Great Men of God

Acts 13:1

With the death of Herod, the church was again free to preach the gospel. The last great advance in winning souls had been the addition of many gentiles to the church in Antioch. Now Antioch became the springboard for the next great advance.

At this time, the church in Antioch was blessed with several outstanding leaders. The reader of the earlier chapters of Acts already knows Barnabas and Saul. Simeon called Niger (or "black") may have been the same Simeon who carried Jesus' cross. Lucius of Cyrene was probably one of the men from Cyrene who first took the gospel to the gentiles in Antioch. Manaen had ties to the royal family descended from Herod the Great, ruler of the Jews when Jesus was born. In the Greek, the expression "brought up with Herod" signifies that they were childhood friends. It is referring to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch who executed John the Baptist.

Scripture records the names of these leaders because at a critical moment in church history, each used his influence to move the church in the right direction. Each set an example of outstanding Christian leadership.

Getting Practical

Young people today idolize figures made famous by the media, even though very, very few picture a godly Christian life. The men Luke lists in this verse are the right models for young people. Each was a true hero, a spiritual giant, who dedicated his life to the glory of God. By comparison, most entertainers and sports stars are not heroes at all, because they seek their own glory. Most indeed are nothing but scoundrels flaunting every manner of wickedness.

The Spirit's Choice

Acts 13:2-3

As the believers in Antioch walked with God, the Holy Spirit showed them what to do next. The Spirit wanted the believers to set apart Saul and Barnabas for a new work. He did not reveal exactly what that work would be. Rather, they would find out as they followed His day-by-day direction. Yet, it was clear that He wanted them to leave Antioch and carry the gospel to new places. He implied that He had already given Saul and Barnabas their call to missionary service.

The church then spent much time in prayer and fasting. No doubt they asked God to protect these men as they went through many dangers and to give them a great harvest of souls. What they prayed was probably very similar to what we pray for our missionaries today.

Getting Practical

The events leading to Saul's first missionary journey show the way God usually puts new missionaries on the field.

  1. God impressed on Saul and Barnabas His desire that they serve Him as missionaries.
  2. He confirmed to the church that these men were indeed called of God.
  3. The church prayed for God's blessing on the work.
  4. The church sent off the missionaries with the laying on of hands.

Pondering a Question

What did the laying on of hands picture?

This ceremony pictured the relationship between the church and the apostles. It showed the five ways in which the church might be viewed as the sender and the apostles as those sent:

  1. The local church bestowed on the apostles its approval and blessing.
  2. The apostles were going out as representatives of the local church.
  3. They would remain in organic dependence upon the sending church, which would support them with prayer and perhaps with material resources.
  4. The local church communicated to them the authority to do the work of God, for as they went out, they would take all the authority that Christ granted the church.
  5. The local church communicated to them also the power of the Holy Spirit, for the church is where the Spirit resides. They would use this power to bring souls to Christ.

In summary, the ceremony was a reminder that the chief responsibility of the church is to send out laborers who will build the church, and a reminder too that a Christian worker receives the necessary support, authority, and power only because he is an instrument in accomplishing this task.

Pondering a Question

Does a missionary remain under the authority of the sending church?

Certainly not. He may conduct his ministry in any manner he feels is according to the leading of God. Nor is any church he establishes under the authority of the sending church. The new church is as independent and autonomous as any other local body of Christ. Yet if the missionary accepts support from churches and individuals, he is accountable to them for his use of it. He must verify that he is using it with stewardly care and for purposes they would approve.

Preaching in Cyprus

Acts 13:4-12

Saul and Barnabas traveled to the port city of Seleucia on the Mediterranean. As we learn later, John Mark, Barnabas's nephew, was a third member of the team. The first place they went was Cyprus, where the Jews had already heard the gospel. In Salamis, one of the principal cities, they followed a strategy that Saul retained throughout his years of ministry. They focused on the Jews first, going into all the synagogues and standing up to preach on the Sabbath. With his credentials as a highly trained rabbi, a former pupil of Gamaliel, Saul had no trouble finding an opportunity to speak. He only had to secure permission from the chief ruler of the synagogue.

Saul and Barnabas eventually made their way to Paphos, another principal city on the island. In Paphos, Saul and Barnabas went to the residence of the governor, Sergius Paulus, described as a "prudent" man. That is, he was wise and discerning, and he took a keen interest in the message of Saul and Barnabas. Yet he had come under the influence of another Jewish religious teacher, a false prophet and sorcerer named Bar-jesus, also called Elymas.

