Acts 13 serves as a transitional hinge in the book of Acts. Here, the focus shifts from Jerusalem to Antioch (as the latter, Gentile church becomes the primary missionary center), from Peter to Paul—and from Saul to Paul (Paul is never again referred to as Saul in the Bible, except in references to his former life). This chapter also features Paul’s first recorded miracle and first recorded sermon.
Being the center of Gentile Christianity, Antioch had much zeal for evangelistic work, as pagans who were freshly freed from bondage to the false gods wanted the world to know of the Savior for whom they joyfully waited (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9-10). Because of this missionary zeal, Acts 13 is a natural place for us to consider what makes a true missionary—and then to pray earnestly that God will raise up such people to further His salvation program today.
A. Preparation (v. 1)
It is most interesting to notice that the first thing Luke says about the church at Antioch is that there were “prophets and teachers” there. A prophet of course is one who speaks for God. These men were privileged recipients of direct, inerrant revelation from God, much of which in their case was not inscripturated. It is noteworthy that both Saul and Barnabas are said to have this gift from the Lord. Saul, of course, exercised a prophetic gift at least every time he wrote one of our canonical letters, and he likely did pastorally as well (we see a hint of this, I think, later in the chapter during his encounter with Elymas). We do not see Barnabas exercising his prophetic gift in Acts, but it is likely the Lord used it as a means for the encouragement for which he was known (cf. 4:36). The evangelist Philip was gifted with four daughters who ministered in prophecy (likely in private to women and individuals, Acts 21:9). Their prophecies, like most of those from the men in verse 1, are not recorded. For whatever reason, God did not see fit to preserve these inerrant revelations of His will and plans in His Word. But we can praise and thank Him that He is such a personal, immanent God that He gifted individuals—real, flesh-and-blood people—with a gift of revealing Him and His ways to other real people, to meet their deeply individual and personal need to know it and Him in this time of transition. He is the same God for us today, though He works differently.
There were also teachers at the Antioch church. Likely this includes teaching elders, but it may also extend to laymen and women who were especially gifted in understanding and communication, and so edified the church (corporately for the men and privately and individually for women) through their Spirit-led ministry. Luke emphasizes both of these things to note Antioch is an especially well-taught church. They are the beneficiaries of good teaching and, in that foundational era, direct revelation from God-appointed prophets, including Saul. This latter point is important: Saul served faithfully and in a sense namelessly alongside other men. He did not exalt himself nor his (considerable!) gifts. He was content to pour himself into a local church alongside other godly men, not contending with them or jostling for a position of greatest prominence. Doubtless this humility is why the Lord exalted him to a position of key leadership in the church, but not before he had matured and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other men under the accountability of a local church.
B. Prayer and Fasting (vv. 2-3)
Luke writes, “While they were ministering to the Lord” (emphasis mine). Who is “they”? The “prophets and teachers” mentioned in verse 1. “Ministering” is the Greek word for religious service from which we get our English word liturgy. This was worship—they were men of prayer and praise. Notice it was not until they were worshiping—until they were focused on God, His glory, His ways, and His worth—that the Spirit revealed His will for the church and for the ministries of two of their own. While I do not wish to make a hard-and-fast application, I do find this connection to be telling. Often, we seek the Lord for His will before we have sought Him. Often, we are more focused on what we want Him to do for us, or even what we are seeking to do for Him, than His glory and honor in the doing. I believe more of us would have more confidence and security about answered prayer and knowing our plans and decisions are in fact God’s will for us if we did not focus on them and instead focused with total abandon and consecration on Him. Perhaps then we would hear more of the Spirit’s voice through the Word and more of His illumination to our minds.
It is of note that after the men heard the voice of the Spirit, they continued to pray and fast before they even formally laid hands on them. Doubtless this was to appeal to Him for enablement to minister and direction about the specifics of the mission. Once they received assurance of His backing and guidance, the men were formally commissioned and sent out as the hands and feet of the church at Antioch.
