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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Sent Off into the Son Rise


"So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” Acts 13:3

Acts 11 ended with Barnabas and Saul heading towards Jerusalem. They carried a financial gift from the church in Antioch. It was sent to help ‘the brothers and sisters living in Judea’ on account of a predicted time of desperate need. Last time, we looked at Acts 12, where the focus was back on Jerusalem, and an event that happened ‘about this time’ (v.1) – the time that Barnabas and Saul were in the area. We considered Herod Agrippa I, an enemy of believers. He was set against the church. Peter, one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church, appeared to be a dead man walking. All the odds appeared stacked in Herod’s favour. All that Peter had – all that the church had - was prayer. What was Acts 12 about? It showed us that prayer is a mighty weapon. It connects people, with nothing else to hand, to a God who holds everything in his. Herod died – Peter lived.

If I had to summarise Acts 12, concisely, I’d use the style of James Alexander Gordon, who summarised the Saturday afternoon football results on BBC Radio for 40 years. Herod nil – Prayer won! Because it did. Because it does.

Though Barnabas and Saul were in the vicinity, no mention is made of them in Acts 12 until the very last verse. They are now returning to Antioch. Acts 13 starts with them settled back into their roles in that church’s life. We need to leave Jerusalem and hurry after them. Our focus needs a dramatic shift, because that is exactly what the book of Acts does at this point. It now concentrates on this Antioch church, and how these people were able to take the witness to Jesus ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).

When we looked at Acts 9, we followed Peter on a journey to Joppa. I said that we should look through the church window at Joppa. We did, and we saw that wonderful believer called Tabitha/Dorcas. Her life had valuable lessons for ours. So, let’s do it again. Let’s look through another church window – this time at Antioch.

Now, some may be unsure – ‘I don’t like this, peering in through church windows. Isn’t that just spying – won’t they object if they see us?’ Well, look at the first three verses of Acts 13. Here we find believers praying. They aren’t going to see us – they’ve got their eyes shut!

So let’s remind ourselves of who they were. These people at this new church in Antioch were a mixed bunch. This is the first church of Jesus Christ, recorded in this Acts history, where the word ‘diverse’ is truly accurate. Acts 11 taught us its beginnings. All of a sudden the good news message about Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, was in reach of all types of people, not just Jews. Israel’s restrictive, religious border had been breached. Non-Jews had been told about Jesus. ‘A great number of (these) people (had) believed and turned to the Lord’. This was a church made up of a mixed crowd.

This is further emphasised in Acts 13. Verse 1 tells us about some of the church’s leaders. We find a man named Simeon. He is described in a way that may make us feel uneasy, and rightly so. Simeon was literally called, ‘Black’. The NLT, which is a bible translation that leans towards communication of meaning, says ‘Simeon (called ‘the black man’)’. Of course, a person’s complexion should be of no significance in the vast majority of situations. Sadly, though, in our world of ruin and failure, its significance is often magnified in really ugly ways. In that culture it was used to describe this man, and Acts 13 records this fact - not to give us license to talk of skin colour when it is of no relevance. Rather, it is highlighting diversity. It is highlighting how we should want our churches to look. At the moment, here, our diversity is somewhat limited. Let us pray that this will not always be so. Let us pray that our church shape will be changed over time, into a place where no-one who walks in for the first time, could possibly feel out of place - whatever their background - whatever their ancestry - whatever their history.

We also have Lucius of Cyrene – that’s modern day Libya, in Northern Africa, and we have Manaen, who appears to have been raised in society’s more lofty circles – among the great and the good. Well, actually, among the great and the not so good! He was a childhood acquaintance of Herod the tetrarch. This Herod executed John the Baptist and ‘ridiculed and mocked’ (Luke 23:11) Jesus during his trial. Manaen and Herod - once two boys growing up together, but whose lives took such divergent paths based on what they believed about Jesus. This Herod, who mocked Jesus, would lose his earthly crown and die in exile. Manaen, believed in Jesus as King of kings, and Lord of lords, and like everyone who runs the Christian race, would look forward to receiving a crown which would last for ever.

