Sunday 25 August 2013

The Expendables (Acts 13:1-12)

What missions is not

Over the coming weeks we will be concluding our series from the book of Acts looking at a mission trip. Acts Chapters 13 and 14 record for us what is often called the first missionary journey of Paul. For the first time in history a church appoints two people, Paul and Barnabas, as its first missionaries and sends them overseas.

This was new. If you look back to the last verse of Chapter 12 - specifically, verse 25 - we find Barnabas and Saul completing a mission to Jerusalem. We might read that and go, “Didn’t they just come back from a mission?” Well, actually no; at least not in the sense that we are going to use the word “mission” in the coming weeks. There in 12:25, Barnabas and Paul are returning from a trip to Jerusalem to bring aid and money during a time of crisis. Back in Chapter 11 the church in Antioch raised money to help the church in Jerusalem because of a famine about to hit the region and they sent the money down to Jerusalem, verse 30 tell us, “by Barnabas and Saul.” The word used is diakonia, translated “mission” in 12:25, but is actually a Greek word that means service or ministry.

This is important because mission is not about visiting churches in other countries. The purpose of mission is not to expand your horizons, as if, missions were something good you could do in your gap year before starting university. Missions isn’t even about bringing aid or building schools in Third World countries. There is nothing wrong with building schools or sending aid, of course, but doing these things as a Christian in a faraway land does not make you a missionary.

Rather, the heart of missions has to do with the Word of God. You see, Acts Chapter 13 records the beginning of the very first intentional, church-ordained, Holy Spirit-empowered mission to the nations, and yet, the focus of this passage is not on the sending but on the speaking. It is not the sending of these missionaries that forms the basis of missions. It is the speaking of the gospel by these first missionaries - the proclamation of the word of God - that defines what biblical missions looks like.

I think we miss the point when we say things like, “The mission of the Chinese Church is to reach other Chinese people.” Or when we say, “Our mission is transform the city of Cambridge for Jesus.” Missions is not about our agenda. Missions is not about getting people to join the Chinese Church. Missions is God’s plan to bring all things under the authority of Jesus Christ and the way he does - and I dare even to say, the only way God has chosen to do this - is through the gospel.

Just in case you think I’m making this up, well, there is a passage where Jesus gives us his definition of his mission. We find this at the end of Luke Chapter 4, where Jesus is casting out evil spirits, he is healing lots of people and as a result everyone was looking for Jesus to help them with their problems. What does Jesus do? He leaves. I wonder if that surprises you.

Jesus leaves this large crowd so eager to seek his help because (he says this), “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” And that word “sent” is the word for missions (The Latin word missio simply means “sent”). What is Jesus saying? The reason why he was sent; the purpose of his mission on earth - was not simply to heal people and gather huge crowds around him. The purpose of his mission was to speak the gospel. “I must preach the gospel … to the other towns also,” Jesus said, “because this is why I was sent.”

Acts 13 is here to remind us of the same purpose. The reason why these first missionaries were chosen; the reason why Paul and Barnabas were sent on this first missionary journey was to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations.

Prophets and teachers

1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.
Acts 13:1

The chapter begins with the church. Incidentally, if you turn to the end of Chapter 14, the first mission ends also with Paul and Barnabas returning to this same church. That is, the church in Antioch didn’t simply send out the first missionaries, they received them back as well. That was always the plan: to send Paul and Barnabas out to the mission field, not to forget them once they had gone, but rather, to eagerly receive them back as their partners in the gospel.

Verse 1 opens with a picture of what this church was like. It gives us a list of the “prophets and teachers” in this church at Antioch; a list of its leaders. We have Barnabas and Saul at the beginning and the end of the list. That is not surprising as they were, in effect, the founding pastors of this church. But what is surprising is reading the names of the other three leaders in this church.

