The Continuing Work of the Holy Spirit
Text: Acts 13:1-12
Main Idea: The mission of the church is wholly dependent upon the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
I. The Holy Spirit Calls Saul and Barnabas to Gospel Ministry (Acts:13:1-2)
II. The Holy Spirit Confirms His Appointed Ministers (Acts 13:3)
III. The Holy Spirit Confirms the Gospel Message (Acts 13:4-12)
Good morning church. It was so good spend last week focusing on God’s heart for the nations. AND to be reminded by Eric of the way that God uses every single one of us to share our hope of glory in Jesus Christ. Our Christianity isn’t just about us. We have been saved for a purpose in both this life and the next. In fact, we have seen this very purpose played out over and over again in the first 12 chapters of Acts. And as we return to our study of Acts this morning, we are turning to what might be the most notable turning point in the entire storyline of Acts.
Up until this point, Luke has been primarily focused on Jerusalem and Peter, showing how God has fulfilled his promises, how Jesus is Israel’s crucified, risen, and exalted Messiah, and how he is restoring Israel in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. And most notably, in the last few chapters, he has shown us how God has started to press the gospel into the Gentile world beginning with Cornelius and extending to the church in Antioch. But everything changes when we get to chapter 13. Luke shifts the spotlight from Peter to Paul. And in this transition, the storyline quickly shifts from the gospel’s impact in Jerusalem to the gospel’s impact throughout the entire Gentile world, fulfilling Jesus’ final words.
Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
Yet, in this shift between gospel witnesses and geographic locations, Luke wants to make it clear that one thing remains the same: (Main Idea) The mission of the church is wholly dependent upon the person and power of the Holy Spirit.
- The Holy Spirit calls Saul and Barnabas out of their local church in Antioch (v. 1–2),
- the Holy Spirit confirms this calling as the local church pursues clarity in prayer (v. 3),
- and the Holy Spirit confirms both the message and the messengers of the gospel by punishing the Jewish false prophet Bar-Jesus in Cyprus (v. 4–12).
The Holy Spirit Calls Saul & Barnabas to Gospel Ministry (Acts 13:1–3)
The Context of the Calling in Antioch
The first thing that we see in our passage this morning, is that the church in Antioch was very different from the Church in Jerusalem. Whereas the church in Jerusalem was comprised of ethnic Jews and was led by a team of Jewish apostles, the church in Antioch was a multicultural church led by a multiethnic team of spiritually gifted ministers. This is significant in the story-line of Acts because it helps us see that, God is gifting his church without any regard for ethnic distinctions or personal backgrounds.
- Barnabas a Jew from Cyprus;
- Simeon is most likely an African because his Latin nickname “Niger” means “Black;”
- Lucius is a North African from Cyrene;
- Manaen, a high-ranking individual who was most likely a foster brother or intimate friend of Herod the Tetrarch;
- And then finally we have Saul, a Jew who was born and raised in city Tarsus, trained in the Law under the pharisee Gamaliel, and former persecutor of the church.
The second thing we see, is that church life in Antioch is less dangerous than in church life in Jerusalem. Whereas many of the apostles have had to abandon Jerusalem in order to escape Herod’s attack against the church (as we saw in chapter 12), the church in Antioch appears to be enjoying a significant period of growth, social stability, and gospel success.
The third thing that we see, is that the entire church in Antioch appears to be gathered together in verse 2 for something more than weekly worship, in that, “they were worshiping and fasting” together (v. 2). As one scholar notes,
Given that the Spirit calls the church to set apart Saul and Barnabas for service in verse 2; it is most likely that the entire church (not just the leadership) is worshiping and fasting with its leaders. In fact, when we consider the Spirit’s calling in verse 2, it seems reasonable to propose that they were seeking God’s will in the continuing advance of the gospel into the Gentile world.
The Holy Spirit Confirms His Appointed Ministers
An Obvious Question
Now at this point, some of you might be wondering, “How did the Holy Spirit disclose this call to the church in the first place?” Well, to be honest, we do not know exactly how he did it because Luke doesn’t tell us. On the one hand, the Holy Spirt may have spoken to the church through one or more of the prophets. But on the other hand, the Spirit might have spoken to a number of people in the congregation as he pressed his calling on their hearts and minds.
What we do know, is that this “calling” (however it came) was not a passing thought OR one of multiple options for the congregation to choose from. We see this two ways in the text: One, the Greek verb “called” in verse 2 is in the perfect tense. This means that the Holy Spirit has already set apart Saul and Barnabas for ministry outside the church whether the church realizes it, or not, in the moment. Two, the Greek verb “set apart” is not a question or a polite request; it’s a direct command that demands obedience.
See, however the Spirit’s call came to the church, it was sufficiently clear and compelling enough to give them the distinct impression that God was not just suggesting BUT commanding them to do something that would alter the very fabric of life and ministry in Antioch.
