FORCEFULLY ADVANCING: The Church in Acts, Part 1

The Spirit-Empowered Church, Acts 13

Paul preaching

The events recorded by Dr. Luke for us in Acts 13 occurred a little over a decade after the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.  Bible scholars believe that Saul, now known as Paul, spent those years in his home town of Tarsus, where, as tradition holds, he pioneered the church in there.  Knowing Paul as we have come to, it is hard to imagine the great apostle just sitting around at home without doing something for Christ!

In his letter to the Galatian congregation, Paul wrote—

…nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.  (Galatians 1:17)

What Paul was explaining to them was that he did not begin his world-wide missionary campaign immediately after his conversion; some 12 years of preparation and limited ministry were necessary before he could consider himself ready to be a minister for Christ.   However, God had a plan for Saul that neither of them forgot during those 12 years—

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”  (Acts 9:15)

The call of God was clear to Saul, but Saul knew full well that he needed to grow in his new-found faith before he could execute that call.  Patience was required.

That same patience and growth was necessary for the Church as a whole.  This chapter tells how God pushed the early church leaders forward and out into the world around them and from this point on in Acts, the history of Church is mingled with Paul’s personal history as the greatest missionary ever.

1.  The Spirit Calls, 13:1—4

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. 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.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

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

This is the moment that changed the early Church forever.  Jesus had told His disciples some time earlier that they would receive the power of the Holy Spirit and would become His witnesses:

  • In Jerusalem;
  • In Judea and Samaria;
  • To the ends of the Earth.

The history of the Church in Acts has followed that exact course.  We witnessed the birth and expansion of the Church in Jerusalem in chapters 2—7; the outreach into Judea and Samaria in chapters 8—12 and now, from chapter 13 to the end of the Acts, we read of the expansion of the Church into the whole world.  Peter was the main figure of the Church in Jerusalem and his ministry was emphasized in the first 12 chapters.  But now Saul (later Paul) enters the scene and he will hold the central place for the rest of the book.

(a)  Separation, vs. 1, 2

Antioch was the capital of Syria and the third largest city in the Roman Empire.  It holds the distinction of being the very first place where followers of Christ were referred to as “Christians.”  It was in Antioch that it became obvious to even casual observers that these “Christians” were very different from Jewish worshipers, so it was logical and symbolic that the Gentile outreach would begin from there.  Here we see two striking differences between two very different congregations.  The church in Jerusalem was made up of Jews, primarily, and there was a lingering emphasis on their Judaism, so much so that onlookers considered the “church” a part of the “synagogue.”  Also, the church in Jerusalem could hardly be considered a “missionary” church at this early date.  But the church in Antioch was completely opposite; there were Jews in the congregation but also Gentiles and there was no glaring connection to Judaism.  More significantly, though, is the fact that the first missionaries were sent out from the Antiochean assembly.

There were “prophets and teachers” in the church at Antioch.  These two offices were second and third only to the office of the apostle in terms of importance.  That these church leaders took their faith seriously is evidenced by their “worshiping” and “fasting” together.  It was into that atmosphere that Holy Spirit moved.  It would do modern church leaders well to take special note of this:  the Spirit moves when people of God are in close proximity, actively seeking Him.

When the Spirit spoke, He instructed the group to “set apart” Barnabas and Saul so that they could do the work to which they were called.  We know what Saul’s calling was, and we assume that at some point in Barnabas’ past he received a similar call to service.  It is interesting that “set apart” (“separate” in the KJV) is the verb form of the noun for “Pharisee.”  How ironic!  Saul had once been a Jewish Pharisee, but now he was to be “set apart” for another reason:  the Gospel.  Once a Pharisee of the Jews, Saul was transformed into Paul, the Pharisee of Jesus!

Although Paul is famous for being the “apostle to the Gentiles,” Barnabas was as well.  In fact, Luke refers to both of them that way during their first missionary journey in Acts 14:14.

(b)  Consecration and obedience, vs. 3, 4

At the conclusion of this special time of prayer and fasting, Luke says these church leaders “placed their hands” on the two called men, Saul and Barnabas.  This happened to Saul just after the Lord saved him; Acts 9:17 indicates that Ananias laid his hands on Saul.  Even though both of these men had been serving in the church for many years, it was only now, after their calling had been made clear to all the church leaders, that they were formerly ordained for service.  This “laying on of hands” is confusing to some yet very simple to explain.  The laying on of hands is a means of showing partnership in the work of the Lord.  The Christians at Antioch were showing Saul and Barnabas that even though they were the only two being sent out, they were all partners together in the great work about to undertaken.