Simeon called Niger was Simeon the Black. That is what “Niger” means: Black (or Blackie)! It means he was probably of dark-skinned and of African descent. So, too, was Lucius who came from Cyrene, a region in Africa. Then, you have Manaen who was brought up with Herod the tetrarch. That’s like saying he went to university with Prince William. This guy, Herod was royalty (different from the Herod who got eaten by worms last week in Acts 12, who was his nephew). In other words, Manaen came from a rich family and had lots of powerful connections.

Together with Barnabas and Saul, these five men were the key leaders in the church. They were the “prophets and teachers” in the church. Now why do you think the bible record these names for us? Because it tells us something about what this church was like. It was mixed-up! What is mean is: the people who came to this church were from all kinds of background. Some were rich and some were poor. Some were Jewish but most of them weren’t. Some were local, as in Greek, but many like Simeon and Lucius were from Africa, and looked different from everyone else, and sounded different from everyone else whenever they went up front to do the bible reading.

And I think it says something about how God chose to use this church to send out the first missionaries, as opposed to say, the church in Jerusalem. The church in Antioch was a mixed-up church chosen to reach a mixed-up world. That’s a good thing. The term we tend to use here in the UK is “international”. If you’re studying in Cambridge as someone who has come from Hong Kong, China, Lithuania, America, Italy or Spain, you are an “international” student; and churches have “international” ministries like “international” cafes to reach such “international” students. But don’t you see, God wasn’t using a local church to reach internationals. He was using internationals to reach internationals.

It is one thing for churches in the UK to have international ministries; for the minister to stand up on a Sunday and say to the congregation, “Isn’t it wonderful that the nations are represented in our gathering here this morning.” It is quite another to have that reflected not just in the laity but in the leadership. Acts tells us nothing about who was attending the church; Acts tells us a lot about who was leading that church in Antioch. People like Barnabas, and outsider to Antioch who had come from Jerusalem; people like Simeon nicknamed “Blackie”, people like Lucius who was from a totally different region in the world, people like Manaen who went to Cambridge and even people like Saul who used to try and kill Christians. It is one thing to run an international ministry or even to support international missions. That’s easy. What made this church “international” was its leadership: faithful men of God who came from different backgrounds, cultures and nations.

I wonder when will local churches which boast of large numbers of Chinese students coming to faith in their congregations start employing their first Chinese pastor? I wonder when will Chinese Churches which have been in the UK for fifty years start recruiting their first local pastor? Don’t mishear me: I’m not saying, “Look outside and import them in.” I’m saying, “Open your eyes and see who’s there.” It is about training leaders within our congregations and entrusting them with responsibility and opportunity within our churches.

But more importantly, it is recognising men who speak God’s word faithfully and clearly. These men were “prophets and teachers”, verse 1 tells us. To such men, God chose to speak clearly and powerfully, saying, “Set apart Barnabas 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 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
Acts 13:2-3

(I know some commentaries say that God spoke to the church as a whole at this point. I think that is very possibly the case. However, given that Luke has just introduced the five key leaders in Antioch, I do think it would be more natural for the focus to still be on these five leaders. Now if this so, what makes these verses so remarkable for me is how these leaders who are all entrusted with teaching the church and leading the church had committed themselves to worshipping God together as the leadership of the church. I think this is absolutely marvellous: Leaders who fellowship with one another in service [the words leitourgous and proskuneus have elements of priestly service and ministry] also fast together and commit one another to God in prayer. What wonderful fellowship! What amazing partnership and accountability amongst leaders of God’s people!)

So as they are worshipping together and fasting together, God speaks to these five men saying, “Set apart Barnabas and Saul.” Notice this, God’s calling is for these two men, yes, but is made clear to the church as a whole. Why is that? Why doesn’t God just tell Barnabas and Saul, “Hey, you two! I want you on the next boat to Cyprus!” Why doesn’t God just make it clear to the two men he wants to be on the mission? Why does God impress this calling upon the other leaders in the church?

