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The Spreading Flame - Series 4: Episode 1

Paul’s mission is launched

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 12:25-13:12

The leaders of the church in Antioch send out Barnabas and Paul on a mission to the Gentiles. They go to Cyprus first and preach. The proconsul believes but there is spiritual opposition from Elymas the sorcerer. A miracle occurs.

The leaders of the church in Antioch send out Barnabas and Paul on a mission to the Gentiles. They go to Cyprus first and preach. The proconsul believes but there is spiritual opposition from Elymas the sorcerer. A miracle occurs.

Transcript

Welcome to this fourth series in our study of the book of Acts. In our second series we saw how the Gospel spread to the surrounding districts, Judea and Samaria. We have just finished Series 3 which is about the Gospel beginning to go to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish people. That was a very exciting series.

Background and introduction

Some of you will have been with us on the journey and listened to those episodes, and I would encourage you to do so if you didn’t get the opportunity because it all connects together in one amazing story. There were some dramatic moments in Series 3: the incredible conversion of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, the Roman soldier and his family, which was the first sign to the Apostles clearly that it was time to start reaching the Gentiles. Luke tells that story brilliantly. Then we saw the amazing story of how a large church grew up in the city of Antioch, 600 km north of Jerusalem, far away from the centre of Christianity. Some Jewish disciples, who had been scattered by persecution, spontaneously started preaching, and reaching out to the Gentile community, and the church was formed.

Then as we brought Series 3 to an end, in the very last episode, we discussed a fascinating situation where there was a counter-attack on the church in Jerusalem, from a ruler by the name of King Herod Agrippa the First, who tried to assassinate and execute the Apostles. He succeeded in executing James the Apostle. He tried to do the same to Peter who miraculously escaped from prison in astonishing circumstances. Shortly after that Herod Agrippa himself died unexpectedly and suddenly; that whole resistance to the Gospel ceased, that wave of persecution came to an end at that point.

Luke, as he finishes that description and prepares the way for the next step of the Gospel, summarises what had happened in Series 3, in a very brief statement - one of his summary statements. Every series is based around the structure of the book, and based around a geographical area where the Gospel is spreading. There is a summary statement at the end of each one. There’s a summary statement at the end of Series 1 in Acts 6: 7. There is a summary statement for Series 2 in Acts 9: 31. Then, this summary statement comes with which we completed the last series. It says, in Acts 12: 24,

‘But the word of God continued to spread and flourish’.

Acts 12:24, NIV

This is a beautiful introduction to the next dramatic moments in the story. God intervenes again and causes another major breakthrough.

Barnabas and Paul Return to Antioch

That is the story we are going to consider, as we look at the very end of Acts 12 and then we go into the first part of Acts 13. First of all, the very last verse of Acts 12 gives us the context in the situation,

25 When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.’

Acts 12:25, NIV

This takes us back to two episodes ago. This statement is connected with the story of the church in Antioch. If you listened to that episode, you will see how the story unfolded, and how Barnabas and Paul, or Saul, (I call him Paul in general; he has both names in the text, one is a Jewish name, one is a Greek name) had gone to Antioch and built up the church, Some prophets from Jerusalem came to the church in Antioch. We see this in Acts 11: 27 - 30 and one of them, Agabus, prophesied that there was going to be a severe famine and economic difficulty, especially in the Jerusalem and Judea area. So, Paul and Barnabas collected money from the church in Antioch, went 600 km south to Jerusalem to deliver a gift, and then, what this verse tells us is that they then came back to Antioch, the church that they were based in. This was their home church. They had delivered a gift to the church, to help prepare for difficult economic circumstances that were going to come soon

Whilst they were in Jerusalem, they added another member to their team and his name is John Mark who was the son of a lady called Mary, who had a house in Jerusalem which was a central venue for church meetings. That is referred to in Acts 12: 12 when a prayer meeting was taking place there. John Mark was a young man, a disciple of Jesus, who grew up in the Jerusalem church and Paul and Barnabas took him from Jerusalem back to Antioch, in order that he could be a helper for them in the work that they were going to continue to do.

