While Jesus sends the entire church on mission, it doesn’t take long to realize that not everyone has the exact same role. Here we’ll see the Spirit of Jesus specifically sends some to devote themselves to the work of gospel proclamation.
Acts (The NIV Application Commentary), Ajith Fernando
We’ve been going through the book of Acts, and the book begins with an incredible mission, given by Jesus to His followers, to be His witnesses to the end of the earth. It’s a great gift to have such a noble purpose in life; when we lack a sense of purpose, everything feels a bit absurd, but when we have it, we can go through even the hard things in life with joy. While the whole church shares this noble purpose, it doesn’t take long before you realize not everyone individual can do the exact same thing. Already in Acts we’ve seen that some have to focus on preaching while others focus on caring for the needy within the church. But how do we know who should do the preaching? How do we know who should do it in the church and who should actually be sent out by the church to do it elsewhere? Jesus gives us His Holy Spirit, and not only does He indwell and empower all believers, He sends individuals from the church to devote themselves to the work of gospel proclamation. We don’t manufacture that; He does. As we depend on Him, the Holy Spirit sends gospel workers through the church, with a call, to the world.
Through the church
In verse 1, we read of the church at Antioch, through whom Saul and Barnabas will be sent. First though, let’s notice how this church is described. It had prophets and teachers, those recognized with specific gifts and set apart to exercise those gifts. The text then gives us their names: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. One of the unique features of a church is it brings together people from different people groups, and this is exemplified in the leadership of the church. Barnabas was a Levite, part of the Jewish priestly class, but was a native of Cyprus. Saul was a pharisee, an even “higher level” Jewish priest, but he was from Tarsus and was also a Roman citizen. Simeon was called Niger, a word that almost definitely identifies him as a Black African. Lucius was from Cyrene, which was in North Africa, so probably of more of a similar people group to a modern-day Moroccan. Finally there’s Manean, who we’re told was a lifelong friend of Herod the Tetrarch, a king. So he’s someone of the upper class of society. So you have in the church at Antioch a couple Jews from different places, a couple Africans from different places, and a cultural elite. Not only are they in the church; they’re in the leadership of the church. They’re the prophets and teachers. A couple weeks ago we said one of the marks of the church that Christians confess in the Apostles’ Creed is its catholicity, which means its universality. The gospel is good news for all peoples, so the community formed by the gospel is made up of all peoples. The book of Acts would teach us to expect, then, that in any area in which diverse peoples live, like Antioch, churches would also be diverse, not only in their membership, but in their leadership.
And yet we must admit that the church in America has failed to reflect this more than it has succeeded. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the world. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t happen by accident. Richard Allen, who the affordable housing development just north of where we’re meeting today is named after, is the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, one of the largest denominations of what sociologists call the “black church.” You know why he founded it, though? Richard Allen lived in Philadelphia in the late 1700s and was a member of a church in Old City. They were a diverse church; good, right? It was good until he wanted to preach. They let him preach actually, but only to fellow black congregants. He was allowed to be part of the church, but not to serve as a teacher, unlike the church in Antioch, so he started a denomination where he could do what God had called him to do. That’s just one example among many of how the church in America, especially the white majority, has been captive to America’s racism, rather than a counterculture to it. As new people groups have immigrated to the U.S., the pattern has repeated itself. That’s not to say there’s been no progress, but centuries of walls have been built up that led to Reverend King’s observation. From the beginning it was not so. The church in Antioch was in a city made up of diverse peoples, and it preached a gospel that was good news for diverse peoples, so that both the membership of the church and the leadership reflected that diversity.
And we’ve seen God begin to do this in our church as well. When the church started 4.5 years ago, the membership was 95% white. Today it’s only 70% white. Our eldership was 100% white; it was just me. Today it’s 50% white, though there’s only two of us. That said, I think we all feel there’s plenty for us to still learn. If the gospel was the thing that created and matured this church in Antioch, we can learn from them by working to ensure that’s also what we’re building on. For example, look at the people to whom you feel drawn and want to spend time with; is that built more on natural affinity, shared background, hobbies, sense of humor, or on the gospel, whether that be a desire to share the gospel with someone who doesn’t yet believe, or a desire to love a brother or sister who also believes the same gospel? Similarity’s not a sin; I’ve got no drive-by guilting for you today over enjoying shared hobbies or something. But if the people you want to share the gospel with, fellowship with, and follow as a leader are all of the same race, culture, and so forth to you, it may indicate that your native culture is more fundamental to your identity than the gospel. You wouldn’t be alone in that if that’s a struggle for you, and the beauty of the gospel is the solution to that would not be to despair in guilt, to just get together and say, “Ugh why aren’t we more diverse, why do we suck, why are we such racists?” but to return to the gospel, the good news of Jesus, which builds a diverse membership and leadership. For the glory of God, we want that as a church.
