This paper is a meditation on the church in Antioch sending out two of its most gifted leaders. Using the text from Acts, it argues that the church was multi-ethnic from its early years and that its worship held open the possibility that the Holy Spirit could move them to set aside members for ministry elsewhere even if he did not indicate precisely where they should go.
Walter directs OMF International’s Mission Research Department. An American, he has previously served in Taiwan as a church planter and theological educator, taught Old Testament at Singapore Bible College where he also directed the Ichthus Centre for Biblical and Theological Research, and served as pastor at the Belfast Chinese Christian Church.
A Meditation on the Church in Antioch and Mission: Acts 12:25–13:5
Mission Round Table 13:3 (Sep-Dec 2018): 32-25
Many things come to mind when one hears the word “mission”. Some think of the “untold millions” who are still untold and who are dying without a savior. Others recall missionaries they have known or seen who have impressed them with their vision and their work in some remote part of the world. Still more think about going on a short trip to a less developed country to pass tracts, perform mime, teach English, or care for children. And, of course, the maps in our Bibles bring Paul’s missionary journeys to mind and the Great Commission reminds us that Jesus wanted all of his disciples to make disciples of all nations.
As we think about mission and the place of our local church in God’s plan to reconcile the nations to himself, we need to turn to the Bible as God’s main means of informing us of his will and our responsibilities. An important passage that relates some key truths about how God’s Spirit worked in one early congregation is Acts 12:25–3:5. In this passage, God prompts the church in Antioch to join him in reaching others for Christ by setting aside two of their most trusted leaders—Barnabas and Saul—for a new work to which he was calling them. Thinking through this passage will help us better understand how God sends out workers in the context of a local church and its worship.
Church leadership in Antioch (12:25–13:1)
We begin with Acts 12:25 which is a summary statement recording that Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch from Jerusalem. According to Acts 11:27–30, the apostles had gone to Jerusalem as part of a famine relief project. This trip is about as close as the Bible gets to recording what we might call a “short-term missions” trip. But this was in no way an exploratory journey for the apostles to discover their call or see how they might fit in. Barnabas and Saul were sent to Jerusalem after God used the prophet Agabus to inform the church in Antioch that a famine would hit a broad section of the world and would put the church in Jerusalem under severe economic pressure.
When God showed the believers in Antioch the needs that were beyond them, they took action. As others had done from the beginning of the church, everyone in the congregation determined to help out according to their ability. The wealthy gave more and the poorer gave less. But everyone joined together to help meet the need that was presented to them.
Interestingly, the word translated “help” or “relief” here is diakonia, the word commonly translated “service” in the Bible and that gives us our English word “deacon,” a word used in many churches today to refer to a church office for practical service. The beginning of this office of service can be traced to Acts 6:1 which tells of certain Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jewish Christians who lived in Jerusalem complaining that the widows they looked after were not receiving anything in the daily serving of food. Their complaints led to seven men being set aside to serve as deacons who would meet the physical needs of others so that the apostles would be free to focus on the preaching of God’s word and prayer. Preaching, prayer, and serving are all needed in the church and they are all holy tasks when performed for our holy God.
In the same way that serving the saints was important in Acts 6, it remained so in Acts 11 when believers from the distant city of Antioch reached out to their brothers in Jerusalem in order to bring them “help” or “relief” or “service.” This is a great model for us today. The church in Antioch was open to the leading of God to help other Christians in need. Its members were willing to dig into their pockets, or moneybags, or whatever they carried in those days, and give according to their ability, or perhaps more literally, according to their prosperity or abundance.
In like manner, churches from all over the world frequently move into action when they hear about needs due to earthquakes and typhoons and famines and other natural and man-made disasters. Helping others as God leads is a healthy thing, a normal thing for Christians to do. The church in Antioch joined in doing this. Do we? Is this part of our service to the Lord? Does it impact our mission policy? It should.
Acts 13 begins with Barnabas and Saul returning from Jerusalem where they went as part of their service of God. The chapter tells us that they were part of a longer list of men who served the church in Antioch. There was Barnabas who was well known for his gift of encouragement, but who also had an incredible gift of finding quality men of God and freeing them to minister to God’s people in ways that surpassed his own ability. Barnabas had personally introduced Saul to the apostles in Jerusalem and went to Tarsus to find Saul and bring him to help the church in Antioch. Barnabas would later select his cousin John Mark to join him and Saul on their first missionary journey. Though Barnabas and Paul would go separate ways over John Mark, the Holy Spirit would later use him to write the Gospel of Mark.