The Church at Antioch

The question is what’s going to happen next? How are things going to move forward? The Antioch church is doing really well. The Jerusalem church has recovered from persecution. All the churches in Judea, Samaria and Galilee, and surrounding areas, seem to be doing well. But there are whole areas of the Roman Empire that as yet have got no churches, no Christians, no witness, no evangelism. This next passage tells us clearly how God opened up the door to a new area. It all started in Antioch. Antioch is a strong church, many hundreds perhaps thousands of members by this time, which has a strong leadership team. The leaders are named here and include Paul and Barnabas but others as well. We see what happens in Antioch which opens the door for the future of the Church. Acts 13:1 - 3,

1 Now in 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. 2 While 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.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.’

Acts 13:1-3, NIV

Picture the situation. This is the leadership team of probably the second biggest church that existed at the time, the biggest one was probably Jerusalem - we’re not sure about that - but this large church has at least five recognised leaders. They’re gathering together for a time of prayer and fasting. Who are these people? We know the two prominent leaders well - Paul and Barnabas. We have been talking about them quite a lot, and they are going to be the subject of the next few episodes as we see the story expanding.

Who are the others? Simeon called Niger. Simeon is a Jewish name but Niger means black in Latin. This may well be a black African with a Jewish name, with some Jewish connection. We see differences in race coming into the Church for the first time. Up to this point it has been wholly Jewish and the leadership has been wholly Jewish. The Apostles are all Jewish. Their early supporters like Stephen and Philip in Jerusalem are all Jews from the Jewish framework of the Early Church. But now, coming into senior positions are non-Jews, Gentiles, and probably Simeon called Niger is an African. Then Lucius of Cyrene. Cyrene is also in Africa. It’s a city in the area we would today call Libya in North Africa. We don’t know his exact racial background but he is probably an African of one ethnic group or another. We’ve got two leaders with African connections in this team of five.

The third one is interesting too. Manaen had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch. Manaen will be a Jew, almost certainly. Herod the Tetrarch is the ruler who ruled Galilee at the time of Jesus. Herod the Tetrarch, otherwise known as Herod Antipas, was one of the sons of Herod the Great. Jesus has a connection with this Herod. When Jesus is tried in Jerusalem, he is tried before the Sanhedrin and before the High Priest, Caiaphas, but also by Herod. Manaen had been brought up in the company of this king, who ruled part of the country and actually ruled the territory that Jesus had lived in. Herod was opposed to Jesus but this Manaen who had been brought up with him, had been converted. This is an interesting team of five, isn’t it? Barnabas’ connections are both with the land of Judea but also with Cyprus, where he was resident for much of his life. Saul’s connected with Judea and Jerusalem on the one hand, but he was brought up in a city called Tarsus, in what we call southern Turkey today. This is quite an international team when you think about it. We’ve got the African connections, the Jewish connections and these other regional connections. This is a very interesting window into how God is building his Church. From the very beginning the Gentile churches are going to be in multi-ethnic and that’s going to provide a strength for them. The Jewish leaders open the door for Gentile leaders to come alongside them in positions of authority and responsibility.

This team was meeting together. They were seeking the Lord; they were worshipping and noticeably, they were fasting - the practice of going without food in order to concentrate your energies in seeking God and praying. We will talk a little more about fasting as we come to the reflections at the end of this episode. In this time of worship the Holy Spirit sends them a message which will have come through one of the prophets. Notice here there are teachers and prophets. ‘Teacher’ is often a word in the New Testament that implies a pastoral leader with a teaching gift. We’ve got pastors who teach the church and we’ve got prophets. We spoke about prophets in an earlier episode and we noticed that in the New Testament there are people who are recognised as frequently, regularly and authoritatively speaking messages from God that are predicting things in the future - encouraging the Church, and strengthening the Church by revealing God’s presence in the present situation. There were some of these who were prophets.

