SHARING CHRIST IN ALL PLACES

 

Week of July 22, 2007

 

Bible Verses:  Acts 13:1-3; 14:1-7,21-23.

 

Biblical Truth: God calls local churches to be actively involved in the birth and growth of other churches.

 

Go:  Acts 13:1-3.

 

[1]  Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. [2]  While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” [3]  Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.  [NASU]

 

The cosmopolitan population of Antioch was reflected in the membership of its church, and indeed in its leadership, which consisted of five resident prophets and teachers. Luke explains neither how he understood the distinction between these ministries, nor whether all five men exercised both. What he does tell us is their names. The first was Barnabas, whom he has earlier described as a Levite from Cyprus [4:36]. Secondly, there was Simeon called Niger who was presumably a black African, and just conceivably none other than Simon of Cyrene who carried the cross for Jesus and who must have become a believer, since his sons Alexander and Rufus were known to the Christian community. The third leader, Lucius of Cyrene, definitely came from North Africa. Fourthly, there was Manaen, who is called in the Greek the “syntrophos” of Herod the tetrarch, that is, of Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. The word may mean that Manaen was brought up with him in a general way, or more particularly that he was his foster-brother or intimate friend. In either case, since Luke knew a lot about Herod’s court and family, Manaen may well have been his informant. The fifth church leader was Saul, who of course came from Tarsus in Cilicia. These five men, therefore, symbolized the ethnic and cultural diversity of Antioch.

 

It was while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So important was this occasion, that it may be helpful to ask some questions about it. First, to whom did the Holy Spirit reveal His will? Who is the ‘they’ who were worshipping and fasting, and to whom He spoke? It seems unlikely that we are meant to restrict them to the small group of five leaders, for that would entail three of them being instructed about the other two. It is more probably that the church members as a whole are in mind, since both they and the leaders are mentioned together in verse 1, and on the similar occasion when the seven were to be chosen, it was the local church as a whole who acted [6:2-6]. Moreover, when Paul and Barnabas returned, they gathered the church together. They reported to the church because they had been commissioned by the church [14:26-27].

 

Secondly, what was it that the Holy Spirit revealed to the church? It was very vague. The nature of the work to which He had called Barnabas and Saul was not specified. It was not unlike the call of Abram. To him God had said, “Go to the land I will show you.” To the Antiochene church God said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” In both cases the call to go was clear, while the land and the work were not. So in both cases the response to God’s call require an adventurous step of faith.

 

Thirdly, how was God’s call disclosed? We are not told. The most likely guess is that God spoke to the church through one of the prophets. But His call could have been inward rather than outward, that is, through the Spirit’s witness in their hearts and minds. However it came to them, their first reaction was to fast and pray, partly to test God’s call and partly to intercede for the two who were to be sent out. We notice that in neither reference to fasting does it occur alone. It is linked with worship in verse 2 and with prayer in verse 3. For seldom if ever is fasting an end in itself. It is a negative action (abstention from food and other distractions) for the sake of a positive one (worshipping or praying).

 

Then, when they had fasted and prayed, and so assured themselves of God’s call and prepared themselves to obey it, they laid their hands on them and sent them away [3]. This was not an ordination to an office but rather a valedictory commissioning to missionary service. Who, then, commissioned the missionaries? That is our fourth question. According to verse 4, Barnabas and Saul were sent out by the Holy Spirit, who had previously instructed the church to set them apart for Him [2]. But according to verse 3 it was the church which, after the laying-on of hands, sent them away. Would it not be true to say both that the Spirit sent them out, by instructing the church to do so, and that the church sent them out, having been directed by the Spirit to do so? This balance will be a healthy corrective to opposite extremes. The first is the tendency to individualism, by which a Christian claims direct personal guidance by the Spirit without any reference to the church. The second is the tendency to institutionalism, by which all decision-making is done by the church without any reference to the Spirit. Still today it is the responsibility of every local church (especially of its leaders) to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, in order to discover whom He may be gifting and calling.

 

Evangelize:  Acts 14:1-7.

 

[1]  In Iconium they entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a large number of people believed, both of Jews and of Greeks. [2]  But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles and embittered them against the brethren. [3]  Therefore they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was testifying to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands. [4]  But the people of the city were divided; and some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. [5]  And when an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and the Jews with their rulers, to mistreat and to stone them, [6]  they became aware of it and fled to the cities of Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe, and the surrounding region; [7]  and there they continued to preach the gospel.  [NASU]

 

Nearly one hundred miles south-east of Pisidian Antioch, commanding the broad plateau which lies between the Taurus and the Sultan mountain ranges and which is well watered by their rivers, is situated the very old city of Iconium, which today is Turkey’s fourth largest town of Konya. It was still a Greek city when Paul and Barnabas visited it, and was a center of agriculture and commerce. Although as usual the missionaries Paul and Barnabas went first into the Jewish synagogue, their mission in Iconium was plainly not directed to Jews alone. On the contrary, they spoke in such a manner that a large number of people believed, both of Jews and of Greeks [1]. The practice of announcing the Christian message first of all in the Jewish synagogue or synagogues of each city they visited was to be a regular feature of Barnabas and Paul’s missionary procedure. It was a practical expression of the principle that Paul lays down in Romans 1:16: that the gospel is to be presented to the Jew first. Besides, Paul was always sure of a good opening for his Gentile mission among the ‘God-fearing’ Gentiles who formed part of his audience in every synagogue.

 

But if some Jews and Gentiles were united in faith, others were united in opposition. But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles and embittered them against the brethren [2]. Undeterred by this opposition, Paul and Barnabas spent a considerable time there, correcting the false witness and bearing a true one, testifying to the word of His grace [3]. Once again we notice the close association between words and signs, the latter confirming the former. The people of the city were divided [4] for the gospel both unites and divides. Some sided with the Jews, believing their evil slander, while others sided with the apostles, persuaded by the truth of their words and wonders.

