Musing about Mission: calling, separation and Acts 13

These notes from a great discussion at a recent staff meeting on the first few verses of Acts 13.

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 worshipping 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. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper.

Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission.

Notes on the passage:

There are somethings in the passage that are worth noting.

The people mentioned in verses 1 and 2 are a group of prophets and teachers in the church. These are the people who taught the core doctrines of the Christian faith. From the text it appears that they form a single group (who are then described as prophets and teachers) rather than a group made up of people who are either prophets or teachers. They are also a group made up of people from a range of social and ethnic backgrounds. Barnabas and Paul (Saul) are both part of this group.

It all happens in a context of worship and fasting. It’s not clear that this was something that the whole church was engaging in, but it appears to be corporate worship of some type.

The Spirit says to separate Barnabas and Paul; to set apart for work God has called them to. They are to be separated out from the rest of the group. The idea of separation sometimes being used for service or sacrifice to God, captures the idea that this is to set them apart for a particular work.

The remaining members then lay hands on them and sent them on their way. It has been the group who discerned that it was the Spirit speaking to them and the group that then responded. Barnabas and Paul are members of this group but this isn’t their idea, and they are not the ones who initiate any discernment process or commissioning.

Then as the journey starts in v4 we see how this is a “mission” initiated and directed by the Spirit of God. They start by going to a place where the gospel has been preached before (see 11:19-20) as they begin this next phase of the development of the early church.


As we consider what this might have to say about “mission” there are a number of interesting questions.

  • What qualifications should there be for those who are sent? I’ve heard it suggested that you shouldn’t send people who are not deacon material, suggesting an experience of serving in a local church, a maturity in the faith. Here, we know that Paul and Barnabas are both capable teachers and people with gifts to grow and develop local churches. But in our day, is an ability to teach necessary? Should we expect everyone to have studied at Bible College before serving overseas? Isn’t a servant heart, a humble attitude, and a teachable spirit more important?
  • What sort of calling should we expect people to have? Do you need to have a sense of calling to go on a short-term team for a month or two, or only if you are planning on going for several years? Does it depend on the sort of work you are going to be doing; do you need a clearer call for church planting than helping to feed people who are vulnerable?
  • How to we check out a sense of “being called”? And who is ‘we’ in this sentence, is it the local church or is that the mission agency? Is it more important to get to know what people are like from their friendship groups rather than their church (who might only see them for an hour or two a week)?

Personally, I think that evidence of serving in a local church (or perhaps University CU or Christian project) is important, as is evidence of a growing and maturing Christian faith. I really believe in Bible / Theological College, but character is more important than knowledge (and all good Colleges put energy into character and spiritual formation as well as growing understanding), a teachable humility and a desire to serve being key.

As with other passages in the New Testament, particularly in Acts, although this passage is used to talk about mission we need to ask if it a blueprint we should follow or an exception that sets up the early church? And if it is a model for us, what sort of pattern does it establish?

And finally

A couple of more personal reflective questions for you:

  • What would it mean for you to be set apart to do the work God has called you to?
  • Are you sufficiently engaged in church worship, prayer, and fasting to hear God speaking? And how do you contribute to the churches corporate worship and discernment?

Photo by Keenan Constance from Pexels

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