These words would have been spoken by one of these prophets, we don’t know which one, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

What work had they been called to? We know from earlier texts exactly what Paul’s calling was. On the road to Damascus, described in Acts 9, which we looked at in an earlier episode, when Jesus met him he made it clear to Paul that his primary goal would be to tell the message of Jesus to the Gentile community, not primarily to his own Jewish people. He was literally the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul had not yet really developed that in a big way. He’d been waiting in Tarsus; there had been some years of waiting. Barnabas had brought him to Antioch. He’d started preaching and teaching amongst the Gentiles in Antioch but he knew that his calling was much bigger than one place. He knew that he’d be travelling around. He had this calling in his mind that was as yet unfulfilled and he was waiting to see how it might be fulfilled. As he was waiting, the prophet spoke and said, “Set apart Paul for the work I’ve called him”, and in that instant, Paul would have no question, no doubts, as to what this meant. He must move on from Antioch and start travelling to further afield, into the areas that had never had the Gospel preached. Barnabas knew that his job was to come alongside Paul and to support him - as he had always done, right from the first time he met him, as described in Acts 12. So, ‘they placed their hands on them and sent them off’. Placing their hands on them, praying blessing, praying protection and praying the power of God into them, to help them on their journey. The mission is launched.

Mission to Cyprus

Where are they going to go from Antioch? Antioch is in the province of Syria, capital city of that province, a very large city which is now in southern Turkey in modern terms. Where did they go and what happened next? We read the dramatic story of them going to the island of Cyprus which was nearby. Acts 13: 4 - 12:

4The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper. 6 They travelled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7 who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 9 Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 10 “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? 11 Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.” Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. 12 When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.’

Acts 13:4-12, NIV

The mission is launched and they choose the nearby island of Cyprus. It was a Roman colony, part of a nearby province but it was also Barnabas’ home country. It is interesting that they chose to go there first of all. That’s where he’d grown up; that was the land and territory that he knew. They decided to go to the synagogues first. These would have been synagogues Barnabas had visited before. They start with a place that is familiar to him and they preach in the Jewish synagogues. They travel across the country from the east right across to the west.

They then encounter the Roman official, the proconsul Sergius Paulus, who is in charge of the island and looking after it, as part of one of the Roman provinces. They also encounter an opponent - someone involved in occult activity, witchcraft or sorcery. A spiritual conflict comes. You’ll notice all the way through the book of Acts, that Luke highlights different types of spiritual conflict. We saw one in Acts 12, in the last episode, the ruler King Herod Agrippa the First tried to dismantle the Church and execute its leaders. We have that kind of opposition. But here we have an individual who is motivated by evil spiritual power and who is deeply threatened by the Gospel coming. He tries his best to persuade the Roman proconsul, the Roman leader in Cyprus, not to follow the Gospel. He interferes with the message and a spiritual battle begins to happen. This happens so often. As the Gospel goes forward there can be spiritual interference; there can be people discrediting the Gospel, cursing the messengers, seeking to invoke evil powers against the power of Christ that is coming into that community. You may well be familiar with those circumstances in your own country, and in your own situation. This happens in the modern world, just as much as it happened in the ancient world. Luke describes it to us very clearly. The pattern is set; spiritual battle will always be there as the Gospel is advancing.