An Important Response
Yet as we continue reading, we quickly discover that the church doesn’t respond in instant obedience the moment they sensed God’s call. Do they?
I think that this is really important for modern Christians to see, because we live in a day where it’s taboo to question a Christian’s sense of the Spirit’s leading. Every line of discussion or disagreement between Christians is supposed to come to a conclusive and charitable conclusion with the statement:
- I feel like God is calling me to do this.
- I feel like God is giving me peace about that.
- I feel like I have received a “Word from the Lord.”
Yet, what happens when we follow the long-term trajectory of these personal “spiritual callings?” What do we often see? In many cases (not all cases) we see a series of decisions and actions and results that increasingly diverge from the revealed will of God. Right?
Now let me be clear, I am not trying to imply that modern Christians never sense the leading of the Holy Spirit. Not in the least bit! Rather, I am trying to point out that modern Christians have (in many ways) lost the most basic discipline of spiritual discernment. Two of the most basic questions being:
- Does a person’s sense of “peace” or “direction” align with God’s revealed Word? If it doesn’t, it’s not from God— do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not follow your heart! God will never direct you to disobey his Word, ever!
- Is the person willing to submit their personal sense of direction to their elders and local church members for questions and prayerful consideration? If they are not, they actively disregarding the most powerful source of God-ordained support, discernment, and protection that they could possibly receive.
Let, me give you a present example. This last year one of our elders, Nick Alford, shared his growing desire and sense of calling to pursue a particular ministry opportunity with the elders. And as he did this, we asked him some questions and committed ourselves to praying for God’s direction. Yet as we prayed for Nick over the past year something happened. God led slowly led Nick away from this initial ministry opportunity to the church in Kirkland that he is candidating at today.
And while the elders wish we could keep Nick for ourselves because he brings so much to our church, we fully believe the Nick is following God’s leading (whether this particular church calls him or not).
So, returning to the church in Antioch, how do they respond to the revelation of the Holy Spirit’s leading? They responded by calling the entire church (again not just the leaders) together for a prolonged period of fasting and prayer that they might confirm their sense of the Spirit’s call and commission Saul and Barnabas for their new calling.
And in all of this, Luke does not chastise the church for their delay or treat it like disobedience or unbelief. Rather, he seems to present it as an example of humble faith. For everything we can see in the text, the church seems to fully believe that the God who disclosed his initial calling would certainly confirm his calling as his people pursued him in fervent prayer… which is exactly what he does.
And just like, that the first official missionaries in the history of Christianity are sent out by their local church at the leading and initiative of the Holy Spirit himself… a point that Luke reiterates again in the opening lines of verse 4 to reinforce the fact that the Holy Spirit has not only called Saul and Barnabas to this new ministry BUT that the Holy Spirit is actively directing and empowering them to fulfill their gospel calling.
The Holy Spirit Confirms the Gospel Message (Acts 13:4–12)
The First-Stage of their Journey (Acts 13:4–5)
I’d like to pause here for a moment and highlight two things about this journey. One, their trip from Antioch to the Island of Cyprus was nothing like Hudson Taylor’s 6-month ocean journey to China. The trip from Antioch to the port town of Selucia was only 16 miles. And once they boarded the ship in Selucia, they only had to travel 60 miles to the port of Salamis on Cyprus. To put it in modern terms, their entire journey (from Antioch to Cyprus) was only about 76 miles OR about the same distance we that drive from Poulsbo to the SeaTac Airport.
Second —while not ignoring the Spirit’s leading— Saul and Barnabas’ initial journey to Cyprus seems to be motivated by at least three strategic reasons: (1) Barnabas was a native of Cyprus which meant that he had contacts. (2) Cyprus was home to a significant Jewish population, which meant that there was an organic gospel-audience in Cyprus. (3) And a group of Christians had already brought the gospel to Cyprus shortly after Stephen was murdered (Acts 11:19–20).
This helps us see that this first step of the first missionary journey seems to be primarily focused on the Jews. In fact, it is not even clear (at this stage of their ministry) if Saul and Barnabas were even pursuing the Gentiles… that is until they received an unexpected (and providential) summons from the Roman governor of the island, Sergius Paulus.
Their Invitation and Unexpected Opposition (Acts 13:6–12)
This is a significant development in the early expansion of the church. Saul and Barnabas are inconsequential nobodies. They don’t have any political power. They do not have any connection to the upper crust of society. They are not well-known philosophers or teachers. They have no authority of their own. Yet, they are personally invited to share the gospel with a Roman governor who is known for his intelligence… It’s like Cornelius all over again. A Gentile wants to hear the Word of God. And God—through a divinely orchestrated series of events—sends virtual nobodies all the way from Antioch to make the connection.
