Last week we looked at the final story concerning Peter in the Acts of the Apostles, which was his rescue from prison for the second time. Herod Agrippa the 1st had just executed the apostle James, one of Jesus’ inner circle, not James the half-brother of Jesus who was the leader of the Jerusalem church. The Jews were happy with this execution because they were feeling threatened by the Gentiles. Thus, Herod thought he would do away with Peter, hoping to further increase his approval with the Jews. However, the apostles and disciples were praying fervently for Peter and the Lord answered their prayers by intervening.
We asked the question why did God save Peter and not James and truthfully we didn’t come up with an answer for that. Church family, one thing I’ve learned, particularly over the last 25-30 years of my life as a Christian is that we often don’t receive an answer to our questions – instead they remain a mystery. Most likely until we meet Jesus face-to-face. Perhaps at that time we will finally understand. Consequently, the more comfortable we are with accepting some mystery in our lives, the more comfortable we will be during our walk of faith.
We then asked another question – why does God allow pain? This question was slightly easier to answer as there are scripture passages pertaining to this subject – but the bottom line that we need to remember is this – He allows us to experience pain for His glory and for our good! Pain and suffering has the ability to be transformative if we allow ourselves to sit with it, talk it over or basically process it with the Lord, and then give it to Him.
Now this week we are looking at the end of chapter 13, thus I need to catch you up on a few things first that happened in the beginning of the chapter. We will be focusing on John Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark, his cousin Barnabas, and Saul who will now be called Paul for the first time. Keep in mind Jesus did not change his name at the time of his conversion on the road to Damascus. We know this because he was called Saul 11 more times in scripture after his conversion. So why was his name changed? Or was it?
It seems pretty clear that Saul and Paul were actually two names for the same person all along. In verse nine of this chapter we read, “But Saul, who was also called Paul.” Saul’s father gave him both a Roman and a Jewish name because he was a Roman citizen with all the rights due to citizenship as well as being a Jew. Thus, the child had both names from infancy. Saul was his Hebrew name and Paul was his Greek name.
The change was most likely noted by Luke in this chapter as he ventured out on his first missionary journey. And remember, Paul was known as the apostle to the Gentiles. Thus, when Saul/Paul launched his Gentile-focused ministry among primarily those who spoke Greek it’s perhaps only natural for Luke, the author of Acts, to begin referring exclusively to him by his Greek name. After all, the church’s nucleus is in the process of shifting from predominantly Jewish-centered Jerusalem to the Greek-centered Roman Empire.
We should also note that throughout the beginning of the chapter when referenced together, Barnabas and Saul are named in this order – Barnabas and Saul. We are told that John Mark went along as their helper. However, we see a shift in verse 13. At that point instead of Barnabas and Saul we hear Paul and his companions. Why is this significant? Because clearly Paul’s leadership had become prominent. Remember, originally Barnabas played a major role in the acceptance of Paul by the Apostles, but now here Paul is seen as the leader.
In the beginning of this chapter we read (2) “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Now there are a couple of things I want you to notice here. First of all the Holy Spirit is the one speaking and He is basically telling them that Barnabas and Saul need to be separated unto Him. They must be separate to God, which conversely implies they must separate from other things. But what things? Anything that will keep them from doing the call of God on their life. Because brothers and sisters, you can’t really say yes to God’s call on your life until you say no to the things that will keep you from fulfilling that call.
Secondly, God had a specific work He had appointed to Barnabas and Saul. Paul would later write in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. Here God called Paul and Barnabas to good works. And guess what church family, He also calls you and I to good works! Each and every one of us was created for some type of work in service to the Lord.
Now are we all called to be a Paul or Barnabas? No thank heavens! Do you remember God’s specific call on Paul’s life back in Acts 9:15-16 when He stated, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer in my name.” This was not a touchy-feely “feel good” call – it was a very serious call to a very serious ministry and one in which God forewarned would not be easy. Personally, I think enormous kudos goes to Paul for not only beginning the course, knowing that it was going to be extremely difficult, but for staying the course once he began to experience the enormous suffering he would endure for the Lord throughout the rest of his life!
And I’m just going to be honest with you, if I had known how tough it was going to be when called to vocational ministry, I’m not so sure I would have went through with it. Now I am not stupid, and I knew it would be hard. Serving in Emmaus for 15 years taught me that when we step forward for God, Satan attacks. But I had no idea how difficult it would be. And I’m sure that’s exactly why God didn’t tell me! Rather I received nothing but encouragement when seeking His will regarding stepping forward in this manner. And I’m sure that’s because He knew I would not step up to the plate knowing how weak and whimpy I am. Can any of you relate to what I’m saying here??
