A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 12:25-13:4a. 1). Barnabas and Saul are sent out from Antioch (Continued).
It was *while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting* that *the Holy Spirit said* to them, *’Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’* (2). So important was this occasion, that it may be helpful to ask some questions about it.
First, to whom did the Holy Spirit reveal His will? Who is the ‘they’ who were worshipping and fasting, and to whom he spoke? It seems unlikely that we are meant to restrict them to the small group of five leaders, for that would entail three of them being instructed about the other two. It is more probable that the church members as a whole are in mind, since both they and the leaders are mentioned together in verse 1, and on the not dissimilar occasion when the seven were to be chosen, it was the local church as a whole who acted (6:2-6). Moreover, when Paul and Barnabas returned, ‘they gathered the church together’. They reported to the church because they has been commissioned by the church (14:26-27). Further, if the Holy Spirit disclosed his purpose to the church, there is no need to except Barnabas and Saul themselves. Rather the reverse. Does not the Holy Spirit’s instruction to set them apart ‘for the work to which I have called them’ imply that he had already called them before he made it known to the church?
Secondly, what was it that the Holy Spirit revealed to the church? It was very vague. The nature of the work to which he had called Barnabas and Saul was not specified. It was not unlike the call of Abram. To him God had said, ‘Go to the land I will show you.’ (Gen.12:1). To the Antiochene church God said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ In both cases the call to go was clear, while the land and the work were not. So in both cases the response to God’s call required an adventurous step of faith.
Thirdly, how was God’s call disclosed. We are not told. The most likely guess is that God spoke to the church through one of the prophets. But his call could have been inward rather than outward, that is, through the Spirit’s witness in their hearts and minds. However it came to them, their first reaction was to fast and pray, partly (it seems) to test God’s call and partly to intercede for the two who were to be sent out. We notice that in neither reference to fasting does it occur alone. It is linked with worship in verse 2 and with prayer in verse 3. For seldom if ever is fasting an end in itself. It is a negative action (abstention from food and other distractions) for the sake of a positive one (worshipping or praying). Then, *after they had fasted and prayed*, and so assured themselves of God’s call and prepared themselves to obey it, *they placed their hands on them and sent them off* (3). This was not an ordination to an office, still less an appointment to apostleship (since Paul insists that this was ‘not from men nor by man’, Gal.1:1), but rather a valedictory commissioning to missionary service.
Who, then, commissioned the missionaries? That is our fourth question. According to verse 4, Barnabas and Saul were *sent on their way by the Holy Sprit*, who had previously instructed the church to set them apart for him (2). But according to verse 3 it was the church which, after the laying-on of hands, *sent them off*. It is true that the latter verb could be translated ‘let them go’ (NEB), discharging them from their teaching responsibilities in the church at Antioch, in order to make them available for a wider ministry. For Luke sometimes uses the verb *apoluo* in the sense of ‘release’ (E.g. Acts 3:13; 5:40; 16:35-36). But he also uses it for ‘dismiss’ (E.g. Acts 15:30, 33; 19:40). So, in our anxiety to do justice to the Holy Spirit’s initiative, we should not depict the church’s role as having been entirely passive. Would it not be true to say both that the Spirit sent them out, by instructing the church to do so, and that the church sent them out, having been directed by the Spirit to do so? This balance will be a healthy corrective to opposite extremes. The first is the tendency to individualism, by which a Christian claims direct personal guidance by the Spirit without any reference to the church. The second is the tendency to institutionalism, by which all decision-making is done by the church without any reference to the Spirit. Although we have no liberty to deny the validity of personal choice, it is safe and healthy only in relation to the Spirit and the church. There is no evidence that Barnabas and Saul ‘volunteered’ for missionary service; they were ‘sent’ by the Spirit through the church. Still today it is the responsibility of every local church (especially of its leaders) to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, in order to discover whom he may be gifting and calling.
Tomorrow: Acts 13:4b-12. 2). Barnabas and Saul in Cyprus.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.