As Saul and Barnabas preached to the governor, Elymas stood by and tried to argue with them. Finally, Saul grew so annoyed that he sharply rebuked Elymas, calling him a subtle child of the devil and an enemy of righteousness. With a boldness and confidence flowing from the Holy Spirit, Saul called upon the Lord to strike Elymas with blindness "for a season" (that is, temporarily). Immediately, the sorcerer lost his sight, as if a mist had settled upon his eyes. He was helpless to move unless someone guided him by the hand.

Pondering a Question

Of all the ways that Paul might have used to counter the sorcerer's opposition, why did he choose to strike the man with blindness?

The motive behind Saul's harsh treatment of Elymas was not anger or spite. Saul was controlled not by the flesh, but by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, he was acting for the good of Elymas. He remembered from his own experience on the road to Damascus that blindness is very useful for humbling a proud man. He brought physical blindness on Elymas in the hope that it would open his spiritual eyes.

Moreover, Paul's way of dealing with Elymas was a quick and easy demonstration that any power the sorcerer claimed was no match for the power in Paul.

Whether Elymas ever repented of his sins, we do not know. But we do know that the miracle brought the governor to faith in Christ. He recognized that Saul had the power of God. The gospel that Saul and Barnabas were presenting was so different from anything he had heard before that he was astonished, yet he understood that it was different because it was true. It was not the sort of teaching that men devise, but the sort that would come from a perfect, holy God.

Delving Deeper

Every human religion exalts man, making him his own savior through works, rituals, or occult practices. Only Christianity identifies God as the Savior.

Pondering a Question

Why does Saul's name suddenly change to Paul in verse 9?

The name by which Saul was known throughout the rest of his life—Paul—appears for the first time in verse 9. Until the moment of this incident, Saul took second place to Barnabas. But after Saul showed unusual faith and courage in opposing the sorcerer, he became the team leader. This is the moment that Luke chooses to name him Paul, which means "little." To signify that he was nothing in himself, but solely a creature of grace, Paul preferred to known as "the little one."

The change in leadership is indicated not only by Saul's new name, but also by a new ordering when his name appears with others. Twice before verse 9, in verses 2 and 7, Barnabas is put first, but always after verse 9, first place goes to Paul. In verse 13, for example, the traveling group is described as "Paul and his company."

How did the change in leadership come about? Barnabas, the proper leader beforehand, must have initiated the change. In keeping with his best judgment and in submission to the Spirit's direction, he willingly yielded first place to Paul.

Mark's Departure

Acts 13:13

Paul and Barnabas now sailed from Paphos, intending to take the gospel to the vast unreached areas of Asia Minor. They landed on the southern coast at Perga in Pamphylia. For some reason not given, John Mark decided against going on. Some have suggested that he resented Paul taking over first place on the team. Instead of giving more help to the work, he went back to Jerusalem. Years later, Paul still viewed him as a quitter, but eventually Mark regained Paul's respect.

Getting Practical

In any hard task for God, it is easy to find very convincing reasons to give up and go home. Perseverance regardless of the difficulties is a mark of great spiritual maturity.

One reason an increasing percentage of missionaries are not remaining on the field is that many who are going out are too immature. They are not ready to man the front lines in God's war against the powers of darkness. Mark was likewise unready for the work. His departure from Paul damaged his reputation for years to come, although he eventually regained it.

Preaching in Pisidia

Acts 13:14-22

Paul and Barnabas did not stay in Perga, but traveled inland a short way to Antioch in Pisidia. On the Sabbath, they found the local synagogue and sat down with the congregation. The service went according to custom. First there was a reading from Old Testament Scripture. Then there was a sermon explaining and applying it.

When the rulers of the synagogue saw Paul and Barnabas, they recognized them as teachers and invited them to speak. Paul accepted the invitation and stood up. In his opening words he addressed two kinds of people in the audience. There were Jews and there were "God-fearers." The latter was a common way of describing the many gentiles who regularly attended a synagogue and worshiped the God of Israel.

