Studying the Bible, Making a Tremendous Discovery: Acts 13:1-4

Here is what I discovered reading Acts 13:1-4. You can read it here. There were five men—Luke gives their names—in the place of prayer, and they had been fasting. The Holy Spirit said to them, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work that I have for them.” The men continued fasting and praying, surely trying to understand all that the Holy Spirit meant for them to know and do. Then they laid hands on Paul and Barnabas and released them. “So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. And they had John also to assist them.”

The story is well-known to the reader. It is so familiar that we may breeze through the text without seeing what is really there. Here are some writers who hold to the opinion that the Antioch church sent Paul and Barnabas to be their missionaries:

  • David Wilson (my friend) writes, “Paul was called and sent out by the Antioch church.”[1]
  • Paul Rees wrote, “The apostle Paul was sent forth by the Antioch church and, equally important, he felt himself answerable to the church.”[2]
  • Tom Julien, author of Antioch Revisited writes. “As the believers of the [Antioch] church worshiped and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul’ . . . They laid hands on the two men, as a sign both of their recognition of God’s call and of their responsibility as a church . . . It was a divinely inspired model of how the church ought to function.”[3]

With so many friends holding a different opinion from mine, I often open the Bible again to Acts 13 and ask, “Help me see what I might be missing; I have so many blind spots.” On this matter I remember what Senator Daniel Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Here are six facts I hope will help my readers sort this out for themselves.

  1. Five men from the Antioch church met to worship and fast. They were Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen, and Saul.
  2. Holy Spirit said to these five men, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
  3. Three men (none of them a pastor, none an elder), laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and sent them off. Harold Cook writes, “This Greek verb apelusan “sent off” is never used in the sense of an authoritative sending of individuals on a mission. It is translated “divorce” in Matthew 5:32 and as “set free” from prison in Acts 2:32. “So it really should be translated,” Cook explains, “‘they let them go,’ or more freely, ‘they wished them Godspeed.’”[4]
  4. Barnabas and Saul governed their teams without guidance from the Antioch church; their missionary teams were “field-governed.”
  5. The Antioch church governed its church affairs but did not administrate the Barnabas or Paul’s missionary teams. Cook writes, “If the Antioch church had constituted itself a missionary sending agency, surely there would be some further evidence of its missionary activity after this one trip. But this is completely lacking.”

Paul Rees is of the widely-held opinion that “Paul felt answerable to the Antioch church.” So I will add a sixth fact:

6. Paul and Barnabas felt answerable to any church that raised funds for their ministry, such as the church in Philippi. But there is no reason to think that the Antioch church raised funds for their ministry. When Paul returned to Antioch, the Bible says, “he and Barnabas were the ones who gathered the congregation, in order to declare all that God had done with them. The church did not call the meeting (Acts 14:27).

The writers I have quoted—David Wilson, Tom Julien, Paul Rees, and a hundred more—are deeply concerned that the local church assume a more active role in the carrying out of the church’s mission. Fortunately, Harold Cook responds, “But this hardly justifies reading into the New Testament text what is not actually there. Nor does it justify treating a New Testament church as if it were structurally similar to one of our churches today.” Harold Cook continues:

The Antioch church as such was not involved in this action. It was only these prophets and teachers who were involved. Some would contend that the church was involved by implication, since these were the leaders in the church. But this is pure presumption. There is absolutely no indication in the text that these men were acting on behalf of the church. Nor did their ministry in the church necessarily qualify them to act for the church. They are not named as elders or bishops of the church. They are more like the prophet Agabus mentioned in Acts 11:28, who ministered temporarily in Antioch. So, any proof that the men represented the church in their action is completely lacking.

Blincoe: Church leaders should pray and fast and hear what the Holy Spirit is saying. God will set apart many members of the congregation to be missionaries. Church leaders will then assess which mission society to partner with. Cook concludes:

Mission societies are not an aberration, as some would have us believe. Rather, they are modern attempts (often faulty, to be sure) to follow the scriptural principle of letting the Spirit do the sending as in the early days. Our only contention in this article is that it is wrong to claim that the organized church is the one agency prescribed in the New Testament for the sending of missionaries. On the contrary, the one indispensable is the sending by the Holy Spirit. If the church acts in accord with the Holy Spirit, well and good. But if not, the Spirit will still send forth his missionaries, whether individually, as in the early centuries, or through independent societies, as in more recent years.”[5]

[1] David J. and Lorene Wilson, Pipeline: Engaging the Church in Missionary Mobilization (Littleton, CO: William Carey Press, 2018). p. 4

[2] Paul S. Rees, editorial in World Vision Magazine, April 1974. 

[3] Tom Julien, Antioch Revisited: Reuniting the Church with Her Mission (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 2006).

[4] Harold R. Cook, “Who Really Sent the First Missionaries?,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 11, no. 4 (1975).

[5] Ibid.