MESSAGE FOR DECEMBER 5, 2010 FROM ACTS 13:1 -12
Read Acts 13:1-12
This week, we move into chapter 13 in our series of messages from the book of Acts. In this chapter, the city of Antioch is front and center. We said a few weeks ago that Antioch was the early hub of missionary activity toward the Gentiles. It was the home church for Paul and Barnabas and as we read earlier, it was the church that, by the Holy Spirit, sent them on their first missionary journey. It was also the sending church for Paul’s other missionary journeys to the Gentiles. In chapter 11, we read of the first attempt to penetrate a Gentile population center with the gospel when a few courageous Jewish believers spontaneously decide to preach to the Gentiles in Antioch. It was unorganized and unplanned, but God abundantly blessed their efforts. Here in chapter 13, Luke records the first strategic, highly focused effort to go into predominantly Gentile areas with the gospel.
In the first two verses, Luke describes the church at Antioch, saying that there were “prophets and teachers” there. This is important for several reasons. First, it was a church filled with gifted people. To be mentioned in the same sentence with Saul and Barnabas indicates that these others, Simeon, called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who was part of Herod’s court—these were clearly gifted men. Also, this was a racially diverse church; Simeon is called Niger—which means “black.” He and Lucius of Cyrene were almost certainly from Africa while Manaen—who was like a foster child of Herod, was probably Palestinian. Luke wants us to see that this church was especially strong in one area—the ministry of the word of God. Its distinctive characteristic was the presence of prophets and teachers.
Those are both Word-based ministries. The teachers taught doctrine to the new converts while the prophets spoke God’s prophetic word into specific situations—whether that meant, his direction, rebuke, encouragement or whatever. It’s important to remember that the center of Gentile missionary activity was what we would probably call today “a teaching church.” This is important because in the church today there is a myth that goes like this—“If you really want to reach the lost, don’t make doctrine a priority—it just gets in the way. If you want to be effective in reaching the lost, place most or all your energy and resources in evangelism and mission and get to the doctrine when you have time left over from mission.” The rampant Biblical illiteracy in the North American church can in part be traced to that kind of thinking. There is a reason Luke makes a point of saying that this church in Antioch—the greatest Gentile missions and evangelism center in the apostolic era, was a teaching church. If teaching doctrine gets in the way of mission and evangelism, it’s because you are either teaching doctrine poorly or the church is disobedient. And the cure for disobedience is not to de-emphasize doctrine.
Doctrinal teaching and the prophetic word in the church are indispensible for a healthy, vibrant ministry of mission and evangelism. It’s no coincidence that Paul, the greatest missionary in church history, is also its greatest theologian. There is a reason those two belong together and we must not let man separate what God has joined together. Mission/evangelism and doctrine are not opposed to one another. Good doctrine equips people for mission. The more we have internalized about God and his gospel, the more effective and the more motivated we will be to share the message.
One of the major truths Luke’s account teaches here is similar to what we have seen before in Acts. That is: Spiritual conflict is simply part of faithful Christian living as we seek to be light in a dark world through missions and evangelism. The major episode Luke recounts here is this confrontation between Paul and Elymas as they battle for the soul of this man named Sergius Paulus. What Luke says about Elymas indicates that this was at heart, a spiritual conflict. This was not a competition between two charismatic figures, both employing their persuasive powers to influence this Roman proconsul. This is a spiritual conflict between the powers of the darkness, represented by Elymas, and light of Christ as seen in Paul. We know this is spiritual in nature because, as we noted a few weeks ago, Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, “12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” More specifically, Luke calls Elymas “a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus.” A magician was also called a “sorcerer” because he trafficked in the realm of spiritual darkness and demonic power.
This city of Paphos, like Ephesus was a powerful center of demonically empowered occult activity. The cult goddess Paphia or “Aphrodite” had a huge following in this city. There were other cults in Paphos that worshipped the demonic idols of Artemis, Leto and Zeus. Paphos was a city highly charged with demonic power and Elymas, as one who practiced the black arts and was a false prophet, would have felt very comfortable in this stronghold of spiritual darkness. Luke says he went by the name Elymas which means “magician.” His sorcery was so central to his life, it defined him. As Paul and Barnabas move into this area as ambassadors of Christ, it doesn’t take long for Satan’s emissary, Elymas to show up and work to foil their efforts.
