Full Time Service (Acts 13.1-4)
Up until now these studies have focused on personal witnessing, based on the activities of Philip the evangelist, and a host of unnamed people at Antioch. Arriving at Acts 13, we now encounter two men who left their homes, a comfortable environment, and their prosperous work for the Lord, to carry the gospel to distant parts. We could describe them as missionary prototypes, and we see in their experience a pattern for the commendation of what we have come to call "full-time servants". The term has been criticised on the grounds that every believer should be a full-time servant of God, totally committed to the work of the Lord. That is understood, but we are thinking specifically of those who leave secular employment, and are dependent on the Lord to supply their material needs: that He does most graciously through His own dear people. We have proved His faithfulness throughout thirty-six years of such service, and can testify to the kindness of His saints. So what sort of qualifications did these men have?
First, they had been busy in their home assembly. The initial work at Antioch had been consolidated by the activities of Barnabas and Saul. Barnabas had been sent from Jerusalem to encourage the fledgling assembly and early impressions had given him great joy (Acts 11.22-26). Immediately, he exercised his gift as an encourager, as he "exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord". But he knew that Christian growth cannot be sustained by exhortations alone; the new converts required teaching. Saul was brought from Tarsus, and for a whole year he and Barnabas taught the believers the truth of God. Their ministry was so effective that for the first time God was pleased to call disciples "Christians". Features of the Lord Jesus were so developed in them that for the first time God gave them a name uniquely linked to His own dear Son. The men who had been so busy in this effective teaching ministry were the men who were now being commended to the work of God in other parts.
It would be strange if someone indicated a desire for commendation without first being busy, useful, and effective in the Lords work in their own surroundings. It has often been remarked that the people whom God calls are the folks whom the local believers feel they can least do without! Would God ever call anyone who has not had a major input into the home assembly? How could someone who has made a very nominal contribution suddenly have the passion and initiative that is needed to spearhead a work for God?
A second feature of these men was their honesty. Their integrity was such that they were seen as suitable custodians of the funds that had been collected for needy saints (Acts 11.30). A question mark over a mans integrity, honesty, or morality would surely impair his suitability for the Lords service. A Biblical principle is that we should all be vessels "unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the masters use" (2 Tim 2.21). "Be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord" (Is 52.11).
A further characteristic of Barnabas and Saul was their dependability; they "fulfilled their ministry" (Acts 12.25). They did not stop short of accomplishing their assigned task; they were not a disappointment to the brethren who had commissioned them. This feature marked them throughout their service, for at the end of the first missionary journey, we are told that "they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled" (Acts 14.26). A man who is fickle and unreliable will never command the confidence of the saints. The person who goes AWOL making no arrangement for his responsibilities to be looked after would never be suitable material for any new work for God. Such endeavours demand commitment and perseverance. These men stuck at their task.
Another feature of these preachers was that they were gifted for the work to which they were called. They were numbered among the "prophets and teachers" at Antioch (Acts 13.1) and so they had a God-given ability to communicate His Word in a lucid understandable way. In itself, knowledge of the Scriptures does not qualify a man to teach the Word. If he cannot impart his knowledge understandably, then it is evident that he does not possess the gift of the teacher.
In Bible times, the men who went out as missionaries were not qualified by their expertise in mechanics, engineering, or construction work. Natural ability and acquired skills must never be confused with spiritual gift although God can use both, but these men were gifted as evangelists or teachers. Silas was a prophet before ever he ventured to new fields of labour (Acts 15.32). While the gift of the prophet is no longer with us, the principle holds good; the man was equipped for what he was being called to do. Zeal is a tremendous quality that is sadly lacking in a casual age, but enthusiasm in itself does not render a man suitable for full-time service. There must be a God-given gift in communication, an ability to articulate the truth of God for the benefit of saints and sinners.
Dependence and Self-sacrifice
With their fellow prophets and teachers, Barnabas and Saul were men who prayed and fasted (Acts 13.2-3). Already they had demonstrated their dependence on God, and already they had shown their readiness to live sacrificially for Him. The man who hardly prays is declaring his self-sufficiency. Someone who craves comfort and security would never be suitable for the rigours and emergencies of a life of dependence upon God. Only a minority of Gods servants have been called to endure the hardships that these men experienced, but for all, confidence in God is a necessary prerequisite for His service, as is a history of sacrificial living preparation for whatever He may have in store. "Where He may lead me I will go". These sentiments are so glibly expressed in song, but should the pathway be rugged, it is important to be prepared.
Corroboration by Others
There is no talk in these verses of a dramatic call to Barnabas and Saul, with incident after incident being seen as a signpost for their direction in life. It appears that the Holy Spirit impressed all their fellow-workers that they had to be separated "for the work whereunto (He had) called them". God indicated to those linked to them that He had a specific work for these two men. This principle is most important. It has been known for folks to advise their elders that they feel called to serve the Lord in a full-time way, and for that news to come as a bolt from the blue. It was such an encouragement to me, when seeking commendation, that local elders expressed their solidarity with me. It was a real factor in confirming the Lords leading.
Support of Others
Their laying hands upon them indicated this support. There was nothing magical about this, simply a traditional way of expressing their association with them in what they were about to do. The believers who knew them best were saying in effect, "We are right behind you in this new venture. You can be sure of our prayers. We pledge ourselves to assist in every possible way". In modern times, this can often be expressed in a specially convened meeting to metaphorically lay hands on the brother who is being commended. Traditionally, on such occasions there are promises of prayerful and practical support. It would be sad if it transpired that out of sight was out of mind. Again, from my own personal history I am happy to pay tribute to the assembly that recommended me to the grace of God; the support of the saints over many years has been so loyal and consistent. It would be wonderful if every servant of Christ could acknowledge the faithfulness of the assembly that pledged its support at the time of commendation.
One other factor requires comment. Verse 4 makes clear that it was the Holy Spirit who sent them forth. According to the Newberry margin, the previous verse indicates that the saints "let them go". There was no attempt on the part of the assembly to retain those whom the Spirit had commissioned. Assemblies should be reluctant to commend and release someone if it is felt that the necessary criteria have not been met. If the reason for retaining the individual is a fear of being deprived, or worse still, a spirit of jealousy, beware, "lest haply ye be found even to fight against God" (Acts 5.39).
To be continued.