ACTS13v1to14 THE CHANGING LEADERSHIP
(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)
An awful lot is packed into this short passage. At first sight there does not seem to be an underlying unity to the verses. However, on closer inspection it can be seen that they deal with the changing status of Saul. Initially he is listed last of the prophets and teachers at Antioch. Barnabas is then named before Saul in the two-man team selected for missionary work by the church at Antioch. When the missionaries leave Cyprus the party is described as Paul and his companions. v13. Saul has assumed his new name and the leadership of the group. This has repercussions: Paul leads the party into Galatia and John Mark goes home.
(B) The importance of the church.
Saul was commissioned by Jesus to carry his name before the Gentiles. The Lord said to Ananias, ".... This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings..." Acts9v15. He was equipped for the task. Saul was a prophet, teacher, preacher and miracle worker. Yet he always sought to work in partnership with the church. Paul accepted its:
(b) Calling. Paul left Tarsus after Barnabas arrived from Antioch and asked for his help.
(c) Guidance. After working together in Antioch for a year Paul and Barnabas took a gift to the church in Jerusalem. On returning to Antioch they probably felt called to missionary work in Cyprus and beyond. Paul and Barnabas did not decide to go and then ask the church to pray about it. No, they consulted the fellowship first. They wanted confirmation that this was the right course of action. That is why they were worshipping the Lord and fasting.
The church met together to consider the future of two men who meant so much to them. So they worshipped God - thanking him for the inspirational ministry of his two dedicated servants. They also prayed and fasted. The believers in Antioch were so concerned to discern God's will for Paul and Barnabas that they forgot about food. They prayed with such intensity that meals were an unwelcome distraction. Eventually the Holy Spirit gave the church an answer: "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." v3.
The church at Antioch was not without able men. There were three others who could teach or prophesy besides Paul and Barnabas. A prophet had a direct revelation from the Lord. We see the fruit of Paul's gift of prophecy in his epistles. He was only able to write as he did to the church at Corinth about the bodily resurrection of the dead because it was revealed by the Spirit to him.
Some commentators think that Simeon called Niger was Simon Cyrene. Whether he was or not, Simeon was black. Lucius was certainly a Cyrenean and of North African origin. Manaen was an unlikely convert to Christianity. He had been the childhood companion of Herod Antipas - the despot who beheaded John the Baptist. These three elders placed their hands on Paul and Barnabas and sent them off on their missionary enterprise. The laying on of hands has a two-fold significance. It allows the church to identify with the work Paul and Barnabas have been called to do. Secondly, it is a way of imparting the blessing or good will of the fellowship. The Patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - placed their hands upon their sons to bless them. It remains a meaningful sign.
There are lessons for us in the way the church at Antioch interacted with Paul and Barnabas:
(b) It is wrong to make a concrete decision and then ask the church to approve it. How can a fellowship do this when they have not been party to that decision? I can remember a very sweet girl deciding, with her parent's agreement, to leave the Geography course she was well into and study Drama instead. I was presented with a fait accompli. I was expected to accept what had happened with good grace. I couldn't do it! I had not been involved in the decision. If I had been consulted I might have been disappointed to lose a good and attractive scholar but I would have given her my blessing.
(c) We should earnestly desire our churches' blessing on all the significant decisions we make in life. I have to admit that I have been much too individualistic in Christian service. I have never really asked my church to bless my ministries - organising games at Pioneer Camp, visiting the elderly, preaching in the small chapels around Bury St Edmunds or producing this website. It has been a mistake. I might be more fruitful if my church was involved in what I do for Jesus.
We had a lady who attended our chapel some years ago who wanted to set up a discussion group for women. As far as I was concerned she could go ahead and organise it. The lady was very anxious to receive the blessing and support of the church. At the time I thought she was being a bit of an attention seeker but I see now that she was wiser than I.
(C) It is important to stand up to the enemies of the Gospel.
Bar-Jesus or Elymas the Jewish sorcerer was an influential man with a powerful friend. He advised the Roman proconsul of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus, who was both intelligent and superstitious. Superstition was rife in society at that time. There is always a tendency for superstition to prevail when life is uncertain and often short. In Robert Graves' autobiography he writes of the superstition in the trenches during the First World War. Sergius Paulus might have consulted his wicked spin-doctor over decisions to do with lifestyle and presentation of policy. Although Elymus was a valued consultant he was full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. He was probably a combination of astrologer, magician, ventriloquist and salesman.
Sergius Paulus sent for Paul and Barnabas because he was anxious to hear the word of God. Elymus saw that his employer was very impressed and fearing some erosion of his own pernicious influence opposed Paul and Barnabas and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. v8. For Paul this was a very serious matter. It is always a great wickedness to turn a convert from the faith.