 

The attribution of the title ‘apostles’ to Barnabas as well as Paul, both here and in verse 14, is perplexing, until we remember that the word is used in the New Testament in two senses. On the one hand, there were the ‘apostles of Christ’, personally appointed by Him to be witnesses of the resurrection. There is no evidence that Barnabas belonged to this group. On the other hand, there were the ‘apostles of the churches’ [2 Cor. 8:23], sent out by a church or churches on particular missions. So Paul and Barnabas were both apostles of the church of Syrian Antioch, sent out by them, whereas only Paul was also an apostle of Christ.

 

Slander against the missionaries deteriorated into planned violence [5]. Paul and Barnabas found out about the plot and they escaped to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe. Here they continued to preach the gospel [7]. But why did the missionaries select these towns for evangelization? Neither town had a large population or lay on an important trade route, and the local Lycaonians were largely uneducated, even illiterate. Perhaps they were temporary refuges to which they fled since the towns were in a different political region. At all events, they continued to preach the good news for nothing could silence them.

 

Strengthen:  Acts 14:21-23.

 

[21]  After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, [22]  strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” [23]  When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.  [NASU]

 

All Luke tells us about the mission in Derbe is that the missionaries preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples [21]. Then they retraced their steps, revisiting (in spite of the danger) the same three Galatian cities which they had evangelized on their outward journey: Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch [21]. It was a ministry of strengthening and encouraging. Both verbs were almost technical terms for establishing and fortifying new converts and churches [Acts 15:32,41; 18:23]. But encouragement did not exclude warning, for we have to pass through many tribulations to enter the kingdom of God [22]. It was Paul’s own sufferings in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra which led him later to assert that everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted [2 Tim. 3:11-12].

 

In addition to encouraging the converts to continue in the faith, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in every church [23], who would continue to teach them the faith. Then, just as the missionaries had been sent forth from Antioch with prayer and fasting, so with prayer and fasting the elders of the Galatian churches were committed to the Lord [23]. After their return visit to the Galatian cities in which they had planted churches, the missionaries now headed home.

 

We see here the beginning of three foundations of Paul’s policy in establishing churches. First, there was Apostolic instruction. Paul exhorted the church members to remain true to the faith which they had received from him [22]. A number of similar expressions are used in different parts of the New Testament to indicate that there was a recognizable body of doctrine, a cluster of central beliefs, which the apostles taught. Here it is called “the faith”, elsewhere “the tradition”, “the deposit”, “the teaching”, or “the truth”. To some extent we can reconstruct it from the apostles’ letters. It will have included the doctrines of the living God, the Creator of all things, of Jesus Christ His Son, who died for our sins and was raised according to the Scriptures, now reigns and will return, of the Holy Spirit who indwells the believer and animates the church, of the salvation of God, of the new community of Jesus and the high standards of holiness and love He expects from His people, of the sufferings which are the path to glory, and of the strong hope laid up for us in heaven. These truths Paul left behind him and then elaborated in his letters. Each church would begin to collect apostolic letters, alongside the Old Testament Scriptures they already had, and in their public worship on the Lord’s Day extracts from both would be read aloud.

 

Second, there was pastoral oversight. Paul and Barnabas also appointed elders for them in every church. This arrangement was made from the first missionary journey onwards, and became universal. Although no fixed ministerial order is laid down in the New Testament, some form of pastoral oversight, doubtless adapted to local needs, is regarded as indispensable to the welfare of the church. We notice that it was both local and plural: local in that the elders were chosen from within the congregation, not imposed from without, and plural in that the familiar modern pattern of ‘one pastor one church’ was simply unknown. Instead, there was a pastoral team, which is likely to have included (depending on the size of the church) full-time and part-time ministers, paid and voluntary workers, elders and deacons. Their qualifications Paul laid down in writing later [1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1]. These were mostly matters of moral integrity, but loyalty to the apostles’ teaching and a gift for teaching it were also essential [see Titus 1:9; 1 Tim. 3:2]. Thus the shepherds would tend Christ’s sheep by feeding them, in other words care for them by teaching them. Such was Paul’s human provision for these young churches: on the one hand a standard of doctrinal and ethical instruction, safeguarded by the Old Testament and the apostles’ letters, and on the other pastors to teach the people out of these written resources and to care for them in the name of the Lord. Just the Scriptures and the pastorate; that was all.

 

Yet there was a third provision based upon Divine faithfulness. Paul’s principles rest ultimately on the conviction that the church belongs to God and that He can be trusted to look after His own people. So before leaving the Galatian churches, Paul and Barnabas commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed [23]. These are the reasons why Paul believed that the churches could confidently be left to manage their own affairs. They had the apostles to teach them (through ‘the faith’ and their letters), pastors to shepherd them, and the Holy Spirit to guide, protect and bless them. With this threefold provision they would be safe.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.      What does the racial diversity of the church at Antioch tell you about the power of the Gospel? Why is it important that the Holy Spirit worked through the local church in the missionary call of Barnabas and Saul?

 

2.      Paul and Barnabas made a habit of preaching first in a synagogue whenever they arrived in a city. Why did they go to the Jews before the Gentiles [Acts 13:45-47; Romans 1:16; 2:9-10; 9:1-5; 10:1-3]?

 

3.      Why does the Gospel unite as well as divide?

 

4.      What are the three foundations of Paul’s church planting policy. How can we apply that policy to our church planting efforts today?

 

References:

The Book of the Acts, F.F. Bruce, Eerdmans.

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter-Varsity.