The Special Task

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It's mission Sunday, and it's hard to imagine now with missions so established in church culture that it was ever any different.   But when modern western missions started in the 17 hundreds they faced serious opposition from the church authorities.  William Carey was famously told to stop agitating for mission because 'If God wants to convert the heathen, he will do it without consulting with you, or me!'  And like many things this is a lesson that the church has had to learn over and over again.

So it's curious that on this mission Sunday we come to this little passage in Acts 12 and 13 (if you're not there, turn it up in your bibles so you can follow along).

This is one of those short little passages in Acts that doesn't seem to have much to say to us.  Here is a little obscure bit of history about an obscure church in a place we've never heard of outside of the Bible, listing a bunch of blokes who're never heard of again.  It seems that there's not much to learn from these verses. But I want to help you see tonight that this is a very important passage indeed.  It's important because this is the first deliberate Christian mission in history, and it's not Barnabas' or Saul's mission, it's not even the church in Antioch's mission, but this is God's mission from God's church by God's missionaries telling God's message.

You could summarise it as God initiating world mission.

When you think about it this is earth shatteringly significant, this is the start of perhaps the most significant church growth programme the world has ever seen.

So to help us to understand the significance of this first mission I've broken message of the passage into three points for us, and so you know where we're going let me tell you those three points up front:

First: The first mission begins from outside of Jerusalem in a Jew and Gentile Church;

Second: The first mission this is to Jews and Gentiles; and

Third: The first mission was unmistakably God's idea.

Let me show you what I mean as we look at each of those in turn.

First: The first mission begins from outside of Jerusalem in a Jew and Gentile Church.

Look with me again at the passage:

25 When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark. 1 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 worshipping 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.

Luke's focus in the last few chapters has been split between the church at Jerusalem and the new churches that have been springing up as the Jerusalem Christians flee from persecution.  That last verse of chapter 12 is a clear transition bringing us back to the church in Antioch.

And the church in Antioch is truly remarkable.  To see how remarkable it is we need to get a bit of context.

So let me remind you of the big picture of the Acts – we're expecting the story to follow the outline Jesus gave in Acts 1 verse 8 where he tells the disciples that under the power of the Holy Spirit they must be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  So we're expecting to see on the one hand a geographical spread, from Jerusalem to the home counties, to the Scottish borderlands and beyond to the whole world.  And on the other hand we're expecting to see God's hand at work directing and empowering their work through the Holy Spirit.

And so it unfolds, but not perhaps as we might have expected.

Because to this point in Acts it seems like the Holy Spirit has a funny way of empowering and directing the church.  The mission has gone ahead, but almost against the wishes of the early Christians.  They started with a massive bang in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and grew rapidly.  But they seemed to stall in Jerusalem until God used persecution to scatter the believers, who told the gospel wherever they went.

And even then the gospel has been reserved almost exclusively for Jewish hearers – sure Peter went and told the gospel to gentiles in Acts chapter 10, but he was reluctant to go, and the church told him off when he got back – at least until he told them that God had led him to do it.

So in that context the church at Antioch stands out because they are perhaps the first church to be truly integrated.  We first meet them in chapter 11 – you might want to flick back to that passage on p 777, from verse 18.  You'll see that's just after Peter's explanation for preaching to gentiles.  The church heard Peter's defence and praised God– verse 18 – saying 'so then God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.'  It's remarkable, but look at what follows:

19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

This seems to be the first time anyone has shared the gospel with gentiles without the express instruction of the Holy Spirit.  But it's not without God's help, because God makes their evangelism effective and a church springs up that is both Jewish and Gentile – an integrated church.  The believers in Jerusalem hear about it and send Barnabas to teach them, he goes and finds Saul and together they lead and teach the church for a year.  Then God warns them about a famine coming on the whole Roman world and they organise famine relief for the Jerusalem church, which Barnabas and Saul take to Jerusalem.

That brings us up to our passage.  12.25 has Saul and Barnabas coming back to Antioch after that charity trip.  They leave Jerusalem, leave the Jewish centre of Christianity and head back to Antioch, the centre of Jewish and Gentile Christianity.  That's a subtle, but very deliberately sign-posted shift in Luke's focus, we're not following the church in Jerusalem's movement's now, the focus of God's work moves outwards to Antioch.

And 13.1 tells us what Saul and Barnabas come back to – they come back to a well established church with an established leadership.  It's a short description and it's difficult to learn too much from a list of names like this, but there is at least one thing we should notice.

See, these aren't all Jewish names, in fact apart from Saul and Barnabas there's not a single Jewish name on the leadership board of the church in Anitoch.  Look at verse 1:

1 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.

Barnabas and Saul we know – who were the others?  We really don't know any more than Luke tells us here.  But Simeon has a Latin surname – Niger – meaning black, which strongly suggests he wasn't a Jew, but probably a North African Roman citizen.  Lucius is a common Latin name, and was popular in the Roman world.  We're told he's from Cyrene, so again it seems unlikely that he's a Jew.

