Menu Close

“What Has Gone Before”

Acts 13:1-3
Bob DeGray
January 2, 2005

Key Sentence

You are called to God for the work that is on his heart.


I. What Has Gone Before? (Acts 1 - 12)
II. What Comes Next? (Acts 13:1-3)


        I remember very clearly the first time I read The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I was 12 or so when I purchased, possibly used, a copy of The Two Towers, the middle book in the series. So the first words I ever read of the epic began in the middle of a scene: “Aragorn sped on up the hill”. Naturally, the whole thing didn’t fit together, and I’m sure it wasn’t long before I turned to the front and found the synopsis of the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring. In the edition I was reading I’m pretty sure that synopsis was called “What Has Gone Before.”

        This week we begin a series in the book of Acts, but we’re beginning in the middle. Back in 2000 we studied Acts 1 to 12, where we stopped at a major transition point in the book. Today, about five years later, we pick up in chapter 13, in the middle of the story, at an ‘Aragorn sped on up the hill’ moment.’ Acts 13:1 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. 2While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

        We ask “Who are these people? What are they doing in Antioch? And what’s the work to which they have been called?” The answers to our questions are found in chapters 1 through 12 and what we need in order to get properly started on these chapters is a brief ‘what has gone before.’ Rather than try to fit that in a few paragraphs or a page, I think we’ll spend most of our time this morning hitting the highlights of what God was doing through the Holy Spirit in the first twelve chapters of Acts to prepare the church for a world wide impact. I think we’ll see that, like the early church, we are called to God for the work that is on his heart.

I. What Has Gone Before? (Acts 1 - 12)

        So “What Has Gone Before?” Acts begins where the Gospels end, with Jesus raised from death. Just before his ascension he met with his disciples to prepare them for the time to come. Acts 1:6-8 So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" 7He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Those verses are the outline for the book of Acts. It begins in Jerusalem, with the growth of the church there. Then the Gospel moves into Judea and Samaria, and next to Gentiles, but still in Palestine. Finally the Gospel is pushed out of it’s birthplace and begins to spread to the ends of the earth, ultimately to Rome.

        Two things stand out in these chapters. First, that the title of the book should not be the Acts of the Apostles, but the Acts of the Holy Spirit. It is his work, his power, his initiative that takes the message of Jesus out to those who need to hear it. Second, he does this work despite the fact that at times the early church, even the Apostles, did not get with the program, had to be pushed into doing what the Spirit desired.

        After making this promise Jesus ascended into heaven, and about a week later the Spirit came. Acts 2:1-4 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. The Holy Spirit came to be the power and presence of God with his people, this group of apostles and believers who were the nucleus of the new church. The miracle that accompanied his coming was the gift of tongues, or more accurately, the gift of being heard in a person’s own tongue. In Acts 2:8 the great multi-national crowd reported that “each of us hears them in his own native language.”

        One of the lessons of Acts is that if the church is to do God’s work, then when the Holy Spirit moves God’s people have to do their part. In this case it is Peter who stands up and preaches to the crowd, reminding them that, Acts 2:22 Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. Like all the preachers in Acts, Peter preached Christ crucified and risen. Then he called his hearers to repent, believe and be baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. That was the birth of the church. Notice the pattern: the church grew and people were saved because the Spirit was at work and Peter did the work the Spirit wanted.

        And the church that began in Jerusalem set the pattern for all succeeding churches, including ours: Acts 2:42-47 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

        That pattern of Scripture, prayer, fellowship and outreach that leads to growth continues in Acts 3 and 4, as the church reaches 5000, many of them poor and needy. Acts 4:36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet. Barnabas is one of the people mentioned in Acts 13. He responded to the leading of the Holy Spirit by giving to the needs of the church. But the Spirit would not put up with hypocrites. When Ananias and Sapphira lied about the amount they gave, the Holy Spirit revealed it to Peter, and then slew them.

