acts and many have conjectured that the two were brothers (Acts 15:22). According to Eusebius (263-339), Joseph Barsabbas was among the seventy Jesus sent out (Luke 10:1; Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, 1.12). Otherwise little is known of Barsabbas.
Some have speculated that given his later prominence, Paul was God’s choice to be the twelfth disciple and that the eleven remaining disciples jumped the gun in electing a new member.
Were the disciples correct in trying to reconstitute The Twelve? When have you been passed over? How did it make you feel? How do you think Barsabbas felt about this rejection?
Twice Barsabbas could have been selected as one of The Twelve and twice he was overlooked. He lost out on what was presumably a dream job early and when a vacancy became open, the carrot was dangled before him again, providing a glimmer of hope. Just as the light shone in, the door was once again slammed in his face. The second time, he knew how close he was as he made the shortest of short lists. Barsabbas faced rejection publicly amongst his peers and ostensibly the rejection came from God. And no explanation was given. Presuming the disciples’ prayer was answered (Acts 1:24-25), Barsabbas was left knowing only that his exclusion was God’s will.
Barsabbas nor his career is ever referenced again in the New Testament. (Neither is Matthias for that matter.) Tradition tells us that Barsabbas did not become bitter or attempt to manipulate his way into a role of leadership. Papias of Hierapolis (60-130) preserves an oral tradition that states Barsabbas drank poison without harm (Mark 16:18) and the apocryphal Acts of Paul relates that Barsabbas was among a Christian group imprisoned by Nero until a vision of the newly martyred Paul appeared to the emperor, precipitating their immediate release.
Barsabbas could have responded in many ways to his rejection. In his case, it truly was an honor just to be nominated. If tradition is correct, Barsabbas demonstrated the characteristics that merited his being a finalist for the position. It appears that Barsabbas never lost sight of his calling even though he was not called to be one of The Twelve.
What are you called to do? Have you ever held high hopes for a position only to be placed in a less prominent slot? How did you respond? What does your response to rejection say about you?
“There's nothing like rejection to make you do an inventory of yourself.” - James Lee Burke (b. 1936)