Tonight we continue our studies in the Acts of the Apostles and our subject is Set Apart for Mission. We are to be looking at Acts 12.25 – 13.3. And we will be hearing about Barnabas and Saul and how they were set apart for mission; and my headings for tonight are these: first, THE MEANING OF MISSION, secondly, WHAT BARNABAS AND SAUL HAVE BEEN DOING IN MISSION, thirdly, WHAT THEY ARE DOING NOW, and, fourthly, WHAT THEY WILL BE DOING.
So, first, THE MEANING OF MISSION
The word “mission” comes from the Latin for “sent”. A mission means being sent out for a purpose. Last week the Space shuttle Atlantis, we are told, landed safely after concluding the final mission of its 25 year career. British troops in Afghanistan are being sent out on all sorts of different missions. But what does the Bible mean by a mission? And what are God’s purposes? The Bible teaches about two missions. Let me explain.
The first is God’s mission at Creation. This is his “creative mission”. And this is a mission that is binding on all human beings. It is there on the first page of the Bible in Genesis 1.26-28:
26Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness’ … 27So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
That is so important. For this mission and commission has never been rescinded. Some Christians forget that. They then feel life is second best when not engaged in overtly religious activities. But God wants you to do other things that are creative and bring good order to this planet. And at this time of job cuts, remember that creative work is not limited to paid work. So work and other daily activities are part of God’s creation mission for us all as human beings and made in his image.
We are to be creative ourselves like our Creator God. In fact we have been commissioned to rule over everything else on this planet. We are to “be fruitful and increase in number [and] fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1.28). We are to spread over the whole planet, as deputies for God and co-creators with him. That is a true “Green” philosophy. And two things follow.
First, we are to rule well over the natural order. So wanton desecration of it must always be wrong. But what is not wrong is our seeking to transform what is natural for good purposes. Since the Fall there is no inherent virtue in wildness or allowing nature to remain red in tooth and claw if it is good to change it. “The creation itself,” says the Bible, is in “bondage to decay” (Rom 8.21). So to believe otherwise is a false “Green” philosophy. We are, indeed, to rule well over the natural order.
But, secondly, this mission or commission will only be truly fulfilled when Christ returns. One of the “trustworthy sayings” (or little mottos) that were going round the early church was this: “if we endure, we shall reign with him [Christ]” (2 Tim 2.12). But over what will resurrected humanity reign? “Is it not true,” you say, “that when Christ returns, all his enemies will have been defeated? Isn’t that what the Bible teaches?” Yes! It does.
So “our ruling” probably will be our joining with God in his ongoing, pain-free, creative work ruling over the “new heaven and … new earth”. That would be the fulfilment of the commission in the Garden of Eden. In the Parable of the Talents Jesus taught that faithfulness over a “few things” now means one day we can we trusted to rule over or “take charge of many things” (Mat 25.23). So much for God’s first creative mission and his commission at creation.
But God has a second mission. Because of the subsequent Fall (when that first human pair chose to ignore God and go their own way), there is now Jesus’ own redemptive mission and his commission after his Cross and Resurrection. In this fallen world that is absolutely necessary.
It is worth saying at this exam time of year and with a new government offering parents a chance to create new schools, this is especially relevant to education. Yes, we need good education to enable us to be obedient to God’s creative mission. But that is only “good” education when account is also taken of Christ’s redemptive mission and commission. For we desperately need Christ’s forgiveness and rule as we, going our own way, have failed to rule well ourselves and our world. To ignore Christ’s redemptive mission is like washing a car wheel to mend a puncture. That is why you must take so seriously Christ’s commissioning words that you have in Matthew 28.19-20:
“ … go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age;”
and also his commissioning words in Acts 1.8:
“ … you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
So distinguish God’s creative mission from his redemptive mission.
But, of course, the book of Acts is about that second redemptive mission and how it worked out in practice in the early church, with obvious principles for today. And tonight we are to learn from the example and experience of Barnabas and Saul – two early church leaders. So …
… secondly, WHAT these two, BARNABAS AND SAUL, HAVE BEEN DOING IN MISSION
Verse 12.25 says:
“When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.”