        In Acts 6, the church faces a challenge to it’s growth. Acts 6:1-6 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word." 5This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The growth of the early church led to a need for change. Up to this time the Apostles had basically been doing everything. Now they couldn’t anymore. Guided by the Holy Spirit they recognized the need for another group of leaders to take responsibility for part of the work, the charitable distribution of food. So they allowed the church to choose these men, and they commissioned them.

        This little episode has application to churches in all ages. Specifically, it teaches that one person or group of people can’t do everything in the church, and shouldn’t. So churches through the years have had elders and deacons, or some equivalent. At Trinity we don’t have deacons per-se, but we do have the discipleship board, the C.E. Committee, the Women’s Ministry Board, and other groups that take the work of ministry and spread it among the people. In doing this we follow the Biblical model. We need to keep pursuing that model in order to be effective as a church.

        But in a larger sense this passage teaches us to look for anything keeping us from reaching people for Christ, and to work to remove that barrier. That’s why in recent years we’ve focused on accomplishing two milestones. First, we bought this building, by God’s provision. By moving here we were immediately positioned to minister to more people. God in turn has brought a lot of you wonderful people to be ministered to and to minister in our church. Again, we prayerfully decided the next milestone was to hire an associate pastor, and God provided Mike Bauer, who is doing a fantastic job, invigorating us to push back the boundaries of our impact; to do outreach, assimilation and discipleship, God’s work in our community.

        There are two more milestones we’ve targeted that will allow us to be even more effective in doing this work. The first one we hope to achieve after Easter, and that is the transition to two services. If you think about it, adding another service is almost the equivalent of expanding the building, but way less expensive. It will allow us to continue bringing friends and neighbors to learn about the Gospel and grow as believers. We’ll be talking a lot about the details of this over the coming months. The following milestone is to plant a daughter church. Some of us will go with a church planting pastor to Dickinson, Alvin or Clear Lake and start a church that will reach new people for Jesus. Statistics show that the churches with the most evangelistic impact are church plants. We want to be a church planting church. We don’t know yet when or exactly how this milestone will happen, but it’s definitely out there - and there are other milestones beyond it. You see, God has a work to do through Trinity, and we need to cooperate with the Holy Spirit to accomplish it.

        It won’t always be easy for us, and it wasn’t always easy for the early church. The next major episode in Acts was the martyrdom of Stephen, in Acts 6 and 7, followed by a great persecution of the church, led by a man named Saul. Acts 8:1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. Saul is the second person we’ve met who will play a role in Acts 13. At this point he is one of the chief persecutors of the church. But God uses the persecution to achieve his purposes - the extension of the good news about Jesus beyond the walls of Jerusalem. Many have speculated that the church was reluctant to expand beyond its base. But now the Holy Spirit pushes God’s people out to where they can do the works He has called them to do. Scattered, Philip and others began to accomplish the Lord’s charge to be his witnesses, in “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria.”

        But in order to reach the ends of the earth, the Spirit sought a special messenger, who would make this his special mission. So God intervened in the life of Saul. Acts 9:1-5 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied.

        Saul encountered Christ, and became a believer. God called him his ‘chosen vessel’ to carry His name before the Gentiles. But it wasn’t going to happen without the help of the Jerusalem church, and they were understandably reluctant to trust Saul.

        That was when Barnabas came back into the picture, Acts 9:27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. Because of Barnabas’ response to the Spirt, the plan moves forward: we’ve got Saul in place, but he’s still not preaching to the Gentiles. The Jerusalem church is scattered, but still not preaching to the Gentiles.

        In Acts chapters 10 and 11 the Spirit forcibly intervenes to get Peter to do this thing, to share the Good New with those outside the Jewish faith. Acts 10:9-13 About noon . . . Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. 13Then a voice told him, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat." This vision, of eating what was until that moment unclean, was immediately followed by a God-orchestrated request to preach the gospel to a Gentile centurion and his family. Peter said “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation.” Peter saw God save these Gentiles, and told the story to the Jerusalem church, to enlist them in what God was doing.

        Almost all the pieces are in place. All we need is a church in Antioch. Acts 11:19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. 20Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

        Acts 11:22 News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23When 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. 24He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. 25Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26and 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.

