THE MISSION BEGINS Acts 13–14″
’Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2–3).God still has a worldwide vision that He wants us to share.
Paul is credited with developing the church’s missionary strategy. He went to cities which were communication, transportation, and market centers. He went first to the Jewish synagogue, where he reached not only his own people but also the Gentiles who were attracted to Jewish faith and morality. Paul’s missionary team instructed the first converts as thoroughly as time permitted, and went on to the next city. The congregations they established served as the core for evangelizing the surrounding area as well as their own city (cf. 1 Thes. 1:4–8). Later Paul might return to give further instruction and to confirm the local church’s choice of elders. Paul also sent letters and representatives, like Timothy and Titus, to answer questions and help the congregation deal with any problems that developed. The itinerant strategy of Paul placed great responsibility on each local church for its own life. And it showed the apostle’s utter confidence in the Holy Spirit’s ability to guide and sustain God’s people. Modern missions has much to learn from Christianity’s first great missionary, the Apostle Paul.
Barnabas and Paul were commissioned to spread the Gospel (13:1–3). Their first stop was in Cyprus (vv. 4–12). In Pisidian Antioch, success in reaching Gentiles created jealousy and opposition from the Jews (vv. 13–52). Conflict continued as they ministered in Iconium (14:1–7), Lystra, and Derbe (vv. 8–20) before they turned toward Antioch and home (vv. 21–28).
Understanding the Text
“Set apart for Me” Acts 13:1–3. Many have wondered how a person can tell if he or she is “called” to the ministry. We find a few hints here. First, Saul and Barnabas were already deeply involved in ministry when set apart by God. It would be foolish to think that going to seminary could make a “minister” out of a person who has shown no inclination to serve and witness before his or her training. Second, the “call” was not given just to Saul and to Barnabas; it was sensed by all the leaders of the Antioch church. The congregation of which a person is a part should be able to confirm that person’s call. If you’ve ever wondered if God is calling you to full-time ministry, the experience of Paul and Barnabas is suggestive. If you are active in ministry now, and affirmed by your church, your sense of calling may be confirmed. “The procounsul . . . sent for Barnabas and Saul” Acts 13:4–12. The invitation to preach before Sergius Paulus was official, motivated by the proconsul’s responsibility to govern Cyprus and its mixed population of Gentiles and Jews. Rumors of the apostles’ preaching, and very likely charges against them, would have quickly come to his attention. The proconsul, being “an intelligent man,” would investigate carefully before taking any action. The hostility of Bar-Jesus, whose alternate name Elymas means “sorcerer” or “magician,” led to a confrontation. The outcome stunned Sergius Paulus, and led to his conversion. Opposition to the Gospel often has an unexpected effect. God often uses it to open doors of opportunity. So don’t be overly disturbed by opposition, and be alert for how God intends to use it for His own ends. “Saul, who was also called Paul” Acts 13:9. The change of name here is significant. Saul was the apostle’s Hebrew name. Paul is Greek, and the name by which the apostle went while ministering in the Gentile world. The shift of names alerts us to the fact that from now on, Paul’s ministry will be largely to the non-Jewish population of the Roman Empire. Later Paul wrote in one of his letters, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews,” and “to those not having the Law I became like one not having the Law” (1 Cor. 9:20–21). Paul did not compromise. Rather he looked for ways to identify with those he wanted to reach. When I joined the Navy I found that at first I was shunned by other sailors. I finally discovered they thought I was stuck up because I used big words. I’d never realized it: I was brought up in a home where the way I spoke was normal. To fit in and have any chance of reaching my Navy buddies, I had to learn to speak as they did (though without the cuss words). Later I worked in a state hospital, and taught a nightly Bible study. Each evening I thought about what to say, and how to make it as simple as possible. I found it paid big dividends. Many of the men told me, “If you ever get a church, let me know. You’re the first preacher I ever heard I could understand.” Even little things in Scripture, like the shift here of a name, speak volumes to us. If you want to reach people, search out points of similarity, and try to be like them. Never emphasize your differences from those you hope to influence. “On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue” Acts 13:13–15. Paul’s habit of going first to the synagogue was rooted in conviction as well as strategy. It was good strategy because Jewish visitors were often invited to speak when they came to synagogue services. But