Out of all the churches we read about in the New Testament, which would you say had the greatest impact on the growth of the Early Church? Would you think of the church in Jerusalem, the birthplace of the church, the home of the apostles? Or the church in Rome, right at the centre of the influential Roman Empire? Or how about the church in Philippi, or in Ephesus, or any of the other of those Seven Churches in the book of Revelation? My vote would be for none of these. I believe that in many ways the most important church in New Testament times was the Syrian church in Antioch. And the significance of the church in Antioch comes from one crucial event which we read about in Acts 13.
2 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.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
The single event which had the most impact on the growth of the Early Church happened on the day when the church at Antioch sent Barnabas and Saul off on their first missionary journey! Think of all the churches Saul, who we know better as the Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, planted and taught and pastored. All because the church in Antioch sent him out as a missionary. Somebody has written:-
“When a congregation can produce a missionary, a writer, a pastor-teacher or an evangelist they have made a contribution to the building of the kingdom of God which may outweigh the contribution of other churches ten times its size. “
The church in Antioch was a SENDING church. Let’s look for a few minutes at the characteristics of this “sending church”.
13 In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.
This was a church that knew how to hear the voice of God. They had teachers who expounded the scriptures to them so they were grounded in the truths of the gospel. But they also had prophets, believers gifted with being able to hear God’s voice and deliver his messages. These men and women exercised spiritual gifts from the Holy Spirit which were recognised by the whole church. When these people said, “God is saying this to the church,” the whole church listened!
2 While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting,
It was a worshipping church – their worship was not just empty liturgy but a genuine encounter with the Living God. That will have included prayer as well of course. But they were also fasting. There’s a spiritual discipline too often neglected in the church today. Fasting as a way of showing God we really mean business with him when we are praying or interceding or seeking his will for our lives. That church at Antioch was serious about seeking God’s will and guidance. And in the middle of this worshipping and prayer with fasting
the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
Here was a prophecy inspired by the Holy Spirit, a specific message to the church revealing details of God’s will and purposes. It was a message for the whole church but it was also a message for two individuals, Barnabas and Saul. Five things leap out of that one sentence.
1. God’s will was for Barnabas and Saul to become missionaries.
2. God had a specific job for them to do.
3. God’s will was for them to travel the world preaching the gospel.
4. The Holy Spirit was calling Saul and Barnabas to the mission field,
BUT ALSO – and this is very important, .
5. This call was evident to the whole church and not just the two individuals. God didn’t just call Barnabas and Saul. God was calling the whole church to become a sending church.
In fact, this wasn’t the first time that the apostle Saul heard God call him to a life of evangelism. In once sense, of course, every Christian is called to be a missionary. John Stott has rightly defined mission as “all that God sends his people into the world to be and to do.” A missionary is simply somebody who is sent – from the Latin word for “to send”. And ALL Christians are sent by God to serve Him in the world. The Great Commission is Christ’s command not just to apostles and evangelists and missionaries but to every Christian,
19.. … go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
All Christians are called to be witnesses, to proclaim the gospel in words and actions, to this work of making disciples. But missionaries usually experience a specific sense of call and Saul was also called by God in a very special way. That call to serve God came to Saul on the Damascus Road on the occasion that the risen Jesus Christ appeared to him.
15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
“ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
That encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road brought Saul to faith in Christ and new birth. And then in the next breath Saul also received the call to be an evangelist and missionary. But that ministry did not begin in earnest until Barnabas took him under his wing and brought him to Antioch. We learned about this two weeks ago.
Acts 11:22 the church at Jerusalem, … they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
Barnabas found Saul. To begin with Barnabas was the leader and Saul was the sidekick. Saul was the apprentice, Barnabas was the teacher. Barnabas discipled and trained Saul. Saul’s gifts and ministry were tested and refined in that church in Antioch, for at least a whole year! Only after that training and apprenticeship and period of service in the local church did God say to Antioch, “set apart for me Barnabas and Saul.”
It’s important to recognise what a sacrifice it was for the Church at Antioch to send Saul and Barnabas away! They weren’t young or immature or inexperienced or new converts carried away by enthusiasm. They weren’t strangers looking for support from a church that didn’t know them. Although it was unnamed Christians scattered by persecution who first preached the gospel in Antioch it was Barnabas and Saul who had built it up. They were the leaders and the heart of that church. They had already proved their worth as gifted teachers. They had brought countless individuals to faith in Jesus. They had demonstrated their ability to teach and their willingness to serve the Lord. They were loved and trusted and respected. Barnabas and Saul were the best men that the church at Antioch had!
So although God had called Saul individually years earlier, it was only when the whole church heard God’s call to send Barnabas and Saul that the mission began in earnest. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church at Antioch recognised and endorsed that call and sent Saul and Barnabas out for the work God had for them to do.
3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
More fasting. More prayer. And then an act of commissioning and empowering and consecrating.
