Summary: The Holy Spirit leads us, not we the Holy Spirit.
Everything was going well at the church at Antioch. The leadership team presided over a growing and vibrant cross-cultural church. This new church plant already was held in high repute and had reached the ears of the Apostles and leaders of the parent church at Jerusalem. It only made good sense in human wisdom to leave well enough alone. This team was producing great results.
But it has been said that “God works in mysterious ways; His wonders to perform.” This mysterious way of God is clearly demonstrated in this morning’s passage. Let us take a look.
Five men from the leadership are mentioned in the passage. Of these, we know nothing else about Simeon, Lucius, and Manaen other than they were called prophets and teachers of the church there. More in known about Barnabas and Paul who were included among them. They were the team who ruled over the church at Antioch.
The text says that they were fasting and performing their spiritual duty, most probably in a worship setting when the Holy Spirit spoke. The Holy Spirit said that He desired to separate Barnabas and Saul (Paul) for His special purpose. The Greek verb here in in the perfect tense which indicates a permanent separation from their leadership positions at Antioch.
The church responded by continuing to fast and pray. After this, they laid hands on Barnabas and Paul and sent them on their way. Apparently more was revealed to Barnabas and Saul as they went out to the port of Selucia and made sail to Cyprus in obedience to the Holy Spirit.
If one looks at the Greek further, it should be noted that the main sentences are “The Holy Spirit spoke;” “The church dismissed them;” “They departed to the port of Selucia;” and “They sailed to Cyprus.” Everything else is grammatically subordinate to these statements.
Why is this important? First of all, it clearly demonstrates the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit over the Church. The fasting and worship of the church did not cause the Holy Spirit to come. As important as fasting, worship, service and prayer are, they are not sovereign over the move of the Holy Spirit. Rather, the Spirit spoke on His own authority for His own purpose. This shows by the way that the Holy Spirit is equally God with the Father and the Son. It happened to be that the church was at worship and fasting at the time. And even these things were ordained by the Lord.
The work of God is not in any way dependent upon the works of men, even the ones He has ordained. Surely, the church is called to fast, pray, worship, lay hands upon ordinands, do works of mercy and such. But God even used Saul the King to prophesy, even though Saul was in manifest disobedience to the God. John records that the wicked Caiaphas also prophesied by the Holy Spirit because Caiaphas was High Priest. Saul of Tarsus was not in a prayer meeting on the way to Damascus when the Lord Jesus appeared to Him. There have also been many occasions of the obedient church fasting, praying and worshipping where the Holy Spirit did not audibly speak.
The important thing to realize is that God wears no human handcuffs. His will cannot be thwarted. This is a lesson that the church continues to have to learn. The church is not to lead God but to discern and obey the leading of God. Aw we have noted, human wisdom says “leave well enough alone.” We tend to think that surely God sees everything the way we do. Here Saul and Barnabas were probably the chief leaders of the leadership team. How could two such able men be replaced? What’s going to happen to the church? Does not God understand how important these men are to us?
These certainly are the type of questions that could be asked here. So we need to fast forward in time. The Church of Antioch continued to grow in the absence of Paul and Barnabas. It became a great teaching center for early Christians. Its bishop became one of the great metropolitan bishops along with Jerusalem, Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria. Many good teachers and prophets came out from that church and served as a blessing all over the world of its day.
Did problems develop? Certainly, but there are always problems to deal with in the church. There would be a great controversy which would soon break out there over the place of Gentiles in the church which would require Barnabas and Paul upon return from the first missionary journey to take a delegation to Jerusalem to settle this matter. There are indications that bishop Ignatius had some issues with the church as well. But what does not change is God’s sovereign purpose for His church,