Ok, so diverse leadership is one mark of the church through which the Holy Spirit sends gospel workers. The next mark is in verse 2: They worship the Lord and fast. In verse 3 we see the worship described as prayer. Again, note the simplicity. How’d they get a diverse leadership? They preached and believed the gospel, and the Lord did it. How’d they get gospel workers? They worshiped the Lord and fasted, and the Holy Spirit got the workers. Fasting is abstinence from some good thing, usually food, for a season, to help us focus on the Lord and especially on prayer to Him. It’s something you can do any time as a Christian; it’s something sometimes churches will do together. We’ve done that in the past and perhaps need to make a more regular rhythm of it. What fasting and prayer do is they acknowledge that the mission of God is one we are ultimately dependent on God to accomplish. It acknowledges that left to our own desires, we’ll give our lives to our glory, not His. We’ll give our lives to our security, instead of boldly proclaiming the gospel. It acknowledges that left to our own wisdom we don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to answer the objections. We don’t know who to send. So instead of pretending we do or despairing that we don’t, we pray. And in response to prayer, the Holy Spirit tells the church what to do: To set apart Saul and Barnabas for the work to which He has called them. The Holy Spirit sends gospel workers through the church with a call.
With a call
If you’ve been around churches for any length of time you’ve perhaps heard this term “calling.” Even outside of churches people will talk about finding their “life’s calling.” But both inside and outside the church, the term can be a bit muddy. Before we dive into what we can learn about the call in this passage, some background: By far the most common sense of the term calling in Scripture is the call of God to salvation through faith in Christ, for example when Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). That’s a calling made to everyone who hears the gospel, to all of you in the room today, and a calling that is effective in the lives of those who are born again by it, who then become Christians. Beyond that, though, there are a couple places that speak of being called to a specific life, which could include things like where you live, whether or who you marry, what job you take, and so forth. In that sense, everyone has a calling. In 1 Corinthians 7:17, Scripture tells us, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” The command is not to go crazy figuring out your calling; it’s simply to live the life to which God has called you. If you have a life, which you all do, it’s the life the Lord has assigned you, and to which God has called you, at least for the time being until He calls you into something else. The church in Antioch wasn’t sitting around figuring out what the Lord called them to: They knew they were called to worship, prayer, and fasting, so they lived the life the Lord assigned them, until the Lord brought a new assignment.
Ok, with that bit of background, let’s talk about the new calling the Holy Spirit announces in verse 3. Here it’s a calling to a specific kind of work, “the work to which I have called them” as He says, which I’ve called gospel work. In this case the calling has actually been announced earlier, where in Acts 9:15 we read that Paul was God’s chosen instrument to carry His name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. In other words, it was a calling to proclaim the gospel. Now the church is being told by the Holy Spirit to recognize that calling, set them apart for it, and send them out to do it. So notice first that not everyone is called to this gospel work. There’s a whole church in Antioch that isn’t set apart for it. That doesn’t mean Paul and Barnabas are the only ones who will proclaim the gospel; we already read of prophets and teachers in Antioch, and throughout Acts of ordinary Christians who went about speaking the gospel. Any Christian can proclaim the gospel, but the life to which God calls many Christians is one in which their job will be something else: government, law, food, education, finance, the arts, and so forth. If that’s the life to which the God has called you, just live that life. You aren’t any less pleasing to God than someone called to gospel work.