C. Prompting (v. 4)
God the Holy Spirit sent the men. He called them. He made His will in the matter very apparent and they submitted to Him. Now that they and He are on the same page, they trust His guidance and prompting for where to go. Implicitly, He guides them to Cyprus (Barnabas’s home island, located west of the Syrian coast). What amazing providence—and what amazing trust in the guidance of the Spirit! The Spirit displays this kind of attentive meticulousness in later missionary trips—in Acts 16:6-7, the Holy Spirit forbids Paul and his friends from ministering in two vast regions, so that they would be free to bring the gospel to Macedonia (vv. 9-10). Those whom the Spirit has commissioned and called can trust Him to direct them to where He has prepared His elect to receive the gospel. But oh, how important it is to be truly called of God Himself! For only then can His backing, authority, guidance, power, intervention, and protection be counted on.
D. Proclamation (v. 5)
The text says that the trio (John Mark is with them) began ministering at Salamis, which was the major port city and economic center of Cyprus. As became Paul’s usual custom, he entered the synagogues first—to present the Jews with their Messiah—and then presumably moved on to Gentiles. As a fellow Jew, especially a formerly prominent and powerful Pharisee, Paul would have automatic credibility with the Jewish people. Additionally, had he gone to Gentiles first, the Jewish population would consider that such an offense (and the gospel so thoroughly non-Jewish), that they never would listen.
They proclaimed the message of God, contained in the Scriptures and breathed out by Him, because that message, in those inspired words, tell men about God, Christ, sin, salvation, the glories of heaven and the terror of hell, and what we must do to live lives pleasing to Him. Missionaries must know the Scriptures and the gospel and be able to effectively proclaim them to men.
E. Protest (vv. 6-12)
Faithful, Spirit-anointed proclamation will always be protested by ungodly men, and probably a few demons as well. Paphos is the capital of Cyprus, located about 100 miles away from Salamis. This means they have gone about the entire width of the island proclaiming the gospel, likely winning some people to Christ. At Paphos, they encountered an ungodly false prophet, a Jewish man named Bar-Jesus (transliterated into Greek as Elymas), who had attached himself to the provincial governor of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus, who was doubtless fascinated by Elymas’s works of (demonic) magic, and likely believed this man was a true representative of Judaism. Sergius was likely tired of the debauchery and ugliness of paganism, and had heard of the God of the Jews. Perhaps he felt Elymas’s magic could help him find Him. But at some point, he had heard of the powerful ministries of Paul and Barnabas and wanted to meet them so he could hear God’s word from them. Elymas was furious and sought to dissuade Sergius from hearing the gospel. If Sergius followed Christ, Elymas’s influence on him would be broken. Paul, who is here first referred to by that name, thunderously rebukes Elymas—and miraculously causes him to be blind! The previously strong, powerful, influential man is now crippled and humiliated, trying to find someone to guide him by the hand. Sergius is stunned by this display of power that overrules the man he thought was so powerful, and he surrenders to the God whose teaching can crush a false prophet with a word (v. 12).
F. Premature Departure (v. 13)
By this point, John Mark has had enough, and he bails. This later creates a rift between Paul and Barnabas (15:36-39). He does not yet have the maturity and perseverance to work in full-time missions. This is an important point: Missionary work is intensely difficult; not anyone can be on the front lines of this ministry. Perhaps God had not called John Mark; perhaps he was not relying on the Spirit’s power to sustain and fortify him; perhaps he just was not spiritually strong and mature enough. This underscores the need for preparation, stability, and maturity on the part of missionaries. If they are mature, grace-filled, doctrinally sound, committed to a right message and a pure church, love people, and sensitive to the Spirit’s leading, a handful of them can accomplish far more lasting impact than dozens of carnal, immature, powerless people could. Quality over quantity is never truer than when dealing with world evangelization, and John Marks’ abortive ministry attempt underscores how critical it is to be called and prepared of God. Only then will we endure the harsh setbacks and struggles of ministry.
While God does not call every Christian to foreign missions, learning what a truly mature, spiritual missionary looks like is integral and imperative for a soundly-functioning church. Our ability to reach the world in places we will never good is only as powerful as the men and women we appoint for that ministry. May we be sensitive to the Spirit’s guidance to people of His choosing to reach His elect for the glory of the risen Christ!