The other two leaders in verse 1 are those we have met before. They are like bookends to this list of names – Barnabas and Saul. I’ve put them in the order in which Luke, the narrator, has – not just in verse 1, but always. It appears that Luke views Barnabas as the lead person in that relationship. When ‘Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul’, in Acts 11:25, we considered that at that point in the life of that infant church, Barnabas realised that he needed Saul’s help. However, perhaps also in the mind of Barnabas was that this role would be one where Saul could further develop? We have seen already that Barnabas is inclined towards encouragement of others, and in future we will see how minded he is to nurture others – to overlook their past mistakes and to seek to encourage their future improvement. It isn’t just coincidence that Luke lists their two names in this order. Because Luke is going to change that order very soon. Saul/Paul is going to take the lead role – he is going to be the ‘chief speaker’ (Acts 14:12) of the two. Perhaps we can say that the pupil is about to become the teacher.

But before that, we need to pause a moment and consider this church. It has taken on a shape that nearly two thousand years later is not dissimilar to the shape of Bible believing churches now. Despite the passing of two millennia there is little that separates us and them. Let’s learn about them. Let’s take lessons for ourselves.

‘Objection!’ someone may say, ‘they not only had people in teaching roles, but they had ‘prophets’. We don’t have or need prophecy, surely? What was the role of a prophet?’ Well, let’s turn back to the last time that a prophet was mentioned in this early New Testament setting. In Acts 11:27-28 we read about Agabus speaking at Antioch. He ‘stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world’. Now, I’m going to paraphrase what I think happened at that moment, and then I’ve got a couple of questions. Through God’s Spirit this prophet gave wisdom and insight about an upcoming situation. The church at Antioch weighed up what he said and then acted accordingly (as 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). Now, for my questions (and answers). We don’t have people in our church who are referred to as ‘prophets’ – should we, do we want that? I’m not so sure that we do. But, do we want the Lord to work in our church, in the way that he did in Antioch. Do we want people in our churches who did what Agabas did – people who ‘through the (working of) the Spirit’ bring wisdom and insight into our church life, now and in the future? Do we want to listen to what is said and evaluate and decide the way forward – always having the name of Jesus, and the service of his kingdom, uppermost in our minds? I think we do.

So, what did Antioch do? What were they doing? It is heavily implied that this local church body were seeking an answer from the Lord on a particular matter. They are given an answer. ‘The Holy Spirit said’ – that’s what verse 2 says. Perhaps that was through words spoken by someone in that assembly – we don’t know. But we do know that they got an answer. And I think the answer informs us of the question that was being asked – even though Luke doesn’t record the question itself.

Saul was one of the teachers in this local church. They must have heard the account of his dramatic Damascus road conversion several years previously. They must have known what the Lord had said about him in Acts 9:15 – ‘This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel’. Saul was kind of doing that in his Antioch role, among that mixed crowd – he would have proclaimed Jesus to Gentiles and Israelites alike, in that city. But, what about the ‘kings’ bit? And didn’t the Lord’s statement in Acts 9, and the whole context of that event, imply something more? I think it did, and I think they thought it did. And this was a church that had been established by mission work (Acts 11:19-20). They were mission-minded! They wanted to know the correct way to move forward. They wanted to check that the Lord was with them. They had reason to seek for an answer, and they were serious about their asking, because we are told that they were ‘fasting’.

‘Objection!’ someone may say, ‘We don’t fast – no lessons here! What even is fasting – what purpose does it serve?’ Well, I know of at least one of the brothers in our church who does fast – Objection immediately overruled!. And prayer and fasting often seem to go hand in hand in the Bible (see Daniel 9:3). Why is this? What is happening here in Antioch?

Well, let’s say that I have a job to do. I have lay some tarmac to lay – not ‘to the ends of the earth’, thankfully, just to the end of my drive. I cannot do this on my own. I need help. I need the help of Mark Prittchat. Would I just turn up at Mark’s house at 8am one Saturday, having never mentioned this before and say, ‘Mark, I need your help now!’ No, I’d check with him beforehand, as far in advance as possible, so that I can be certain that his plans and mine are aligned. Would I leave it at that, or would I check in again? I would check in again, in the lead up to the great tarmac mission - ‘Are you still ok for Saturday’. And, to show that I was serious I’d give up some food. It’s a big task and we will need to stop soon after midday. I’d share my lunch with Mark. He could have one of my cheese sandwiches!

