The Spirit, the Church, & Prayer in the Mission
Topic: Prayer Passage: Acts 12:25–13:3
As Gary mentioned, today is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. We join churches around the world to remember and pray for our brothers and sisters experiencing persecution. It’s not that we remember them only today, but one way throughout the year that we give more concentrated time praying for them together.
So, the sermon will be shorter so we can pray for the persecuted church. Normally, I’ve chosen a passage dealing with persecution in particular. But we’ve encountered a number of these passages more recently in Acts already. Peter and John get arrested in 4:3. The authorities threaten them, but the Lord gives them boldness to speak anyway.
The apostles get imprisoned in chapter 5; they’re also beaten for the name of Jesus. But they insist on obeying God rather than men. In chapter 7, the Jews murder Stephen and persecution scatters the church. But it can’t stop the gospel from advancing; those who are scattered go about preaching the gospel. Saul ravaged the church in chapter 9, but the Lord saves him—Saul the persecutor then becomes Saul the persecuted. And then most recently, Herod kills James by the sword and then imprisons Peter. But the people pray; God frees Peter, kills Herod, and the word of God increases all the more.
Again and again, wherever the gospel advances persecution follows. Since we’ll cover persecution so often, I’d like to keep moving into Acts 13. But that doesn’t mean today’s passage has nothing to do with praying for the persecuted church. Two things stand out: God’s presence with the church by the Spirit and the Spirit working in the church through prayer. In the Spirit, we’ll pray for God to act on behalf of the persecuted. Before getting there, though, let’s read our passage beginning with 12:25...
12:25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark. 13:1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of 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 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
You may remember—there was a famine in Judea. The church in Antioch sent relief by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. Verse 25 now shows Barnabas and Saul returning from that ministry. The Spirit will send them to proclaim the gospel where Christ wasn’t yet named. But we mustn’t forget that the Spirit was also reaching the needy where Christ had already been named.
Both were important aspects of the church’s mission—the gospel embodied among the needy, and the gospel proclaimed among the nations. Between both aspects, though, we get another snapshot of the local church—this time in Antioch. In this snapshot we see four more ways the Spirit works through the church on mission.
The Spirit gathers a diverse people into the church.
One, the Spirit gathers a diverse people into the church. We know it’s the Spirit’s work, because 2:17 says that God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh. All peoples who believe on Christ would receive God’s Spirit. That plays out here.
Notice the geographical diversity. Barnabas is from Cypress, an island in the Mediterranean—we know that from 4:36. There’s also Simeon who was called Niger. Given the way Luke lists names elsewhere,[i] this was more likely a nickname than a birth name. The ESV footnote adds that “Niger is a Latin word meaning black, or dark.” Simeon was likely a man of darker complexion than others in his region. Then comes Lucias from Cyrene—that’s North Africa. Manaen is next; and he’s likely from Galilee, growing up with Herod the tetrarch. Lastly, Luke lists Saul who’s a Hebrew from Tarsus.
Notice also the diversity in social status. Verse 1 says that Manaen was “a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch.” That basically means he grew up with Herod Antipas—Antipas was the Herod ruling throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry. So Manaen would have greater exposure to the higher classes of society. Also, we learned from 4:36-37 that Barnabas was quite wealthy. He had lands that he sold to support others in need.
And then lastly, notice the diversity in age. If Manaen was brought up with Herod the tetrarch, then he’s likely in his mid-sixties at the time Luke is writing. Such age diversity plays an important role in the church. For example, later on Paul commands the older women to disciple the younger women in Titus 2. That’s more difficult to follow in churches without that age diversity. But here the Spirit gathers a diversity of ages. So we find diversity in geography, in social status, and in age.
One could imagine the various challenges that such diversity could present. The geographical diversity would present an array of ethnic, cultural, and religious challenges. Ethnically speaking, we know tensions existed between Jew and Gentile. Also, people on the island may not do things like people further inland. The rich may not be used to working alongside the poor; the poor could envy the rich. The younger generation might snub the older. We live in a day where such tensions do exist.
