07 Life and Ministry of Apostle Paul
Bible Text: Acts 11:27-31; 12:25-13:4 | Preacher: Pastor Gary Miller | Series: Apostle Paul – Life and Ministry | 7th of series “Life and Ministry of Paul” – Sunday, January 20, 2019
Gary Miller, Pastor, Christ Community Church, Weatherford, Oklahoma
If you ever watched that lengthy Academy award-winning movie Ben Hur that was produced about 60 years ago starring the famous actor Charlton Heston, you probably cannot forget that exciting and dramatic chariot race that became quite prominent in the latter part of that production. It seemed to go on and on, where Judah Ben Hur wins the race. He’s up against his old friend Masala who they were boyhood friends, but he became an enemy to Ben Hur. The setting of that race both in that movie and also in the novel by the novelist Lew Wallace was actually put in the ancient city of Antioch. This is kind of what you might say kind of a drawing or scaled-down version of that great city, one of the foremost of the Roman empire next only to Rome and also Alexandria in Egypt.
But more importantly, the city of Antioch became a key city in the first years of the early church as we find recorded in the book of Acts, and especially in the early phases of ministry of the apostle Paul. And that’s been our focus in recent Sundays – the life and the ministry of the apostle Paul.
At the time of his encounter with the living Christ in the most dramatic way as detailed in the 9th chapter of the book of Acts his name from birth had been Saul. In the months and possibly several years before that moment he had also become known as a violent persecutor of God’s people, those who were followers of Jesus Christ who became part of small assemblies not only in Jerusalem but also in areas surrounding Jerusalem and ended up being forced to flee to other cities. A few of them had made their way up to Antioch. Antioch was a city some 300 miles north of Jerusalem and some of those individuals, because Christ had come to live within them, they began to share the light of the gospel of Christ in a culture that was shrouded by spiritual and moral depravity and darkness. And God did an amazing work there as recorded in the middle of Acts chapter 11 that resulted in a considerable number of people, pagans, who believed in and turned to the Lord.
Now most of these converts were not Jewish because Antioch was not a Jewish city even though some Jews had made their way there to form a community. Most of them were Gentiles. And so when the church in Jerusalem over time got word that Gentiles were being saved and coming to know the Lord to true faith in Christ in Antioch, they decided, “You know, we need to check up on this.” And so they selected one of their own, Barnabas, to go there to make the trek, and upon his arrival he saw the mighty power of God and God’s grace that was evident. Lives were being changed and even more were coming to know Christ as their Savior.
Barnabas quickly knew that working with these people, building them up spiritually speaking, was going to take more than what he could be able to do. And he knew that he needed some help, and he right away thought of an old friend whom he hadn’t seen for a while who had gone back to his hometown area of Tarsus which was nearly 100 miles to the northwest. And you can see a little bit (on screen) the idea of the relationship and geography between the two. And so when he got to Tarsus he started looking for Saul, and he must have found him at some point and shared with him how the faith had spread among pagans. And together they made their way posthaste back to Antioch. And in Acts 11 (v. 25) it tells us – as a team they taught great numbers of people for the next year.
Now when I read that – I’m going to come back to that for just a moment – what a year that must have been. I almost envy those folks being under the teaching of Saul who had become the apostle Paul, how special it must have been to have been able to listen to him open the writings of the Old Testament and to teach God’s Word. I think it’s clear that this was no religious entertainment center where the truth was dumbed down, which is too often the case unfortunately in our day. Here these babes in the Lord were given a wholesome and a rich diet of sound and solid teaching from the Word of God. And they thrived on that, they were built up, they grew, and God use them.
I wish that there had been a permanent record of that enrichment of the Scriptures that was taught to all those folks who were new to the faith and that was used to establish a foundation that would have a marked impact on the Roman world for years to come. But you know, I got to thinking about that – perhaps we do have to a great degree at least some of what was recorded in the content that the apostle wrote down in 13 of the New Testament books that are attributed to him.
Well that brings us this morning to another episode that is (in fact the only other episode that we know of) that is given to us of what was going on in Antioch in the church there during this period of time. And I want to read it at the end of chapter 11 this morning beginning at verse 27.