It required courage to stand up to Elymus in the presence of his patron. Paul wasn't intimated; he looked straight at Elymus and proceeded to denounce him the strongest possible terms: "You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?" Paul had the power to back up his scathing judgement with action. He inflicted temporary blindness upon Elymus. It is not always a bad thing to have a short fuse! Terrible harm has been done because good men have not opposed evil. Paul could never be accused of this.
I have just finished reading about the prominent German Nazis - Goebbels, Himmler and Goring - all of whom participated in the campaign to annihilate the Jews whom they considered subhuman. There were so few decent Germans willing to oppose the victimisation of the Jews. If more had denounced what was happening and stirred things up Hitler might have postponed dealing with the Jewish problem.
This country was not blameless in its conduct of the war against Germany. W.F. Deedes the veteran columnist of the Daily Telegraph asked in a recent article about the blanket bombing of German cities: "Was this bombing really necessary?" In late 1944 and early 1945 thousands of German civilians were deliberately bombed to death. W.F. Deedes wrote that Sir Charles Portal, the Chief of the Air Staff, opposed this policy but he was too weak to stand up to Bomber Harris and Winston Churchill.
There are militant enemies of the gospel in our world today. The USA and the UK are allies of Saudi Arabia - because of its huge oil reserves! I would not be an ally of a country that imprisons its nationals for possession of a Bible. I believe militant Muslim regimes that allow no freedom of religion should be opposed.
Militant enemies of Jesus Christ also exist in my own country. The Government of Britain will not allow Christians to run their own radio station. This is a diabolical infringement of religious freedom. It would not be so bad if the BBC broadcast the gospel. That organisation, for fear of upsetting religious minorities, prohibits red-blooded gospel preaching. I listen to the Sunday morning service each week and the politically correct messages lack power to change lives. They do not so much as ruffle feathers! Jesus ruffled feathers, Paul ruffled feathers and any decent preacher does the same. The BBC rarely gives a powerful, forthright preacher a chance. The BBC practices religious censorship. It is a disgrace. We need to protest before it is too late.
(D) Paul assumes the leadership.
When Paul and Barnabas arrived in Cyprus Barnabas was the leader of the mission. By the time they left the island Paul was in charge. From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia. v14.
It is likely that the expedition to Cyprus was Barnabas' decision. He was a native of the island. See Acts4v36. John Mark was the cousin of Barnabas and so they might both have had relatives living in Cyprus. There were many Jews and some Christians in the province. Barnabas was more cautious and conservative than Paul. Later we shall see that he didn't eat with the Gentiles in Antioch after the Jewish legalists arrived from Jerusalem. Cyprus was a relatively safe and easy place to start as travelling evangelists. When the party venture into Asia Minor (Southern Turkey), a step into unknown dangerous territory, Paul takes over the leadership.
Barnabas showed graciousness and sound judgement in being prepared to play second fiddle to Paul. He realised that his companion was better qualified for the job ahead.
In 1940 Lord Halifax, the Holy Fox, and Winston Churchill were candidates for the leadership of this country. Churchill was not favourite for the post. Many believed that he lacked judgement and wisdom. Chamberlain and King George 6th wanted Halifax; the Government wanted Halifax; the great majority of Conservative MPs wanted Halifax; the Times, the City, the House of Lords and Whitehall all wanted Halifax; opposition leaders had indicated that they would prefer him and even Churchill himself told friends that he, too, would serve under him but the Holy Fox knew that he was not the man for the job. Lord Halifax proposed that Churchill should be Prime Minister. His biographer writes that this was a supreme act of self-abnegation, one for which history has afforded him scant credit. It was, perhaps, Halifax's greatest service to his country.
We do not like to be overshadowed or excelled by someone else. It is hard to say and mean, "I must decrease and he must increase." I am not even sure that John the Baptist put this into practice. He did not become one of Jesus' disciples after all. The fact that John the Baptist's ministry ran in parallel with Jesus' for a time produced some problems later. Barnabas did the church a great service by giving Paul his head. Others have done the church a great disservice by holding back gifted men and women and denying them the opportunity to serve God in the way he has equiped them for.
(E) John Mark lacked staying power.
John Mark left Jerusalem and returned to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. He joined them for their missionary expedition to Cyprus. John is called their helper or document keeper. Today we might call him a clerical assistant, research assistant or librarian. John was in charge of the parchments and scrolls which recorded information about the life and teaching of Jesus. This written data may later have provided the raw material for his gospel. Barnabas and Paul needed to refer to the writings about Jesus in the course of their ministry.
Why did John Mark leave Barnabas and Paul at Perga? There are three clues to his conduct:
(a) The leadership changed. He had joined the party under Barnabas' leadership and now his gracious, understanding cousin was not longer in charge.
