God’s Missionaries, and Ours (Acts 13:1–4)

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This message was prepared to be preached at a(nother) another special day in the life and history of our church. It was a day on which we commissioned one of our own as a missionary to go and make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in another culture, with the view to strengthening an existing local church, with a longer view of planting other local churches. By setting him apart, we also separated him and his family from our immediate presence. The latter was a tough part of the blessed privilege of doing the former.

Just as we have the other missionary families that we have set apart over the years, we will miss this particular family—immensely.

When a church sends its own to another culture in the cause of the Great Commission, it is a big deal. Sending missionaries to the field, like marriage, is not to be entered into “unadvisedly or lightly” but rather “soberly and in the fear of God.” To put it another way, we want to make sure that the missionaries that we send are God’s missionaries. And if they are, then we need to prayerfully and practically and passionately embrace them as our missionaries. We have a wonderful example of this in the opening verses of Acts 13.

In this passage, we are provided with what I have always seen as a divine template that is to guide the local church in sending and supporting and supplicating for missionaries. I have preached numerous sermons and many, many times from these verses. Regardless, the truths of these verses must be digested and assimilated if we will continue in our quest to be a healthy, world-impacting church with the gospel for the glory of God.

In this study, I want to remind/instruct us what God’s missionaries look like. It is not a mystery, but, sadly, for too long and in far too many cases, this divine description has been ignored with the result that missions has suffered, on many fronts and in many ways. As I worked on this message, the Gospel Coalition published an article by missionary Mark Collins titled, “Your Bad Ecclesiology is Hurting Us.” His point was that too many local churches are uncertain concerning what to expect of their missionaries, unaware of the activity of their missionaries, and irresponsibly too quick to delegate their responsibility of missionaries to other organisations. And this often results in missiological train smashes on the field.

Collins offers some advice concerning how to reverse this and one of his wise counsels is: “Make Paul’s first missionary journey a model for missions” (Acts 13–14). That is good counsel, and this is what we will do in this study.

Specifically, we will examine the characteristics of the first local church-sent missionaries in recorded history. This should help us in a few ways.

First, it should encourage us that our missionaries are indeed God’s missionaries and therefore we can gladly own them as ours.

This being the case, it will, second, encourage us in our ongoing involvement in their ministry, prayerfully and practically.

It should, third, encourage our missionaries that we believe that they are God’s missionaries and therefore we love them as our missionaries.

There are at least seven characteristics in our text of God’s missionaries that help us to claim them as our missionaries.

God’s Missionaries are Members

The opening verse tells us of the leaders who were “in the church that was at Antioch” (v. 1). Prepositions in Scripture are important, and the preposition here emphasises that these members were “in” the church, not merely “at” the church. They were deeply involved in the church at Antioch.

Further, they were in the right kind of church—one faithful with the gospel. The church in Antioch is probably the model church in the New Testament (11:19–23).

This is a huge issue. The local church is the source for missionaries and the key to missions. Sadly, there are many who are merely “at” a church without being “in” the church. If one is not in the church, there is little chance they will truly be from it.

Why does this matter? It matters for a few reasons.

It matters, first, because the local church is the proving ground for missionaries. I recently read the biography of Neil Armstrong, the first man to the moon. I found it interesting to learn that Armstrong was a test pilot for jets before he became an astronaut. His time as a test pilot was the perfect testing ground for his career as an astronaut. He proved that he could handle the risks and dangers in his capacity as a test pilot before he was appointed an astronaut. The local church is likewise the testing ground for missionaries. A man must first be proven as a shepherd and disciple-maker in his local church before he can will be faithful in the mission field.

Second, it matters because missionaries reproduce “after their own kind.” If a missionary will plant and strengthen a healthy church on the field, he must surely be sent from an appropriate template. He must know what he is seeking to reproduce. The church at Antioch was a multi-cultural, gospel-centred, sacrificial church (Acts 11:19–23), and that is the same kind of church that they reproduced (see 2 Corinthians 8:1; etc.).

Third, it matters because the local church fuels the vision for missions. Solomon wrote, “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but happy is he who keeps the law” (Proverbs 29:18). “Revelation” is here equated with “the law” (i.e. the Word of God). The Authorised Version translates, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Since it is God’s church that is the custodian of God’s revelation (His Word), it is the church that fuels the “vision” for missions.

Local churches that understand this and that therefore have a vision for missions will continue to nourish the faith of those they send. Acts 11:23–26 tells the story of how Paul (then Saul) first came to the church in Antioch. Barnabas brought him there to help him shepherd the flock. Paul was strengthened by the church in Antioch, and no doubt the church was a continued source of encouragement to him even when he left for the mission field.

