Chapters 13-14 relate the first extensive missionary activity conducted by Paul, in the company of Barnabas, or the first of Paul’s famous “missionary journeys,” of which you typically find three on a map in the back of your Bible. That is a fair way to describe them so long as it is remembered that only this first so-called “journey” was a relatively steady movement from city to city. In the later two “journeys” most of the time was spent in long periods of ministry in key cities: a year and half at least in Corinth, approximately three years in Ephesus. In other words, the journeying part of those last two journeys are the least part of the period covered by the “Journey.” In fact, even here on the first journey Paul’s strategy seems to have been to remain in a place long enough to see the new Christian community established, unless he was forced to leave by the opposition he encountered.
Simeon is a Jewish name and his other name, Niger, means “black” or “dark-complexioned.” F.F. Bruce says the Latin name probably indicates that he was African. Lucius of Cyrene may have been one of the founders of the Antioch church (cf. 11:20). Manaen (the Greek form of the Hebrew name Menahem) was, in effect, Herod Antipas’ foster brother. This is the Herod who ruled Galilee from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39. (Luke shows special interest in Herod Antipas in his Gospel and scholars have wondered if this information and interest did not stem from his acquaintance with this Manaen.) This is another wonderful demonstration of the sovereignty of divine grace. Two boys raised in the same home: one became an evil king, murdered John the Baptist, and later was a participant in the death of the Savior of the world; the other is found these years later a leader of the Christian church in Antioch!
It is interesting that Luke does not tell us which of these men were prophets and which were teachers. In any case the main work of both was teaching, the proclamation of the Word of God to Christians and non-Christians alike and its detailed exposition to the Christians, with the prophets additionally having the gift of inspired utterance.
The “they” most naturally refers to these men, these teachers and prophets who will, in v. 3, also lay hands on the two being set apart for the new work. In other words, while previously the Church had spread the message as a result of persecution dispersing Christians, here is the first known instance of a program of missionary work, undertaken by the direct instruction of the Holy Spirit, and originating in the action of a church. Luke seems to be well aware that this was a crucial turning point in the history of the church.
It is worth noting that the Antioch church sent off to this new work the best men they had. The same would be true in the 19th and 20th century missionary enterprise. Imagine what ministries those men might have had if they had stayed at home: William Burns; Henry Martyn; William Carey; C.T. Studd; Hudson Taylor; etc. Certainly it was a measure of that church in Antioch that it sent its light far and wide by the hand of its very best light-bearers. Though the act of setting apart was apparently performed by the prophets and teachers mentioned in v. 1, the whole church is also regarded as sending them away (an early text [D] adds “pantes” after “fasted and prayed”) which you gather also from the fact that when Paul and Barnabas returned after their missionary journey they reported to the entire church on the work they had done and the results that had come from it (14:26-27).
We have time this evening for only a few observations on this important scene from the history of earliest Christianity.
- First, we take note of the fact that the light that was to illuminate the following generations of the Church came when believers were “fasting and praying.”
We spoke of prayer last week. We can take a moment to speak of fasting tonight. Fasting, from the evidence of the NT, seems to have been a regular and important part of the life of the early church. Fasting as you know is the intentional abstinence from all or from certain kinds of food for a certain length of time for a spiritual purpose (i.e. not dieting to lose weight; not forgetting to eat out of fascination with some activity, etc.).
In the Bible fasting has two primary purposes. First, it is an intensifying exercise, as here when connected with prayer. Whether the activity is repentance, thanksgiving, or petition, fasting strengthens it, enlarges the offering that is being made to God. It is like sackcloth and ashes in this respect. Take, for example, Joel 2:12.
“Even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
There “fasting” is equivalent to “with all your heart” because fasting was a way of expressing one’s total commitment to what one was doing before God, a commitment so total that other ordinarily necessary things were forgotten, laid aside, such as eating food. The man who says that sin is weighing heavily on his heart but before confessing his sins must sit down to fill his belly is hard to take seriously. Those prayers that we feel simply must be heard are the prayers accompanied by fasting (fasting does in a shorter time, or can do, what the widow’s repeated visits to the judge accomplished; indeed fasting and importunity have much the same meaning and the same effect in strengthening prayer).
Second, fasting serves as a method of that self-denial by which our will is made subject to our holy desires. (This is not the purpose of fasting we have before us, so I will simply mention it.) It is a means by which the will is taught to say “No!” to unholy desires and strengthened by exercise to say “No!” even when the temptations are direct and powerful. (It is one of the ways Paul “beat his body and brought it into submission” 1 Cor. 9:24-27). When the Scripture describes holy men as violent men, it is suggesting that such men take steps sufficient to get the job done (“gouging out a right eye”). Fasting is one of those steps taken by men who will not let their sins have the upper hand.
In any case, we all ought to make use of this divinely appointed means for living a faithful Christian life and gaining blessing from the hand of God. Our Savior fasted, his apostles fasted, how much more must we. Paul himself said that he fasted, “lest having preached to others, he himself might be disqualified for the prize.” There is the spirit we need and must aspire to! Thomas Shepard: “kept a private fast for the mortification of my pride.”
- Second, we have here another instance of “ordination,” an act upon which the NT lays a consistent emphasis as an important ingredient in the wellbeing of the church.
It used to be that the most important misunderstandings of “ordination” took the form of an improper emphasis on the rite and the authority it conveyed to the church’s ministers (e.g. Roman Catholic doctrine of priestly mediation; infallibility; etc.).