Manaen, meanwhile, is a Greek version of a Jewish name Manahem.  Manaen was probably the grandson of a Manahem who was part of Herod the Great's royal court, so he is probably at least part Jewish.  That's an educated guess, what Luke tells us is that he was brought up with Herod the Tetrach (also known as Herod Anitipas) so he was Herod Antipas's foster brother.  [Antipas is the Herod who governed Galilee during Jesus' life, the Herod who had John the Baptist beheaded and tried Jesus before his execution].  So, Jewish or Greek Manaen was incredibly well connected with the ruling classes, but he'd converted to the other side – we can guess that cost him friends among his foster family!

Why's the racial mix important?  Well because up to this point churches were Jewish, and most of the non Jews who joined were already involved with synagogues, they were called God Fearers, gentiles who worshipped as Jews, but were kept at arms length.  Control of the churches remained with the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem.  That was natural because the apostles knew the Lord and had authority from Jesus.  But here the church is developing an indigenous leadership that isn't wholly Jewish.  This makes them remarkable among the Christian Churches of their time, and opens the door for much greater and faster growth.

If you live in Bensham you might have a better feel for the separation that exists between strict Jewish society and the rest of the world.  They just don't mix.  They mark themselves off with all kinds of visible symbols and maintain a strict separation.  And the early church was a subset of that separated Jewish society.  It could easily have remained Jewish, or if not Jewish, an even smaller sub set, a sect on the edges of Judaism.  To this point the signs suggested that that was exactly where they were going – and with the Jews in Jerusalem decisively rejecting the gospel (remember Saul's search and destroy mission) they might have dwindled to become just the lunatic fringe of minority religion.

But this integrated church is the first example of a whole new Christian society, a society that isn't bound by cultural differences, a society that's broken through the boundaries of racial segregation and achieved a remarkable unity under the power of the Holy Spirit.

So if we're paying attention to the big issues of the early church – the issue of who can be in and how Jewish they need to be – this short list of leaders in the church, of prophets and teachers, stands out as a significant turning point.  Not only can non Jews be part of the church, but they can be leaders, prophets and teachers, men empowered by God through his Holy Spirit to speak his word to his church.  I guess we take that for granted, since that's all we know of church, but it's good to be reminded of the reasons we can have confidence that what we're dong here isn't some aberration, but we are the true heirs to Jesus' earliest followers.

So that's the first point, this first mission begins from outside of Jerusalem in a Jew and Gentile Church.

And the second point takes this movement a few steps further.  Because this is a Jew and Gentile Mission.

Point two The first mission this is to Jews and Gentiles.

Look at verse 2:

2 While they were worshipping 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.

Now this throws us forward into the chapters that follow.  We don't get a full description of the task to which the Holy Spirit had called them here – we just hear that they were called.  But flick over to chapter 14 verse 26, just over the page…

26 From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. 27 On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.

This is the other end of the same journey, verse 26 is clearly referring to the passage we're looking at this evening, when Saul and Barnabas were 'committed to the grace of God for the work' – what was that work?  It was the work they had just completed – the missionary journey that's described in chapters 13 and 14 – a journey that took them through Cyprus, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, Pamphylia, Perga and Attalia, and then back to Antioch; That's a trip through the North Eastern corner of the Mediterranean Coastlands, and the regions to just to the North, in what is now Turkey.

And on this mission Saul and Barnabas clearly weren't just speaking to the Jews – we'll have a chance to look at the first half of the mission over the next couple of weeks, but for now that little summary will suffice – look at 14.27 God opened the door of faith for the gentiles.  This was the first missionary journey and it wasn't targeted one way or the other.  As they went they spoke in Jewish Synagogues, and they spoke wherever else they could find a crowd.  And they left churches behind them everywhere, churches that were neither Jewish nor Gentile, just Christian.

It's easy to miss the significance of this mission, but think about what changed when they church sent Saul and Barnabas out to tell the gospel:

This was the first time that a mission had been organised, deliberate, sponsored and supported by a church.  This was the first time that men had been set aside and given the task of going to another place to tell the gospel to people who had never heard it before. There were non Jewish converts before this -

In Acts chapter eight the gospel went to a city in Samaria and then the apostles went to teach there, and Phillip taught the Ethiopian Eunuch, who'd come to Jerusalem to worship.

And in ch 10 Peter took the gospel to Caesarea to Cornelius in response to God's direct instruction.  But there was no attempt to make that a pattern for others to follow.

In ch 11.19 those who had been scattered by persecution told the gospel to Jews in Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch.  And men from Cyrene told the gospel to Greeks in Antioch, and the church there was formed.

