Last week we were thinking about Peter’s miraculous escape from prison. In the middle of the night, an angel appeared to him and told him to get up. His chains fell off and they were able to walk out of the prison, without the guards noticing a thing. The large iron gate at the entrance opened by itself and lo and behold, Peter was free. He went to find the other believers and to let them know what had happened. And afterwards he left for another place, presumably so that he wouldn’t be arrested again. And then, at the end of last week’s passage we were reminded once again that the Lord Jesus is building his church here on the earth and the gates of hell will not prevail. So, first of all, Herod, his enemy, was struck down and died. Secondly, the word of God continued to increase and spread as men like Barnabas and Paul preached the good news about Jesus Christ and many who heard believed and were added to the church.
Verses 1 to 3
The end of chapter 12 really is the end of the first half of the book of Acts. Up until now the focus has been on Jerusalem and on the Apostle Peter. And even when we saw how preachers from Jerusalem began to take the good news out of Jerusalem to other places and when they began to tell the good news to Gentiles as well as Jews, still it was the case that the leaders in Jerusalem would send men down to see what was going on. Everything centred on Jerusalem. However, from chapter 13 on, the focus is really on the Apostle Paul and his mission to the Gentiles. And Paul isn’t sent out from Jerusalem, but from Antioch.
And so, we read in verse 1 about the church in Antioch and how there were prophets and teachers there. And he names them. And they’re quite a diverse group of people. First of all there’s Barnabas. When he was introduced to us in chapter 4, Luke said that he was from Cyprus. Then Simeon called Niger. Niger is from the Latin for black and so it’s possible this man was from Africa. Then there was Lucius from Cyrene which was in North Africa. Manaen was brought up with Herod, one of the kings of Galilee. So, he’s from Galilee. And, of course, Saul was from Tarsus. Different nationalities. Different backgrounds. But united together as brothers in the Lord and ministers in his church.
Saul and Barnabas, we’ve already seen, were teachers in the church in Antioch. However, in verses 9 to 11 Paul is also presented as a prophetic figure, full of the Holy Spirit. And so, here, in verse 1, there seems to be no hard and fast distinction between the prophets and the teachers. But why does Luke name the prophets and teachers at this point? Well, John Calvin has an interesting suggestion. Given the fact that Paul and Barnabas are about to be sent out by the church in Antioch, Luke wants to make it clear that they were not abandoning the church in Antioch and they weren’t leaving the members in Antioch without someone to teach them the word of the Lord. The church might have lost Paul and Barnabas, but they still had three other preachers to teach them. And, of course, that’s one of the many good things about the Presbyterian Church. Whenever one minister is called away to another church, the people are not left without a preacher because as soon as one minister leaves, the Presbytery immediately appoints other ministers to look after the congregation and the Presbytery ensures that someone is appointed to preach God’s word to God’s people every Sunday.
So, there are plenty of preachers in Antioch to teach the people. In verse 2 we read that while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit spoke to them. Now, it’s not clear who was worshipping. Is Luke referring to the five prophets and teachers mentioned in verse 1? Or is he referring to the whole church? It’s not clear. Then Luke tells us they were worshipping and fasting. Fasting isn’t commanded in the Bible, but it’s seen as an aid to prayer. It’s possible, therefore, that in their worship they were praying to the Lord and asking for him to guide them about what to do next in order to spread the good news of the gospel. And while they were worshipping like this, the Holy Spirit spoke to them. Again, Luke doesn’t make clear how the Holy Spirit spoke to them, but presumably he spoke to them through one of the prophets and made clear to them what ought to happen.
Should we expect the Holy Spirit to speak to us like this today? The Presbyterian Church, in its Confession and Catechisms, teaches that whereas in the past God revealed himself and his will to his people in lots of different ways — through the apostles and prophets, for instance — he has now committed the revelation of himself and his will wholly to written form. In other words, God speaks to us today and makes himself and his will known to us only through his written word, the Bible. And so, we say the Bible is necessary or indispensable for us because his former ways of revealing his will to his people have ceased. And then we speak about the sufficiency of Scripture because everything we need to know about God and our salvation and how to serve him is found in the pages of the Bible or can be deduced from what the Bible teaches. Remember the early questions of the Catechism? ‘What rule has God given to direct us how to glorify and enjoy him?’ His word, the Scriptures. ‘What do they Scriptures principally teach?’ What we’re to believe about God and what duty he requires of us.
Everything we need to know about these things is found in his word. And then we also speak about the finality of Scriptures because every controversy about religion is to settled by examining what the Holy Spirit has said in the Scriptures. One person says: This is what I think. Another person says: But this is what I think. How do we settle it? By asking: What does the Bible say about it? And what the Holy Spirit says to us in the Bible is the final word on the matter.