Like Stephen's sermon before the Sanhedrin, Paul's began with a review of the nation's history. The lesson Stephen drew from this history was that the nation had always been rebellious. Paul wanted to extract a very different lesson. He wanted to show God's purpose in always being gracious to Israel. God had shepherded and preserved the nation so that someday it could produce the Messiah, the Savior of the world. This was God's ultimate goal

  1. when He chose the nation originally, in the days of the patriarchs;
  2. when He delivered the nation from bondage in Egypt;
  3. when He tolerated their disobedience in the wilderness and gave them a home in Canaan;
  4. when He provided judges to rule them four hundred years;
  5. when He gave them a king, Saul;
  6. when He replaced Saul with a better king, David, who was a man after God's own heart.

Paul reminded the Jews of God's disclosure to David and the prophets that the Messiah would come from David's line.

Declaring Christ

Acts 13:23-41

Paul now made the sensational announcement that he had been preparing his audience to accept. He said that the Christ (Greek for "Messiah") had recently come. He was Jesus. Paul said no more to identify Him because Jews everywhere had no doubt heard about Jesus' life and ministry.

In just a few words, Paul presented a strong case that Jesus was the Christ.

1) He was David's seed—that is, a descendant of David. The apostles could declare this fact without fear of contradiction because the truth was well known. During Jesus' lifetime, the crowds hailed Him as the son of David. When Jesus went for trial before Pilate, Pilate asked Him whether He was the king of the Jews. It is obvious that even the Roman governor knew about Jesus' royal pedigree.

Delving Deeper

Jews today still revere the Talmud, a voluminous record of what the ancient rabbis believed and taught. The Talmud states that the Sanhedrin gave Jesus special treatment because He was "near to the kingship." The claim is not true. It is merely an effort to sidestep the accusation that the Sanhedrin treated Jesus unjustly. But it is significant as proof that the Davidic descent of Jesus was widely known and never disputed, even by His enemies.

2) John the Baptist, a man all Jews accepted as a prophet of God, testified that Jesus was the Christ. John said that he was not worthy even to untie Jesus' shoelaces. Untying shoelaces was the first step when a servant washed the feet of a visitor to his master's home. Thus, what John meant was that he was not worthy even to begin washing Jesus' feet.

3) In rejecting Jesus and sending Him to His death, the Jewish leaders brought to pass exactly what Scripture prophesied. It said that He would die a criminal's death though He had done nothing wrong.

4) God raised up Jesus from the dead. He then appeared to His own followers so that they could declare to all that He was alive.

5) His resurrection fulfilled several prophecies in the Old Testament. Paul emphasized David's prophecy in Psalm 16 that the Holy One would die, but not see corruption. The Jews thought that David was speaking about himself, so Paul pointed out that David did see corruption after he died. His body decayed like any other dead body. The Holy One who would rise from the grave was not David, but Christ.

Paul then explained why it is important to believe in Jesus. By believing in Him, we gain two great benefits. First, we obtain forgiveness of sins and avoid the penalty we deserve. Second, we are justified before God. That is, God credits us with the moral perfection of Jesus. We need His perfection in order to live forever with a perfect God. The Jews thought they could be justified just by keeping the law of Moses, but Paul declared they were badly mistaken. He did not say why, because he expected them to see the obvious. To keep the whole law is impossible—every man continually slips into sin of one kind or another.

Paul's closing words were a stern warning. He quoted Habakkuk 1:5, which he applied to the future day when Christ would die for the sins of the world. When the world heard what Christ had done, many would not believe. Whoever despised Him and despised the message of salvation would perish in his sins.

Getting Practical

Paul's final warning to unbelievers is an example for us. If we encounter resistance when witnessing for Christ, we should, with gentleness and evident compassion, warn of the consequences in rejecting Him.

Great Interest

Acts 13:42-43

Paul's sermon had an electrifying effect on the synagogue. After the service, the Jews left first, as was the custom. But Paul and Barnabas stayed behind and greeted the gentiles, who begged them to preach again on the following Sabbath. These God-fearers were anxious to hear more, because they wanted to come to the right decision. They did not want to suffer the awful fate that, according to Paul's sermon, awaited anyone who despised God's work of salvation.

When Paul and Barnabas walked outside, a large number of Jews and Jewish proselytes (gentiles who had gone through all the rituals necessary to be considered full Jews) were waiting for them. They fell in behind the apostles as they walked along and listened as the apostles exhorted them "to continue in the grace of God." This advice applied equally to those who already believed and those who were inclined to believe. By welcoming the gospel, they had allowed God's grace to work in their hearts. Now they needed to remain open to whatever else God would teach them.

