Studies in the Book of Acts
Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.
Chapter 13: Paul Takes the Gospel to Cyprus and Asia Minor (Acts 12:25-14:28)
Barnabas and Saul take Mark (12:25)
The closing verse of Acts 12 picks up the story of the trip of Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem to deliver the relief fund, which is mentioned in 11:30. In neither place does Luke give any details about what happens in Jerusalem. In 12:25, Luke simply notes that Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch after the relief visit. Luke mentions that John Mark accompanies them from Jerusalem to Antioch. His presence will be important to a later disagreement between Paul and Barnabas.
As mentioned earlier, Paul’s trip to Jerusalem probably occurs after Herod dies. His death may be what makes Paul’s trip to Jerusalem safe and feasible. (If Herod imprisoned Peter to please the Jews, he surely would have put Paul in prison, too, because that would have pleased them even more.)
The church at Antioch (13:1-2)
We have reached a pivotal point in Luke’s account of the growth of the church and spread of the gospel. Up to now, Jerusalem and Judea have been the center of his story. Peter has been the most prominent person in the narrative. Now, Luke shifts his interest to the church at Antioch. Luke says that in the Antioch church there are both prophets and teachers — two important classes of individuals in the church community.
Paul says that prophesying and teaching are gifts of God, given by him for the proper functioning of the church (Romans 12:4-8). In the outline of church roles Paul describes to the Corinthians, prophets and teachers are mentioned just after apostles (1 Corinthians 12:28). In a later epistle, Paul inserts the role of evangelist between that of prophet and teacher (Ephesians 4:11).
Luke names five prophets and teachers in Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been raised with Herod) and Saul. Their names show that they come from a wide variety of social and ethnic backgrounds.
Barnabas is mentioned first by Luke, as he is the apostolic delegate and a leading figure in the Jerusalem church (9:27; 11:22-30). We already know him as a Levite from Cyprus who lived in Jerusalem (4:36-37). More than this, we know him as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (11:24).
Simeon has the Latin nickname Niger, or “the Black.” His name is Jewish, so it is unlikely that he is African, though he may have had dark skin. The nickname may distinguish him from other Simons in the church, such as Simon Peter.
Lucius has a Latin name. It’s possible though not certain that he is a Gentile, because he is from Cyrene in North Africa. Perhaps he was part of the Cyrenian group that first preached the gospel of salvation to the Gentiles of Antioch (11:20).
Manaen is the Greek form of the Hebrew Menahem, which means “comforter.” He was “brought up with Herod the tetrarch” (13:1). This is the Herod of the Gospels, whom Jesus once called “that fox” (Luke 13:32). This Herod was responsible for the imprisonment and death of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-28). If Manaean grew up with him, it is possible that he was taken to the royal court to be a companion of the prince; such boys were then called “foster brothers.”
What a commentary on the mystery and sovereignty of divine grace that, of these two boys who were brought up together, one should attain honor as a Christian leader, while the other should best be remembered for his inglorious behavior in the killing of John the Baptist and in the trial of Jesus! [Bruce, 245.]
Paul is mentioned last by Luke, and he continues to use the Jewish form of his name, Saul. He is last because he is a relative newcomer to Antioch (11:25). But he will soon take center stage in Luke’s account, while the others, with the exception of Barnabas, will no longer play a part in the story.
Holy Spirit sets apart (13:2-3)
After introducing us to the leaders of the Antioch church, Luke tells us that the church is “worshiping the Lord and fasting” (13:2). He doesn’t explain why the disciples are fasting, but some reason is probably behind it. Perhaps the church is thinking of moving its missionary venture beyond the confines of Antioch. Or they have already decided to do so and are wondering who should lead the endeavor. The church may be in a special meeting, asking God to make his will known in the matter. That is exactly what God does. The answer to the mission question comes from the Holy Spirit, who says: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2).
The importance of the present narrative is that it describes the first piece of planned “overseas mission” carried out by representatives of a particular church…and begun by a deliberate church decision, inspired by the Spirit, rather than somewhat more causally as a result of persecution. [I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), page 214.]
Luke doesn’t define what this “work” is, but from subsequent events, it’s clear that it has to do with a mission to the Gentiles. Neither does Luke explain how the Holy Spirit makes his will known. Perhaps what happens is that the Spirit moves one of the prophets to name the missionaries. Here we have echoes of the Old Testament prophets bringing God’s message through his prophets. We are reminded of the story of the Judean king Jehoshaphat and his people who were praying and fasting in Jerusalem. They were hoping for God’s intervention against a large army coming against the nation. Then, suddenly, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon” a prophet who gave God’s will. The nation would be saved without having to fight a battle with the enemy (2 Chronicles 20:14).
Now, at Antioch, God is showing his will about another, quite different concern. This new and monumental enterprise of spreading the gospel around the Roman Empire, particularly to Gentiles, will be no mere human initiative. God will guide it through the Holy Spirit. One of Luke’s continuing purposes is to show that the Holy Spirit initiates and guides the activities of the church. This theme — pointed up in 13:2 — is a regular occurrence in the first half of Acts. [Acts 4:31; 8:29, 39; 10:44; 16:6.]
Thus, it is through the Spirit that Barnabas and Paul are separated for the task of evangelizing. Then they are “sent on their way by the Holy Spirit” (13:4). While the church “sent them off,” they are really dispatched by the Spirit. Luke is showing that Paul’s work will occur in cooperation and continuity with the church and the other apostles. Paul is not a lone ranger, but a person who respects both the church and the congregation of Israel, even as he preaches a revolutionary message to Gentiles.
We do not find here…a renegade apostle who abandons Israel and delivers a suspect gospel to the Gentiles, but an apostle whose divine commission is confirmed by prophetic election and the charge of the church, whose activities are not only filled with the prophetic spirit but mirror those of Jesus and Peter before him, who remains in constant contact with Jerusalem, and who until the very end of the story tries to convert his fellow Jews. [Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina series, volume 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1992), page 225.]
Even after the prophet utters God’s will regarding Barnabas and Paul, the church continues to fast and pray, no doubt for God’s continuing guidance. The leaders then place “their hands on them and sent them off” (13:3). The imposition of hands used on this occasion shows that the church supports these men as doing God’s will. The Antioch church leaders, by the laying on of hands, agree that Barnabas and Paul have the authority to act on behalf of the Christian community at Antioch. The church leaders’ action of imposing hands is taken on behalf of the entire church community at Antioch.
In Acts, the leaders of the church make decisions and take actions that represent its thinking as a whole. [Acts 1:15, 6:2, 5; cf. 14:27; 15:22.] The idea is that the church as a whole, not just the leaders or a single prophet, is motivated by the Spirit. Both the leadership and the community together are working under the direction of the Spirit to set apart Barnabas and Paul for evangelistic work.