The spiritual conflicts in Acts rage with great intensity at times because God, through Paul and others like Barnabas were, through the gospel, purging Satan’s kingdom of lost sinners. My experience has been that Satan will not seriously bother believers until they become involved in God’s mission to extend the kingdom of God by rescuing captive sinners through the gospel. When you are part of God’s invasion into Satan’s kingdom and begin liberating those he has held captive, you get his attention. If you live only to increase your head knowledge of the Bible or theology, Satan will not much trouble you. If your version of Christianity is the kind that only appears on Sunday morning and the rest of the week your life looks like the world, you pose no threat to the enemy. But when you become part of God’s mission to rescue sinners from the darkness—he puts you in his sights. If you are a prayer warrior or effective and faithful equipper of the saints—if you aren’t hesitant to share the gospel to win the lost here or to the nations, you will draw his fire.
We know Saul and Barnabas were blood earnest about winning Gentiles to Christ because God specifically called them out of the church at Antioch to this task. Another indication of their radical intensity to win the lost is something you might easily overlook in verse nine. In response to Elymas’ efforts to interfere with the conversion of Sergius, the first part of verse nine says, “But Saul, who was also called Paul…” How does that communicate intensity in reaching lost people? How does Saul becoming Paul communicate that he was serious about winning lost Gentiles to the Lord? Saul and Paul are not different names. They are simply different cultural expressions of the same name. Saul was a Jewish form of the name and Paul was the Roman or Gentile version of Saul. In other cases of name changes in Scripture, the change often means a change in status or role. For instance, Abram, which means “high father”, becomes Abraham, which means “father of multitudes.” Jacob, which means “he cheats”, becomes Israel which means, “he strives with God.” The name change indicated something inherently meaningful about that person’s new role or status. Not so with Paul.
God didn’t change Saul’s name, Saul did. Though he was doubtless proud of his Jewish heritage and being named after Israel’s first king, the name “Saul” had no significance to Gentiles. In fact, it probably carried a negative connotation to many Gentiles who were predisposed to hate all things Jewish. Now that Saul will be ministering primarily to Gentiles, he changes his name to remove any possible stumbling block. His name change is an expression of the conviction he voiced in First Corinthians 9:22 where he says “I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some.” Paul knew that his name wasn’t nearly as important as his mission to reach the Gentiles with the gospel. Because his Jewish name was not helpful in that mission, he doesn’t hesitate to change it as he begins this first missionary journey. “He became all things to all people that by all means he might save some.” Paul didn’t allow his personal attachment to his Jewish name to control his actions—what motivated him was the question—“How can I most effectively reach Gentiles for Christ?” He is not referred to as Saul again in Acts—except in a few instances where he recounts his conversion.
This is why some churches change their names. It’s not because they are ashamed of their names—it’s because their old name means nothing to the world and in many cases carries negative connotations. This is why the Baptist General Conference changed its name to “Converge International.” This isn’t compromising a Biblical principle. It’s not because the president of the denomination was ashamed to be a Baptist. It’s because both globally, and in the northern half of this country, “Baptist” unfortunately carries with it a lot of baggage to the unchurched. For Paul, keeping his Jewish name was not nearly as important as reaching Gentiles with the gospel, so he changed it. The point for us today is that it was because Saul was blood earnest about reaching lost people, as illustrated in his name change that ignited spiritual opposition very early in their first missionary journey.