So what was this mission?
Well, they have been in Antioch as we learnt when we studied chapter 11. There had been a mission to Antioch by some Greek speaking Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene who evangelised Greek speaking Gentiles. The Christians at the central church in Jerusalem then sent off Barnabas to see how things were going. And 11.23 tells us that
“When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.”
His mission was not only to check out what was going on but to encourage the new Christians there to “remain true” – to stand firm. And that is such an important first lesson to teach new Christians. It is a lesson for those baptised tonight.
This side of heaven the Christian life is not going to be easy. It will often seem as though you are walking a narrow and difficult path, while non-believers seem to be having a great time on a fast motorway. That is the gist of one of Jesus’ parables. But, he added, the motorway ends in destruction (Matt 7.13-14). Often you will be going against the tide – of your family, your friends, your colleagues and the wider culture. And that is hard. In some parts of the world there is physical suffering.
But don’t get it wrong. The Christian way is infinitely better than any other way. That is not only because of the hope of heaven and eternity but because of what it means for now, in this life. So if you want a better society – help to make it Christian.
James Davison Hunter, the distinguished US Social Scientist, has taken part in a nationwide survey about the nature and consequences of moral commitments. It involved of 5000 young people from 200 schools. They came from a spread of wealth and racial backgrounds.
And they were fairly evenly divided between theists – who decide from what God or the Bible tell them is right; conventionalists - who decide from what parents, teachers or youth leaders tell them; humanists - who decide from their own idea of the common good; utilitarians - who decide from what would improve their own situation; and, finally, expressivists - who decide from what feels good.
Without going into details, I’ll just say this. On key issues the people significantly less likely to cheat, steal, lie, drink under age without worrying, have premarital sex, and say suicide is OK because it is a personal choice, were the theists who seek to follow God or the Bible. They were the most moral. The others followed them in this order: conventionalists, humanists, utilitarians and last of all expressivists who rely on feelings.
So if you want what is good for now as well as good for heaven, be a Christian. But in the short term it is often easier to be immoral. Barnabas, therefore, was (Acts 11.23) …
“… encouraging them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.”
But Barnabas realised it wasn’t just a matter of warm hearts. They also needed cool heads. So Barnabas brought Saul (that’s his Hebrew name - “Paul” is his Greek name) from Tarsus to teach these new converts. Acts 11.26 says that
“for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people.”
How important that we all are well taught about our faith. So this mission of Barnabas and Saul involved, first, encouragement (and encouragement to persevere when the going is hard); secondly, teaching; but, then, thirdly, practical action.
A prophet had revealed that there would be “a severe famine … over the entire Roman world” (Acts 11.28). So what did the Christians in Antioch then decide? Did they decide: “there is going to be a global recession, so we are all going to be (in some way) worse off. Therefore, we must all tighten our belts. So we are sorry, but we can’t at this time help our desperately poor Christian brothers and sisters in Judea. And we certainly can’t expect Barnabas and Saul to get involved. They must spend their time in the ministry of teaching God’s word. They must not be distracted with these secondary issues?”
No! They did not decide that. Acts 11.29-30 says:
“29The 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.”
So that brings us back to chapter 12.25 and …
Thirdly, to WHAT THEY ARE DOING NOW
They are back in Antioch (Acts 12 verse 25) having “finished their mission”. And they were accompanied by “John, also called Mark”. With a threatening recession they were increasing the staff of the Parish Church of Antioch by an extra Parish Assistant (or apprentice) by the name of John Mark. But what actually are they doing in Antioch? Well, they are being part of a leadership team of prophets and teachers.
It is not clear whether this team of men were all in some way prophets and teachers, or whether some were one and some the other, or what exactly were prophets and teachers. But what is clear is that they were all different. And how valuable that is - not just having a one man leadership band, but a mixture of personalities and gifts. In addition to Barnabas – who we know was a great pastoral encourager and Saul a great teacher, there was “Simeon called Niger (or black)” – someone, presumably, of a different race.
