As we mentioned in the previous post, Luke turns his attention fully to Paul’s ministry for the remainder of the Book of Acts. There are encounters with Peter and the other apostles, including a major one in Chapter 15, but the Jerusalem church fades from view, as do the further adventures of the other apostles.
Please read Acts 13:1-3 for yourself right now if you have not already done so.
Recall the circumstances that had brought Paul and Barnabas together at Antioch. After his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul was trying to engage in fellowship with the Jerusalem church, but they would not receive him because they didn’t believe he had stopped persecuting the Church. Barnabas, however, spoke up for him, and he was finally welcomed into the Jerusalem fellowship. However, he was now as much a firebrand for the Church as he had been against the Church in the past. The Jews plotted against him, and the Jerusalem Church sent him back to his home of Tarsus for his own safety. (Acts 9:26-30)
The first persecution in Jerusalem scattered believers as far as Cyprus, Cyrene and Antioch. These believers confined their preaching only to fellow Jews, but in Antioch some gentiles also heard the gospel and turned to Christ. News reached the Jerusalem church that gentiles were also receiving the gospel, and Barnabas was sent to investigate. One look, and Barnabas was convinced he needed help to train these new believers. He immediately went to Tarsus, found Paul, and brought him back to Antioch. Together they spent a whole year teaching these new gentile believers. (Acts 11:19-26) Luke is not specific, but it’s probably a fairly safe assumption that the events in chapter 13 we are studying now mark the end of that year. (The persecution in Jerusalem began on the very day of the stoning of Stephen, and those that were scattered would have required some time — perhaps a few weeks — to travel as far as Antioch. Stephen’s discourse before the High Priest would have most likely happened within a few days of his being selected as a deacon, which was mandated by unrest in the Church over the distribution of food. This suggests the Jerusalem Church was by that time a well-established functioning body, fairly large in number. This would have also taken some time, perhaps a few weeks, following the events of Pentecost. Pentecost was 50 days after the Passover, and Jesus was crucifed on the Passover weekend. Following his resurrection He was seen for forty days and then ascended into Heaven, leaving instructions to His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit, an apparent wait of ten days after His ascention. Taking all of these times into account, these opening verses of Chapter 13 probably happened about a year and a half to two years after the resurrection.
The first verse lists the names of those who were “prophets and teachers” in the Antioch church, viz. Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen and Saul.
The second verse is very interesting. As these five men were “ministering to the Lord and fasting,” the Holy Spirit said to them, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” The Greek word for “set apart” (aphoridzo, apo + horidzo, lit. from-define) indicates that although Barnabas and Saul have been identified with the work and ministry of Simeon, Lucius and Manaen, they are now to be redefined in a way that will make them different from them. How would they be different? By the work that they were about to do. How was the work different? It was a type of work that God had made different, and which would distinguish them from the work of the others. God called them out of the work they had been doing and called them into a new and different work!
Of course it is possible that this new work differed only in geographic location, not in message. But to leave it at that is to ignore the special revelations and teaching Paul received directly from the Lord. Recall the story of Paul’s conversion and how the Lord responded to Annanias’ reluctance to go to Paul to restore his sight: “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel…” (Acts 9:15). Notice that the geographical sequence of the Great Commission is reversed here. Until very recently in Luke’s narrative, the Twelve and their converts were fully convinced that they were to preach the gospel only to fellow Jews. Jews and Gentiles alike are equally in view in 9:15, echoing Paul’s statements in Romans 10:12 and 11:32 because God has erased the distinction between them.
Paul writes to the Roman believers, “I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” (Romans 11:25) There are two notable points in this verse in Romans. (1) Paul says that the removal of the distinction between Jew and Gentile has been a secret in the past. It is one aspect of a larger secret God has kept hidden through the ages and revealed only to Paul. (2) Paul says that a partial hardening of Israel has taken place. Israel’s national position has been that Jesus was not the Messiah, but that does not prevent individual Israelites from coming to Christ under Paul’s gospel! Paul knows that he must preach this news to Gentiles and Jews alike, and some of both will be saved. Thus, Israel’s hardening is only partial.
Paul also explains this to the church in Ephesus in Ephesians 2:11-22. In vv13-14 he writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, …” The imagery of the Temple Veil that guarded the Holy of Holies being torn in two during Christ’s agony speaks perfectly to this issue. But that imagery can only be understood in the light of Paul’s message. Gentiles are not only allowed in the Temple Court, but are invited by God directly into the Holy of Holies — and beyond. The wall of the court and the veil in the Temple have been removed in Christ, and now Jews and Gentiles alike may come into God’s presence on an equal footing.
None of the other Apostles write any of these things — it is exclusively Paul’s territory. Had God not revealed it to Paul, they would not have understood it. It was not part of what they had been taught. Think all the way back to the earliest posts where we studied how Christ prepared the Twelve for the days ahead. Did he speak of these things? No, for these things are part and parcel of the mystery hidden in God in ages past, revealed only to Paul for the sake of a new day to be revealed only when Israel continued to reject her King and His Kingdom.
Paul was called to a different ministry and message, and here in the opening verses of Acts 13 we read of that call finally being fulfilled. Verses 3 and 4 matter-of-factly describe their response to the Holy Spirit’s command — they prayed, laid hands on them, and sent them off — with no mention or repetition of the Great Commission’s terms. Were Paul and Barnabas acting under the Great Commission, or a greater commission?