Paul’s habit also expressed a deep love for his people. Though his life had been threatened several times by his co-religionists, Paul held that the Gospel’s salvation power is “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16). Every Christian should recognize the great debt we owe to God’s chosen people. We can begin to repay that debt only as Paul did as he carried the Gospel into the synagogue. “Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me” Acts 13:16–43. Luke now included a summary of the kind of sermon Paul preached in the synagogues. He began, as was typical, with a review of Hebrew history. This culminated with David, from whose descendants the Messiah would come. Paul then went on to show that Jesus fulfilled those promises. Christ’s resurrection not only fits the Scripture, but those Scriptures He fulfills show Him to be the Holy One, the Son of God. Through Him God offers to all the forgiveness of sins. Like the other sermons recorded in Acts, this one focuses attention directly on the person of Jesus Christ, and on Christ’s offer of the forgiveness of sins. Whatever you or I may do to identify with others, we do not change the Gospel message. That message alone can bring salvation and new life to all. “They were filled with jealousy” Acts 13:44–52. The message of a salvation offered freely to all spread quickly, and the next Sabbath “almost the whole city” gathered to hear the two missionaries speak. The “jealousy” of the Jews was not simply over numbers. It was a jealousy for their faith. Paul’s message of salvation had, in effect, set aside the Law, and meant that a Gentile could relate to Israel’s God without approaching Him through Judaism. Paul bluntly told the now hostile Jewish population, “We now turn to the Gentiles.” A great many people in Antioch were converted before official persecution drove the missionaries from the area. This is the first hint of the great challenge about to face early Christianity—and modern Christians. What is the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, between Law and grace? Is Moses’ Law binding on the believer in Christ? Or is the “new” faith the radical departure from Judaism that Paul seemed to suggest. The question is important to you and me because we need to live in intimate fellowship with the Lord. Unless we are clear on the distinctions between the age of Law and of grace, this is a difficult task indeed (see Romans, Galatians). “The people of the city were divided” Acts 14:1–6. Don’t expect everyone to be open to the Gospel. Acts reminds us that the message of Christ divides people, even as it unites believers. If you are effective in sharing the Gospel, you can expect opposition as well as enthusiastic response. “The gods have come down to us in human form” Acts 14:8–20. Don’t be surprised when some who acclaim you one moment are ready to stone you the next. The people of Lystra were ready to worship Paul and Barnabas as gods. When the two failed to meet the crowd’s expectations, the mob was easily persuaded to stone Paul. Popularity is fleeting, a gossamer fabric that disappoints all who pursue it. “They gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them” Acts 14:21–28. Some share what God has done through them to glorify themselves. Others to glorify God.
Truth or Fantasy?(Acts 14:8–28‘)
A hundred years before the visit of Paul and Barnabas to Lystra, Ovid recounted an ancient legend native to that area. Zeus and Hermes once wandered that hill country in the guise of mortals. Though they asked at a thousand homes, no one would take them in. Finally a poor couple offered them lodging in their straw shack. As a reward the shack was transformed into a temple of marble and gold, and the couple became ever-living trees at its door. And the thousand inhospitable homes were destroyed. It’s likely that this legend stimulated the wild excitement at Lystra when Barnabas and Paul healed a cripple there. The gods Zeus and Hermes had returned! The enthusiastic populace was determined to do them honor. When the crowd found out that Paul and Barnabas were messengers of the one true God, and not gods themselves, they became hostile, and were easily moved to stone Paul. They had been so delighted with fiction that they resented hearing the truth. What’s even more fascinating is that archeologists have unearthed inscriptions near Lystra that date from the third centuryA.D, showing that Zeus and Hermes were still being worshiped there. Fiction’s grip is strong. Every now and then I speak with someone who has his or her own ideas about what God is like. “God isn’t like that!” such a person is likely to say if punishment for sin, or the death of Christ for sinners, happens to come up. Such folks are a little like the men and women of Lystra. They have their own ideas about God. And they don’t want to change them, thank you. To such folks it makes no difference if what you say is true. For fiction’s grip is strong.
The truth is good news, whether people accept it or not.
“With God a thing is never too good to be true; it is too good not to be true.”—Oswald Chambers