Now 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. 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.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus.
– Acts 13:1-4, New International Version
We learned in Acts 11:30 that Barnabas and Saul were sent to Jerusalem with the relief contributions made by the church in Antioch. Just when they made the journey is a subject of much discussion. However, we know that they made the journey and that (Acts 12:25) they returned from Jerusalem to Antioch. When they returned, they brought John Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, with them.
The Five Prophets and Teachers
Ministering to the Lord
These prophets and teachers “were ministering [leitourgounton] to the Lord and fasting.” The NIV says, they “were worshipping the Lord.” Worshipping is a form of ministry to the Lord. As Robertson (p. 178) points out, whether they were leading a public service or simply were spending time in prayer and fasting is uncertain. According to Barnes, “It is probable that this took place on some day set apart for fasting and prayer. The expression ‘ministered to the Lord’ means as they were engaged in prayer to the Lord, or as they were engaged in divine service.”
The verb leitourgounton is interesting. It is the present participle of leitourgeo. Arndt and Gingrich (pp. 471-472) list several meanings for this verb. It referred literally “to the service performed by priests and Levites in the temple” and to performing “service to God” in a Christian service. Another meaning is to “do a service in material things.” As for Acts 13:2, they say that verb refers figuratively to the various ways the religious man serves God, including prayer.
Luke does not mention the congregation, but many scholars believe that the setting is in a service of worship. The literal meaning of the verb leitourgeo supports their view. Thus, it seems likely that the prophets and teachers were leading worship in a public service. Whether they were meeting publicly or in a smaller group, it was while they were ministering to the Lord or and fasting that the Spirit spoke.
The Spirit Speaks
Luke declares, “While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.'” Bruce (p. 261) says, “There are indications that NT Christians were specially sensitive to the Spirit’s communications during fasting.” All who would hear from the Spirit must be aware of this. Many today find that fasting is an important element in hearing the Spirit’s voice.
Luke does not tell us exactly how the Holy Spirit spoke. We can only surmise that He spoke to the prophets who were with Barnabas and Saul. It may be that spoke through one of them with a prophetic word. However the Spirit spoke, He directed (Compare Acts 8:29; 10:19; 11:12) the prophets and teachers to set apart Barnabas and Saul. Obviously, they had no doubt that the Spirit had spoken to them.
Barnabas and Saul Sent
It was not at this time that the Spirit called Barnabas and Saul. They were simply to be “set apart” for the work “to which I have called them.” The Holy Spirit had already called them for their future ministry. With regard to Saul, this is clear from Acts 9:15. Here, the text indicates that this was true of Barnabas as well.
The prophets and teachers, and perhaps the entire church, were to set them apart. Again they fasted and prayed. Then, they laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and sent them out. Luke says that Barnabas and Saul “went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus.” John Mark (Acts 13:5) went with them to be their helper.
The other prophets and teachers were in full agreement with the Spirit’s directive, but Luke makes it clear that ultimately Barnabas and Saul ultimately were sent out by the Holy Spirit. The verb sent out (apelusan) means to set free, to let go, or to release. The emphasis is on letting them go, not on choosing, calling, and appointing them.
The word “prophecy” is not used in this passage. Nevertheless, the issue of whether or not the Spirit can direct us through a prophetic word is sometimes raised. We simply need to take a balanced approach. Certainly, the Spirit can direct through prophecy. However, when others think they have a prophecy for us, we need to search our own hearts and know the mind of the Spirit. We ourselves are responsible for our actions.
Arndt, William F. and Gingrich, F. Wilbur. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Cambridge: The University of Chicago Press, 1957.
Barnes’ Notes, Biblesoft Electronic Database, 1997. Bruce, F. F. The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975.
Horton, Stanley M. The Book of Acts. Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1981.
Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vols. 1-6. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930.
© Copyright 2003. GMF.