by Pastor Ola Joseph Kolawole
A Change of Gear: ‘Missionary Mode’ Activated
Acts 13 brings a change of gears to the narrative of the early church. Up until now, Jerusalem had been the centre of ministry, and Peter had been the key apostle. But from this point on, Antioch in Syria would become the new centre (Acts 11:19ff.), and Paul the new leader. In the rest of the Book of Acts, we will see Paul’s three missionary journeys and the different incidents that happened there. In Chapter 13, upon the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas to be sent out on this great missionary venture, we encounter among others, 4 cities in their first missionary journey. I’m going to share one thought or the other from each of those cities.
1. ANTIOCH IN SYRIA (Acts 13:1–5)
As mentioned earlier, this congregation and location is about to become central to the story of the early church as told in the Book of Acts. With the exception of Chapter 15 where the Jerusalem Church was again mentioned regarding the debate on what Gentiles converting to Christianity should do, the church in Antioch in Syria became the centre for Paul’s missionary work.
This last Sunday (July 26), I preached a message to the congregation I’m privileged to serve in Liverpool in which I cited Acts 13:1 to buttress a point about the MULTICULTURAL nature of God’s church. (You can watch the full sermon here) From the list of the church leaders mentioned in verse 1, we see a multicultural leadership. It says (in TLB):
“Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch were Barnabas and Symeon (also called “The Black Man”), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (the foster-brother of King Herod), and Paul.”
These are very different kinds of people (including 2 Africans, by the way) based on their ethnicities. I think this is very instructive for how we do church today. If we continue to build churches where everyone that attends looks alike, talks alike and thinks alike, there is a problem — such churches do not fully reflect the destiny of the church as portrayed in the Book of Revelations where people “from every nation, tribe, people group, and language” are worshipping a common Saviour. In heaven, there won’t be a separate section for Yorubas and another for Igbos and another for Chinese, Koreans, Americans, Britons, Germans, French, etc. So we must be intentional about building churches that model such multiculturality from now onwards.
By implication, we can’t afford to sustain baseless prejudices about people from other races or ethnicities or denominations — the body of Christ “has been formed in his image and is CLOSELY JOINED TOGETHER and CONSTANTLY CONNECTED AS ONE. And EVERY MEMBER HAS BEEN GIVEN DIVINE GIFTS TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE GROWTH OF ALL; and as these gifts operate effectively throughout the whole body, we are built up and made perfect in love.” (Ephesians 4:16 TPT)
There is no single people group that fully ‘gets God’. We understand Him better when we are in fellowship with others who understand Him in other ways. If we will all acknowledge what we have and what we lack, we will build flourishing congregations where people are empowered to serve with their gifts and receive the service of others with different gifts.
2. PAPHOS (Acts 13:6–12)
Onwards, as Paul and Barnabas began their missionary journey, they journeyed to Seleucia and then to Paphos, the capital of Cyprus (and Cyprus was the home of Barnabas — Acts 4:36). This was where they had their first opposition — a Jewish false prophet (a sorcerer named Elymas) — who Paul called out and pronounced blindness over.
The story shows, as Jesus taught in the parable of the tares (Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43) that *wherever the Lord sows His true children (the wheat), Satan comes along and sows a counterfeit (the tares).* May God grant us discernment in our dealings with people lest we fall into deception and its ills.
Secondly, it was in this passage (verse 9 specifically), where Saul became known as ‘Paul’ throughout the rest of the Book of Acts (and onwards, generally). The interesting thing I found out is that ‘Saul’ means “sought after,” and ‘Paul’ means “little.” I think it is safe to imply that the name change is descriptive of what happened in Paul’s heart — he left behind the greatness he had in his own estimation (as he said in Philippians 3) and embraced being content to be insignificant. This, indeed, is a journey every believer must take.
3. PERGA (13:13)
This is the verse where we read that John Mark left Paul and Barnabas to return to Jerusalem. The reason wasn’t specified but it surely became an issue between Paul and Barnabas as we will see later in Acts 15:36-39 — it was so serious that Paul did not want John Mark back on his “team” again and he will later enlist Timothy to take John’s place (Acts 16:1-5).
This tells us, on one hand, that people will be people. In doing God’s work one way or the other, expect some drama. One thing is certain, no matter who leaves you or your team and for whatever reason, God remains committed to prospering His call upon your life.
In this particular case, we do know that John Mark was eventually accepted and approved by Paul (2 Timothy 4:11). We must seek to restore relationships (pursue peace with all men) where possible, but where God has shut the door to a relationship, we accept it and move on.
4. ANTIOCH IN PISIDIA (Acts 13:14–52)
This, by the way, is different from the Antioch we saw at the beginning of the chapter. Here we have Paul’s first recorded sermon and it is 50 shades of lovely! He resonated with his listeners’ self-understanding by retracing their Jewish history and how their hope for a Messiah had been fulfilled. Basically, he started from where his audience was and led them back to their past and then forward into ‘present truth’. This remains a valid evangelistic principle today: Start from where the person you are evangelizing is . . . and bring them up-to-date — to Calvary.
May God help us.