This morning, we’re continuing our journey with Doctor Luke through the second half of his gospel – the book of Acts. Last week, Luke told us about how we should be bold in what we pray for – because God is able to do so much more than we can even begin to imagine. Last week, we saw the apostle Peter being miraculously released the night before his almost certain death. This morning, as we look at Chapter 13, Luke focus shifts a little bit away from the apostle Peter, and settles on Saul as the gospel begins to spread out from Antioch into the rest of the world. Antioch was one of the early churches to be a mixture of Jews and non-Jews.
This is the first major missionary jo.urney of Paul’s that Luke tells us about. It’s the start of Christianity spreading out throughout the world, with more and more Gentiles accepting Jesus as Lord and God and Saviour. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you about the first missons trip I ever went on. It wasn’t a major overseas trip. It was just a group of young people going down to Esperance to run a coffee bar. We’d serve coffee and food and what-not, and then sit down and have a chat. At some point there’d a be a testimony. All the time, there were people out back praying for those of us out in the front. Asking for people to want to know more about Jesus.
I’d never done anything like it before. But you know – when I saw what God was doing, I was just blown away. I kept going back and doing it again and again for the next three or four years. And the thing which really struck me was how God answered prayer. When we were praying in the prayer group out back, we’d keep getting notes saying, “pray about this, pray about so and so” – and we’d write it down in a little book. And then we’d wait until we got another message saying, “Answered, answered, answered.” It was exciting stuff!
And you know, as I look at chapter 13, I can almost picture that same sort of atmosphere in the church of Antioch. They were a church that was serious about seeing what God was doing in their midst. Verse 1 tells us that God had blessed this particular congregation with an incredible abundance of prophets and teachers. Barnabas, and Simeon, and Lucius, and Manaen and Saul. Leaders who were able to teach the church about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Leaders who had the gift of discerning what God was doing, and where he was taking his church.
But this church didn’t just decide on a whim to send Saul out on a missions trip. No. Verse 2 tells us that this church – including these great leaders – this church worshipping the Lord and fasting when the Holy Spirit told them to send Barnabas and Saul out. And when Luke says that they were worshipping, what he actually means is that they were serving God. The Antioch church was serving the Lord and fasting. Or, as Luke puts it in verse 3, they were praying and fasting. That’s an incredible thought: prayer is worship. Prayer is one of the ways we can serve God. Prayer is a ministry that we can all share in. At the last member’s meeting, Reg read a bit from a book by John Stott which said that all of us are a part of the ministry of the church. And here we have Luke reminding us that we can serve God by praying.
And this church in Antioch wasn’t just praying casually. No. They were praying and fasting. Worshipping and fasting. In other words, they were putting to the side even the demands of hunger so that they could concentrate on seeking God’s will. They weren’t eating because they wanted to concentrate all of their time and energy and thoughts on serving God. On speaking with God. Praying and listening for him to answer.
I mean, this church was a church that so much wanted to see God work in their midst. They were hungry for God. For God to act.
What an incredible example for us. To as a church – a group – take time out to seek God’s will. To look for the Holy Spirit’s guidance for us. Oh – that our church would have that sort of hunger for God. That we’d pray and wait on him to lead us. Because when we pray – as we saw last week – God acts! Here in Antioch, the people pray, and God comes and honours their desire to serve him. And out of it comes the gospel spreading far and wide. Its early notice, but at the end of March, we’ve got a half-day of prayer which I would serious urge you to come along to. That we, like this church in Acts 13, might hunger after God’s will for us.
And so here in verse 2, the church is told to set aside Barnabas and Saul for the work to which God has called them. Which when you think about it is a huge thing for the church in Antioch to do. They were a thriving congregation. There was a lot of work to do right there in Antioch. Back in chapter 11, Luke tells us how Barnabas went to fetch Paul to help him with the work. There was so much that needed to be done right where they were. Paul and Barnabas could have done an incredible job growing the local church in Antioch.
But God said, send them out, and the church sent them out. Blessed them. Commissioned them as missionaries. Because this was a church who were all about outreach, not just about themselves. This was a church who were willing to take God at his word. Regardless of the cost to themselves. And it was a cost. To lose the leader of the church – Barnabas. To lose that great preacher and teacher Saul. But they had a bigger picture than just their own congregation. They realised that God had bigger plans. And they wanted to be a part of that.
But on to Barnabas and Saul. Sent off by the church and the Holy Spirit, they started making their way the 25 odd km downhill from Antioch to Selucia. I guess you could kind-of call Selucia Antioch’s version of Fremantle for us. It was their port city. And when they get there, they jumped on a boat headed for Cyprus. Apparently, on a good day, you could see it just over the horizon. Cyprus was Barnabas’ home island. I’m sure that as an expatriate, Barnabas would have had an incredible hankering to share the gospel with his own people. His fellow Jewish cypriots who perhaps hadn’t heard very much about Jesus and the good news.