Acts 11:27-30 (New International Version)
27During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 28The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. 30This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
Now in this brief paragraph we are given, I think, a glimpse of how much these disciples, these new Christians had been built up in the faith because of the teaching of Barnabas and Saul. There’s also an indication of the relationship, the mutual bond and kinship that they saw they had not only with their brothers and sisters who were new in the Lord there in Antioch but also in other places as well, because they knew there were fellow Christians down in Jerusalem and Judea. That’s where the church had begun – in fact, it was from that church that spawned other areas where Christ’s work was growing.
This passage tells us that one day there was a small band of prophets, they’re called, who made the 300-mile trek from Jerusalem to Antioch. We’re not given what they intended to do when they got there, what their overall objective was. But out of this came a solemn warning that was foretold about a coming food shortage by one of them whose name was Agabus. This likely is the same Agabus, a prophet who showed up some years later when Paul was coming to the end of his third missionary journey making his way towards Jerusalem, and Agabus in a dramatic way told him what was going to happen to him when he got there by binding his hands and saying, “This is what’s going to occur with you if you go on to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:10-11). And it came true. It’s noteworthy though in this passage here in Acts 11 how seriously – remember now, these are new Christians, fairly new Christians, all having come to Christ within about a year or maybe a little bit more time – it’s noteworthy how seriously they took this announcement by this prophet named Agabus. They accepted it as divine revelation and they responded by moving into action. They set in place a plan whereby what they were going to do – and remember a lot of them probably didn’t have a lot themselves – they were going to start setting, putting aside just a little bit here and there along the way so that when the time came when this famine occurred that the prophet Agabus was predicting, they would be able to send it to their fellow believers in Judea. Now all of this had to take place over a period of time. A lot of preparation had to go into all this. But because this was a message these folks believed to be from the Spirit of God, they gave themselves to do what is characteristics of the church, of the body of Jesus Christ – a shared life. They saw themselves as having the same shared life of Jesus Christ as their fellow brothers and sisters down in Jerusalem. Well, at some point the plans were made to get the gift to Jerusalem. Apparently the famine set in and Barnabas and Saul were designated to carry it down there.
Now it’s at this point we have provided one of the few time markers in the book of Acts which becomes a very key element because it helps us in the timeline not only of the early church but also of the sequence in the chronology of Paul’s life and ministry. It tells us that this occurred during the reign of Claudius. Now Claudius was one of the series of Roman emperors. And from other sources outside of the Bible we are able to pinpoint when Claudius reigned, which was between the years of about 41 to 54 AD, near the midpoint of the first century. Not only that, but there are several ancient historians, one of them being the most notable Josephus, the Jewish historian along with a couple of others who have attested to the fact that Judea was hit hard by a famine in the year around 45 to 46 AD. So both of these time markers become a reference point where we can backtrack to see what has happened before we get to this point and be able to kind of designate the time period of what had occurred in Paul’s life before this event. And it also can help us from this point on in determining some of the years of events that had happened after. This is one of the time markers in which, for example, we are able to determine in a general way when Paul wrote some of his letters, this along with a couple others.
Well, both of these time markers were very helpful to determine these incidents both before and after. This, by the way, is probably the visit to Jerusalem that the apostle spoke of in the opening words of Galatians chapter 2 where along with Saul and Barnabas they chose to have Titus tag along and join them. And while they were there they also visited with several key leaders of the church: Peter, John, and James, the Lord’s brother in particular. Now John’s brother, the other James, already had been executed, which is what the chapter after Acts 11 tells us about, Acts 12, in which Herod had arrested James the brother of John, had him executed, imprisoned Peter with the intent of doing the same to him. And you remember the story of how the church gathered and prayed fervently for Peter, and of course, God answered that prayer and miraculously released him. And then the latter part of the chapter tells how Herod died in a sudden and also in a very dreadful way. I’ve always thought that’s an interesting expression, “He was eaten of worms and he died” (Acts 11:23). It doesn’t say, “He died and he was eaten of worms.” And I think if that’s the way it actually happened, it must’ve been a horrible death.
At any rate it was at some point during their stay also that Saul had gone to the temple to pray. He tells us about that some years later in another account of his testimony in Acts chapter 22 in which he says, “I fell into a trance” and “I saw the Lord” and He was “speaking” to me, and He said to me, “Quick! Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.” And Saul said, “I expressed some reluctance,” I said, “but you know there are things that need to happen.” And it’s just like the Lord interrupted him and said, “Go, because I’m sending you far away to the Gentiles.” That’s from Acts 22 (vs. 17-21).