This is the very first step on the ministry of Paul and Barnabas as they are moving into new territory. The destination of this mission is the Roman provinces in an area they called Asia Minor, which we would call today Turkey, just north of Cyprus. That is where they are heading and that’s where we’ll find them in the next episode. But now they are visiting Cyprus, trying to establish a believing community here, on the way towards Turkey. Amazingly the Roman ruler becomes a believer. This is fascinating, because once the ruler becomes a believer, it’ll make it a better environment for the Church to grow because the ruler will not be opposing the Church. That is a great victory for the Holy Spirit there. We notice that Paul is filled with the Holy Spirit as he is speaking boldly in the synagogues and then confronting the occultist and, by divine power, causing him to be blind for a time. Paul knew what that felt like. It had happened to him on the Damascus road. Somehow the Holy Spirit enabled him to believe that this would happen to this man in order to stop him from his false accusations. So it was that Elymas the sorcerer, the occultist, was humbled and he couldn’t even see the sun; he couldn’t see where he was going; he needed people to help him walk around for a period of time. A miracle came that opened the door for the Gospel.

Reflections

What can we learn from this interesting story? Some reflections as we bring this episode to an end. First of all, Antioch is a great example of a healthy, dynamic church. We’ve seen its early growth; we’ve seen its multicultural leadership; we’ve seen that it’s got team leadership; but we now see that it is a church that is willing to send people, and even send its most talented leaders on mission. This is a sign of maturity and this is what happens when God begins to start an apostolic movement and it happens in the modern age. You tend to get resource churches, or places where there’s money, people, prayer, skill, leaders, and those resources are sent out to places in order to start new churches. That is a pattern of Church growth and development we’ve seen all the way through the centuries. It starts right here. It started with Jerusalem to some extent through persecution but it starts here in Antioch very systematically through prophecy. There’s a message, “Send Paul and Barnabas. Don’t keep hold of them.” Antioch is a great example of a healthy and dynamic church.

We see here another interesting point - the creative and dynamic power of prophecy. A single, authoritative, directional prophecy can open up things for God, both at leadership level and at a personal level. If God speaks a word very clearly about what you should do, that is directive and clear, recognised, and checked, it can change your life. This word, “Set apart for me Paul and Barnabas for the work to which I have called them” changed their lives and changed the destiny of the Church.

I also want to draw your attention here to fasting. This is a discipline of the Early Church that originates from the teaching of Jesus himself who, as we saw in ‘The Life of Jesus’ Series 4 Episode 13, in the Sermon on the Mount, taught on fasting. He spoke of fasting, in Matthew 6: 16 - 18, as something which would naturally occur in the Church as people are seeking God’s will. So, I want to challenge you and encourage you if you’re a Christian believer, “Is fasting part of your Christian life when you’re seeking God and you need his help, when you are asking for his guidance, when you are seeking to know him better?” This is the time to practice fasting. You might want to go back to look at ‘The Life of Jesus’ Series 4 Episode 13 to find out more about Jesus’ teaching about fasting.

The final thing I want to say by way of a reflection is, here is another lesson in spiritual warfare. The way that spiritual warfare works in the book of Acts is that, as the Gospel advances, as the Kingdom progresses, there will usually be a counter-attack. It’s not a battle you go looking for. Our job is not to be interested in any of those things. We’re interested in pushing forward with the Gospel but, as we do that, entrenched spiritual powers and human opposition will arise. It arose in Acts 12 through a king, King Herod Agrippa the First, and that was very sinister, and had to be overthrown. Prayer was the main weapon; trust in God. Here it arises through an individual person who’s an occultist. This person stood in the way of the preacher. God wonderfully and sovereignly showed his power through Paul’s ability to silence the sorcerer. Spiritual warfare will happen. It is described in the book of Acts. We have the resources to win the battle if we pray, are faithful, and continue to do what we are called to do, faithfully. There may be a cost to us but we should be continuing to do the things that we are called to.

Thanks so much for listening to this episode and do join us as we follow the great story of Paul and Barnabas entering into Asia Minor, the country that we would call Turkey. We’ll look at that in the next episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What happened in the church at that time? Do you see the same things now?
  • Discipleship
    Discipleship
    1. What is the role of prophecy in the church?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Using tagging to help, what are some of the types of opposition that Jesus and the Early Church met. Do you still see these types of opposition in the church?
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