        Let me show you a brief clip about Antioch from a Vision Video documentary about the Apostle Paul. (Clip, 10:06 to 11:37).

II. What Comes Next? (Acts 13:1-3)

        So Saul and Barnabas are preaching and teaching at this Jewish Gentile church at Antioch. Through this church God intends to take the next step, the next milestone, to send the Gospel out among the nations. That story, of the Spirit’s work and the believer’s cooperation in the spread of the Gospel, is the focus of our attention in this series.

        Let’s re-read our text, now that we know ‘what has gone before’. Acts 13:1 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. 2While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

        Acts 13:1 shows us that the leadership at the Antioch church was very diverse. The first name on the list is Barnabas, this ‘Son of Encouragement’, one of the first to sell his land and donate the proceeds to the poor, the first to trust Saul, and the Apostle’s representative at the church in Antioch. Next is Simeon called Niger, probably from Africa, and then Lucius, from Cyrene, on Africa’s Mediterranean coast. Then Luke lists Manaen, probably a person of wealth or influence, having been ‘brought up with’ or even ‘foster brother to’ Herod the tetrarch, the son of Herod the Great. The last name on the list is Saul, former persecutor, now brought by Barnabas to be a teacher at the Antioch church.

        These people were intentionally sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, to his work in the world, his desire to reach the lost. So they were willing to obey his instruction in verse 2 “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” I don’t know whether the Spirit spoke to one or all of them, verbally or simply by conviction of the heart, but they figured out that they need to stretch themselves as a church, to send out not just two of their members, but their two key leaders to continue the work God was doing, to spread the good news about Jesus.

        Again, we can pause and apply this to Trinity. Each of the milestones in the life of our church has been and will be a stretch. Buying this building was a stretch, and God wonderfully provided. Hiring Mike was a stretch, and an exercise in listening to the Spirit’s guidance. Going to two services will be a stretch. We’re trying to think it through and do it right, but we know there will be concerns. On January 30th we’re going to meet after Pot Luck and share some of our thinking. Planting a daughter church will be a significant stretch: like the church at Antioch, we’ll have to send out some of our key folks. But just as God prepared that church to launch their mission, so also I believe he’s preparing us for that milestone, and for more beyond. I was at my sister’s church in Atlanta a few months ago, and I chuckled at what the pastor said in describing the milestones coming up for them. He said “We’re not going to stop challenging you until you no longer fog a mirror.” That’s the way it’s got to be if God’s work is going to continue through us.

        But I want to point out something hidden in this verse that is of tremendous comfort and encouragement. Look at verse 2 again: While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."

        The word I want you to focus on is the word ‘called’ It’s the Greek word prokaleomai, and the concordance defines it as “call to oneself, summon, invite; call for a Christian task”. The really neat thing is that in almost every other use of this word that sense of calling somebody to you or God calling us to him is very strong. Let me read you just a few of the verses in which this word is used. Matthew 10:1 “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” Matthew 15:10 “Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand.’ ” Matthew 15:32 “Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.’” Mark 8:34 “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

        That’s just a sampling, but most of the verses are like that. We are called to God first, not initially to a task, but to a person, to a relationship. Ony in that context does he point us to what he wants done: feed these people; take up my cross; listen to me; go and minister. We are called to God for ministry. You could translate the Spirit’s words “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work for which I have called them to myself” The most important part is the relationship with God: the work of ministry is a consequence. That’s why my key sentence for this morning has been “You are called to God for the work that is on his heart.” Get close to God and you’ll figure out what that work is, just as the early church did. God drew them close through the word, through prayer, through persecution, through scattering, and most especially through the presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit. In the same way you and I are called to be close to God so that, led by his Spirit, we will do the work that is on his heart.

        And his heart has not changed since Acts 13. He still wants people to go and share the good news, to disciple new believers in faith, to plant churches, to strengthen their brothers and sisters, all of which we will see as we study these chapters. God has called us as a church to himself for this work, and he has called you to himself for this work. The church at Antioch is a great model. Verse 3: “So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” They answered the Spirit’s call, first to himself, then to ministry. My prayer is that we will do the same.