It was no doubt as Paul, Barnabas and the other leaders in Antioch faithfully presented the vision of God to the church that the church’s vision for God’s vision and mission resulted.

Fourth, it matters because the local church provides accountability and assumes responsibility. Paul and Barnabas understood their accountability to the church at Antioch, as did Silas, who later joined Paul on his second missionary journey. Acts 14:23–28 shows how the missionaries returned to their sending church, having completed the work that they were sent to do. Paul would later return to the churches he had planted, but he always headed back to Antioch and spent time there after his work on the mission field.

The sending church must realise that it has a continuing responsibility to its missionaries after it commissions them. We are deliberate about this in our church. As pastor-teacher of BBC, I am committed to visiting our missionaries at least once a year. It saddens me when other missionaries tell of having been on the field for a decade or more with no visit from anyone in their sending church. Assuming responsibility for a missionary surely means, in part, visiting them.

But the missionary must also understand his accountability to the local church. One reason that Paul consistently returned to Antioch was no doubt because he realised his accountability to his sending church. We had a missionary once who was ministering in a country in North Africa. At first, the doors to ministry seemed to be wide open, but eventually, through several providences, the door appeared to close. I spoke to him to learn how things were going on the ground, and then I took the matter to our eldership. The elders agreed that it was time to recall these missionaries. When I told him of our decision, the missionary said that, while he had not wanted to leave his field, he was glad that the directive had come from the church and he happily submitted to it. He understood his accountability to his church, and this made the decision far easier than it otherwise would have been.

The church-missionary relationship is an “ownership” that benefits both parties. Let’s continue to keep the vision for the mission before the church and the Lord will continue to raise up disciple-makers. He may even raise up more missionaries.

God’s Missionaries are Ministering Members

The second broad principle that we learn from these verses is that God’s missionaries are ministering members. Our text speaks of “Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul” who “ministered to the Lord and fasted” (Acts 13:1–2). Paul and Barnabas were church members who, while busy ministering in the church, were sent elsewhere.

When I was considering the mission field many years ago back in the United States, I called a seasoned missionary who ministered in Australia, where I believed the Lord was calling me. I asked him for some advice, and one thing he said to me has stuck with me ever since. He told me to be sure that I wanted to be a missionary and not a “vacationary.” He challenged me that, if I intended to serve faithfully on the mission field as a missionary, I must be sure that I was doing in my own church what I intended to do on the field. I would not be sent by the church on an extended vacation; I would be called to make disciples, and I needed to be sure that I was doing at home what I would be called to do abroad.

If a man not ministering in his own church, it is unlikely that he will be a faithful minister elsewhere. We need to be martyrs (witnesses) at home if we will be martyrs (witnesses) on the field.

Luke tells us that Paul, Barnabas and the other leaders “ministered” in the church at Antioch. The word translated “ministered” speaks of priestly service, and is used in that context elsewhere in the New Testament (Luke 1:23; Romans 15:16, 27; Philippians 2:25; Hebrews 8:2, 6; 10:11). These leaders loved their Lord. They worshipped Him. They worked for Him. They waited on Him.

What characterised the ministry of these leaders in Antioch? We can see at least four characteristics of their ministry in this text, and in the larger context of Acts.

First, they declared the Word of God. Our text speaks of them as “prophets and teachers.” They were faithful to teach and preach God’s Word, because they were not ashamed of the gospel of Christ (Romans 1:1–16). They faithfully declared God’s Word to God’s church.

Second, they discipled the believers in the church. In fact, they were so faithful in discipling the believers there to Christlikeness that the disciples there were the first ones called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). They manifested the character of Christ and discipled others to do so.

Jesus said that we are to be involved in teaching disciples to obey whatever He has commanded (Matthew 28:18–20). It is only those who are faithful in this ministry who are fit to be sent as missionaries. We must send of our best to the mission field. As the Hallmark greeting card tagline says, we must care enough to send our best.

Third, these leaders were devoted to the Lord. They were not merely dutiful. They carried out their duty, but in a devoted manner. They considered their ministry to be priestly service. They knew that they were service God. Their ministry flowed from their relationship with Him and, therefore, their relationship with the disciples. They ministered from overflow.

These leaders understood what biblical missions looks like. They did not have merely a thrill for missions, but an actual theology of missions. They served God in the context of body life, and this was a good sign that they were ready to be sent. The same is said of Timothy later in Luke’s church history account (Acts 16:1­–3).

