Today’s devotional is the final one before we take a break over the summer; if Acts were a TV series, this passage would make a good season finale somewhere in the middle, leaving us wanting more, wanting to know what happens next on their mission.
This short snippet has a number of things we can learn and understand better, both about the leadership of the early church and about our own spiritual lives. We heard the background story of the church in Antioch in the daily devotional two days ago, in Acts 11, so let’s unpack today’s reading starting with verse 25.
Then after completing their mission Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark.
The mission here is found in chapter 11, just after the section covered in the devotional – following a prophecy from Agabus, Barnabus and Saul are sent from Antioch to take money to Jerusalem to support them through the coming famine.
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul.
Who are these people, and why are we told about them? Barnabus and Saul are well known, but the others less so. This is the first point we can learn though, that the church in Antioch had a diverse leadership team – certainly geographically and culturally, and probably ethnically as well, as Simeon’s nickname ‘Niger’ may well have been due to him having dark skin. The diversity here is fitting; Antioch was the home of the Roman governor of Syria, and had large Jewish, Greek and Syrian communities, as well as many others, and so it makes sense that they had a diverse group of leaders to allow them to care for and minister to a diverse city. We can see elsewhere that cultural or ethnic divisions can cause problems in the church, such as earlier in Acts where the Greek Christians are concerned that their widows are being overlooked, and so by having diverse leadership they can better keep unity. Let’s look at verse 2 now.
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.”
The church in Antioch here is a great example for us; their communal life makes room for God to speak. They were worshipping the Lord and fasting – worship is a regular part of our corporate and personal devotional lives today, but fasting is less popular!
In a number of places throughout Acts we are told that the disciples fasted; often they fast for a specific reason, like in verse 3 here where they are fasting as part of their discernment and sending process. Verse 2 doesn’t give a reason, though, so perhaps fasting was just a regular part of their community life; there is something powerful in denying the food we need for survival and putting it second to hearing from God. If you’ve never tried it, why not give it a go – it’s not the most enjoyable spiritual discipline, but it’s one that we see demonstrated in Scripture. If you find it difficult then why not consider gathering a group to fast in community with? When I’ve tried taking the time to fast, I’ve found it often coincides with bountiful blessings of food and cake being offered to me, but it’s worth the sacrifice! This is the second point though, that we need to live our lives in such a way that we make room for, and are open to, God speaking to us by His Spirit. So we come to verse 3.
Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
This is the final point: they obey God’s instruction, and so should we. This isn’t a blind following of any and every prophetic whim – they take the time to fast further and to pray, and as a community they help discern the calling of their members. But seeking God’s will and engaging in spiritual disciplines isn’t enough without obedience. They lay hands on Barnabus and Saul, and then actively send them off into the world to carry out God’s plans. By the openness to God and their obedience, the Antiochian church enabled Barnabus and Saul to make an impact for God’s Kingdom that lasts to this day.
How can we live our lives in a way that allows room to hear from God, and in what situations do we need to be obedient?
Father God, thank you for the example of the Antiochian Church, for their faithfulness and obedience to you. Help us to learn from them in our ministry and care of those from different countries and cultures, and give us the discipline to carve time out to listen to you. Please would you speak to us individually and corporately by your Spirit, and help us be obedient to your commands.