It’s not hard to imagine them. We hear them often. We feel them when our own upbringing and cultural presuppositions collide with someone elses. These tensions would normally separate people in the world. But the church should be different. Where the gospel owns a people, the Spirit works to unite them. Revelation 5:9-10 shows a diverse, blood-bought people perfected in the final kingdom, united in their worship. The Spirit’s work to gather a diverse people into the church now points others to that hope. God wants a diverse group of people worshiping the Lord together even on this side of eternity.
Trillia Newbell has a new children’s book out called, God’s Very Good Idea: A True Story of God’s Delightfully Different Family. In it she helps “children see how people from all ethnic and social backgrounds are valuable to God and how Jesus came to rescue all kinds of people.”[ii] Instill God’s very good idea in your children. Jesus’ cross purchased an omni-ethnic people to worship the all-glorious God. When the Spirit applies the cross to a people, he unites us into one body. The Spirit gives this diverse people a shared union with Christ and a common purpose to build the kingdom of Christ. We have great hope for God to work the same unity in Christ here.
The Spirit gifts some to lead and equip the church.
Next, the Spirit gifts some to lead and equip the church. These five men he describes as “prophets and teachers” in verse 1. The New Testament often distinguishes prophets from teachers, or prophecy from teaching.
In 1 Corinthians 12-14, prophecy is the more spontaneous of these two ministries. It’s tailored for specific situations in the church.[iii] When prompted by the Spirit, the word may involve encouragement, or rebuke, or specific direction[iv] for those gathered.[v] Prophecy happened often enough for some that the early church called them prophets.[vi] Some prophets had a complementary role alongside the apostles (Eph 2:20; 3:5).[vii] But others functioned in a more general role that included giving direction or encouragement that reflected the truth and goals of the apostles’ teaching.[viii]
Teaching wasn’t as spontaneous. Based on some of Paul’s words to Timothy, it involves preparation through assiduous meditation on God’s word (1 Tim 4:16; 2 Tim 2:7). It consisted of explaining the content of God’s written revelation, in order to equip the church in sound doctrine. Teaching guarded the church from compromising the true gospel of Jesus Christ.[ix] Those fulfilling that role most often were called teachers.[x]
But here’s the thing about Acts 13:1. Luke doesn’t really specify which men are prophets in particular and which ones are teachers. It may even be the case that the Spirit gifted some of them to serve in both roles. Already he described Paul and Barnabas teaching in 11:26. But very soon Paul will prophetically rebuke a magician for getting in the gospel’s way. In any case, the Spirit gifted some to equip his church in sound teaching and then lead his church in ways that aligned with that teaching.
So when it says in verse 2, “The Holy Spirit said…,” we don’t have to wonder how the Holy Spirit spoke to the church. Luke makes that clear by saying there were in the church “prophets and teachers.” How’d he speak to the church? By the prophets and teachers.[xi] Since the guidance is so specific in this case, it’s more likely the direction came through the prophets in particular (cf. Acts 11:28).
The work of the Spirit hasn’t changed. He still gifts some to lead and equip the church. He still speaks to the church through leaders like this. Our role as a body is to recognize his work and appoint qualified men for this leadership. Our role is to listen as the Spirit brings God’s word to bear on our lives through such leaders. That’s for me too, as I listen to my elders, Dale, Wes, and Ben; or as I listen to others speak prophetically into my life.
That doesn’t mean we just accept everything without discernment. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 says, “Test everything; hold fast to what is good.” We test everything by Scripture. The church should have trusted leaders who can weigh someone’s counsel against Scripture.[xii] Another test is whether the counsel is from an isolated source, or has the Spirit led others in the same direction? The character of a person would also matter: does the person have a track record of stability, or are they prone to rash judgments and exaggeration? But when the Spirit makes his leadership obvious, the church should follow his lead in the mission.
The Spirit guides the church through corporate prayer and fasting.