Well, what happened after that is given to us in the last verse of Acts chapter 12 where it says, “When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem,” inferring that they went back to Antioch, and they took “with them John, who is also called Mark.” It’s from Colossians chapter 4 and verse 10 that we find out the John Mark was a cousin of Barnabas. So there was a connection there. And there’s more to come about John Mark, but we’ll see that in a later study.
And that brings us to the next episode that we’re going to focus on for the remaining time that we have this morning that actually begins the next phase of the apostle’s life and ministry and it also becomes the focus for the rest of the book of Acts. Follow along as I read beginning in verse 1 of chapter 13 of Acts.
Acts 13:1-3 (New International Version)
1In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
Now again, the scene is back in Antioch with a church that is gathered there. And we’re given a snapshot of what this year of teaching by Barnabas and Saul had produced, because several others had developed and grown in the faith to where they too had joined Barnabas and Saul in leadership of the church in Antioch. They had played leading roles. Three in particular are mentioned by name. The first, Simeon – that’s a Jewish name indicating something of his background, but he also went by Niger which was probably a family name of Roman background and may have indicated that he was dark-skinned because the Latin term for Niger is “black”. Lucius who hailed from Cyrene – that’s a city in the northern part of Africa, and it’s possible that he was one of those spoken of in Acts chapter 11 who had come from that area to Antioch, and in verse 26 of Acts 11 it says that he among others came there to tell those who understood and spoke Greek the good news about the Lord Jesus. And then the third one Manaen – he apparently had some background connections with King Herod. Maybe they grew up together or they had some boyhood connections or teenage connections. I don’t know – nothing more is given about him.
These five apparently made up the main body of the leaders of the church in Antioch. Now in some of the reading I’ve done I’ve come across a couple of interesting descriptive phrases that have been used about this quintet. One of them is that here was the most “racially integrated group of go-getters.” That’s an interesting way to put it. Another one says this was the “starting line lineup for the first-century dream team.” And that’s probably right. Together they formed a perfect microcosm of what the church would and should become in the world, not only then but from that time on to today.
Now these great men may not have even realized that what was about to happen next was going to be a most crucial event that would open up the greatest chapter in the history of the church, not just the early church but the church that would continue on for 20 centuries as we have it today. And what first was most notable was that God’s Spirit had become a prominent and active presence in the life of this body of believers, so much so that He could come to them and He could speak to them and His voice was clearly heard. Now keep in mind this was in the early days of the church and because the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, were not completed – in fact the New Testament was just in the beginning stage, whether there were even any other of the Scriptures written yet; that probably had not yet occurred. It would soon be, the first books would begin to be written. And so in that transitional stage there were unusual events that would occur, like God coming to speak directly to individuals. We’ve seen how that’s been the case already in the first chapters of Acts. God spoke directly through His Son to Saul on the way to Damascus. He spoke to Ananias who was told to go meet Saul and put his hands on him. And there were other occasions in the book of Acts as well that God spoke with an audible voice.
But we should not separate the direction and guidance of the Spirit from what we’ve already noted just a few moments ago, and that is that it stemmed forth from a sound and clear setting forth of the word of God. The reason the Spirit’s voice could be heard was because there had already been established for a year or more time a foundation of the teaching of Barnabas and Saul from the Scriptures, from the Word of God. And that, by the way, is still true today for people who make up Christ’s church. If we want to hear the Spirit speaking to us, we’ve got to be in touch with what is part of the Spirit’s voice, which is His Word. Unfortunately, because there is come to be a lack of wholeness and depth of the consistent teaching of Scriptures in far too many Christian circles, there are many today who are unable to discern the voice, even hear the voice of the Spirit and His leading when He is trying to get through.
Notice it says here that it was “while they were worshiping” the Holy Spirit spoke. Now some Bible versions say, “while they were ministering to the Lord” or “while they were serving the Lord”. Let’s not make a distinction between any of those terms because worship and serving or ministering go hand in hand. They’re linked together inseparably. The ultimate end and purpose of both worship and service are to give God the glory of which he is deserving.