There was a time in the church in America where it was really important to say that, because many were told either explicitly or implicitly that if you were a really good Christian, you’d be a missionary. If you were a little worse, you could be a pastor. And if you were really lame, you could go work a job outside the church. That’s not true, and maybe you still needed to hear it today. But as is so often the case, today the door has swung the other way. Where going into the gospel ministry to take the gospel overseas or serve as a pastor used to be glamorous in some circles, today it is just not the fast track to wealth and social standing that other jobs are. There are various reasons for that, we won’t go into them, but let me just point out what’s right there in the passage: While the Holy Spirit doesn’t call everyone to gospel work, He does call some! It’s a real thing, and part of the church’s, all of us, whatever your call, responsibility is to recognize that call, set apart, and send those so called.
He ordinarily doesn’t do it with such a specific revelation as He does here: Notice nobody’s wondering, “Was that really the Holy Spirit?” He spoke clearly, and they acted. And as the church progressed, people wrote down what the Holy Spirit was saying through them, to the point where today we have a Bible filled with words we know the Holy Spirit is saying, we have Him living in us to guide us, and we have God’s ongoing invitation to pray and ask Him for wisdom. So we should give ourselves to the things in this passage that the church actually does: Worshiping the Lord, fasting, praying, and trust that as we ask for wisdom, the Lord is providing it. God may tell some of you to move to the Middle East to proclaim the gospel, plant a church, or become a pastor. We may hear him say that today. But more commonly, calling arises from the Holy Spirit giving you a desire to do things He’s already told the church to do in Scripture. So we hear Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations, and we feel a desire to go to another nation. Or perhaps we hear of the number of people in another nation who have never heard the gospel, and we feel the desire to take it to them. We hear of the need to plant churches and feel the desire, we hear the need to shepherd the church and feel the desire to be a pastor, etc.
We call that an internal call; it’s something you hear or sense from the Lord to carry out a command He’s given in a specific way. But then a principle we can take form this passage is the importance of that internal call being externally confirmed. It’s not just Barnabas and Saul who hear these words from the Holy Spirit; it’s the whole church. We call that the external call. It means your church also says, “Yes, we think as we pray that the Lord’s Word and wisdom are leading us to send you.” A nice rule of thumb to keep in mind, then: If someone tells you, “God told me x,” you should ask them, “Who else in your church heard x?” If they say, “Well I’m not really part of a church,” feel free to just disregard it. If they say, “Well God just told me; the rest of my church doesn’t really know how to hear his voice.” Right, so you’re the one spiritual person in your church; everyone else is carnal? Likely story.
When I was doing college ministry in Texas, I heard about how God was using new churches to reach new groups of people in the U.S., I heard about how few healthy churches there were in big Northeastern cities, and I sensed an internal desire to start a church in one of those cities. So my wife and I joined Citylight as members, told them of our desire, and waited to see if the Lord led them similarly. He did, and here we are. Stephen and Heidi Schelander were studying business and exercise science in college, but heard about the opportunity to start a community center in the Middle East as an outreach to Arab Muslims. They told the church, we worked with them, sent, and support them today as they continue their work there. Michael Murray read about the office of an elder in Scripture, told me about his desire, we as a church walked alongside him through the development and testing process, prayed about it, and today he’s an elder.
So what am I saying? I’m saying we don’t have to wait for a special, unique word from the Lord to call people as pastors or send them out as overseas workers. He’s already given us a mission. Look for an internal call, let us know, and we’ll work together on the external call through the ordinary work of worship, fasting, and prayer. Then if there’s a match between internal call, external call, and opportunity, we’ll lay our hands on you and commission you for the work, what we see happening in verse 3. This is actually a surprisingly difficult part of the process, especially when the work means going out, as it does here. It’s hard for the one going: It means leaving what is familiar, and you don’t know what lies ahead. It’s also hard for the church sending them. Barnabas and Saul had lived them for over a year. Who wants to send away their friends? Who wants to leave their friends? We’ve experienced this over the years at Citylight, from starting new Citygroups, to sending new church plants, to sending gospel workers overseas, and it is hard. Don’t grow weary of it though. If you sense an internal call, don’t let an understandable desire for familiarity get in the way of that. If there’s people God is sending out, don’t let an understandable desire for familiarity keep them in. Saul and Barnabas didn’t, nor did the church in Antioch, and so they begin their mission to the world. Let’s look at the first snapshot we get of that.