(c) The target area changed. John Mark was quite happy to go to Cyprus. He had relatives there and may have visited the island before. It was relatively familiar territory. The wild mountains of Asia Minor were a different kettle of fish.
(d) Paul was more upset by his decision than Barnabas. At a later date Barnabas was prepared to forgive John Mark and give him a second chance but Paul was not. There may have been a personality clash between John and Paul. John may not have felt safe with the new leader - he took risks and upset people!
Some of us do not like changes that we haven't anticipated. I really hated it when the educational system changed in this country and comprehensive schools replaced grammar schools. I had become a teacher because I expected to work in an environment like the one I had been educated in. No-one told me it was all going to change.
Christians often find it difficult to adjust when a pastor leaves their church. Sadly there are some who identify much too strongly with the pastor and not enough with the rest of the church. After our last pastor departed one of the new young members said to me, "Things are not the same since Simon left." It was not long before he and his family had gone. I felt a bit like Paul must have felt when John Mark went home to Jerusalem.
It can be disagreeable when the work to which we are called changes. Church treasurers who in the past added up the collection, banked it, made a note of all financial transactions in a little book and gave a report to the church every quarter are now expected to adopt and use computerised accounting systems with which they are unfamiliar. A church secretary in a declining fellowship finds himself taking on more and more little jobs because no-one else is capable of doing them. A youth worker who in the past has enjoyed a warm, affectionate and tactile relationship with boys and girls now finds that hugging and cuddling children is frowned upon because of the new church child protection policy. It is very tempting in all three cases, and especially the last, to give up.
John Mark was wrong to give up. He missed a blessing in Asia Minor. He witnessed neither Paul nor the Holy Spirit at work there. John also drove a wedge between Paul and Barnabas because of his disloyalty. They eventually had such a sharp difference of opinion about young John that they split up.
We should be careful not to do anything that fosters disharmony. George Whitfield pleaded with John Wesley not to publish a sermon on 'Predestination'. John Wesley took no notice and it subsequently became difficult for the two men to work together. I don't expect Wesley's diatribe against 'Predestination', however much I personally might agree with it, achieved a great deal. Its publication was not worth the disunity it caused.
(F) The apostle Paul went on.
(b) On a physically demanding journey. The road from Perga to Antioch Psidium was a long, twisting, tortuous ascent through the rugged Taurus Mountains to the interior plateau. Antioch Psidium stood 3600 feet above sea level. Paul was prepared to hazard all for Jesus Christ. He never adopted a safety first policy. His courage is unquestionable.
One day in the course of a preaching tour to Cornwall John Wesley dined at the London Inn, Redruth. He needed to go on to St Ives to preach in the evening. The coastal road to St Ives forded the Hayle Estuary which could be dangerous at high tide. Peter Martin, the ostler at London Inn, agreed to drive John Wesley to St Ives. By the time they reached the Hayle Estuary the tide was coming in fast. The ostler advised against crossing. John Wesley cried out, "Take the sea. Take the sea." It was perilous undertaking. Before long the horses were swimming and the carriage nearly overwhelmed by the surging waves. John Wesley leant out of the carriage window and shouted, "What is your name driver?"
"Peter," was the reply.
"Peter, fear not, thou shalt not sink," cried Wesley.
The ostler reported that it was only by a miracle that they made the crossing without being swept away.
We may question John Wesley's judgement in putting the life of Peter Martin at risk but there is no doubting his physical courage.
(c) On a very dangerous route. The mountain road from Perga into the interior was notorious for robbers and brigands. This did not stop Paul from getting to where the gospel needed to be preached.
John Wesley was often in peril during his itinerant ministry. Bricks and stones were thrown at him. On one occasion a bull was driven against him. He was subject to mob violence at Walsall and barely escaped with his life. Nothing daunted John Wesley. In some ways he was quite a prim little man but he was passionately determined to preach Christ come what may.
We are very quick to call off services if the weather is a bit inclement and it doesn't take much to dissuade us from attending church. Most of us do not share the fortitude of the apostle Paul or John Wesley.
(d) In spite of ill health. Paul left the coastal town of Perga in Pamphylia without preaching the gospel. Antioch in Psidium, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe are all in Galatia. When Paul wrote to the Galatians he says: You know that it was because I was sick in body that I first brought the good news to you..... Gal4v13. It is probable that Paul left the coastal strip for the mountains because he had virulent malarial fever. This was associated with violent headaches and blurred vision. Malaria may have been Paul's thorn in the flesh.
So although very ill, Paul still goes on to take the good news of Jesus' sacrifice for sins to others. There is no going back. Shaking with fever, he begins the long trek into the mountains and on to Galatia. Paul's example should be our inspiration. We need, in the words of the song Harry Lauder used to sing, to:
Keep right on to the end of the road.