A number of years ago Linda and I had a privilege of attending what was called the Urbana conference that was sponsored every three years by Intervarsity Christian Fellowship in which some 20,000 students from all over the United States and even parts of the world would descend on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana. It’s why it was called Urbana. And for several days they would join in events and seminars and so forth. In the nights they had large meetings in the coliseum where the “Fighting Illini” played. There was a Scottish preacher who was their main headline speaker that I never heard of before. His name was Eric Alexander – he actually served a church in Scotland. And he spoke on this passage. And I pulled out recently what he had said – in which he pointed out that when we talk about worshiping the Lord this is for God’s glory, that after all is and has always been the focus for God from the beginning of time and it will be through the end of time and beyond. That, for example, is why He created the world – that it might display His glory. He created man and woman, you and me, that we might reflect his glory. He sent Jesus so that the glory of God might be seen in the life and the Person of Jesus Christ. Remember the shepherds were given the announcement by the angels, “Glory to God in the highest!” That’s what Christ had come to show forth. God redeemed sinners so that they might be changed into His glory. And the worship and service in which God’s people are to be engaged is to always have as its ultimate focus the glory of God – “while they were worshiping”, while they were giving God glory.
And even though the emphasis appears to be on these five men and their worship and their service, the fact that they were part of a larger body in Antioch, which is spoken of in verse 1 of the opening phrase here in chapter 13, would give indication that the entire church was joined in this worship and this service. And so here’s the point – it was to a worshiping, serving church that the Holy Spirit came to and moved and spoke. Furthermore, mention is made that they were fasting. Now that sometimes raises questions, one of which – Is this is a practice that people, Christians should be doing today? And we could go back and forth on that a little bit. And that’s probably a topic for another occasion. But what I want to emphasize here is that this fellowship of believers, when they fasted along with worshiping they were expressing that they were serious about their worship, so much so that they were willing to set aside for a time their intake of food so that they might concentrate on what God wanted to say to them and what God wanted to do through them.
And then all of a sudden there came the climactic moment – the Spirit spoke and His message was clear and it was simple, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” And again we’re not really sure, it doesn’t tell us just exactly how this message got through. I kind of lean towards that God spoke directly just as I was mentioning about before with audible words, words that could be heard. But I’m not necessarily going to make a full case from that. It could’ve been that He spoke through one or more of these prophets. Remember it says that these prophets came to be there at Antioch. Or it may have been through a deep conviction that was shared by everyone present and it was clear that the Spirit was directing, which is by the way how He often wants to work today. Whatever the particular means, there was no confusion about the message. It was clear. It was unmistakable. There was a particular work that God was calling two of these men to, redirecting them. They were supposed to go elsewhere. not to stay in Antioch. The other three, they would remain. Now He could have chosen all five but God is the One in charge and He is sovereign, and it was His call and so He had His plan and His reasons for choosing the two that He did. And the response was that all obey in whatever God was calling them to do.
Now remember again that Barnabas and Saul had been the primary leaders of this church. They had taught the people with longevity, with passion, with fervency. We would have considered Barnabas and Saul the cream out of all of them. And yet these were the two that the Spirit of God was calling, sending out. It was time for them to turn to another field of service. Notice the phrase, “to the work to which I have called them,” which seems to indicate that the Spirit had already directed, had already called them personally prior to this message that He gave to this church.
The sense that we get here is that there came a point when the church concluded their time of prayer and outwardly they took part in placing their hands on these two servants. Now when they did that, that did not mean that they were bestowing on them or conferring on them something special. Over the years several times I’ve been involved in an ordination service for a fellow colleague. And I’ve been privileged to take part in also laying hands upon that individual who has been set apart for service. And one of the things I’ve tried to make clear, “You’re not going to feel any buzz or electricity through my hands. Nothing is going to come from me to you that is going to be special or anything like this.” This was rather an outward way for the church to say, “Look, we are behind you. We are with you. We are accepting responsibility for you. We will support you spiritually by our prayers and continuing encouragement and when needed even in a material way.”
And with that church sent them off. Actually it was the Holy Spirit who was the sending agent, the ultimate sending agent. Now for a moment I want you to try to put yourself in the place of Barnabas and Saul. This was something that they were maybe not ready for. There was no preannouncement of the Spirit saying, “This is what you’re going to do.” As far as both of them were concerned, they were ready to stay put maybe for a long time. They were having the time of their lives in Antioch. I mean, how much better could it possibly be. And all of a sudden they’re being told, “I’ve got a different work for you, which in essence is going to mean you’ll leave.” What was this going to mean for them in the next few days and over the next weeks? These two men were really putting their lives on the line. They were making themselves totally available to God to take them wherever He wanted and use them in whatever way He wanted. They were given no plan or roadmap or strategy, at least as far as the Biblical text is concerned. All they were called upon to do was to trust and rely on the Lord to direct and uphold them. They were also given no guarantees. They were not told, “Look, you’ve had a successful ministry here where there have been people that have been coming to Christ by the scores, maybe by the hundreds. You’re going to have any guarantee that that’s going happen from this point on because you don’t know the degree of response that you’re going to achieve regarding those whom you are trying to reach.”