Nowadays that error is much rarer and the error of many Christians lies at the other end of the continuum and takes the form of a virtual indifference to ordination both on the part of the church and the church officer.
Even here we can see the broad outlines of what ordination is. We have other accounts of it, of course, in the Bible that broaden the application to other offices and other works in the church: elder and deacon, for example.
- A declaratory act. That is, ordination does not create a church officer out of a man; but only recognizes that God has equipped and called a man for office and responsibility in the church. As we read in v. 2, it was the Holy Spirit who had already “called” Paul and Barnabas; the church is only making a formal recognition of that fact.
In this case, of course, both men had been teaching long before this. This particular ordination had more to do with a specific appointment to a particular post, though whether Paul had ever formally been given this recognition prior to this time is unknown. The twelve apostles had been given it by the Lord himself. In Luke 6:13 we read that he “designated them” apostles.
Listen to Calvin’s fine comment on this [pp. 352-353]: “God commands that Paul and Barnabas be sent out to wherever He has appointed them, by the votes of the Church. [NB God told the church to do this; he didn’t simply inform them that he had done it!] From that we gather that no election of pastors is legitimate except one in which God plays the leading part. For although He has commanded that pastors and bishops be elected by the Church, He has not, for that reason, permitted so much licence to men that He Himself does not preside as the chief Moderator. Indeed the ordinary election of pastors differs from this appointment of Paul and Barnabas, because it was fitting for those men, who were to be apostles of the Gentiles, to be appointed by a heavenly oracle, and that does not need to happen in the day-to-day ordaining of pastors. Yet they have this in common, that just as God made it known that Paul and Barnabas had already been appointed by His decision to preach the Gospel, so it is not right that any others be called to the office of teaching except those whom God has already, in some way, chosen for Himself. Moreover, there is no need for the Spirit to cry to us from heaven that a man with whom we are dealing is called of God, because we receive those whom God has equipped with the necessary gifts, since they have been fashioned and prepared by His hand, and we do so, just as if they had been delivered by Him to us, from hand to hand as the saying goes.”
In Presbyterian circles we give expression to this understanding in speaking of both an “inner call” and an “outer call,” the former being the sense the man himself has of a calling to office, the latter the church’s own recognition that God has equipped and called a man to the work. It is not permitted that a man himself should render this judgment, which is why no one can be ordained in a Presbyterian church without a call, without God’s people having recognized in him the previous calling of God.
- In any case, ordination is a “setting apart” as we read in v. 2. It is an installing into an office, by which is meant a specific calling with particular responsibilities and authority. And an installing by those with the divine authority to do so.
We have a number of magnificent examples from our Reformed heritage of the seriousness with which God’s people understood that certain work was to be done among them and for them by those and those only who had this appointment from God, that no one else could take to himself this authority or right (the preaching of the Word (not witness bearing, of course); the administration of worship and esp. the sacraments; the blessing of the people; etc.). After the martyrdom of Donald Cargill, the Scottish covenanters had no minister left to them; theirs had all been killed. There were good men left in the church, but not of their principles. But instead of concluding that since they needed the work to be done they would simply ordain some men to the work, they sent James Renwick off to Holland to be tested, to see if by training he would prove himself, especially to the ministers and elders there, to have the calling of God. That standing for principle meant that they had no sacraments from mid 1681 to the end of 1683. When Renwick returned he baptized babies wherever he went!
A similar situation, even worse really, occurred at the beginning of that time in French Reformed history (the 18th century) known as the Synods of the Desert. There were no ministers for the churches; they were all dead or in prison. But the church did not budge on this point. They sent one of the two men they felt God had clearly called off to Switzerland for training, testing, and the laying on of hands. When he returned, they called another synod, and he ordained the other.
- Congregations are to judge men for church office: deacon, elder, and minister by this standard and no other. Is it their judgment that God has already said “set apart to me” this man. When congregations use other criteria, as many of them do far too often, the results are predictable. Their leadership is the hands of men God has not called and has not promised to use to their blessing. How many of us have seen churches depending upon men without the calling of God for the ministry of the Word and the rule of the church — they haven’t the gifts, they haven’t the authority that such a divine calling imparts.
- Once congregations have recognized a man to have such a calling from God and have set him apart, so they believed, as God instructed them to do, they are to honor that divine appointment. “Obey your leaders…” “Respect those in authority over you…” “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm!”
- And, for the officers themselves. If, in truth, God has called them because he first equipped them,
a. It is required of a steward that he be found faithful! “…as men who must give an account to God.” No wonder, we say he called them himself to this work! I do not think these thoughts weigh as heavily on the ministry today as they should. “Let few be teachers for they will be judged more strictly.” (E.g. the ease with which men exchange their callings; how slackly they work at what God has himself told them to do!) I worry about this in regard to myself!
b. They have an authority from God and ought to exercise it, however un-American that may seem. Timidity and ordination are contrary principles.
c. They are not a law to themselves. God called them and defined their work and the manner of its performance. Let them hold themselves and let the church hold them to that standard and no other! (Poor marriages and families, but popular with congregations…)
In other words, if we live by faith and not be sight we will understand that God is at work in and lies behind the setting apart of men to office in his church. And if that is so, how seriously we ought all to take that fact! We would do well to pray and fast together that we would be faithful to this work that God has done in our midst, you in your part and I in mine and Mr. DeMass in his, and the elders in theirs and the deacons in theirs.
And, get these principles in our homes before we elect officers again!