But notice something the Spirit uses in leading the church: the Spirit guides the church through corporate prayer and fasting. The Spirit says, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I’ve called them.” But he does this in the context of worship which includes prayer and fasting. Notice the beginning of verse 2: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said…” Then verse 3, “Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”
In the New Testament, “worship” isn’t simply the songs we sing. 1 Corinthians 14:25 speaks of one’s heart exposed by the word; he worships by falling on his face in repentance. Romans 12:1 speaks of presenting our bodies to him as living sacrifices—our spiritual worship. Worship involves ascribing to God supreme worth such that we offer him our whole self in thinking, speaking, and serving.
Part of offering ourselves to God involves prayer and fasting. They worshiped in prayer. They communed with God; they expressed their utter dependence on God in prayer. Prayer is the means God ordains to achieve his purpose in the world as we depend on him. Scripture gives many examples of how the early church prayed: the kingdom to come (Matt 6); justice to prevail (Luke 18:1-7); boldness to share (Acts 4:28-29); strength to endure (Luke 21:36); provision for mission (John 15:16), and so forth. Based on the answer, part of their praying was for how the Lord would use them next.
But Luke also includes fasting. On other occasions the church ate together as part of their worship (e.g., Acts 2:42-47). But here we find them fasting. When was the last time fasting was part of your worship? That means they voluntarily abstained from food—food being a very good gift from God. But they voluntarily abstained from food for a specific spiritual purpose.[xiii] In Matthew 6:16 Jesus assumes that his disciples would fast: “When you fast…,” he says, not “If you fast…” In Matthew 9:15 he even promises that his disciples would fast as they awaited the Bridegroom’s return.
There are, of course, wrong ways to fast. Jesus teaches elsewhere that motives are crucial in our fasting, just as much as in our praying. But when pursued rightly, fasting becomes the exclamation point of our prayers, as some have said.[xiv] Fasting says, “Lord, I want to know you and follow your will more than I want to eat.” Fasting doesn’t have to be limited to food; it could extend to other good gifts to help grow your hunger for God. This hunger to know God and to know how God wanted to use them was part of their worship. Do you come to our meetings hungering like this for God to work? Do you come desperately wanting his word and his guidance more than you want your lunch? Do you want to hear from him?
The Spirit works when we’re desperate for God’s will above everything else. The Spirit speaks when our food is to do the Father’s will (cf. John 4:34). That’s not to say that if we fast this way and pray this way, then we obligate God to answer a specific way. It’s only to point out that the occasion for the Spirit’s guidance is a desperate church—who longs for God to speak to them and lead them. Are we this desperate to know God and his direction for our church? Do we hunger most for God and his will to be done through us? The Spirit guides the church through prayer and fasting.
The Spirit sends competent people from the church to new regions.
Sometimes that’ll mean we send some of our best people to other places of ministry. That comes next: the Spirit sends competent people from the church to new regions. Acts will show you that Barnabas and Saul are some of the most competent men in the church at Antioch. Barnabas is very generous with his wealth—what a great example he’d be to the other wealthy brothers and sisters. He’s an encourager. 11:24 says that Barnabas was “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.”
And then there’s also Saul—whom we more readily know by his Greek name, Paul. What a compelling conversion story he has (Acts 9)! What a competent teacher he is (Acts 11:26)! What a faithful evangelist he is (Acts 9:20-30)! These two brothers are some of their most competent men! “Let’s keep them forever,” we might say.
And yet the Holy Spirit says, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I’ve called them.” Then in verse 4 it says, “Being sent out by the Holy Spirit…” The Holy Spirit sends out two of their best guys to areas with no access to the gospel.
Over time, we’ve sent off some of our best brothers and sisters. Some of our most competent men and women we’ve commissioned to serve as teachers in colleges, missionaries overseas, church planters in other states—and we’ve really felt their absence at times. We miss them. But sometimes the Lord wants them serving beyond us.
This is a good reminder. Our local church doesn’t exist just to preserve itself; we exist for a mission much greater than ourselves. We exist to declare God’s glory to our neighbors and the nations. We’re an equipping hub, where people come in to know God’s glory more deeply; and they go out to spread God’s glory more widely. Yes, it hurts when they have to go—people weep in Acts 20 when Paul leaves Ephesus—but what joy we should have in God’s kingdom marching on.