But none of that was deliberate or systematic.  When they fled persecution they told the gospel in the places they went to – well it would have been hard not to, it was the reason they were moving!  A bit like it's hard for me to avoid talking about church, it comes up as soon as anyone asks me what I do for a living.  And Peter was travelling a bit – but only to support the existing church, except for that one time when he went to speak to Cornelius, and as we've said the church was a bit upset when they first heard about it!  And some people who went to Jerusalem to worship took the gospel home with them to places as far afield as Egypt and Antioch.

But there had been no vision to see the whole world hear the gospel.  There hadn't been even a single pair of missionaries sent out from the church.   Until now.

This is the beginning of the mission movement.  Two men, that's it.  But within a couple of decades the gospel would have spread all over the known world.

I've been trying to think what this was like.  I suppose you could compare it to the invention of the internet, or mobile phones.  Something that started small and seemingly insignificant that turned the whole world upside down.  Who could have predicted that the internet would make such a difference to our lives?  Who would have predicted that mobile phones would be everywhere?  My sister went to Nairobi on a short term mission in 1996 and we got weekly letters from her, we spoke to her on the phone, I think about three times in 5 months, and when we did it was a big deal – I remember huddling around the phone at home all trying to hear.  Well, Mum and Dad are in Nairobi at the moment, been there a couple of weeks and they've both got mobiles and communication is easy.  We've spoken on the phone, seen dozens of emails and we're even planning video skype messages, I think most of the family were online today.  And they've only been there three weeks.  There's a world of difference in only 14 years.

And that's what this first mission was for the world and relationship with God. Saul and Barnabas went to people born into darkness, alienated from God, with no hope of access, no hope of reconciliation.  They told those people that there was life in Jesus Christ, real hope, relationship with the creator of the universe, peace with God.  And that message found fertile soil and it grew.  The doors of opportunity were opened and they stormed strong holds of pagan religion and unbelief.

And thinking about the effect of that mission I can't help noticing that the areas they visited on that mission journey have been alienated from God a second time.  Since around the 7th Century Turkey has been more or less alienated from the gospel through Muslim rule.  Can we believe that the gospel can overcome opposition like that a second time and sweep through Turkey as it did at the first?  What about other places where the gospel once had an influence and now seems to have lost it?  That includes the rest of the middle East, and most of Western Europe doesn't it?  It includes Britain and Gateshead too.  Church attendance in Gateshead had dropped by around 25% for each of the last two decades.  But Wesley drew crowds in the tens of thousands here on Tyneside.

Can we believe that the gospel still retains the power it once did to open the eyes of the blind and to give life to the dead?  Do we dare to believe that from small beginnings this church can grow as people become Christians?  Do we trust that reading through Mark's gospel and asking questions at Christianity Explored could convince our friends to become Christians?

Just across the river in Newcastle Jesmond Parish Church had some 230 non-Christians studying Mark with them last term.  That's more than we have on most Sunday mornings, that's more than most churches in Gateshead.  It seems out of reach to us doesn't it? But they started small, and they've grown that outreach through consistency and perseverance.  And we can do the same here in Gateshead.  The gospel hasn't lost it's power, even though sometimes we loose our confidence in it.  But back in the time of Acts God sent out just two missionaries, just two – and started a movement that continues to bear fruit all over the world, that continues to rescue sinners from hell for God's glory.

And that leads me to my final point – this wasn't the actions of the church in Antioch, acting on it's own, this was God working, God bringing his plans to fruition.

So the third and final point - this Mission came from God not from the Church in Antioch

Have another look at verse 2:

2 While they were worshipping 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.

This is such a ground breaking decision that it wasn't one that the church could take on it's own.  Luke is at pains to make clear that the church didn't decide to send off Saul and Barnabas, but God made the decision.  So we notice that they had a direct word from God, God told them directly to set Barnabas and Saul aside.  And notice that they were already called by God to do that work, the church was simply responding to what God had already ordained.

Luke wants us to understand that the church didn't set out to do something so revolutionary and unprecedented without the clear leading of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus said that the disciples would be empowered by the Spirit to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the Earth.  And so the Holy Spirit leads them to the next stage of gospel growth – taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.

So we see that mission is God's idea.  William Carey was told if God wants to convert the heathen he will do it without consulting with you, or me!'  Well, here's the news, God does want to convert the heathen, and he wants to involve us in his great mission.  He's given us the gospel  - the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.  And he's given us his Spirit.  And he's left us a mission that still stands.

The mission of the church is the mission of every Christian, to be witnesses for Jesus wherever we are, to be on mission at home, and to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.  What we see in Acts 13 is the birth of mission as an activity of the church under the instruction of the Holy Spirit.  And that mission remains our task as a local church here in Gateshead, and our task globally as part of the universal church of God.  So let's pray to the Lord of the Harvest that he would raise up and set aside more workers for his harvest field, and that he would raise up a great harvest of righteousness here in Gateshead and all around the world.  Let's pray.

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