(This is a longish post, so I’ve added pictures to break up the wall of text)
A marked shift in Luke’s narrative begins in Chapter 13: Now it will become chiefly the trail-blazing story about Paul fulfilling the third stage of Jesus’ commission in Acts 1.
- Stage 1 Was Acts 1-7 the Gospel spread in Jerusalem.
- Stage 2 Happened in Acts 8-12, the Gospel spread in Judea and Samaria.
- Stage 3 Now Acts 13 begins the missionary journeys, bringing the gospel to the rest of the world.
The church in Antioch was growing both spiritually and in numbers at a robust pace. Barnabas and Saul had been team-teaching and building up the church for a full year, and due to their large numbers, the church met at several assemblies located throughout the city. Prophets helped to lay the foundation for the church by proclaiming and speaking forth the word of God. Teachers helped to ground the new believers in the doctrines of their faith.
The leadership represented among these assemblies was quite diverse: Notice how integrated this church was with Africans, Jews, Romans, and Greeks.
1) Barnabas was a Levite and a Jewish priest, who was born on Cyprus, a Hellenistic Jew. A rich man, he gave his wealth away to the church, and gave his whole life to the Lord. Being listed first, we can think of him as the official representative of Jerusalem Headquarters.
2) Simeon the Niger, “Niger” means “black,” so Simon was probably of African origin. He is most likely the Simon of Cyrene who helped Jesus carry His cross to Golgotha. Based on the gospel John Mark wrote, it’s possible Paul lived with Simon while he taught in Antioch, and became close with Simon’s sons, Alexander, and Rufus who later became a leader in the church
3) Lucius the Cyrene, like Simeon, was of African origin. It was men from Cyprus and Cyrene who had first brought the gospel to the Greeks in Antioch, so possibly he was among them. Lucius is a Latin name, so he was probably brought up in a Roman culture. There is some speculation that Lucius might be the Luke who wrote the gospel of Luke and Acts.
4) Manaen, a Greek form of a Hebrew name, it has been suggested, was Jewish by birth, whose grandfather, Menahem, had been commended by the Herod the Great for prophesying his rise to power. Herod the Great may have invited Menahem’s grandson to be one of a few select boys to be brought up with the young Herod Antipas (who had John the Baptist killed) as a playmate, schoolmate and sometimes whipping boy. Manean was of noble birth and a Hellenistic Jew.
5) And finally Saul, the former fanatical Pharisee, Roman citizen, born and raised in Tarsus, a Hebrew of Hebrews from a wealthy and influential family, who would soon be known as Paul.
We find out later in the text that when Barnabas and Paul went together to Jerusalem to bring the famine-relief fund to the Jewish brothers John Mark came back with them as a helper to his cousin Barnabas and the great teacher Paul, who was still a young man himself, probably in his early thirties.
Mark’s mother Mary was well-to-do, and her home was the meeting place of one group in the Jerusalem church, the one including the Apostle Peter. Barnabas and Paul must have discerned John Mark’s potential, his gift of writing, and his place in the assembly where Peter worshiped and taught.
Luke depicted a vibrant church, teaching the truth and seeking God’s direction in the spread of the gospel, to raise up new gatherings, putting an emphasis on prayer: they set aside time for God, to include fasting, worship, and listening for God’s direction. During one of these prayer sessions, God guided them to take their two best leaders and send them out into the world.There was no hint of jealousy or resentment over whom God had chosen. The church recognized and obeyed God’s divine calling.
Barnabas and Saul humbly submitted to the laying on of hands, with hearty prayer, unity of spirit, and with a deep concern for those who had never heard the gospel. As the Holy Spirit sent them, so also would the Lord go along with them, to strengthen them, carry them on in their work, and make their work fruitful.
As you trace their path, you see Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark went down from Antioch to the port town of Seleucia, about 15 miles, a one-day journey. From Seleucia they sailed 130 miles to the harbor city of Salamis on Cyprus island. Salamis to Paphos was 100 miles of walking, and that’s where the Roman proconsul came to a saving faith in Messiah Jesus, and Paul called down God’s judgement on the Jewish sorcerer.
It was logical to start their journey in Cyprus as this was home to Barnabas. Salamis was a great commercial center on the east end of the island, where they began to preach the gospel, and they made their way 90 miles across the island of Cyprus to Paphos, the capital city, known for its luxury, licentiousness, and the worship of Venus and Jupiter.
Their evangelizing created enough of a stir to gain the attention of the Roman proconsul, Sergius Paullus, who sent for them to hear what they were saying. But there was active opposition that stood between the proconsul and the gospel: one of his advisors, a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus.
If Satan opposed God in heaven, he will certainly oppose God on earth. Expect opposition! But we have the Holy Spirit to overcome evil, free people from bondage and bring them to Christ. As Paul would later write, “our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil.” Thank God, we have the Holy Spirit to win such battles.
Paul met opposition head on, denouncing the sorcerer as a child of the devil. He made a play on words: you call yourself Bar, or “son of,” Jesus, but you are really Bar, or “son of” Satan. But, who knew what was going to happen next!
“And now listen—the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun.”
Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he went about groping for someone to lead him by the hand. When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was astonished at the teaching about the Lord.Paul, in Acts 13:11-12 (NRSV)
It was a heart-stopping, disturbing sign from God, no less rattling than Paul’s own blindness had been to him, on the road to Damascus. But what happened afterward was even more startling.
