Today’s and tomorrow’s readings describe Paul’s First Missionary Journey, which lasted about two years, from AD 46-48. This was a whole eleven years after Paul had been converted (AD 35). The Book of Acts covers a long time period of intense activity and does not have room for the extended ‘pauses’ between key events that are found in real life. It is significant that Paul spent eleven years reading, praying, hearing from the Spirit and being mentored by Barnabas, before launching out into a major missionary venture. During that long preparation period he was probably ‘missional’ every day, not sitting idly awaiting his ‘big break’, but taking advantage of every opportunity to share the good news.
It began in a prayer and worship meeting, waiting on God, and in the context of fasting. Not every believer is called to a ‘monastic’ lifestyle, but we are all called to do what these Antioch believers did – both collectively and individually with the Lord. The five named men were probably the church leaders and Barnabas was the most senior, having been sent to establish the Antioch church by the leadership in Jerusalem (11:22); he had recently returned with Saul after delivering the ‘relief’ gift of money there (12:25). He was also a native of Cyprus (4:36) and it is doubly interesting that the Holy Spirit was to call him to begin his missionary service on his home island. During the worship, that is exactly what the Spirit did – probably through one of the prophets in the group – and after further prayer (essential to test the validity of that prophecy), Barnabas and Saul were anointed by the church to go in obedience to the prophetic word.
Almost certainly Barnabas began in overall leadership, and they brought along John Mark (Barnabas’ cousin) as their helper, who had returned with them from Jerusalem. It was Saul who made the first major breakthrough, confronting Elymas (the sorcerer) in a spiritual battle and winning! The blinding of the sorcerer was sufficient evidence of Jesus’ Lordship to convince the Roman Proconsul that he should submit his life to Jesus. It was also at this point onwards that ‘Saul’ becomes known as ‘Paul’ (his Roman name). Also, we notice that, from now on, Luke refers to the team as Paul and Barnabas (in that order), which may indicate a subtle change of command in this apostolic team!
They sailed from Cyprus to the coast of Asia Minor (Turkey, today) and quickly John Mark had had enough. It might have been the result of homesickness, the prospect of a scary trip to Galatia, or the change of leadership, but Mark lost his appetite and his vision for the trip. Later on, this ‘desertion’ (as Paul saw it) was to prove to be the undoing of Barnabas’ and Paul’s friendship (Acts 15:37-39); such key moments often appear minor at the time, but can be pivotal in the success and direction of Christian ministry.
Paul’s habit was to preach first to the Jews in a region, to enable them to accept their Messiah. He therefore made the most of the synagogue system that welcomed visiting speakers and provided an effective platform for mass evangelism. His discourse covered a swathe of Israelite history, prophecy, and current affairs, and ended with a ‘punchy’ challenge to follow Jesus as Messiah and Lord. They key thing was that they were to “continue in the grace of God” (v43), which basically meant that – up until that point in time, they were acting obediently by living as devout Jews. From now on, having heard the gospel, they could only continue in obedience and grace by receiving their Messiah. To go on living as before would be to ‘fall from grace’ (see Galatians 5:4). Paul’s message was very well received, and they were invited back!
The following week, such a huge crowd gathered from the entire city that it made the Jews jealous, so they stirred up trouble for Paul. Paul’s response was that they had had their opportunity and that, from now on, the gospel would go to the Gentiles. This was very popular with all non-Jews and huge numbers of them accepted Christ as Lord: “All who were appointed for eternal life believed” (v48). There is a large element of God’s sovereignty in the process of salvation; we need to identify where the Spirit is at work and to avoid wasting our time and energies on people who are continually refusing to receive the gospel. (However, bear in mind that, for a while, Paul himself seemed a highly unpromising candidate for salvation!).