In this account, Luke also highlights a crucial ministry the early church and we must employ in this spiritual conflict as we encounter opposition to the mission of Christ. That is: prayer and fasting that bring boldness to our gospel witness. As Luke does so consistently in Acts, he draws a clear connection between the prayers of the saints and the unleashing of God’s spiritual power. We saw it in the rescue of Peter from prison, where his angelic rescue is the result of the prayers of the church. We see it in chapter one when, in response to Jesus command to wait for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Luke records in verse 14, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers.” Pentecost came in response to the prayers of the saints. In Acts chapter two, Luke gives a summary description of the early church’s character and ministry. Verse 42 says, “42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Among the first qualities Luke lists of the early church is its ministry of prayer. In Acts chapter four, after Peter and John had been imprisoned, the church gathered together and prayed in verse 29. “29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”
In chapter six, the reason the apostles did not choose to wait on tables when the Grecian widows needed food was so they could “…devote [them]selves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” Two verses later when seven Greek men were chosen for this ministry Luke says, “These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid hands on them.” This ministry too was initiated with prayer. When the gospel went outside Jerusalem for the first time to Samaria, the Holy Spirit came upon the Samaritans in response to the apostles [verse 15] “who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.” In chapter 10, the first Gentile convert, Cornelius, meets an angelic messenger and Luke tells us, “And he [Cornelius] stared at him in terror and said, “What is it Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.”
Just as the Holy Spirit came upon Jewish believers and Samaritan believers in response to their prayer, so also did the first Gentile believer, Cornelius receive the Spirit in response to his prayers. In chapter 10, when Peter received his vision abolishing Jewish food laws and opened a door for the mission to the Gentiles, that vision came to Peter when he “…went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray.” This account in chapter 13 clearly connects prayer to the moving of God’s hand and in chapter 14, verse 23 speaking of Paul and Barnabas Luke says, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” The pattern is clear—in virtually every important development, decision or action—Luke records that it is preceded or accompanied by prayer and often prayer and fasting. Here in chapter 13:2 we read of the church at Antioch, “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” The best Greek dictionary tells us that the word translated “worshipping” is best understood as “praying.”  In the next verse, Luke tells us, “Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” They not only prayed—they demonstrated their kingdom priorities by fasting because reaching the Gentiles was more important than food to them. Fasting turbo-charges our prayers. It indicates faith and fervency.
Just as at Pentecost, which is the beginning of the mission to Jerusalem, and at the initiation of the mission to Samaria, so now here as the organized, intentional ministry to the Gentiles is initiated; it is done so with prayer. And Luke wants us to see that in this initial spiritual encounter on Cyprus, prayer was crucial to the spiritual victory he records here. There is a direct connection between the prayers of the church and the miraculous result of this first spiritual battle of Paphos. The reason I draw attention to Luke’s emphasis on prayer is because it teaches us that if our church is going to significantly impact the kingdom of darkness here and to the nations with the gospel, corporate prayer, like that we have seen repeatedly in Acts, must significantly increase here. Prayer is in some ways unique among all the ministries of the church. One element of this uniqueness is because the power behind every other ministry comes in response to prayer. Prayer is the supernatural battery pack that accompanies every other ministry. Without it, life-changing power is diminished. There is certainly inherent power in the Word of God, but it’s interesting that Paul, who knew this power better than anyone, also called for prayers to be made so that he could preach the Word boldly. All other ministries are dependent upon prayer for their life-changing power.
A second, unique aspect of prayer, unlike most other ministries of the church, is that everyone in the body is called to serve in this area. Though there are certain people in the body specially gifted with intercession and who devote extra attention to prayer, every believer is called to pray. Not everyone is called to preach or teach or cook or clean or prophesy, but all are called to pray. No one is called to preach without ceasing, or teach without ceasing, or serve without ceasing, but we are all called to pray without ceasing. In these prayer accounts in Acts, these are the prayers of the assembled church, not just a select few believers who feel a special calling to pray.
There are many reasons why the church in North America does not closely resemble the apostolic church, but certainly one (and one we can do something about) is—we don’t pray like they did. James 4:2 tells us, “…You do not have because you do not ask.” Second peter 1:3 says of Christ, “3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,” That means that our knowledge of God through Christ makes available to us all of God’s power that is necessary for life in Christ and godliness. That includes all power for ministry. So, on the one hand we have through Christ all this divine power and on the other, there are all these opportunities and desires for ministry. Faith, which is expressed through prayer, is God’s chosen instrument that completes the circuit between the divine power we have in Christ and our life and godliness.