We believe the human heart is ‘deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?’ Without the word to guide us and to correct us, we will only be led astray by our sinful and deceitful heart. The human heart is deceitful, but ‘all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.’ It’s sufficient to teach us. Or, think about Ephesians 2:20 where Paul says the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. And just as there are no more Apostles today, so there are no more prophets. God speaks to us through his word, the Bible.
That’s what the Presbyterian Church teaches in its Confession and Catechisms. However, in Acts 13, the foundation was still being built and the church was still relying on the Apostles and the Prophets to declare to them the will of God. And so, on this occasion, the Holy Spirit spoke directly to them through one of the prophets. And the Holy Spirit instructed the church to set apart Barnabas and Paul for the work to which he, the Holy Spirit, had called them. So, all five of the people named in verse 1 were serving the Lord in the church in Antioch. But now, the Holy Spirit was calling Barnabas and Paul to a special work and the church was to send them off to do this work.
It’s interesting to note, as well, how the Holy Spirit works through the church. Far too often I’ve met people who have felt called by God to do something but they’re acting entirely independently. Down in Naas, I met all kinds of people who felt called by God to start a new church in the town. Or to start some new ministry. But these people were working entirely on their own, without having been sent by any church. And yet, in Acts 13, when the Holy Spirit called Barnabas and Paul, the Holy Spirit instructed the church to commission them and to send them. They didn’t go off on their own. They were sent by the church. John Keefe was telling me once how Naomi feels very strongly about this — she’s gone to Brazil, not on her own, and not with a para-church organisation, but she’s gone as a missionary of her church. The Presbyterian Church has approved her and sent her and is now supporting her. And so she’s able to say that while she felt called by God to go, her call has been confirmed by the church who has not sent her out.
And so, we read in verse 3 that after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on Barnabas and Paul and sent them off. And, if you glance forward to 14:27, you’ll see that when they returned, they gathered the whole church together and reported to the church what had happened.
Verses 4 to 12
In verse 4 we read how the two of them (though we also see in verse 5 that John Mark was also with them), sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia, which was a port, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. Salamis was on the eastern side. And when they got there, what did they do? Verse 5: The proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. Remember: the Lord Jesus builds his church on earth through the reading and preaching of his word. We’ve already seen the power of the gospel earlier in Acts. And we read about it in the New Testament letters. Everywhere we taught that God works through the reading and preaching of his word to convince and converts sinners to faith in Christ.
Luke tells us that they travelled through the island until the got to Paphos, which was on the other side of the island. Paphos was also the capital city of the island. There they came across this Jewish sorcerer. Now, the Jews were forbidden by God to practice sorcery. So, this man is not a faithful Jew. And that’s confirmed by the next words which tell us he was a false prophet. There’s nothing good about this man. But he was with the proconsul, the Roman governor on the island. This governor, Sergius Paulus, is described as an intelligent man. And he sent for Barnabas and Paul because he wanted to hear God’s word. Well, perhaps he had heard bits and pieces about the Christian faith before. Perhaps he new something. But now he wanted to know more.
But, of course, if he were converted, then he would presumably have no more time for Bar-Jesus, or Elymas, the sorcerer. And so, Elymas tried to do everything he could to keep him from the faith. The Devil will do all he can to keep us his slaves. He blinds our minds so that we can’t see the glory of Christ. And, as a bird carries away the seed we sow in the garden, so he takes away the seed of God’s word to prevent us from believing. But though he is powerful, he’s not as powerful as Almighty God. And, on this occasion, the Holy Spirit fills Paul and enables him to speak against Elymas and as soon as Paul finished speaking, a mist and darkness came over him so that he could not see. That’s what happened to Elymas.
And what about Paulus? Verse 12: When he saw what happened, he believed. Why did he believe? Because of what happened to Elymas? No. Look at the rest of the verse. He believed, for he was amazed at the teaching of the Lord.
Once again, Luke teaches us that the Lord Jesus builds his church through the preaching of his word. From time to time, amazing things happened. Signs and wonders were performed. But those who were convinced and converted to faith in Christ were convinced and converted by the Holy Spirit working through the reading and preaching of God’s word. The word works. And so, as we go to church each Sunday, we should go, praying that God will work through his word to convince and convert those who don’t believe and to build up believers in the faith. We ought to pray that we will all receive his word with faith and humility and that his word will bear fruit in our lives. We ought to pray that all of us, from the youngest to the oldest, will develop a taste for his word so that we will hunger for it. And we ought to pray that God will give to the people of our district the same desire to hear the word of the Lord as Paulus had.