But just as Jesus’ witnesses start to share the gospel with the governor, the governor’s spiritual advisor —an apostate Jewish sorcerer whose name is literally “Son of Jesus”— launches a preemptive attack against Saul and Barnabas in a desperate attempt to turn his master away from the faith. The so-called “son of Jesus” wants nothing to do with the real Jesus Christ!
And while Luke does not tell us how he was trying turn the governor away; he does tell us how the Holy Spirit himself responded to his attack against the gospel.
The Spirit Steps In (Acts 13:9–12)
Don’t miss this, why does Paul confront Bar Jesus and curse him with temporary blindness instead of Barnabas? It’s not just because Barnabas was passive or afraid. Nor was it because Paul was more assertive or wanted to prove that he had greater power than the false prophet. No, it was because, in the moment, the Holy Spirit chose to actively work through Paul instead of Barnabas.
Yes, this is the moment that Saul assumes his Roman name “Paul” for the rest of the book foreshadowing his greater call to the Gentile world. Yes, this is the moment that Paul begins to take the lead role in their missionary endeavor. But these developments are the direct result Spirit’s filling (v. 9). We have seen the Holy Spirit do this before in Acts. Right? And what was the result of the Spirit’s filling in each instance? It was nothing less than gospel boldness and spiritual insight, which is exactly what we see in Paul’s response.
Who is Bar Jesus? He is not a powerful foe to be feared. He is not a representative of Jesus. He is not even walking in the ways of his father Abraham as a Jew. No. He is the son of the devil. And as the devil’s Son, he is following in the deceitful ways of his father, trying to twist and pervert the straight paths of the Lord that lead to forgiveness and life through faith in Jesus Christ. And in all of this what is he ultimately trying to do? He is trying to blind Sergius Paulus to the light of the gospel.
John 3:19–21 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
Elmas hates the light because he loves the darkness. So how does the Spirit direct Paul to respond to his deceit? He directs him to pronounce a fitting judgement against the sorcerer— instant but temporary blindness.
And what was the ultimate result? The Holy Spirit reversed the false prophet’s attempt to hinder the faith of his master, in that, his attempt to make crooked the path of God was transformed into a straight and narrow path to saving faith in gospel of Jesus Christ.
What Does this Mean for us Today?
As we conclude this morning, I’d like us to consider the needs in own church.
On the one hand, we have any number of reasons to be thankful to God for his work in our midst.
- God preserved us through the crushing pressure of COVID.
- God is actively working in our discipleship ministries.
- A growing number of people are sharing the gospel with their friends and the people they meet.
- And God is binding us together more and more as a family (Ryan and I have to stay latter and later to lock up. And it’s a good thing!)
But on the other hand, we have any number of needs, struggles, and deficiencies as a church (every church does). And one of our greatest at this moment is church leadership: elders, deacons, and ministry coordinators for things like our nursery and our greeter team.
No doubt the church in Antioch had to face the very same question when God called the two most qualified leaders to another ministry. And for everything we see in the book of Acts, the church in Antioch did not fall apart after they left. We should find comfort in this.
The question we are facing as a church today is, “Who is God calling to fill our leadership needs?”
In light of this, I’d like to conclude with two important questions:
ONE: “Do you quickly exclude yourself from the call to greater leadership in the church?” If so, why?
On the one hand, here are rightful reasons, right? God himself has laid down the qualifications for elders and deacons. But on the other hand, God’s qualifications are not the real reason we side-step the call…In many cases we exclude ourselves because we are convinced that we are far too busy to serve or that they are not as skilled as the person who used to lead. Well, to be honest, every one of us is busy and few of us feel as skilled as we wish we were.
Friends, just look around the room, this is our God-given leadership pool for this moment in history. And that means that God has to be calling some of you to step out of your comfort zones just like Paul and Barnabas.
But the comfort in God’s calling is this: God doesn’t ask us to fulfill his mission in our own strength and wisdom but freely provides the power and discernment we need through the person and the power of the Holy Spirit.
TWO: This brings me to my second question: “Would you commit to actively praying for the leadership needs in our church?” Not merely asking God to identify and call the leaders we need. But, honestly asking the question, “is he calling you?”
 David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 375–76.
 “So here we have ‘the first piece of planned overseas mission carried out by representatives of a particular church, rather than by solitary individuals, and begun by a deliberate church decision, inspired by the Spirit, rather than somewhat more casually as a result of persecution;’ ” (Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, 376).
 Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts, Expanded Digital Edition., Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2012).
 “It is therefore not impossible that they simply followed the obvious course of going to areas where they would have an immediate familiarity with the cultures and contexts; the Holy Spirit does not routinely contradict common sense;” (Bruce Milne, The Acts of the Apostles: Witnesses to Him… to the Ends of the Earth, Focus on the Bible Commentary [Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2010], 284).
 Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, 379.
 Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, 380.