Churches and believers that are not completing the circuit through prayer are allowing much of the divine power they have in Christ to go untapped. That means, among other things that, if we as a church seek to be empowered for ministry and therefore glorify God, we must have a dynamic prayer ministry here. If any of our existing ministries or the exciting new ministry initiatives the church board will be announcing soon are to bear real fruit, they must be bathed in prayer. Notice what happens here in response to Paul’s prayer- soaked ministry. Sergius Paulus—who was the Roman proconsul on Cyprus—a bit like a provincial governor was, as Luke says in verse seven, “…a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God.” So God is already at work on Cyprus before the missionaries arrive. This man, who could be very influential to other people in Paphos, has been touched by God and wants to hear the Word. Verse eight, “8 But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.”
Luke describes the conflict here. This sorcerer tries to interfere with Paul because Satan knows that if Sergius comes to Christ, many others might follow his influential example-- and so the battle is pitched. “ 9 But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.” This is not a case of Paul getting ticked off at Elymas and chewing him out. This is not Paul’s sinful flesh at work, it’s the Spirit.
Paul is not speaking for himself here, but is prophetically speaking God’s word of judgment on Elymas. He calls him a “son of the devil,” an “enemy of righteousness, full of deceit and villainy.” This man is in knowing, in-your-face rebellion against God. Paul doesn’t waste any gospel pearls on this swine. Instead, he boldly rebukes him and by the Spirit blinds him to the point where he must be led around—much like Saul of Tarsus had been at his conversion. The difference is—God used Saul’s blindness to help him see the light of Christ. By contrast, God physically puts Elymas in the dark as a judgment on his spiritual darkness. We mustn’t disconnect this remarkable display of Holy Spirit power seen in Paul’s stunning boldness, this miracle of judgment and the conversion of Sergius--from the prayers that sent out these two to the mission field. Luke makes prayer the context into which he writes this missionary account.
The intention this morning is not to try to guilt anyone into a more vital prayer life—that’s not the gospel and it doesn’t work anyway. There are two reasons believers don’t pray that I can think of. One is--they don’t believe God will answer and their unbelief shuts their mouths. A second reason is—they don’t pray because they are frankly satisfied with things the way they are now. They sense no burden to pray because, when it’s all said and done, the advance of the kingdom is not something they really care about and why pray about something that doesn’t matter to you. Those same people pray often for the safety of their children or when they get into some kind of trouble. When believers and churches don’t have vibrant prayer lives, their prayerlessness is only a symptom. James says, “you don’t have because you don’t ask” and often the reason we don’t ask is because we don’t care. We are often satisfied with this world and our advancement in it and so, why pray about extending God’s kingdom?
One application for us as a church is to honestly ask ourselves questions like—do we really, seriously want our worship gatherings to be permeated with the presence of God? Do we really, earnestly want to be transformed by the preaching of the Word? Do we really deeply desire to reach our Jerusalem? Do we want our ministries to be empowered by the Spirit? Do we want our leadership to be sensitive to the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit? Do we really want authentic Christian community here? Prayer is clearly not the only necessary component for those things to happen here, but one thing we know is—without prayer—none of it will happen. Hebrews 11:6 says, “6 And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” How do you seek after God? You certainly seek after him through his Word, but prayer is the arm of faith that reaches out for God and his power. Without that faith, we will not please him because we will be operating in our own strength, not the divine power we have been given in Christ. Prayer is not only the arm of faith. Fervent prayer indicates that we really want to be a man, woman, family, church that honors God in our lives and ministries to each other and to the lost.
For many of us, the answer to our prayerlessness is not, go make a list and “get serious about prayer.” Our prayer problem reflects a deeper problem that can only be solved by the gospel. As we come to more fully grasp what it is to be forgiven of our massive load of sins, we will want others to have that experience and that desire will lead to prayer. As we come to love God more and more as we see more clearly who he is and what he has done for us in the gospel, then, out of that love for him, we will want to see him manifested in our worship, ministries, community and leadership and will pray to that end. As we come to increasingly see the glory of Christ, most clearly seen in the gospel, then we will want more and more people to worship him and that will fuel our prayers to reach the unreached around the world. What I have just described is a gospel-centered revival. If we are going to pray for anything with earnest, let’s begin by praying for that during this Advent season. May God give us the grace to be filled with the gospel and as a result be a praying people for his glory and our joy.
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