Sergius Paulus was the first recorded totally Gentile convert. He was not a God-fearer before his conversion. Yet now, as a Christian magistrate the proconsul did much to further the gospel throughout Cyprus.
This kind of demonstration of power is still happening today, in those places where the gospel is being heard for the first time, and Satan’s opposition is strong. Evil spirits are being cast out, and when people see God the Holy Spirit at work, they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. God’s Spirit also works quietly, dispelling doubts and making people able to hear and understand the gospel, and to believe.
Nevertheless, it seems it was at this point that John Mark left them and turned home to Jerusalem. Paphos to Perga was 200 miles by boat. After this boat ride, John Mark headed straight back for Jerusalem. Scripture doesn’t say if he walked or sailed, but either way, it was quite a distance to go alone.
I think of the times in my own past when I began a work for God, but dropped it when the going got too hard. John Mark dropped out and lost the thrill of sharing in the reports of the first mission journey, the privilege of being a part of the spiritual heritage of all those came to saving faith. He missed out on some of the best training he could have ever received from two legendary leaders of the church, and he lost his reputation with Paul.
Because, whatever Mark’s reasons, Paul saw Mark’s departure as a desertion, and considered him a feckless man, without the grit and mettle to press forward in faith.
Of all the gifts and talents God has given you and me, our greatest ability will be our dependability. The one thing required of a servant is to be faithful—as Jesus said “‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
Perga to Pisidian Antioch was another 100 miles on foot, and about a 3,600 foot climb up a mountain. Paul and Barnabas then walked 85 miles from Antioch to Iconium. They had to tackle a rugged climb, robbers, cold and exposure to weather, and arrived in Pisidian Antioch as two complete strangers. They looked for a place to stay in the Jewish quarter, once they arrived, and waited for the Sabbath because it was always customary for visiting rabbis to speak.
The seating arrangement in the synagogue reserved the highest honor in the front for those who were born Jews. Behind them sat the proselytes, who would never be counted the real thing until their family had been living and worship as Jews for several generations. In the very back sat the God-fearing Gentiles, who loved the Lord and honored His word, but didn’t want the circumcision and all the ceremonial laws.
So, at the beginning of his sermon, Paul looked directly at the Jews, emphasizing God’s provision for them, their ingratitude and God’s willingness to suffer them, as well as God’s preparation for the Messiah.
Then Paul vividly, richly, portrayed Jesus’ intense love for everyone in the room—Jews and Gentiles, Jesus’ love ultimately expressed in death, giving Himself up as a real sacrifice, not a symbolic one, but a real man dying a real, excruciating death. These were historical facts, fulfilling Scripture. But the incredible joy came not even from that ultimate expression of love, but from the eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, and that having ascended to heaven, He now sends out the Holy Spirit to dwell in the hearts of those who believe in Him.
Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you;
by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.Paul, in Acts 13:38-39 (NRSV)
Paul’s voice rang out in the still air as stunned faces stared slack-jawed at him.
Now that’s the Gospel!
Paul was saying that no one can follow Moses’ law perfectly.
The demands are just too great.
If you and I try, then we will feel guilt and condemnation. This way of living will lead to anxiety and insecurity because you can never be sure that you are living up to standards sufficiently.
Paul told them that through Jesus Christ they could have two blessings the law could never provide:
- The forgiveness of their sins.
- And justification before the throne of God.
Justification is the act of God where He declares the believing sinner to be counted worthy in Jesus Christ.
Paul warned his listeners that if they didn’t believe the gospel, they would experience God’s judgement and perish.
The Jews followed Paul to hear more about this gospel. It was disturbing to them that the Covenant of Law was not enough to insure their place in the people of God, this flew against everything they had ever been taught. But it was the Gentiles who really responded to the good news. They told everyone they knew and brought back their families, neighbors and friends so nearly the whole town was there the following Sabbath to hear Paul’s message of love and forgiveness.
Imagine how unhappy the Jews were to find their synagogue full of Gentiles to hear Paul’s message on the Covenant of Grace, rather than to hear their own rabbi’s teaching on the Covenant of Law!
They were jealous.
Tragically, the Jews refused to accept the Gentiles coming as Gentiles, without circumcision or the law, yet being received by God. They utterly rejected the message of God’s love, forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation.
What’s more, they were not going to sit back and let Paul and Barnabas take over. After hotly disputing with them, the Jews brought legal action against them and had them expelled. But though Paul and Barnabas were persecuted, they were far from being discouraged.
Paul and Barnabas considered it a privilege to suffer in the name of, and for the sake of, their beloved Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
As a Bible teacher and leader of a large women’s Bible study, years ago, I used to brace the women I was bringing in to train as leaders. “Expect trouble,” I would say to them, “Once you make a commitment to lead in the cause of Christ, you will be opposed. Now that you have taken up God’s call you have put yourself into the sights of God’s enemy. Do not resent it. The Bible teaches that successful work for God will surely involve suffering and hardships. Opposition is usually a sign that you are doing well, and the enemy has noticed you.“
There have been plenty of times when I have had to remember those words for myself. Has the Lord provided me with enough grit to trust Him in faith for what lies before me? Or will I pull a ‘Mark’ and bail out?
[Cyprus Larnaca Hala Sultan Tekke | needpix.com]