Acts (Part 19) - Preparing for the First Missionary Journey
That Peter told those gathered at Mary’s house in Jerusalem to give the message of his release to James first and not to the other apostles has significant implication. Some suggest that Peter is turning over the reigns of the church universal to James. This simply is not so, and I think the rest of the book of Acts (as well as the rest of the New Testament) attest to that.
The apostles had a specific mission to perform. Jesus chose them to teach, to witness his resurrection, and then to testify of what they had seen and heard to the world. As they did so in the initial years after Christ ascended, many people heard and believed. And those people developed into a church that required organization. Early on the apostles realized this need and emphasized that they were not the ones to provide the organization. In Acts 6 they gave organizational responsibility for some ministerial (read that—service) duties to deacons. As the church continued to grow, more organizational details required attention—attention that the apostles were not willing to give for justified fear of diluting their own calling. So elders were appointed to support the church. James (brother of Jesus) was one of the elders.
Peter asks the prayer group to give the news to James because he believes James, in his role of organizational support, will disseminate the news throughout the church. This news was necessary to report so that the people would understand and have confidence that the Holy Spirit was in control—not Herod. And Peter couldn’t deliver this news himself because Herod would be looking for him. Peter was on the run.
Where Peter went we do not know. Verse 17b of Acts 12 tells us only that “he departed and went to another place.” Perhaps he decided to follow Paul to Tarsus or Antioch. Perhaps Peter travelled south to Egypt. A trip to Egypt would provide an interesting parallel to Jesus’ journey after his birth, travelling to Egypt to escape from another Herod who wanted him killed. Jesus did not return until that Herod died. Just so, Peter stays out of sight until Herod Agrippa dies.
Verses 18 and 19 tell us the fate of those soldiers who could not explain how Peter escaped. The guards were executed, receiving for their failure the punishment of the one they were supposed to have guarded. Herod was angry; the Sanhedrin and other Pharisees and Sadducees scattered through Jerusalem and Judea were upset as well. Their expectation of the squash of this new religion vanished. Agrippa, now somewhat out of favor with the Jews for his failed conquest, decided to leave Jerusalem and head for his palace in Caesarea.
The effects of the famine, prophesied by Agabus in 12:28, were beginning to be felt by smaller nations. Phoenicia (in which Tyre and Sidon were located) had some territorial disagreement with Agrippa. But Phoenicia depended on Judea for much of their food supply. So they humbled themselves and made peace with Agrippa. That is the background to verses 12 through 23. Agrippa stands before them and gives a speech accepting their proffer of peace. He is lauded for his words and grace. The people shout that it “is the voice of a god, and not of a man!” (12:22). And for his arrogance and pride in accepting this praise and not giving honor to God, Agrippa is stricken with some condition by which he is eaten up from the inside. Josephus records that Agrippa was in pain for five days before dying.
Thus, Agrippa dies, but the “word of God increased and multiplied” (12:24). The chapter ends with a verse referencing the delivering of the offering from Antioch by Barnabas and Saul. They return to Antioch with John Mark.
The reference to Barnabas and Saul almost seems out of place. But it not merely a transition to discussion of Antioch. It closes this section that began in 11:27 with the idea of presenting the offering. Luke has created a chiasm in this section.
Famine relief (11:27-30)
-----Herod against Church (12:1)
----------Herod kills James (12:2-3)
---------------Peter bound (12:6)
--------------------Peter escapes (12:7-11a)
-------------------------Peter’s declaration (12:11b)
--------------------Peter’s return (12:12-17)
---------------Discovery of escape (12:18-19)
----------Herod dies (12:20-23)
-----Word of God thrives (12:24)
Barnabas & Saul deliver offering (12:25)
Acts 13 begins in the middle of a decision for a change in the young church in Antioch. Note that we are beginning the last chapter of this transition section of the book (chapters 8 through 13). Prior to chapter 8, the focus was on Jewish converts, and Jerusalem was the center of Christian activity. Peter and John went out from Jerusalem to Samaria in confirming their conversion, then returned to Jerusalem. Peter went out from Jerusalem to Lydda, Joppa, and Caesarea, and then returned to Jerusalem. But now focus is shifting away from Jerusalem to a concentration on Gentile conversions and the Gentile church. Notice in 12:25, instead of Jerusalem being the center, Barnabas and Saul return to their center—Antioch.
Acts 12:25 also tells us that John Mark accompanied Barnabas and Saul back to Antioch. It could have been that the discussions Barnabas and Saul were having about sensing a call to move out from Antioch in mission work appealed to John Mark. Mark was cousin to Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), and Barnabas was from Cyprus (Acts 4:36), so perhaps Mark also had relatives in Cyprus and was eager to visit. Whatever the reason, Mark is now accompanying Barnabas and Saul.
But chapter 13 begins in discussion. The prophets and teachers of the church are gathered in worshipping and fasting. Fasting indicates that they were together seeking God for some concern. Barnabas and Saul apparently made known their interest in heading out in mission work. But since Barnabas actually organized the church initially and Saul had come to support it in teaching, their absence would shift all that teaching burden on the other three mentioned in verse 1. Was this the right thing to do? Did God really want Barnabas and Saul to leave the church? These five got together to seek an answer from God. And an answer came. Presumably through one of these prophets, the Holy Spirit confirmed that they were to set apart Barnabas and Saul for this work. And notice particularly that it was work “to which I have called them” (13:2b).