God’s missionaries have a vision of and for God. They have meaningful devotional lives—both privately and corporately. This is what we can and must expect of those we send.

Fourth, these leaders were dependent. Our text tells us that they “fasted.” Fasting is evidence of hunger for God, and is almost universally tied in Scripture to prayer. These men knew the source of their life and service. Their dependence on God continued after their sending. Luke tells us that, at the end of their missionary journey, they “appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting” before returning to Antioch (Acts 14:23). Paul speaks of his “fastings” to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 6:5) and indicates that he fasted “often” (2 Corinthians 11:27). He understood that his sufficiency was of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:5).

The dependence of a missionary is partly revealed in his prayer life. Some time ago, I read a book on preaching titled Saving Eutychus: How to Preach God’s Word and Keep People Awake. While it is a book on preaching, its opening chapter is dedicated to prayer. Why? Because preaching will not be effectively passionate apart from communion with God.

One of the reasons I am convinced that the young man we recently set apart for missions ministry is ready is because of his passion for prayer. This is displayed not only at the corporate prayer ministries of the church, but he actually started two early morning prayer meetings at the church of his own accord. God’s missionaries understand the gravity of Jesus’ words: “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:37–38). They understand that God’s house is to be called a house of prayer.

In sum, we can say that God’s missionaries are God-centred in their ministry. Their local church is witness to their passionate ministry. “He is worthy” is the commitment that drives them.

God’s Missionaries are Mature Members

We see, next, that God’s missionaries are mature members. When the leadership laid their hands on these men, and the church sent them out, they were “sent out by the Holy Spirit” (v. 4). The remainder of the story shows that they were both fervent in their zeal for ministry and fruitful in their work. They had been tried and tested, and now it was shown that they were true labourers for God’s glory.

It is important that God’s missionaries be qualified. And the qualification for a missionary is nothing less than the qualification for an elder as set forth in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9. These qualities are shown by testing. It takes time—and trials—to prove the reality of these qualifications. Again, Timothy is a good example of this. He was judged faithful by his home church in Acts 16, but it took time with Paul to prove that he was necessarily qualified. From the two letters written to him and bearing his name, it is evident that he was eventually considered qualified.

Christian maturity is measured by the ability to reproduce. This means that the character of Christ will be reproduced in the life of a missionary (John 15:1–8), but it also means that the missionary will prove himself by reproducing these qualities in the lives of others. It has been said that the fruit of a Christian is another Christian. This is true because the ability to reproduce is evidence of Christ in us. It is fair to ask a missionary, “Where is your Timothy?” If the missionary will be expected to reproduce the life of Christ in disciples on the field, he must surely be able to show that he has done so at home first.

I recently received a call from a young man in Zimbabwe, who is coming to South Africa soon for a short time. He wants to have lunch with me when he is here. This man was led to Christ and discipled by the missionary whom we recently set apart for ministry, and now he is faithfully serving God in a church in Zimbabwe. This is just one of the timothys that this missionary has produced in his time at our church.

The church must not send a boy to do a man’s job. God’s missionaries are men.

God’s Missionaries are Marked Members

The third characteristic of missionaries in this text is that they are marked members. When “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul’” (v. 2), I doubt that it came as a surprise to anyone in the church. Probably, everyone saw it coming—at least, everyone who was “in” the church.

Missionaries are marked by everything we have already said in this study. And it does not surprise the church when the Holy Spirit calls them to go. At BBC, we have an elder/missionary internship ministry for this very purpose. We try to identify potential leaders and the elders then mentor them in a way that helps the church to detect what God is doing in the church in the lives of potential leaders. There is no guarantee that a man entering the internship will ultimately become an elder or missionary, but it helps the church to be thinking in that direction, so that when the call does come, no one is surprised.

This highlights the place of the local church in identifying God’s missionaries. And this should not be difficult! A sense of “call” is not enough; neither is the issue of compassion. Every Christian should have this! The church, however, examines a man or woman’s character and competency. This is vital, because the going will get tough.

I was involved years ago in a church planting endeavour. In the early days, there was one Sunday when I preached to an audience of one—and she fell asleep. It was discouraging, but that is the reality of missionary ministry. The missionary must be prepared for this, and the church has a part in examining him to ensure that he is so prepared.

All of this naturally and logically leads to the next point.

God’s Missionaries are Mandated Members

The fifth lesson we learn from our text is that God’s missionaries are mandated missionaries. Luke tells us how this happened in Antioch: “Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away” (v. 3). At some point, God’s missionaries became Antioch’s missionaries. And when a local church appoints a missionary, they are recognising that God’s missionary has become its missionary.

