If we want answers to questions regarding the calling of God to missionary service and the role of the local church, we should look to God’s word for the answers. Since the book of Acts is a historical record of the inception and early development of the church and presents the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we will look to Luke’s record of the early church and the ministry of the Holy Spirit for answers to these questions. In the historical account of the development of the church we find the question of mission “dominates the book of Acts (Senior and Stuhlmueller 1983, 271).” It reveals how the gospels’ mandated mission of taking the message of Christ and His salvation to the world is to be accomplished. The rest of the New Testament fills in details of how the believers are
to function in the world and the church.
The Bible does not give us precise rules and procedures for the selecting and sending of missionaries, nor does it tell us precisely what comprises missionary work. The term missionary does not even appear in the Scriptures. Furthermore, there is no clearly established normative practice of the church in the New Testament regarding missionary
work. However, we find a concise, clear example in Acts 13:1-4 of the calling and sending of men in a role that today we call “missionary.” Since this is the only example of its kind in the New Testament, let’s glean what we can from the narrative. Lacking specific commands and directions in the Scriptures, I believe it is valid to extrapolate the principles in this example to the church today.
This passage accounts the Holy Spirit’s calling of Barnabas and Saul to ministry and
it reveals the role of the one calling (the Holy Spirit), the role of the ones being called (Barnabas and Saul) and the role of the local church in the call to ministry. Luke has recorded here for us the calling and commissioning of people to go out as missionaries from the local church at Antioch. There is no indication that the church in Antioch consulted with any other churches or church leaders from other locations, even the church at Jerusalem, regarding the commissioning of Saul and Barnabas for missionary service. It appears from the passage that this was a decision that took place at a local level from beginning to end. Since this was apparently a local process and decision, it might be helpful to consider some of the background details of the city and church.
Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire behind Rome and Alexandria with a population estimated as high as 600,000 people. It was a multi-ethnic culture with people from many parts of the Empire, each bringing their own cultural influences to the society of Antioch. The local church was well established and representative of the ethnic diversity of the city (Acts 11:19-20). The growth and ministry of the Antioch church was significant enough that it received the attention of the church in Jerusalem some 300 miles away and Barnabas’ ministry there resulted in significant numerical growth (Acts 11:21-24). The church in Antioch was probably 8-10 years old in Acts 13. (Schnabel 2004, 781-797)
The ethnic and cultural diversity of the society and the church was represented even among the church leadership (Acts 13:1). As these diverse leaders were ministering to the Lord, He called Saul and Barnabas to serve Him as missionaries. Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives us an example of God’s call to missionary work, in Acts 13:1-4. In this passage he tells us who does the calling, something of the candidates’ qualifications and who does the sending.
Next time we will look at the calling of God in this marvelous passage.