Summary: The Bible assumes that God does speak to those who seek Him. The context in which He speaks is often, almost exclusively, as people worship.
“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of 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.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”
Outsiders often ridicule the thought that God can speak to mankind; and even we who are Christians are sometimes dismissive of what we see as naïve claims by believers who maintain they have heard the voice of God. Nevertheless, the Word of God assumes that God not only can speak, but that He does speak to His own people. No sensible preacher would claim that God routinely speaks in an audible voice to His people. God can speak audibly, if He wishes to do so—He has done so in the past and undoubtedly He shall do so in the future. However, God, by His Spirit, speaks to His people as they spend time in quiet mediation and reflection, as they read the written Word which the Spirit gave to His servants, as they wait in prayer and as they hear the Word preached. It is likely that the failure of Christians to know that God does speak is because they are unprepared to hear His voice—the still, small voice that asks, “What are you doing here?”
The text before us clearly states that the Holy Spirit communicated the mind of the Lord. Moreover, those who received this communication appear to have known that it was God who spoke, and they responded with alacrity and full compliance to His revealed will. What is important for our study today is the context in which God spoke. It was “while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting” that the Holy Spirit spoke. Join me in a review of this text and in thinking about this matter of when God speaks.
PARTICIPANTS IN THE DRAMA — I believe it is valuable at the outset to take a moment to note the prophets and teachers to whom we are introduced. The congregation at Antioch had at least five prophets and teachers. I take it that this list is complete and there were no others. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that there were others who are not named. However, from these that are named, we can glean quite a bit of valuable information.
The first mention of Antioch is in ACTS 6:5, where we read of the selection of servants for the Jerusalem church. Among those chosen was a man named Nicolaus, who is identified as “a proselyte of Antioch.” After the Christians in Jerusalem were scattered because of the persecution generated by the enraged rabbi, Saul of Tarsus, some came to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. Listen to the divine account, noting the manner in which God worked.
There were among those who had been scattered, some who were “men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” [ACTS 11:20-23].
The significance of this pericope is that we are given an account of how the Faith came to the Gentiles. Antioch was the first Gentile congregation, though there were certainly Jewish believers in the church. Evidence of the cosmopolitan nature of the congregation is seen in the prophets and teachers that are named. Barnabas is known to be from Cyprus and Saul was from Tarsus. Simeon, also called Niger, a Latin name meaning “black” or “dark,” is assumed by many scholars to have been a black man, and thus an immigrant to the region. There was also Lucius, identified as coming from Cyrene. Then, there was Manaen (Menahem?) who had an unusual background. Manaen had been a childhood friend of Herod Antipas. Children of the same age as a prince would be invited to live with him, play with him and be trained with him as companions. Therefore, Manaen was of the social elite before his conversion to Christ.
Though it is possible that these five were not the only prophets and teachers for the congregation, I see no reason to believe that there were others. Moreover, the text intimates the role each of these men performed in the congregation. The Greek particle te is not translatable. However, “it was used in antiquity to connect word pairs, co-ordinate clauses and similar sentences, thereby often distinguishing one set of co-ordinates from another.” On this basis, it is probable that we should understand that Barnabas, Simeon and Lucius, introduced by the first te were prophets, and Manaen and Saul, introduced by the second te were teachers. “Prophecy,” in this instance, would be understood to be what we know as expository preaching, and “teaching” having to do with defining the Old Testament relationships and implications.