Luke tells us that “they” sent the missionaries away. There is some debate as to “they” are—the leaders or the church—but most seem to think that it is a reference to the church. The leaders no doubt led the church in this decision, but it was the church that sent the missionaries.

These missionaries were therefore sent by and under the authority of Christ’s church. All missionaries are. This makes it serious, and also provides security for the missionary. Like our North African missionary, there is great comfort when the missionary knows that he can gladly submit to the authority of his sending church.

The church needs to take this very seriously. We need to know those whom we discern are called of God. This is serious business. The church is not necessarily called to send all those who say that they feel they are called. Our church has in the past not sent some who have said they have felt call, and with good reason.

As local churches, we have a responsibility to the church at large. Sending those who are not equipped or qualified may unnecessarily burden the gospel ministry. We can be a blessing to the church at large by being carefully discerning of whom we send.

Missionaries are Maintained Members

Next, we learn that missionaries are maintained members. Again, these missionaries were ultimately commissioned and sent by the Holy Spirit (vv. 4ff), but they were not sent empty-handed. No doubt they were glad to return to Antioch because Antioch had materially and prayerfully supported them in their work.

If our missionaries are God’s missionaries, then we are expected to support them. John spoke of sending forth missionaries “in a manner worthy of God” (3 John 6), which implies material support. Paul was grateful for, and expressed his gratitude to, the churches that materially supported him in his missionary work, and the New Testament is clear that those who live by the gospel ought to eat by the gospel. That is, those who are employed to do gospel work ought to be supported by those whom they represent in their gospel work.

The local church must prioritise the maintenance of its missionaries. I have little time for men who impregnate women and then default on their maintenance responsibilities. I have equally little time for churches that default on their financial responsibilities to their missionaries. If we send them, we must supply them.

I recently read a biography of the American General Patton. While I do not condone much of his character and behaviour, it was clear from this biography that he was committed to his troops. He was committed to do whatever was necessary in order to supply their needs. We should share that commitment to our missionaries—if not exceed it!

Practically speaking, missions ought to receive the “best” of our money, not merely the leftover. Missions ought not to be considered just one budgeted item after the luxuries. Our missionaries ought to be our utmost priority.

At the same time, we must be committed to sending our best members. We cannot, obviously, send all of our best members, or the church at home would be in trouble. But those we send must be the cream of the crop. This will be costly to the church, but let us remember that we cannot give God. If we give those whom we believe we sorely need, God will surely be faithful to resupply.

Parents ought to be willing to give their children to the work of the Great Commission. Missionaries will come from our families, and we cannot selfishly cling to those whom God is calling elsewhere. When my wife and I approached our pastor—my father-in-law—about our desire for the mission field, he was unsurprised and quite willing to send. He said that he had realised long before that that if God gave him such a burden for missions, it would be strange for God not to send some of his own children. One of his other daughters and her husband later followed us to the mission field. But my father-in-law was prepared to carry this cost. We must share this willingness.

God’s Missionaries are Missed Members

Finally—and this is implicit in the text rather than explicit—God’s missionaries are missed members. Try for a moment to imagine what this local church felt when they sent away these key leaders. Can we even imagine what it must have cost the church to send away, not only its first pastor (Barnabas), but also a man who would become the apostle Paul? No doubt they were sorely missed—so much that it hurt.

This is logical. When we review the kind of people that are God’s missionaries it is small wonder that they are missed!

Missions has rarely been, for me, merely theoretical. Rather it has been theological, ideological and practical. But now, in a more profound way, it has become deeply personal: The missionary whom we recently set apart is my own son-in-law, married to my eldest daughter and father to my three grandchildren. This is how church life is.

When the church sends out God’s missionaries then a need is created that God intends to supply (Philippians 4:19). Are you that supply?

Note that God does not send out all of the best; each member should be among the best as far as faithfulness. And fruitfulness is to be our goal.

All of this is costly. We therefore require a powerful motivation. And that motivation is God Himself. He sent the very best (John 3:16). And we send our best because God sent His best.

Think about it: God sent His best for the worst—sinners like you and me (Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:10). Would you like to have God’s best? Then come to see that you are among the worst as well. Confess your need for the Saviour. Be willing to turn from your sin as you believe on and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ who died for sinners, who was buried for sinners and who rose from the dead for sinners. So that He could make them among the best.

Who knows: Perhaps you have read this today as one lost and separated from God; today might be the day in which you are saved from your sins. And then, one day, you might even be one of God’s missionaries. And one of ours as well.