Return to the Task


The Point:  We can trust God is at work on our behalf.

Barnabas and Saul Sent Off:  Acts 13:1-3.

[1]  Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. [2]  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." [3]  Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.  [ESV]

“Luke has reached a decisive turning point in his narrative. In keeping with the risen Lord’s prophecy [1:8], witness has been borne of Him in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria; now the horizon broadens to the end of the earth. The two deacon-evangelists have prepared the way – Stephen by his teaching and his martyrdom, Philip by his bold evangelization of the Samaritans and the Ethiopian. So have the two major conversions which Luke has documented, that of Saul, who was also commissioned as the apostle to the Gentiles, and that of Cornelius through the instrumentality of the apostle Peter. Unnamed evangelists have also preached the gospel to Hellenists in Antioch. But all the time the action has been limited to the Palestinian and Syrian mainland. Nobody has yet caught the vision of taking the good news to the nations overseas, although indeed Cyprus has been mentioned in 11:19. Now at last, however, that momentous step is to be taken. Barnabas and Saul have been south in Jerusalem, in order to hand over the famine relief money contributed by the church of Antioch [11:30]. They brought with them from Jerusalem John Mark who will accompany them when they set out on the first missionary expedition. The cosmopolitan population of Antioch was reflected in the membership of its church, and indeed in its leadership, which consisted of five resident prophets and teachers. It was while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting that the Holy Spirit spoke to them. So important was this occasion, that it may be helpful to ask some questions about it. First, to whom did the Holy Spirit reveal His will? Who is the they who were worshiping and fasting, and to whom He spoke? It is probable that the church members as a whole are in mind, since both they and the leaders are mentioned together in verse 1. Moreover, when Paul and Barnabas returned, they gathered the church together and reported to the church as a whole [14:26-27]. Secondly, what was it that the Holy Spirit revealed to the church? It was very vague. The nature of the work to which He had called Barnabas and Saul was not specified. It was not unlike the call of Abram. In both cases the call to go was clear, while the land and the work were not. So in both cases the response to God’s call required an adventurous step of faith. Thirdly, how was God’s call disclosed? We are not told. The most likely guess is that God spoke to the church through one of the prophets. However it came to them, their first reaction was to fast and pray, interceding for the two who were to be sent out. We notice that in neither reference to fasting does it occur alone. It is linked with worship in verse 2 and with prayer in verse 3. For seldom if ever is fasting an end in itself. After the fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So the church confirmed the calling of the Holy Spirit upon the lives of Barnabas and Saul and joined together in sending them off from the church to the mission that the Spirit had called them to. This balance is a healthy corrective to opposite extremes. The first is the tendency to individualism by which a Christian claims direct personal guidance by the Spirit without any reference to the church. The second is the tendency to institutionalism, by which all decision-making is done by the church without any reference to the Spirit.”  [Stott, pp. 215-218]. 

The Spreading of the Word of God:  Acts 13:44-52.

[44]  The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. [45]  But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. [46]  And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, "It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. [47]  For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, "’I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’" [48]  And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. [49]  And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. [50]  But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. [51]  But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. [52]  And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.  [ESV]

