A Reflection on Acts 13:1-3 for Sunday, October 4, 2020 at Mosaic Baptist Church.
In the church of Antioch there were prophets and teachers – Barnabas, Simeon of Africa, Lucias the Cyrene, Manaen, a foster-brother to Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting the Holy Spirit said, “Set aside for me Barnabas and Saul for the task which I have called them.” So, after fasting and praying, they lay hands on them and released them.
Acts 13:1-3 (Own Translation)
Our reading is a testimony to the diversity of the early church – at least in Antioch – a large city in Syria, north of Israel – well into gentile territory.
The reader of Acts already knows something of the origins of this community of followers. After the stoning of Stephen in Jerusalem – ominously overseen by Saul – the believers scattered. Some ended up in Phonecia and Cyprus. Others, however, gathered in Syrian Antioch where a mission was established.
By all accounts it was remarkably successful. Barnabas was specifically sent there by the church in Jerusalem. In turn he sought out Saul who had returned to his hometown – possibly for some time – of Tarsus. (See Acts 11:19-30).
By the time of the prayer meeting in the account above, Barnabas and Saul have been a part of this burgeoning mission for some time.
Perhaps it made a lot of sense to stay. There was fruit in Syrian Antioch. This leadership, however, are not seeking success.
They are seeking God.
Barnabas and Saul bookend Luke’s leadership list. We met Barnabas, previously Joseph, earlier in Acts and are already aware of the significant place he occupies in the early international church (See Acts 4:36ff). He was a Jew from the island of Cyprus deeply respected both inside and outside Jerusalem.
Simeon’s nickname, literally ‘Niger’, refers the the tone of his skin, and implies, we believe, that he is from the north coast of Africa. Lucias is also originally from along this coastline. Cyrenaica is simply further east.
Manaen, the Greek form of the Hebrew, Menahem, literally means ‘comforter’. Unlike Simeon and Lucias, Luke does not refer us to Manaen’s country of origin, but to his political connections. Manaen was brought up alongside Herod the tetrarch, in the palace in Rome. This is the same Herod who – uncannily – ordered the execution of John the Baptist and later played his part in the trial of Jesus. Two childhood friends who took vastly different paths. We rightly imagine him as well educated and connected.
Finally, there is Saul who Barnabas, as we have seen, specifically recruited to equip the Antioch church. He is a former Pharisee and persecutor of the Jesus-community. It was his overseeing of Stephen’s execution that sent the church fleeing to places like Antioch. Perhaps this church would not even exist without his misguided zealotry. In this community we rightly imagine people who originally encountered Jesus through men and women fleeing from this same Saul. Now he has become one of the foundational leaders and teachers in the community.
Sometimes God just seems to use everything.
Luke simply refers to this group by their role: they are ‘prophets and teachers’. That is, they listen for God’s voice – and share what they hear with all those they encounter.
This is, of course, exactly what Luke describes: a radically diverse community deep in worship, fasting, and prayer. They seek the voice of God. They are listening.
And when they hear, they act.
Even when the Spirit asks them to release their two most promising leaders, they act. With all the success of the Antioch mission we may surmise a rational resistance to such a decision. These two are needed. They are foundational.
Luke, however, points to nothing like objection. The brevity of his description of events is startling: ‘…they lay their hands on them and released them.’
Beautiful. Simple. Faithful.
Yet, there is a lot at stake here: the future of the church in Syrian Antioch; the cohesion of this team; the yet unimagined nature and potential of a new mission.
At the point of the Spirit’s speaking, any one of these legitimate concerns could have become an idol. They could have called for the prioritising of the already existing mission. They could have argued for the preservation of this remarkable team. They could have insisted on a more thorough plan before any release.
I have a suspicion that this is why the passage tells us they were ‘worshipping’ and ‘fasting’ during which the Spirit speaks. Then after this they continue ‘fasting’ and ‘praying’.
Perhaps – even after the voice of the Spirit – they took time to come to one mind. Maybe these grounded concerns had to be worked through. Perhaps a pride in what they had built had to be resisted. We do not know.
We do know, however, that the community that took this brave step into the unknown worshipped, prayed, and fasted before – and after – they heard the voice of God.
They are a good – and challenging – example.
What do you make of the diverse background of the people in this list? What does it say about the makeup of the church in Antioch? How does this challenge or affirm the makeup of the church you know best?
What do you believe is the essential role of leadership in the church? How does this glimpse into the life of the early church leaders inform or challenge this?
What are the concerns that make acting on the Spirit’s call difficult for you? What will it take for you to work through these?