Turning to the Gentiles

Acts 13:44-49

As the gentiles requested, Paul and Barnabas returned to the synagogue on the following Sabbath. The news of their appearance a week earlier had caused such a stir that nearly every Jew and gentile in the city came to hear them preach again. The synagogue was packed. Never before had the Jews seen such a multitude gather to hear the Word of God.

Some of the regular attendees were glad. But some among the Jews, especially certain leaders, were very upset. Their reaction was a mixture of jealousy and fear. They resented the apostles' ability to draw far more people than ever came to hear them, and they feared that if the new teaching was widely accepted, they would lose control of the synagogue. Leadership would pass to others.

Delving Deeper

Other factors may have been involved as well. Perhaps the Jewish leaders were simply distrustful of anything new. That is, they jumped to conclusions without investigating all the facts.

Perhaps also their reaction revealed prejudice against the gentiles. They were content to have the gentiles sit in the back and listen to Jewish teachers. But Paul brought a leveling message, proposing to create a new body of believers that would bring gentiles into equality with the Jews, whereas the Jews liked to be superior.

For whatever reasons, at least some Jewish leaders took the floor and began to denounce Paul and Barnabas. They contradicted what Paul taught and blasphemed the name of Jesus. But Paul and Barnabas did not shrink into silence. They took the floor too and boldly rebuked their opponents. They stated that it was their duty to preach the gospel to the Jews first. But now that the Jewish leaders had scorned their opportunity for eternal life, the apostles would turn to the gentiles and offer them the gospel. Paul quoted Isaiah 49:6, which prophesied that Christ would provide salvation not for the Jews only, but for the whole world.

The gentiles were delighted at this turn of events. The gentiles "glorified the word of the Lord"—the word that promised salvation to all. They were glad that above the gate of heaven there was no sign reading "Jews only." The message that Paul and Barnabas preached in Antioch of Pisidia apparently won few converts among the Jews, but many among the gentiles.

The ones who believed were "ordained to eternal life." That is, throughout eternity beyond time, God had always known and loved those He would fashion into the likeness of Christ. Their coming to Christ was the outworking of an eternal plan.

The new believers were so excited about the gospel that they quickly spread it to the whole surrounding region.

Apostles Expelled

Acts 13:50-52

Meanwhile in Antioch, the Jews hostile to the apostles were busy trying to stop them. They enlisted on their side a number of important people, both women and men. The women were devout Jews, very attached to their religious traditions. Probably they were among the older, wealthier members of the community. The men were gentile leaders of the city. These two factions had enough power to make Paul and Barnabas leave town.

Paul and Barnabas were not defeated. They merely shook the dust of Antioch off their shoes and marched on to another town where they could preach the gospel.

Pondering a Question

What was the meaning in shaking the dust off their shoes?

Shaking off the dust was a gesture that Jesus recommended His disciples perform when they left a city resistant to the truth (Matt. 10:14). The meaning was that the disciples must keep the unbelief of others from touching themselves.

The new disciples left behind in Antioch were still filled with joy about their salvation. The Holy Spirit multiplied their joy as well as all the other wonderful virtues that are the fruit of His presence in a man's heart (Gal. 5:22).

Getting Practical

Many people today are interested in religion if it relieves their boredom and adds excitement to their lives. Especially attractive is the false religion we might call emotionalism, which replaces true worship with dramatic experiences falsely attributed to the Holy Spirit. These include laughing or sobbing uncontrollably, jumping with hysterical joy or falling down as if slain, speaking gibberish or becoming dead silent, and many other childish and disreputable forms of behavior. But the first and primary evidence of the real Spirit is the quiet virtues listed in Galatians 5:22.

Getting Practical

In the conversions recorded in Acts, the result is a dramatic change from living for self to living for God. We should view the Christianity of the early church as normal Christianity, not as exceptional Christianity. In our churches today, we do not see many dramatic turnarounds after decisions for Christ. Why? One reason is that many people who come forward for salvation in postmodern America view religion not as truth, but as something to try. They have a consumer mentality. To counter this trend, the church should always keep truth claims in the forefront. It should always clearly recommend Christianity on the grounds that it is true, not on the grounds that it works. It does work as a solution to problems and as a source of purpose in life, but it works because it is true.