To the world
From Antioch they go to Seleucia, then to Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean. While so far much of the gospel has spread somewhat sporadically as people have been scattered from persecution, now Saul and Barnabas are engaging in intentional work to take the gospel to a new area. When they arrive, they proclaim the gospel in the synagogues. If your stereotype of “real evangelism” is just open-air preaching at City Hall, that’s wrong. They preach the gospel in a place where people ordinarily preach, in a synagogue. Quick side-note: We also see in verse 5 that they took John to assist them, though John hadn’t been specifically told to go by the Holy Spirit. There’s always room for people to just say, “Hey, I’m willing to help” without the need of a special calling.
When they get there, they meet a man who is described as a magician, a Jew, and a false prophet. So he professes to be Jewish, but practices magic and claims to speak the words of God when he really doesn’t, much like those who today claim to be Christians but practice things that aren’t in the Bible and claim to speak the words of God when they don’t. He was with a proconsul, a government official of the Roman Empire, named Sergius Paulus. He was interested in what Barnabas and Saul had to say, but the magician, also known as Elymas, opposed them, and sought to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who we now learn is also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looks intently at him and pronounces a curse of blindness on him. You see where he got the boldness to do that? He was filled with the Holy Spirit; he knew the Holy Spirit had called him! And despite Elymas’ magic abilities, the curse pronounced by Paul is more powerful, and he’s left blind. Then the proconsul believed when he saw what occurred, though notice in verse 12 that what he’s astonished by is not the curse, but the teaching of the Lord which Paul and Barnabas proclaimed.
The work of proclaiming the gospel brings opposition; we’ve seen that throughout Acts. Often that means just patiently bearing the opposition, but here we see that sometimes it means confronting the opposition. In this case, Elymas is standing in the way of this proconsul hearing the gospel. Paul knows this gospel is the key to eternal joy and the only freedom from eternal torment for the proconsul. How could he then just sit back and let Elymas lie to him? To do so would be to repeat the first sin recorded in the Bible, when Adam sat back and let the serpent lie to his wife, plunging them into death. Instead, Paul, aware of his calling, boldly confronted the magician with the truth, and the Holy Spirit empowered him to overcome the man’s magic. As a result, the proconsul was enabled to respond to the truth of the teaching of the Lord.
What was so astonishing about it? Paul has just pronounced a curse on this magician, and as a result the man has literally become blind. What is it about this teaching that’s more astonishing than that? Well, blindness is not actually the worst curse imaginable. The worst curse, the first curse pronounced in the Bible, is the one God proclaimed on all of humanity as a judgment on our sin: Death. But the teaching Paul proclaimed to the proconsul was this: The same God who pronounced the curse of death became a human in Jesus Christ, went under the curse of death, and broke it when He rose from the dead. And because He died for sin, the curse is now broken for any who believe in Him, so that whoever believes in Him, though he die, yet shall he live. Though Paul could pronounce blindness, Jesus can make blind eyes see. That’s truly astonishing. Before Saul and Barnabas were set apart for a work, Jesus Himself was set apart, leaving the familiar confines of heaven, sent by His Father to die for our sins and rise again, to create a people, a church, from all the peoples of the earth.
So you see, if you’re a Christian, if Jesus Himself as He’s revealed in the gospel is the thing most astonishing to you, it tends to bring you together with the Simeons, Luciuses, and Maneans. You start to see people the way He sees them: Not most fundamentally as black, white, Asian, latinx. Though we aren’t blind to those things, Scripture itself points them out, they lose their dividing power. You feel an affinity to any Christian that transcends the affinity you feel with those who share your background, interests, or life stage, because Jesus is more astonishing to you than any of those things. And when the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the risen Lord Jesus Himself calls you, you don’t have to be afraid to go. You won’t know the details of the work, and you will know that whatever it is, there will be opposition. But if it’s the work to which He has called you, you can boldly go, not so much because you know the work, but because you know Him. Do you sense the internal call to gospel work today? Let it be known so we can pray with you and externally test that call. Church, are there people the Lord is calling to gospel work in our midst, Citygroups He’s leading us to start, churches He’s leading us to plant? Let’s be attentive to that as we worship, pray, and fast together. If Jesus was sent for us, how could we not go and send who and where His Spirit sends?