In verse 3, the word translated “sent them off” is seen elsewhere in the New Testament as “let go.”  In a sense, that is also an accurate way to describe what was happening here to our two intrepid missionaries:  their local congregation was letting them go—releasing them from their home duties for service in the mission field.

2.  The Spirit empowers, 13:5—12

When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper.

They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 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. But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, “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? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable 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. When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.

(a)  The Word is proclaimed, v. 5

The missionary’s first stop was Salamis, close to Barnabas’ home town.  Salamis was a major metropolitan center and busy seaport.  Although the population of Salamis was predominately Greek, there was a strong Jewish presence there and so Paul did what would become his habit:  he began to preach in a Jewish synagogue.  That these men found an open door for their work at the local synagogue was quite amazing.  Clearly the Lord had gone ahead and prepared the way for them.

John Mark was with them at the very beginning, and he acted as their “attendant.”  Likely he was their general assistant, responsible for carrying the scrolls and perhaps praying for and with those who came to hear the Word preached.

(b)  The Word is opposed, vs. 6—8

Leaving Salamis, our missionaries traveled the expanse of the island.  How long this took is not known, but many scholars believe they visited all the Jewish communities, preaching and teaching in various local synagogues.  Finally, they arrived at the seat of power on Cyrus:  Paphos.  Things would change quickly as Saul and Barnabas encountered two men:  a Jewish magician and a Roman politician.

First, they met magician who was also a false prophet and sorcerer.  It seems odd that a Jew would engage in such sinful practices, but apparently some did and this man especially was famous enough that Josephus, a Jewish historian, mentions him.  He also mentions that Roman officials of the day were fascinated by another Jewish sorcerer, also from Cyprus.  Surely this was an indication of how secularized Judaism had become.

Bar-Jesus was the name of this magician and he was the assistant Sergius Paulus.  This was the second man, a Roman proconsul who seemed to have a deep interest in all things spiritual.  Perhaps he had heard about our dynamic duo as they made their across the island and was curious or perhaps, given that he was a man of “discernment,” he wished to have a “sneak preview” of their message before he allowed his citizens to be exposed to their teaching.

Bar-Jesus resisted; he did not want Paulus to hear the truth of the Word of God.  Then a most amazing thing happened:  Saul, under the unction of the Holy Ghost, preached a stern message against the sorcerer, calling him, a “child of the Devil.”  This is an ironic play on words; Bar-Jesus means “son of Jesus,” but here Saul discerns the truth about the man.  This “child of the Devil” paid a high price for his sin:  he lost his sight temporarily.

This prompts an observation and a question from some people:   This man was punished with temporary blindness for practicing the occult yet Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for telling a fib.  Why?  The sorcerer was not punished as severely because Ananias and Sapphira sinned against a greater light; they knew better.  Also, their sin was a sin against the whole church in that it threatened to influence the whole congregation in a negative way.

(c)  The Word vindicated, vs. 9—12

We are not told what effect this temporary condition had on Bar-Jesus, but we know what effect it had on Sergius Paulus!

When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord(verse 12)

The phrase “he was amazed” comes from a very strong Greek verb that means “to be in shock” or even “to be struck with panic.”  The conversion of Paulus was a turning point in the ministry in a couple of ways.  First, Saul is referred to as Paul from now on and he becomes the focal point of Acts.  There is some debate as to why Saul started to go by his other name at this point.  Augustine thinks that since “Paulus” or “Paul” means “the little one,” adopting this name shows the apostle’s humility, recognizing that he is the “least of the apostles,” 1 Corinthians 15:9.  Secondly, from here on there is a complete break with Judaism.  Nowhere does Luke indicate that the mother church in Jerusalem was informed that this Gentile official had become a believer.  Previously, when another Gentile, Cornelius (and his whole family) believed, it prompted some debate and soul searching in Jerusalem.

Ernst Haenchen in his commentary on Acts points to three significant aspects of this story:

  • At the beginning of Paul’s ministry, a high authority in the government is seen coming to faith in Christ;
  • Paul, previously a small character in the drama of the early church, now becomes the major player;
  • The gulf between Christianity and the occult can be crossed only by the blood of Jesus.

