Luke tells us that it is God the Holy Spirit who issues the missionary call (Acts 13:2). It is more than a simple career choice. It is a divine calling, “sovereignly exercised by the Holy Spirit” (Peters 1972, 272), inviting a particular person to serve Him in a particular manner and time. The call to ministry is unique. God does not call to other professions and careers, only to ministry. (Peters 1972, 274)
Barnabas and Saul were called by the Holy Spirit to be “sanctified” or set apart not just for any ministry, but for the ministry to which God was calling them. They were to be separated from the rest of the local church ministry to a particular task. Notice that the call is not to a particular place, but to a particular work. The Holy Spirit later leads them to various areas, but the call is to a work. In the book of Acts there are other examples of the direction and leading of the Holy Spirit in the lives of these two men but this is a special call to ministry. (Acts 9:4ff; 11:24; 16:6ff; 22:17ff)
The person of the Holy Spirit is “the catalyst and guiding force” (Senior and Stuhlmueller 1983, 275) for the church. His active involvement with the church began with its inception at Pentecost (Acts 2:4-12). He guided Philip to preach to the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:29, 39) and sent Peter to preach to Cornelius and his family (Acts 10:19ff; 11:12). He directed the church at Jerusalem regarding doctrine (Acts 15:28; cf. 15:8) and He directed people geographically (Acts 16:6-10; 19:21; 20:22; 21:11; 11:24; 13:2-4; 19:6). He also enabled boldness in witnessing for Christ (Acts 4:31; 6:5, 10, 55).
The text does not give details of how the Holy Spirit called Barnabas and Saul. Stott (1990, 216-217) presents several possible scenarios, but suggests that the most likely is that the Holy Spirit burdened Barnabas’ and Saul’s hearts and subsequently guided the congregation to confirm the call. Bruce agrees. (1981, 261) The Holy Spirit may use different ways to call different people, but His primary way of communicating with His children is through His word.
Trusting that His word is inspired, infallible, applicable and sufficient should cause us to examine every possible leading under the spotlight of the Holy Scriptures. Peters suggests that God also uses several ways to reveal His will to man. Human instruments (Acts 11:25-26; 26:16-19), missionary reports and testimonies (Acts 14:27), sound logical thought, and even crisis experiences brought about by God may stir a believer’s heart and may lead a believer to a particular ministry strategy and action. (1972, 279-280) Ultimately, God the Holy Spirit uses His word to guide His people.
The Holy Spirit actively worked in a special way among the apostles during the inception of the church. After all, they did not have the written New Testament which gives us guidance today. He often provided direct and specific revelation to individuals. Today, with the completed canon of Scripture, direct revelation is finished and the leading of the Holy Spirit can be more subjective. We do not hear, see or touch Him with our physical senses so we do not physically sense His guidance. Nonetheless, God has provided us with some criteria for verifying His calling to ministry, especially in the area of missions. The criteria and the pattern given in this example may be extrapolated to apply to the call of the Holy Spirit in other areas of ministry as well.
Though identifying the leading of the Holy Spirit can be subjective and is therefore subject to human error, we know that He would never lead us to do anything that would violate or contradict God’s word. We may compare the possible calling of God to the teachings of the principles of His word and to the qualifications that are presented or implied in His word.
A person claiming to have been called by the Holy Spirit must meet certain biblical qualifications and criteria. We can see some specific characteristics in this passage in Acts and Paul gives us more in other passages that he wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit such as the leadership qualifications described in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. An important factor in identifying the call of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life is the observation of the candidate by the local community of believers, the local church. God has provided the local church as a means for evaluating a person in regard to their qualifications for ministry and the calling of the Holy Spirit in a his/her life. This may have been part of the process in Acts 13:1-4.
Next time we’ll talk about the role of the church in the call of the missionary.