Then there was Saul, the superbly trained Pharisee from Tarsus in Asia Minor. Somewhere between 14 and 17 years earlier, while walking from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest any Christians he might find there, he was given a vision of Christ that shattered his outlook on life, changing him from one who persecuted the saints into one who boldly taught the faith he had once hated.
Three more names are added to the more famous ones. The first is Simeon, called “Niger”. This second name—a Latin word meaning “Black”—may indicate that he was a black African. He at least had a dark complexion. And though it cannot be proven, many people throughout church history have thought that he was none other than Simon of Cyrene, the man forced to carry Jesus’ cross when he was on his way to be crucified.
Lucius is clearly from Africa as his home was Cyrene, the area just south of Greece now known as Libya. The area had been long settled by Greeks and was home to so many Romans and Jews that there is no way to know what his ethnicity was, only his place of origin.
The last church leader who had found his way to Antioch was Manaen. The main information we are given about him was that “he had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch” (Acts 13:1, NIV), that is, he was probably a childhood friend of Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. This Herod is best known for imprisoning and executing John the Baptist and questioning Jesus just before his crucifixion. Now, while Herod was known for cruelty, his friend Manaen became a prophet and teacher in the church.
Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, and Saul served the church in Antioch as “prophets and teachers.” This incredible group was called by God with their different backgrounds, cultures, outlooks, gifts, and abilities so that the church in Antioch could grow in numbers and in spiritual maturity. Their existence should move us to be on the lookout for others like them. If workers like these were necessary in the first century, they are equally necessary today.
The Holy Spirit sets apart Barnabas and Saul (13:2)
While Acts 13:1 gives us a brief introduction to the five prominent leaders in the church in Antioch, verse 2 narrows our view to only two of them as we read that the Holy Spirit informed the church to “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Incredibly, God wanted to take two of the most gifted leaders in Antioch and send them away. Though their teaching ministry in Antioch had influenced “great numbers of people” (Acts 11:26), it had come to an end.
How would the members of the church in Antioch feel to learn that the Holy Spirit was sending Barnabas and Saul away? How would churches today feel if God wanted to send away some of their best leaders? Would they question the wisdom behind such a move? Would they say, “Please God, don’t send Saul and Barnabas away. Our church needs them. We have learned so much from them and know that they could teach us much more. Can’t they stay right here and help build up our church?”
And how would Barnabas and Saul feel to know that the Holy Spirit was calling them on to a new work? How willing would they have been to leave a fruitful ministry in order to start something new? Would they be willing to leave the security of a city and a congregation that they knew in order to go to who knows where? To answer these questions, we need to pay close attention to the narrative to see the way in which the church in Antioch and the early missionaries understood and reacted to the Spirit’s call.
Paul and Barnabas at Lystra by Jacob Pynas. 1592/3. Oil on wood, 48.3 x 73.3 cm. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. From: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org.
The setting of the call: ministering to the Lord and fasting
The Holy Spirit revealed his will while the church in Antioch was “worshipping the Lord and fasting” (Acts 13:2). Clearly, their worship or service gave the Holy Spirit an opportunity to speak to them. And though we don’t know if they were holding a formal worship service, meeting to pray for their needs and for the world, or engaging in more general ministry like caring for the poor or providing food for widows—and the Greek word used here for ministering can include any of these—it’s clear that worship opened them up to the Spirit’s leading. Since the Bible tells us they were fasting, it is likely that the church had set aside a special period for praying and listening to God. And it was during that time that the Holy Spirit told the church to set Barnabas and Saul apart.
Exactly how he spoke is not recorded. He may have spoken through one of the local prophets or through some other means. But no matter how he spoke, the passage lets us know that God often speaks to us when we are ready to listen. Being in proper fellowship with God by regularly ministering to him, serving him, and worshipping him, opens us up to hear when he reveals his specific will. Had the church in Antioch not been in proper fellowship with God, they would undoubtedly have missed his message for them.
God spoke to the church in the context of worship and fasting. And after they received his message, they again took time to pray and fast (Acts 13:3). This period of prayer and fasting probably had a twofold purpose. First, it assured them that the instruction they had received really came from God so they were willing to send Barnabas and Saul away. Second, the fasting and prayer helped to prepare them to obey God’s instruction. It was not going to be easy for the church to give up two beloved leaders, and it was not going to be easy for Saul or Barnabas to go away. They all needed strength from the Lord, strength that they could receive only through prayer and fasting.