Then there was “Lucius of Cyrene” – he might have been one of the original church planters from the Cyprus and Cyrene mission of Acts 11.26 and so concerned for church growth and church planting. And finally there was “Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch)” – he was obviously top-draw. He was a 1st century equivalent of an old Etonian brought up with Royalty. Maybe someone here tonight is similarly well connected. If so, do not apologise for your privileges. As a Christian God can use you, as he was using Manaen in Antioch. So Barnabas and Saul were in this leadership team.
Secondly, they were “worshipping the Lord and fasting”. The word translated “worshipping” can mean different things. It can mean worshipping in a religious service or performing a necessary communal duty. So while they were going about their appointed business of whatever sort, verse 2, the Holy Spirit said:
“set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
This was not necessarily involving an ecstatic prophecy, as may have been the case with the prophecy regarding the global famine in Acts 11. For Luke, the author of Acts, was very much aware that what these leaders decided and did, was also, at the same time, what the Holy Spirit was deciding and doing. He knew that the Holy Spirit was in control of, and behind, their normal activity as well as their supernatural activity. This is the mystery of divine sovereignty and human freedom. So you read in verse 3:
“after they had fasted and prayed, they [the other three leaders] placed their hands on them [Barnabas and Saul] and [released or] sent them off.”
But then the very next verse, verse 4, says:
“The two of them [were] sent on their way [not by the three but…] by the Holy Spirit.”
The human sending and the Holy Spirit’s sending were all one. How, therefore, the Holy Spirit spoke about the call to Barnabas and Saul, is another of the things we do not know. It could have been as the result of prayer and discussion, without food, over an extended period. It then became evident that it was good and right that Barnabas and Saul were set apart for a specific mission. Or it could have been in some unique way the Spirit spoke. But whatever way this was, what you have here is an intentional strategy for mission.
Up to now, the church grew and the gospel spread in two ways: one, through persecution; and, two, through the apostles and senior leaders like Barnabas following up Christians in churches that were planted. It just happened through God’s providence. But here there is a human intention. Yes, God had already called these two, as verse 2 tells us – the Holy Spirit says, “I have called them”. But having discerned that call, this group of leaders, guided by the Holy Spirit, believed it right publicly to affirm and confirm the call and institutionalise it, by the laying on of hands. And that brings us ...
… fourthly, and (very briefly) to our final heading WHAT THEY WILL BE DOING
We certainly know to what Saul (or Paul) was called. In Acts 9.15-16 Ananias’ words from the risen Lord to the apostle (just after his conversion on the Damascus Road) were that:
“ 15… this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
It was a call to tell the good news about Jesus Christ to the pagan world (the Gentiles) and their kings (people at the highest level) and to the Jews. It was also a call to suffer. And the following chapters of Acts show how Barnabas and especially Saul (or Paul) were fulfilling that call. So that is what they were going to do.
I must conclude.
How does all this apply today?
In four ways at least.
One, if you are a believer, you too should intentionally work to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ and make new disciples and relate that to national life and national leaders – the “kings”.
But, two, like Barnabas and Saul you should not forget the poor of this world, especially poor believers.
And, three, as Saul was told at his conversion, be prepared to suffer for Christ’s sake when you go out for him into the world, whether it is South Jesmond, South Tyneside or South Sudan.
But, four, if you do not yet know Jesus Christ and his redemptive mission to be your saviour and Lord, Barnabas and Saul would say to you (with the greatest respect), “you are foolish.” That is not only in terms of eternity but in terms of current social good. And the evidence is not only from the legacy of Barnabas and Saul, but also modern social science.
So, tonight, why not trust Jesus Christ, the risen Saviour, confessing your contribution to the world’s mess and thanking him for dying for all that sin? Then soon be baptised, as these others have been, and start to live under his rule and in the power of his Spirit.