These two servants would depart mainly with a deep sense of being caught up in the purpose of God, finding themselves sent not so much to people that they had chosen but rather that God had chosen for them. And this by the way, became a vital principle from this point on in the lives of these two men and in Paul in particular. There were people whom God would sovereignly bring into the path of both of them and later on for Paul in particular as he would go from place to place. In some cases they would find only a few to whom they would reach out and minister, a handful, even in an instance or two, one person, while in other instances they would be met with a crowd.
Now how they determined where they were to start – again, nothing more is given in this text. It was to Cyprus that we know that they first went as it goes on to tell us here in this chapter. Cyprus would have been a voyage of about 130 miles by sea. And I can almost envision that Paul and Barnabas, they get together, they pray over, they think about, they’re discussing, “All right, we’ve been told to be set apart to a new work but we’re not told where to go. What do you think?” And they start working through the possibilities and one of the most natural places would have been Cyprus. Remember that’s where Barnabas was from. That was his homeland, his home island. Not only that but there were some of those who had come from Cyprus to Antioch when all of this work was beginning to tell people of Antioch about the Savior. And so it was determined somehow, “That’s where we’ll go,” confident that God was behind their choice. The Spirit still often leads in this way. He may lay upon our hearts some need or ministry. We see some opportunity that is before us. We may sense His impressing upon us, “You know, this is something to keep in the hopper, to keep in mind as a possibility to do.” You don’t have to be asked by someone or invited. Just start looking at the opportunities and the possibilities that are there. Perhaps there are even others that indicate, “Hey, we’re interested in this as well.” And so we may launch out and get moving, confident that God will lead and direct and enable and bring out of this what He wants. I see that same kind of thing going on here with Barnabas and Saul.
We’re not told exactly when it was that they left. I presume that there’s a period of some days between the call and the time of their departure, maybe even a week or two – we don’t know. Antioch was about 15 miles or so away from the Mediterranean Sea, but there was a river that Antioch was situated on, and so we can almost imagine they might have gotten on a small boat, went down the river or they might have walked all the way to the seashore – some of the believers of the body of the church at Antioch going with them, expressing their full backing, watching them board and then sail away. But as they departed, they would not be on their own. They would be divinely guided. They would be empowered by the Spirit every mile of the way, either by sea or by land. And from here on they would remain open to the Spirit to lead and to strengthen, to direct them. and at times even direct them, maybe even right on the spot, on occasion.
Well, this is where to pick up next time with these two servants of the Lord. This is actually the beginning of what is often referred to as the first missionary journey of Paul. He made three of them. This was the very first one. This was the shortest of them. We’re going to map out where all he went. Now we’re not going to look in great detail, but we’re going to see some of the highlights of what Paul and Barnabas went through. It is estimated that in the three journeys that Paul traveled over a period of, say some 10 years, it could have been over 10,000 miles. That’s a lot of walking and sea travel for that ancient time. But each mile of the way they would know that the Lord was with them and He was wanting to lead them. And God still wants to do that within each one of our lives, whatever He calls us on a regular weekly basis, whatever it is, to use us in that way as well.
Let’s go to the Lord as we conclude in prayer.
Father in heaven, thank You so much that through the Scripture texts that we have been given of this phase of the life of the apostle Paul in the ministry to which You called him, that there are parallels, there are challenges that can be applied to each one of us for things before us. I pray, Father, that you would give each of us even greater discernment and openness to possibilities of individuals that we can minister to. You’ve done that already in many ways within this body over the years and even in recent times. We pray that You would do that further. Sometimes even stretch us, force us to think beyond what we normally would. Help us to be sensitive to You whatever way You want to take us. Most of all, Lord, use us. We are frail week vessels. We need Your power and the strength that Your Holy Spirit can provide. And we ask this in the living name of our living Savior, Jesus Christ, and our coming King. Amen.