Thus, God bless Paul, and Peter, John, and David, Moses, Esther, and Mary the mother of Jesus, Saint Francis of Assisi, Joan of Arc, Thomas Aquinas, Mother Teresa, and all of the mighty Apostles and Disciples of Christ. No, fortunately for us, not everyone is called to serve at the same level as these men and women of God were! But we are all called!!
Now in our scripture passage for today, Paul, Barnabas and John Mark first travel to the island of Cyrus and minister all across it, then they travel to the coastal city of Perga, on the mainland of what is today Turkey. At this point John Mark departs from them and we don’t know exactly why he left them to go home to Jerusalem.
When reading and studying scripture, it is important to understand that much of what we learn when we are studying are educated guesses made by highly accomplished scholars. We look to them to do their best to interpret the scriptures and answer our questions based on their expertise regarding the history and culture of that timeframe. Thus, it’s important to recognize that during our study, we will often come across more than one plausible answer to our questions.
For example – when it comes to John Mark’s departure, it’s been speculated that perhaps he was homesick. Perhaps, he was afraid of the tough and dangerous travel through the mountains ahead of them. Perhaps he resented the change in leadership from his cousin Barnabas to Paul. Perhaps he lost confidence because Paul suffered poor health (according to Galatians 4:13). Or maybe he never intended to go all the way with them in the first place but failed to communicate that clearly. Whatever the reason, we do know however, that Paul was not happy with his departure. This is made clear in Acts chapter 15.
Nevertheless, after John Mark’s departure Paul and Barnabas continue on their journey and travel up a steep road into the higher elevation of Pisidia Antioch in Galatia. This Antioch is not the same Antioch we read about earlier in Syria. Rather, it’s about 135 miles inland to the north and was a Roman colony with a large Jewish population.
Now whenever Paul and Barnabas went to a new city to witness for Christ, rather than separate themselves from the synagogues that was the very first place they would go. They did everything they could to clearly show that the very Scriptures the Jews studied pointed directly to Christ. Paul’s reason for doing this was grounded in his understanding of God’s redemptive plan. And just in case you think he was neglecting his Gentile mission, he was not, for the God-fearers (the Gentiles who worshipped God) were also part of the audience.
A few more logistical reasons for starting in the synagogues were that they provided a ready-made preaching situation with a building and regularly scheduled meetings. It was also customary to invite visitors, and especially visiting rabbis to address the crowd. Consequently, the synagogues were the perfect place for Paul and Barnabas to begin!
Every Jewish service in the synagogue followed a particular order. First the Shema was recited. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Certain prayers were then spoken followed by a reading from the law (the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy), a reading from the prophets intending to illustrate the law, and then a sermon. The synagogue leader would decide who would lead the service and give the sermon.
As visiting rabbis’ Paul and Barnabas were often chosen to share. However, many times as soon as they spoke about Jesus the Messiah the door was shut in their face. Paul’s first message to the Jews in the synagogue in Antioch however, went well. He began with an emphasis on God’s covenant with Israel. He started there because this was a point of agreement as all Jews were proud to be God’s chosen people. Then Paul went on to explain how the gospel fulfilled the covenant. His sermon was so well received as they were leaving the synagogue, they were invited to return the following Sabbath to speak further.
On the next Sabbath almost the whole city had gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But of course many of the Jews became highly jealous and began talking abusively about Paul and Barnabas. They stirred up persecution against them and not only had Paul and Barnabas expelled from the synagogue, but expelled from the region. So the two men shook the dust from their feet in protest against all those in the city. This signified the severance of responsibility and the renouncing of those who had rejected their message.
Remember in Matthew Jesus had told his disciples to shake the dust from their feet of any town that would not accept or listen to them. The disciples were not to blame if the message was rejected, as long as they had faithfully presented it. When we share Christ carefully and sensitively, God does not hold us responsible for the other person’s decision.
I love Billy Graham’s quote, “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge and my job to love.” We are held responsible however, if He leads us to share the gospel with someone and we refuse to do so. And certainly when we really think about it – the most loving act we can ever offer anyone is to share the good news of the gospel with them! Don’t you think?? In so doing, we can rejoice in the presence of the Holy Spirit and we can experience His tremendous joy just as Paul and Barnabas did upon leaving that city.Let us pray, loving and merciful God we ask that we would feel Your Presence in a powerful way today. May we feel Your love in a manner that we have never experienced before. May we receive Your gracious forgiveness for our sins. Help us to repent and turn to You wherever we need to. Help us to recognize Your call on our lives and live it out in the power of the Holy Spirit. Help us to shine Your light, share Your love and spread Your joy to all we meet today and every day. And now let us pray the words our Lord and Savior Jesus taught us. Our Father……
Remember Jesus loves you and so do I!