3.  Many more believe, 13:13—16; 32—49

(a)  Invited to speak, vs. 13—16ff

For some reason, John Mark leaves his companions at Perga, the next stop, to return to Jerusalem at this point.  Bible scholars offer many explanations for this parting of the ways.  It may well be that John Mark was struck with homesickness and wanted to return to his mother’s home in Jerusalem.  Some have suggested that he resented Paul’s apparent leadership of the group, and they point to Luke’s phraseology:  “Paul and his companions.”  They left Antioch as “Barnabas and Saul,” after all.  John Mark was, in fact, Barnabas’s cousin, so this is a possibility.

At any rate, they left the swampy lowlands of Perga without starting a church, to travel up some 3600 feet to Antioch Pisidia, a very rugged and mountainous region of Galatia.  Why go there at all?  We have a clue in Galatians 4:13—

As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.

It may well be that in the muggy coastal atmosphere of Perga, Paul had a recurrence of Malaria, and pressing on to higher ground would have made sense as it provided the apostle with immediate relief.

Once again, we see God using circumstances to His advantage.  In Antioch Pisidia they visit the local synagogue where they are invited to speak.  This was actually a custom practiced in most first century synagogues.  The order of service at this time included the Shema, the Shemoneh Esreh (the 18 blessings or prayers), a reading from the Law, a reading from one of the prophets, a free address from any competent man in attendance, and finally the closing benediction.  Why the leader of the synagogue chose Paul to give the free address is not known.  Some have suggested that Paul’s attire resembled what a Rabbi would have worn, but that is just speculation.  God was opening yet another door.

(b)  Paul’s first sermon, vs. 16—41

Luke has recorded a total three of Paul’s “missionary sermons.”  They are all found in

Acts, with is one being first, the second one he preached at Lystra (Acts 14:15—17) and the third sermon is found in 17:22—31, which he preached while in Athens.  Obviously Luke greatly condensed these sermons, giving the reader the “high points” only.  A quick reading of each sermon shows us that while Paul preached the same Gospel wherever he went, he adapted its presentation to fit his circumstances and audience.

This particular sermon bears close resemblance to Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost.  The key verse of the sermon is verse 27—

The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath.

What a contrast between the Jews and a man like the Roman proconsul, Paulus.  The Jews had been given the Scriptures and the great promises of God, yet could not believe.  Paulus, a Gentile, did not have the Scriptures, yet believed!

(c)  Many more believe, vs. 42—49

It seems that the Jews who heard the message were at least interested in hearing more, and so Paul and Barnabas were invited to return the following Sabbath.  By the time Friday evening approached, Luke writes that—

[A]lmost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.

What an amazing thing!  Is it possible for a missionary to have too much success?  Apparently so; the Jews who seemed interested in hearing more of Paul’s teachings, upon seeing the large crowd of Gentiles flooding into the synagogue, suddenly changed their tune.   What must have galled them were two things.  First, seeing their holy place turned into what amounted to a mere town meeting hall by the presence of the Gentiles, but second, they resented that Paul was willing to speak directly to these same Gentiles without first pointing them to Judaism.  Once again we see these pious Jews unwilling to recognize the sobering fact that God’s salvation was for everybody who would simply believe.  The jealousy of the religious leaders at Antioch Pisidia reminds of what Paul would later write to the Romans—

Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.  (Romans 11:11—16; verse 11 quoted)


In looking at the growing Church, we can learn about how the Holy Spirit worked in them and how He wants to work in us as we continue the work of the Lord.

  • The Spirit Calls—God, the Holy Spirit is the One who calls and sets apart people to do specific work within the Body of Christ.
  • The Spirit Empowers—That work must be done in the strength of the Holy Spirit, not in frail human strength.  When God calls a person to a task, He equips that person to accomplish that task.
  • Many Believe—When Spirit-called people do God’s work through the Spirit’s anointing, awesome things will happen.

Perhaps the most important lesson is found at the very beginning of our study.  Acts 13:2 bears repeating—

So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

It is an incredible thing to realize that the Holy Spirit communicated His wishes to the entire church assembled together.  In the atmosphere of fellowship, worship, and prayer, God moved and made His will known.

Doing God’s work, either in full time service like a minister or missionary, or in volunteering for some phase of church work, should never be entered into or done as we would perform other duties.  The greatest privilege of all is the call to serve God in some capacity; that work is never a job, but a calling.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd

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