That’s all the church at Antioch were doing. They were checking in with the Lord. They knew that they had a job to do and were checking that his plans were aligned with theirs. Out of seriousness, they gave up some food – they fasted. It is that simple. And the Lord noted their seriousness, and he delighted in their checking in with him. He aligned their plans with his and moved them forward. Verse 2 says, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’. Their response. Verse 3 says, ‘So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off’. It doesn’t tell us that because they had got their answer they stopped being serious and no longer checked in with the Lord. Quite the opposite. The first thing they do is to pray and fast again. And then ‘they placed their hands on them’. ‘Objection!’ someone may say, ‘we don’t have laying on of hands here – that is a step too far’. But let’s consider what it is that they were really doing. Because we need to do just that.

Who sent Barnabas and Saul. Well, they went on a work to which the Lord had ‘called them’. Verse 4 tells us that they were, ‘sent on their way by the Holy Spirit’. We need this. We need the Lord’s gifts and calling to be exercised upon our lives so that we can serve him in whatever sphere he has called us to. But we need more. It is in his New blueprint – his church design. We will need encouragement from Barnabases or Barnabelles, so that our gifts are nurtured and developed. And we will need the prayers and help of our local church. God’s design is one of shared responsibility. That is what Antioch church does here. The ‘placing on of hands’ is just an outward sign. The church is owning that work of these two – ‘You belong to us – we are with you – we take responsibility for you’, is what they are saying by this act.

It is so easy to think of the apostle Paul as a one man mission, working almost in isolation. But the book of Acts will now tell us about three missions that he goes on, before he goes on that last recorded journey, through Jerusalem to Rome to speak, not just to any old king. This book ends with him awaiting an audience with none other than Emperor Nero. All three missionary journeys begin from his local church in Antioch (Acts 13:3, Acts 15:35, Acts 18:23). He sets out from there and he reports back there. Because he belonged there.

But we need to do something else at this point. If you were uncomfortable peering through the church window then you’re in for shock. We are going to climb in the window and sit down among those people. We have to. We have to put ourselves in their shoes to understand this church decision. Can you imagine being in a church where Barnabas – Mr Encouragement himself – has a leadership role, and so does the man who will soon be known as the apostle Paul. Your church finds itself in a position where it knows that it needs to let go. There is another role in store for these people, who seem so important to your church’s function, now. How easy would it be to make the right decision then? It is all too easy to serve the Lord in ways in which don’t find difficulty. But what about when the right way causes personal discomfort. How can we do it then? Perhaps, we’ll need seriousness and constant checking in with our Lord. It was the Lord’s will that Barnabas and Saul would move right out of this region to carry the saving message of Jesus many times further than it had gone before. In order to do that, the church at Antioch was also going to have to move – beyond the border of its own comfort zone. And, in a wonderful example to us, they do just that.

Why? Because of who that church belonged to. That mixed church had a mixture of leaders and was blessed with a variety of gifts. But it didn’t belong to any of them. Is it the same here at Riverside? Who does this church belong to? We have had two elders up until now. We still have our seven original signed up church members. In future, will they be the ones with all the say? Will it belong to them more than to other people who join with them in membership? It is a danger than is present. Churches can fall into a devilish trap. This should can never be the church of me, or the church of Tim, or the church of anyone else – apart from one. It has to be the church of Jesus Christ our Lord, or else it will go awry. If we are shaped so that we look like me, then we will end up very broken and look very wonky indeed. But, if like Antioch, we are led of the Holy Spirit, and shaped like Jesus, then we won’t go wrong. Our future paths will honour him and his light will illuminate our way forward.

We’ll have tough decisions at times. Antioch did. Jesus did. In Gethsemane’s garden he saw what lay ahead for him as he carried the burden of responsibility, for all of the sin of all of his people, with him to the cross at Calvary. The cup of sorrow which he had to drink was such that he looked for another way. But there was no other way. No other way by which we must be saved. None of us will ever be asked to move outside of our comfort zone like Jesus was then. But, when we are called to be uncomfortable, may Jesus be our prime example. He said, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’

Jesus, the Son, carried out the will of the Father. Because of sin, our life’s path could never be aligned with God before. We always walked in the opposite direction to what his will was. But because of Jesus, we have been turned around. Now, our plans can be aligned with his will. But we’ll need to keep checking in on him, to make sure that they stay that way.

In time to come, the apostle Paul would write a letter to another church. He visits it in Acts 17, even though it over a thousand miles from Antioch. It was in a place called Thessalonica. They were told this (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) – and we are also – ‘Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus’.


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