“This first dramatic turning of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles is given a theological rationale by Paul in terms of the fulfillment of the Servant’s role in Isaiah 49:6 which Paul quotes in verse 47. Given their previous ministry in Syrian Antioch [11:22-26], their preaching to Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch was no new thing. However, abandonment of the synagogue, in order to minister to Gentiles in their own context, required some explanation. Even so, the report of their ministry in Iconium [14:1-7] shows an engagement with Jews in the synagogue once more. The pattern observed in 13:44-52 is repeated there, with Jewish unbelief and opposition forcing them out of the synagogue and eventually out of the city. So this passage is designed to explain the pattern of Paul’s ministry more generally, in terms of the social and theological issues involved. Verse 44 describes the events of the next Sabbath after the tremendous response to Paul’s preaching on the first Sabbath described in 13:42-43. The message had been spread by those who attended the synagogue and doubtless also by Paul and Barnabas, taking every opportunity during the week to teach the gospel. Presumably this gathering was in and around the synagogue. However, despite such enthusiasm, there were Jews who began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. At this point, Luke appears to use the expression the Jews quite narrowly, referring to those who were not convinced and who were filled with jealousy when they saw the crowds. It seems unlikely that all the Jews who were enthusiastic about the new teaching [42-43] turned against it so suddenly. Jealousy at the success of others is sadly a common human failing, and religious leaders are especially vulnerable to such behavior. Jealousy is expressed here by contradicting the message and blaspheming against God. The ESV translated the Greek word as reviling against Paul and Barnabas, but Acts consistently uses the verb with a Godward connotation (blaspheming) as the NRSV and the NASB translates it. The final expression of jealousy is organized persecution, resulting in expulsion from the region [50]. Resistance is openly expressed and involves personal attacks that would make preaching in the synagogue difficult or impossible. In the face of this opposition, Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, analyzing from a theological perspective what was going on. In effect, they switch to a judicial role, boldly pronouncing the divine verdict on the present contest. Their foundational claim (it was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you) was justified in the opening section of Paul’s sermon [16:23], but finds further substantiation from considering Isaiah 49:6 in its original context [47]. Since the Christian gospel is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, Jews everywhere have a prior right to hear what God has done for them. However, the Greek conjunction translated here as since [46] indicates a clear causal relationship between the rejection of the gospel by these Jews and the deliberate turning of Paul and Barnabas to ministry among Gentiles in that city. Their rejection of the gospel (thrust it aside) is interpreted ironically as a judgment that they are unworthy of eternal life. The concept of eternal life is mentioned only here and in verse 48. Although it may be taken as a broad equivalent for salvation or the kingdom of God, the idea that resurrection to eternal life is specifically the outcome of Christ’s resurrection is suggested by 3:21; 4:2, 10-12; 17:18, and is implied by 13:32-37. Resurrection from the dead is later described by Paul as the hope of Israel for which he is on trial because of his preaching about Jesus [23:6; 24:21; 26:6-8, 22-23]. Such intense and sustained opposition from Jews was the signal to Paul and Barnabas to turn to the Gentiles. This did not mean that the missionaries would now evangelize Gentiles for the first time. Neither did it mean that they would never again preach to Jews, since they immediately go to the synagogue in Iconium [14:1], and Paul continues to preach to Jews first, wherever he can find them. The citation from Isaiah 49:6 also makes it clear that turning to the Gentiles is not an afterthought or second best solution, following Jewish rejection of the gospel. The mission is universal, but it must follow prescribed order. The Jews must be addressed first. If they reject the gospel, the missionaries are free to begin the second phase of their mission. This phase would concentrate on Gentiles who had no connection with the synagogue. Such a move would have profound implications for the character of the church in that place. Jesus Himself was first identified as a light for revelation to the Gentiles [Luke 2:32], and thus, foundationally, He is the one in whom Isaiah’s prediction is fulfilled. The risen Christ then commissioned the apostles to be His witnesses to the end of the earth [Acts 1:8; 13:47]. We have seen ways in which that witness was carried by others to different places and ethnic groups [8:4-40; 11:19-26], and we have noted the important step taken by Peter in sharing the gospel with Gentiles and the endorsement of this initiative by the apostles and believers in Judea [10:1-11:18]. What we find now is not so much a shift in strategy as a focus on Paul as the chief instrument by which the gospel reaches out to the Gentiles and the end of the earth. In this connection, the agreement reached in Galatians 2:7-9 should not be taken to mean that Peter, James and John would never preach to Gentiles, and Paul would no longer preach to Jews. Spheres of missionary responsibility were delineated without prescribing exclusive rights to evangelize one group or the other. In Pisidian Antioch, Paul’s work among Gentiles would now take precedence and his base of operation would no longer be the synagogue. When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord [48]. We might expect Luke to write that they praised God for the gospel, but he makes it quite clear that they were actually praising or honoring the message. A way of salvation had been opened to them through the gospel, and, as a consequence, as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. The Jews rejected the Word of God and judged themselves as unworthy for eternal life; in contrast, the Gentiles show that they are destined for eternal life by glorifying this same word of the Lord. Luke draws attention to the way in which God uses the gospel to call out His elect and to save them. This present verse is as unqualified a statement of absolute predestination as is found anywhere in the New Testament. Not everyone is affected in the same way by the preaching of the gospel. God must open hearts, to enable people to listen and respond with faith [cf. 16:14; 18:10]. Those who seek the Lord from among the nations are those whom He has already claimed as His own. Yet this happens as God enables some to believe through the proclamation of the gospel. Even though the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region [49], and many no doubt believed, unbelief and hardness of heart were everywhere present and led to organized persecution. The Jewish leaders moved to the next level of opposition and incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city [50]. The former were presumably adherents of the synagogue because they are described as devout or God-fearing. The latter may have been Roman magistrates. With the aid of these influential citizens, the Jewish leaders stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. So the missionaries followed the practice commended by Jesus in Luke 9:5; 10:11: they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium [51]. It is likely that this was a particular warning to their Jewish opponents, who would understand the significance of this prophetic-type action, rather than a wholesale condemnation of the city. Those who reject the message of eternal life will themselves not receive eternal life. God’s judgment against scoffers [41] will surely come. By shaking the dust from their feet, the missionaries indicated that they did not want to be associated with such unbelief and its consequences. Even in the context of so much persecution, the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit [52]. The Spirit enabled joy and perseverance in the face of intense opposition. Paul and Barnabas soon returned to strengthen these believers in their faith and to establish them as the new people of God in that city [14:21-23].”  [Peterson, pp. 396-400]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Describe the call of Barnabas and Saul for their missionary work. Who called them? In what context did the call come? What role did the church play in their obedience to the call? Why is it dangerous for an individual to claim a call to the ministry in isolation from the church?

2.         Describe the pattern of Paul’s missionary activity as it is set forth in 13:44-52. What was the source of their message? How did the different groups receive their message? Why the difference? How did the disciples react to persecution for the sake of the gospel?

3.         Who decides who will believe the gospel message [48]? How can this fact encourage you in your witness today? What different emotions does the gospel stir up in Antioch; in our world today? Why does the gospel message evoke such different emotions [see 1 Cor. 2:13-16]? Are you prepared for these varying responses to your Christian witness?


Acts, Darrell Bock, Baker.

The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Eerdmans.

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Acts, Derek Thomas, REC, P & R Publishing.

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