The recipients of the call: both Barnabas and Saul and the whole church
The place of prayer and fasting in the worship of the church in Antioch is important in this passage and it was an important part of their involvement in God’s mission. God’s Spirit told the church in Antioch to set apart Barnabas and Saul for a special work that he had for them while they were engaged in prayer. Crucially, the Spirit spoke both to the individuals involved and to the church and its leaders. God revealed his will to everyone. No one in the church declared that God had given them a vision that Barnabas and Saul were to obey without questions. Neither did the Apostles announce that God told them to become missionaries. Verses 2 and 4 show how God revealed his will to both the church and to the individuals involved.
In verse 2, the Holy Spirit spoke to the church. “The Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” And in verse 4, Barnabas and Saul were “sent on their way by the Holy Spirit.” When the Holy Spirit leads, there is neither an overemphasis on a person’s individual feelings, nor an unhealthy “rule from above” that dictates what someone must do. God spoke to the church and to the individuals so that everyone was clear about God’s will.
This is important because in our day we find that many Christians assert that God told them to do this or that, to go here or to go there, and expect that everyone else will accept what they say and send them wherever they want to go. The picture of God’s direction given in Acts 13 is that when God wants someone to do something, he informs the individual and he informs the person’s church. I think that the apostles would be surprised to hear how some people today talk about how God has led them to do something or told them to go somewhere while their home church and Christian friends are left totally in the dark or feel greatly surprised. How can we think that God will give us special directions about what he wants us to do without informing our church leaders or other Christian brothers and sisters to whom we are responsible?
As we consider our place in world missions today—whether as individuals who might be ready and able to be sent out or as a church that wants to help send people out—the story of God’s work in Antioch should challenge us to be sure that our call or someone else’s call into missions is truly of the Lord. We may need a period of prayer and fasting to discern how God is leading. If so, call a special meeting for prayer and fasting, and bring the matter before the Lord. While not everyone who does this will be called into missions, those who are called often respond after a time of prayer. And those who are sent should only be sent after a time of concerted prayer.
The nature of the call: uncertain with regard to where or how
Acts 13 is clear that God informed both Barnabas and Saul and the church in Antioch that he wanted the apostles to engage in evangelism overseas. Even so, it seems clear that he gave them no direct instructions about where they should go. In our age, when people often feel that they need a specific “call” to a place or people and churches and mission agencies want to be sure that potential missionaries feel “called” to a country or people before they go, this New Testament record seems strange. But there is nothing in the Bible that indicates that a missionary “call” to a specific people or place exists. And though Paul’s Macedonian vision is often cited as “proof” of this need, it must be remembered that the vision was God’s means of leading a career missionary to one location instead of another in the middle of a missionary journey. The biblical evidence seems to indicate that being willing to take the gospel to others is more important than certainty about where to go.
So, when Barnabas and Saul set out from Antioch they knew that God had a special job for them to do even though he hadn’t spelled out exactly where they would do it. But any uncertainty about their destination didn’t stop them from setting out any more than it stopped Abraham when he set out from Ur and Haran. Similarly, the uncertainty about the apostles’ destination did not stop the church in Antioch from sending them out. Verse 3 says that, “Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” Since the apostles and the church knew they were sent, they went in faith. And in response to their faith, the Holy Spirit guided them along the way. Since they were “sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia” (Acts 13:4). Although no overall plan was in hand when they left, God rewarded their faith and used their faithful preaching of the gospel to bring people to him.
As we consider our place in world missions—whether as individuals or local church bodies—we need to learn from the apostles and the church in Antioch to express faith in our faithful God. We need to look at the world around us to see where there are needs and respond to those needs. We need to believe that God will let us know whom he has called to be missionaries and evangelists. We need to believe that God will inform us about where he wants us to work, and about the kind of ministry we should engage in. Then, we need to step out in faith, believing that the one who calls us is faithful and that he will direct us, provide for our needs, and use our preaching of the gospel to bring others to Christ.
The church in Antioch started to get involved in missions because they were in proper fellowship with God that was characterized by worship and service, prayer and fasting. We should do the same and ask God how he wants to use us so that his word and will might be known and obeyed in all the world today.
 For more thoughts on the “missionary call,” see my article “A Biblical and Practical Appraisal of the Missionary Call,” Mission Round Table 2, no.1 (April 2006): 29–33 or “The Missionary Call: A Biblical and Practical Appraisal,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 43 (April 2007): 210–217.