Many misunderstand this interchange and activity of these first three verses of chapter 13. Many mistakenly conclude that this is a model of a church sending out missionaries or a church acting in ordination of some sort. Neither is the case. Clearly, it is the Holy Spirit that has called Barnabas and Saul. Ordaining as translated in most of the New Testament means simply appointing. What occurred in Antioch was not a church appointment as we might think of it today. The Holy Spirit called and appointed (ordained) Barnabas and Saul for this mission work. In fact, the Antioch church as a whole was not even involved. The other three teachers were involved with Barnabas and Saul, praying with them and fasting, seeking God’s answer. When they received the answer, the other three simply gave their assent, recognizing God’s call.
The laying on of hands is not a magic act. No special grace is conveyed. It may be confusing when reading passages such as in Acts 8 when John and Peter travel to Samaria to lay hands on them so that they could receive the Holy Spirit. The laying on of hands did not provide some sort of conduit that the Holy Spirit traveled through. Since the gospel had spread beyond the Jews to Samaritans, the apostles acted in their role of Christ’s designated witnesses to confirm what was believed by the Samaritans was in fact Christ’s message. This confirmation (for our sake, not God’s) was made by the apostles in laying on of their hands, giving assent and recognition to the work of the Spirit. Just so is it the case in Antioch. The other three prophets/teachers laid hands on Barnabas and Saul to say we agree—we recognize that the Spirit has called you.
The point is that what occurred here in Acts 13:1-3 was no model for church ordination. It is rather a model for Christian assent to the Holy Spirit’s calling and appointment. But that would change some things. For example, ordination in our world today consists of a council of other ordained people questioning the candidate to ensure knowledge, call, and general ability. But we must strain to find any New Testament model or prescription for this activity. One of the main problems is that our ordination process is conducted to ordain someone to “preach the gospel” or “preach the Word.” The words translated preach in the New Testament all have meanings of proclaim, announce, or tell. The gospel is the good news of Christ. Now, who among Christians is not appointed by God to proclaim the good news of Christ? Can we really claim that one must seek a certificate showing approval from other people to qualify us to proclaim the gospel?
The argument is made that it is not proclaiming the gospel in general, but preaching from a pulpit in a church that is certified. Yet, again, scriptural support seems to be lacking. The idea, of course, is to guard doctrinal purity in one who would teach other Christians. But this is not the way by which we are instructed to maintain purity of doctrine. The New Testament places the burden of understanding doctrine on the church—not on some created class of Christians called clergy that stands one step closer to God to provide intercession for us.
Additionally, our general ordination to preach is not specific to a church. This has its own problems. A pastoral candidate is called by God. A church evaluates the pastor and his call and assents to his ministry at that particular church. That is the appointment (ordination) that is necessary. That church is responsible to ensure that this pastor brings along orthodox doctrine; they should not sit back in dependence on some unknown members of a distant council. Additionally, a council ordains based on answers by the candidate at that point. The candidate could change beliefs in the next year. So ensuring doctrinal purity by our current ordination process is not so secure.
An important point to remember is not to decide on a position and force it on Scripture. We must build our beliefs and positions from Scripture.
Assured of the Holy Spirit’s direction, Barnabas and Saul head to Seleucia (on the coast) to board a ship for Cyprus. John Mark accompanies them. They reach the city of Salamis on Cyprus, and begin by preaching in the synagogues (13:5). This is consistent with Paul’s understanding, as he writes in Romans 1, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). They cross the island to the capital, Paphos. There they encounter the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, and a Jewish false prophet, Bar-Jesus.
The false prophet is called a magician. The root of this word is the same as that of Magi, denoting a Persian astrologer/sorcerer background. Apparently, Sergius Paulus is interested in spiritual affairs. He appears to be searching for God. He has had the magician as a councilor so that he might probe the spiritual world better. But now he hears of Saul and Barnabas proclaiming relationship with God. That piques his interest, and he calls for them. The magician, Elymas Bar-Jesus, becomes worried. He does not want to be replaced. So he attempts to oppose what Barnabas and Saul have to say. And he incurs Saul’s wrath.
Note at this point, Saul’s name changes to Paul. Saul is a Hebrew name. When focus was with the Jews, Saul went by his Hebrew name. Now he is dealing with the Roman, Sergius Paulus, so he goes by his more Roman name, Paul. And as the book has now shifted to the church among the Gentiles, he is called Paul through the rest of Acts.
Paul calls Elymas a “son of the devil” (13:10). This is not merely an ugly name that Paul’s spite hurls out. Names meant something. Paul noticed that the magician’s name was Bar-Jesus—Aramaic for “son of” (bar) Jesus. Paul incorporates word play here by saying essentially that this magician is no son of the Jesus he knows. Rather he is son of the devil—the one who would attack the work of Jesus.