The clue lies in that phrase, “Set apart.” You see, Barnabas and Saul were key leaders in the church. They were the founding pastors. When you think of mission, chances are you think of, well, missionaries. You think of someone specifically trained to go into the mission field. Do you see what God is telling the church to do? “Send your pastors out on mission.”

That is what they did. Verse 3 says that they laid hands on them and sent them off, but to be more accurate, what they did was cut them loose. (Apelusan means to untie something; to let it go).

I think that means it wasn’t the easiest thing for them to do. We want to keep our best people serving with us. It is tempting to worry about our own church health and our own search for a pastor. Mission? We’ll deal with that when we have a surplus of leaders; when our church is growing and we have more than we need, why then, we’ll send some leaders out on mission. We’ll make sure they’re competent, of course. But essentially, what we do is send in the Expendables; the people we can do without.

Who did God pick to be on his mission team? The two most senior pastors in the church. The two most able teachers in the church. Humanly speaking, God picked the two most essential leaders of the church.

The call was not for their benefit, it was for the church’s, do you see? “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” I suspect that God had already impressed upon Barnabas and Saul this call to missions, that is why he says, “I have called them.” Past tense. It was a done deal. But God then impresses this same calling upon the whole church for their benefit: so that the church would let them go. Therefore when it says in verse 3 that they placed their hands on Barnabas and Saul, it was their way of saying, “We’re with you in this mission that God has called you to.”

If you asked someone from Antioch, “What is your church’s mission?” I think they would have said, “To make Jesus known, especially… especially in parts of the world that have never heard of Jesus before. Our mission is to speak this gospel to the nations.” For them, mission was not about their church agenda. Mission was getting the message of Jesus out to the world. Not all of them could do this. Not all would become missionaries - only two were sent. But the reason why Acts 13 begins with the church as whole is because the whole church was committed to God’s mission.

A false prophet

4 The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper.
Acts 13:4-5

The heart of God’s mission is the good news about Jesus. Now when Barnabas and Saul arrive in Cyprus, the didn’t have any doubt as to what they were there to do. They didn’t sit down and think, “Hmm, I wonder how I can get people interested in Jesus. Maybe I’ll start an international cafe. Maybe I’ll take out a guitar and start singing some worship songs in Market Square.” From the get go, Barnabas and Saul went straight to the Jewish synagogues; opened up their bibles, and spoke about Jesus. (We’ll see that next week in verse 13 onwards where Acts gives us the text to an actual sermon Paul in one of these Jewish meetings).

That is, Barnabas and Saul were in no doubt whatsoever what it meant for them to be missionaries. Why? Because it meant doing the exact same thing they did back in their home church of Antioch: “They proclaimed the word of God.” Now isn’t that interesting? God chose two bible teachers to be on his mission team. Many people study Paul to get some kind of special insight into evangelism. What illustrations did he use? Who did he talk to? Friends, what he did and all he did was teach the bible and tell people about Jesus. Paul did this as boldly, as clearly and to as many people as he could as a pastor, as a bible teacher and as a missionary.

That is the reason why verse 1 begins with a list of “prophets and teachers.” The moment you read that phrase, the question that immediately pops into your mind is, “Who was the prophet and who was the teacher?” The answer is: It doesn’t tell us. Which of the five were the prophets and which of the five leaders were teachers? It doesn’t tell us. Why? Because that isn’t the question that bible is answering. We are asking the wrong question. The question that verse 1 is answering is: Who are the leaders of the church? Answer: The prophets and the teachers. It is a way of saying: The leaders are those who are entrusted with speaking God’s word to God’s people, do you see?

A prophet in the Old Testament was someone who said, “Thus saith the Lord!” Or in modern English, “This is what God is saying to you.” That is, a prophet speaks on behalf of God to his people as his spokesman; as his representative. The teacher is someone who does the exact same thing - he speaks on behalf of God - but he does this by pointing his hearers to the bible and says, “Thus saith the Lord!”