Luke tells us in verse 5 that they arrived in Salamis and immediately began sharing the gospel in the Jewish synagogues. Which was Paul’s pattern. He first spoke to any Jews he met, and then he went and spoke to anyone and everyone who would listen. Luke doesn’t tell us much about their time in Salamis. All we know is that they made their way, verse 6, across the island till they came to the capital city of Paphos. Salamis was on the North-East of Cyprus, and Paphos was on the South-West. All the time, I’m sure, they would be proclaiming the word of God – explaining who Jesus is, and how God had planned along to send him to save anyone who accepts him as the master.
And when they got to the capital city, they met two very diiferent people. First off, they met a Jewish man named Bar-Jesus. Which means something like “Son of salvation”. He might have been Jewish by birth, but everything he was stood in opposition to God. Luke tells us that he was a sorceror and a false prophet. His job was something like a religious advisor to the Roman governor of Cyprus. The Proconsul Sergius Paulus.
In verse 7, Luke tells us that this Sergius was actually a pretty intelligent bloke. Someone who was open to hearing the word of God. Someone who wanted to hear the word of God. I get the impresison that Sergius Paulus was fascinated with spirituality. I men, he did have the so-called “son of salvation” on his payroll. And when word reached him of Barnabas and Saul’s travelling his island speaking about salvation through Jesus – he was intrigued. So much that he had Barnabas and Saul sent for. He wanted to hear their take on salvation. He wanted to hear what they had to say about God’s word.
Last Thursday evening, I was watching a bit of hard hitting reporting on Today Tonight 🙂 ! The story which really struck a chord with me was about… ghosts. There was this woman who had moved into a nursing home in Queensland, and how she was convinced that there were ghosts living there. And Today Tonight sent a reporter along to watch a team of ghost hunters give the place a once over. The whole thing was basically an advertisement for the ghost hunting company. At one point, one of the company reps. said how they were getting lots and lots of work… ghost hunting.
It really does amaze me that there is such a fascination in Australia with the supernatural. With the magical. Last year or the year before one of the TV networks had a programme about finding Australia’s best psychic. One of the top shows on Aussie TV is channel 10s “Supernatural”. And my gut reaction – I’m afraid – is to think that people who believe in that sort of stuff must be one fry short of a happy meal. And yet here in Acts 13, Luke introduces us to just such a person in Sergius Paulus. And what’s more, Luke specially points out that Sergius was an intelligent man.
Yes – an intelligent man who had been listening to falsehoods. Yes – an intelligent man who had got his understanding of the supernatural wrong. But still an intelligent man who wanted to know the truth about God.
And of course Bar-Jesus – of course Elymas did everything he could to oppose Barnabas and Saul. He did his best to turn Sergius away from the faith. Because Elymas knew that if his boss accepted Jesus as Lord, then he would have no time for the lies and perversions of God’s truth that Elymas offerred.
What do you do when somebody is actively working against the gospel like that? Elymas saw Sergius hearing the good news – and actively tried to turn him away from Jesus. At the beginning of this year, a new law came into effect in Ireland which – from my limited understanding of Irish politics – makes it illegal to deliberately offend any religious group. If enough people of a particular religion are offended, then you can face the full weight of the Irish law. But the interesting thing about the new law is that it replaces an older anti-blasphemy law, which only got people into trouble if they spoke out against the Christian God. The new law is meant to reflect the age of tolerance in which we live.
That’s Ireland. But that idea of tolerance is rife even here in Australia. There’s this idea that all faiths and belief systems are just as valid and important as anybody else’s. Our world pretends that any religions has just as much claim on being true as any other religion. And the logical conclusion is that one can pick and choose which religion you want. Even if you choose the religion of atheism.
Here in Acts 13, Elymas tried to offer his particular perversion of the truth as a valid option for Sergius Paulus. But look at the reaction we get from Paul. Paul is so concerned about Elymas spreading his deceit that he looks him straight in the eye and gives him a demonstration of God’s power. Paul looks at this man who dared to style himself “son of salvation” and calls him out for what he really is. “You,” he says, “are a child of the devil.” You stand as an enemy of all that is right. Your a liar and a trickster. Will you ever stop making crooked God’s true path? Won’t you ever stop perverting the truth?
Paul wasn’t afraid to call Elymas out. Because Paul understood the gravity of what was going down. Elymas was trying to pull Sergius away from the only hope for salvation that anybody has. And I think God’s challenge to us is to be serious about our work for him. Whether it’s prayer or mission work or whatever. As God’s church, we have a duty to speak out against those who would stifle God’s church. Who would try their best to stop God’s kingdom growing.
And yes – Elymas was just one bloke. But what about today? Whole governments arrayed against the church. Against people daring to share the good news of Jesus with those they meet. How can we stand by and not be worried that people are being deceived away from their only hope of being saved?
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Paul calls Elymas out, and God himself strikes Elymas blind. And Sergius Paulus sees, verse 12, the power of God at work. And he believes. Not just because of what had happened, but because of the teaching about the Lord. He saw Elymas as the fraudster he was, and and at the same time he saw Jesus for the God whom he is.
The power of God at work in Paul and Barnabas. All because a church longed to see God’s will done. All because
May we seek God’s big picture
May the gospel go out in power
May opposition see God’s power.