One of our most competent and dearly loved brothers just finished his first year of ministry in North Africa. I can’t use his name for security reasons—and not so much his own security but the security of those he’s ministering to. But if you’re a member, you know who I’m talking about. The Lord has given him great boldness to speak the word without fear in a context quite hostile to Christ. On top of that, the Lord seems to have saved a few people since his arrival. Give thanks for this good work, though we miss him terribly. And there are others like him that we’ve sent out. Max and Laura are with us again this weekend. Meet them and learn how you can pray for them.
But we need to keep this in mind as the Spirit uses us to send others out: the people the Spirit sends into new regions will often face persecution for their work. The Holy Spirit sends out Barnabas and Saul from the church, and immediately they face opposition. A false prophet tries to stop them in Paphos. They move to Pisidia, but some of the Jews stir up persecution against Paul and Barnabas. In 14:2 the Jews at Iconium poison the people’s minds against the brothers. Paul then comes to Lystra only to get stoned and dragged out of the city, supposing he was dead (Acts 14:19).
The Holy Spirit sends people out through the church, but the sending church needs to remember what they’ll likely face. We should never reach a point where we send people by the Spirit’s guidance, and then pretend like that’s it. No, they need our ongoing prayers for boldness and peace and resources and everything else the mission entails. And many others alongside them can use our prayers for endurance in the face of affliction. One of the most difficult parts of being a missionary is knowing that when the man you’ve befriended embraces Jesus, his family may very well kill him for it.
Or, like Max shared a while back, a man might become a Christian but his wife’s Muslim family then kidnaps the wife and son and demands you recant or divorce her. But they’re not giving them back as long as he follows Jesus. Our brothers and sisters in these contexts need prayer. And our passage today gives us a picture of God listening to the prayer of his people as they cry out desperately to him.
Let’s do that now in clusters of about 4-6 people. Use the blue insert as a prayer guide. If you’re not a Christian, you don’t have to participate. But I’d encourage you at least to share that with someone during this time. And if you’re a member of Redeemer, spend this time welcoming and talking with our non-Christian guests about questions they may have. But let’s take the next 15 minutes or so to pray together, and then Ben will come lead us into the Supper.
[i]E.g., Acts 4:36; 12:12.
[ii]Wording comes from the back cover of Trillia’s book.
[iii]1 Cor 14:3, 30. That a prophecy is “Spirit-prompted” (cf. 1 Cor 12:6) suggests that it is spontaneous (1 Cor 14:30), but that the message comes spontaneously does not mean it must always come spontaneously during the corporate gathering as some may very well bring whatever prophetic word they received at an earlier time (1 Cor 14:6, 26).
[iv]Acts 16:7; 21:4; 1 Cor 14:3, 24-25.
[v]Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 14:4, 24, 29-32; cf. 1 Pet 4:10-11.
[vi]Acts 11:27-28; 13:1; 15:32; 21:10; 1 Cor 12:28-29; 14:29; Eph 4:11.
[vii]Although these prophets weren’t equal in authority to the apostles (1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11). Contra Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (Westchester: Crossway, 1988), 45-63, who makes a case that the “apostles and prophets” in Eph 2:20, 3:5 are one and the same group: “the apostles who are prophets”.
[viii]Acts 13:1; 15:32; 21:10; 1 Cor 14:29, 32, 37.
[ix]Rom 6:17; 16:17; Eph 4:11-16; 2 Thess 2:15; 1 Tim 4:11, 13; 6:1-2; 2 Tim 2:2; Tit 1:9, 11.
[x]Rom 12:7; 1 Cor 12:28; 14:6.
[xi]Cf. Acts 2:17-18; 8:29; 10:19; 11:12, 28; 1 Cor 12:7.
[xii]1 Cor 14:27, 36-38.
[xiii]See the helpful post by David Mathis https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/fasting-for-beginners
[xiv]E.g., John Piper, A Hunger for God (Wheaton: Crossway, 1997).