In both cases, the prophet and the teacher are speaking on behalf of God. Neither one of them are giving their own opinions or ideas. Both of them are entrusted as messengers, to speak on behalf of God as clearly and as accurately as is possible. Therefore, when Acts points to these prophets and teachers and says, “Here are the leaders of the church,” what it is saying is: Here are leaders whose authority lie in God’s word. What it is saying is: Here are men entrusted with authority over God’s people, who themselves, are under the authority of God’s word. But most importantly, what Acts is saying is this: when these men spoke from God’s word, God spoke.

Barnabas and Saul did in the mission field what they had always done in the church: They spoke God’s word with all of God’s authority pointing to the salvation that comes through God’s Son.

When you see that, you begin to see how these first few verses in Acts 13 are there to set us up - to get us ready - for an explosive encounter with a false prophet, a man named Bar-Jesus.

6 They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7 who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 9 Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 10 “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? ”
Acts 13:6-10

Bar-Jesus is a man with many names! First of all, Bar-Jesus literally means “Son of Jesus”. Yet in verse 8, he is also called “Elymas” which apparently means sorcerer or magician. On top of that, Paul calls this guy a child of the devil in verse 10. The combination of these names (Bar-Jesus, Elymas) and descriptions (sorcerer, child of the devil) might make us think of some dreadful evil character like Voldemort or Gargamel, you know, someone who looks dark and sinister and dresses in a long black robe with horns sticking out of his head.

But remember that this guy is an advisor to an important politician, in verse 7, the proconsul whose name was Sergius Paulus, a man who is described as someone who is intelligent. By the way, the proconsul was a very important and senior position within the Roman Senate (the highest in fact). You didn’t get to this rank by being a dimwit.

Furthermore, look back to verse 6 and see how Elymas was first described as a Jewish sorcerer and a false prophet. This description, together with his close association with the proconsul tells me that Elymas, if anything, was more sneaky than he was sinister. He was intelligent. He must have spoken well, with an air of great authority, in order to have the ear of the proconsul. I wonder if Elymas, in appearance, was actually rather respectable and conservative - the way a political advisor today would be dressed in suit and tie.

You see, that’s the false prophet. The false prophet is false because of what he says, because of what he teaches, not because of what he looks like. If anything, he might look altogether quite genuine in order to perpetuate his false teaching. And that’s the rub. The encounter between Elymas and Saul is in reality a showdown between the true prophet of God and the false imitation. Both Saul and Elymas were Jewish. Both of them spoke with authority about matters of great importance and both had the attention of the proconsul. Which one was true?

So you see, what Paul does, when he calls Elymas the child of the devil and the enemy of the truth and a perversion of God’s way of truth, is expose Elymas for who he really is. He might be known as “Bar-Jesus” - a son of Jesus - but in reality he is a son of the devil. He might go to the synagogue on weekends and call himself a Jew but in reality he is a sorcerer.

But the most damning statement that Paul makes is at the end of verse 10 where he says, “Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?” The ESV has, “Will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?”

What is a false prophet? He is someone who takes something straightforward about God and makes it hard to understand. That’s what Paul is saying. Do you know anyone like that? Someone who sets up roadblocks to people come to know Jesus.

The proconsul invites Barnabas and Saul to talk about the gospel but in verse 8, Elymas opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. Elymas’ job was turning people away from trusting in Jesus. Friends, that’s the false prophet. Someone who uses his influence to distract his friends from becoming a Christian. And Paul says to him, “Will you not stop making crooked the straight paths,” meaning, the way that Elymas does this is through distraction; is through manipulation; is through coercion. Christianity is pretty straightforward: Trust in Jesus. He died for your sins. You receive his reward. He now lives as your risen Lord. You are forgiven and reconciled to God. It’s a pretty straight-going straightforward message. What the false prophet does is complicate things with the intention of turning people away from this simple message.

The true prophet

And what Paul does next is show him what a true prophet is about. He says to him...

11 Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.

Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. 12 When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.
Acts 13:11

Paul speaks directly to Elymas with a judgement that comes directly from God. “Now the hand of the Lord is against you.” Remember, a prophet is not someone with super-powers. No, the prophet of God is simply a spokesman who speaks on God’s behalf. Paul was merely conveying the truth of God’s judgement on God’s behalf.

I can’t help but sense though that Paul was saying something to the effect of, “Enough is enough!” and I think you can see why. The greatest frustration and enemy to the gospel is not persecution but false teaching. It is false teaching that obscures the truth about Jesus to the point that it makes it hard for people to understand who he is and what he did on the cross. It is false teaching that makes much about our own intellect and wisdom instead the reality of our sin and God’s grace. It is false doctrine like the prosperity gospel which makes it about what we can get from God rather than making God our true and greatest treasure.

And this judgement from God that results in Elymas going blind - notice, for a time - is a reflection of the blindness that comes from listening to such false prophets and teachers. The reason I highlight that phrase, “for a time,” is because, such judgement is also God’s provision for repentance, something Paul would have been familiar with from experience, having himself been struck blind on that road to Damascus.

Sergius Paulus, the proconsul, sees what happened, and verse 21 tells us, believed. That is, he became a Christian. But notice why? “For he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.” It wasn’t what Paul did that made him a Christian, it was what Paul said about Jesus that truly amazed him and made him want to give his life to Jesus.

In the midst of this showdown with Elymas, with him being struck with blindness; and with the conversion of this powerful politician, Sergius Paulus; we might have missed one important development in this record of Paul’s first missionary journey. A turning point occurs in verse 9 where Saul is now introduced with his new name, Paul. What is going on here?

From this point onwards in Acts, Saul will ever only be known as Paul. Furthermore, the mission team is no longer referred to as “Barnabas and Saul” but will from this point onwards be introduced in Acts as “Paul and Barnabas” (notice verse 13, “Paul and his companions” and verse 42, “Paul and Barnabas”). From this point onwards, Paul took the lead. No longer would he be known by his Jewish name, Saul. He is now Paul, a Roman name he now used as he travelled the Roman world on his mission to preach Christ.

And I think that Luke, the author of Acts, highlights this transition for our benefit as the reader, as if to say, this is what the true prophet looks like. It is Paul who speaks the gospel as the word of God. Revelation 19:10 tells us what prophecy looks like, “It is the spirit of prophecy that bears testimony to Jesus.” The prophet is not someone who is able to predict the future - that’s not what prophecy means. No, the true prophet is someone who “bears testimony to Jesus.”

Last week, I spent an hour speaking to two people who were so convinced that what the church needs most today are prophets. The two of them were Mormons. According to them, the church has strayed from the teaching of Jesus by rejecting the place of prophets in the leadership, to such a point, that the church today is no longer the true church. Why? Because it has lost the voice of the prophets.

Friends, what Acts 13 teaches us is that this world is full of prophets, but more importantly, that most of them are likely to be false. From the way my two Mormon friends described the prophets they had in church, to me, those prophets sounded a lot more like Elymas than they did Paul. These guys who took something as simple and straightforward as the gospel and made it about something other than Jesus. I found myself saying to my two friends, “What you need are not more prophets. What you really need is Jesus.”

The true prophet points to Jesus. He does that by preaching the gospel. That is what Paul and Barnabas did in verse 5, “they proclaimed the word of God,” and in verse 7 with Sergius Paulus who wanted to “hear the word of God” and in verse 12, when he was amazed with the “teaching about the Lord.” Again and again, all they did was open up the bible and tell people about Jesus. Acts says: That’s prophecy, right there! These are not two guys going around doing bible study with a whole bunch of people. No, these two men, Paul and Barnabas are chosen by God to speak his words to his people and bring them to life.

That is what they did the church in Antioch where they were prophets and teachers. That is what they continued to do in the mission field. By God’s grace, that is what we hope to do here in the Chinese Church.

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