How does a person become a missionary? Or a minister? Or an evangelist? We can see here the Biblical pattern. God calls the individual. The gifts are demonstrated and developed and the call is tested in the local church. And then, representing God, the church sends. Antioch – a sending church.
Of course that wasn’t the last that Antioch saw of Barnabas and Saul.
14:26 From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. 27 On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.
Missionaries remain members of the church that sent them. They still belong. They stay in touch. And when they can they report back. Not only in Acts 14 but also back again in Acts 15 by which time Saul was known as Paul.
35 Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.
And again in Acts 18 18:22 When he landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church and then went down to Antioch. 23 After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and travelled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.
The sending church will always be “home” for its missionaries and equally for those it sends into ministry. A sending church sends missionaries and ministers out as its representatives and it never stops supporting them in prayer and in practical ways. Once a sending church – always a sending church.
And God still uses sending Churches today. Saul had such a dramatic experience of conversion and call. You might think that Saul wouldn’t think he would need the church to send him – surely a vision of the Risen Christ would be enough! But on the contrary, even Saul who became the great apostle saw that having that call tested and being sent out by the local church was an essential part of God’s plan for any missionary or minister or evangelist. He wrote exactly that to the Romans
Romans 10:13 “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
How can they preach unless they are sent? God still uses sending churches today to send out ministers and missionaries!
The church at Antioch was not the only church which supported Saul in his missionary journeys. We read in his letters how generous the Philippians were, supporting Saul by sending him gifts of aid when he was in need. Many of the churches he had planted continued to pray for Saul and stayed in close touch with him, as he did with them. He had many supporting churches, but only one sending church – the church at Antioch!
The Holy Spirit brings life to Christians and to the Church in many ways/ But one of the most important is that the Holy Spirit comes to equip Christians for mission. Jesus promised, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses.”
The great missionary Henry Martyn said, “The Spirit of Christ is the spirit of missions, and the nearer we get to Him the more intensely missionary we must become.”
Emil Brunner wrote, “The church exists by missions, just as fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no church; and where there is neither church nor mission, there is no faith.”
Mission is the primary purpose of the church! The church exists to proclaim the gospel. Each church has its own mission to fulfil – the mission to share the gospel of Jesus Christ within the local community. That is why we run toddler groups and cafés and drop-ins and inquirers’ courses. But every church also had a responsibility to support the work of mission beyond the locality. That is why together we support Baptist Home Mission and the Baptist Missionary Society. And many individuals privately support other missions and missionaries around the world. It is good to be a supporting church. And some churches have the very special privilege of becoming a sending church.
The world needs more ministers and the world needs more missionaries. There couldn’t be too many missionaries! We live in a world where 91% of the population have heard of Coca Cola. 74% have seen Coca Cola. 51% have TASTED Coca Cola. But probably less than 10% of the world are saved!
Matt 9:38 Jesus told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.
God wants sending churches! Over the decades the churches I have served have been sending churches to a number of ministers and of overseas missionaries. Laura was one of the young people I baptised in Brentwood and right now she is completing her second of three years training to become a Church of England vicar. In my time three members of that church became Baptist ministers and three members became missionaries to Africa. We had the immense privilege of supporting these Christians and others as they left their ordinary jobs and entered full-time Christian work. It is a deep joy to be a sending church.
We don’t have to be a big church or a rich church to support world mission generously. And we don’t have to be big or rich to be a sending church. Antioch were a worshipping praying fasting church – and we could do that. Antioch were listening for God to speak to them – and we could do that. Antioch were open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to messages in prophecies and dreams and visions – and we could do that. And Antioch were a sacrificial church, prepared to release their very best leaders to serve God somewhere else – and we could do that.
This short passage is a powerful call to every church to support ministry and world mission in giving and prayerful interest and in every way we can. But of course, Antioch only became the sending church because they had Barnabas and Saul among them. Two people who were prepared to listen to God’s call. “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Two people who were prepared to leave what they were doing and step out in faith to go where God was calling them to go. So there is the other challenge for us today. Are WE open to God calling us to leave what we are doing and step out in faith to go where he calls us to go? God could be calling somebody here today to be a minister, or a missionary, or a youth worker or an evangelist or into some other area of Christian work. Age is irrelevant. Abraham was 80 when he left his home to go to the Promised Land and Moses was 80 when he led the Israelites out of Egypt through the Red Sea. Laura’s parents James and Andrea and our friend Lyn were in their 50s when they left their jobs and their families to go as missionaries to Africa. Andy became a minister in his 40s and Steve in his 30s and David in his 20s. Laura is now just 30. Each of them, and their families, and others I won’t name, heard the call of God and obeyed. God could be calling one of us here today! Or two or more of us! In the days to come if God calls somebody here to Christian ministry or Christian mission, North Springfield Baptist Church could yet be a sending church.