Sermon for Sunday Evening, February 5th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
[Act 13:1-3 ESV] 1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 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.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
I. Evangelists and Evangelism
There are some big questions that come out of this little passage.
Should evangelist be an office of the church, along with deacon, elder, and pastor?
Must evangelists and missionaries be sent by a particular church or are independent para-church missions acceptable?
Both of these questions have been debated in Presbyterian history, and respectable theologians are found on either side.
A small denomination called the Vanguard Presbytery — comprised of some dozen or more churches which left the PCA a few years ago — has it among their distinctives that they support the office of evangelist.
Usually we have the office of deacon, elder, and pastor. Though some churches think pastors are just a type of elder, and so they refer to them as “teaching elders.”
Then there are some that want to add this office of evangelist.
There is no doubt that evangelistic work is necessary and important — we need people to be the spearpoint, the first to introduce the Gospel to new people. But that we need an official job title and ordination to a role called “evangelist” I am less convinced of.
An old respected Presbyterian, James Bannerman wrote of the evangelists in the New Testament:
“These labourers, ever at Paul’s side, and ever ready to carry his instructions to distant Churches, were not, and could not be, attached to any particular Church as holding a fixed and permanent office among its members. Their office was extraordinary; their commission had its origin and its close in apostolic times; the position of the evangelists, like the positions of the apostle and the prophet, must be reckoned among those provisional arrangements of the primitive Church, which formed the transition to its permanent and settled condition. There is no evidence from Scripture that the office of evangelist was a fixed and standing office in the Christian society; on the contrary, there is every evidence that it was extraordinary and temporary.”
So Bannerman sees the role of evangelist to be one for that time and place, but not a perpetual office of the church.
Though the office of evangelist, in his view, is ended, we certainly still are to evangelize.
And so that other question arises: must evangelism and missionary work be done by churches or are para-church ministries acceptable? I’ve heard of this being debated in Presbyterian history, but frankly have never managed to get my arm around (and head around) the topic.
[But Thornwell argued against these “mission boards”—even the Presbyterian ones—altogether. He argued that even if the mission boards are ultimately accountable to a visible church, they themselves are not the church. By giving the mission board a wide sphere of independent authority to select and position missionaries and to dispose of the church’s money, the Presbyterian church had wrongly delegated away her own authority and responsibility.
The Board Debates began in 1841 and continued on until their culmination in the famous debate between Thornwell and Hodge on the floor of the General Assembly in 1860. By some accounts, the debate continued on for another few decades at least.
Hodge argued that Thornwell advocated a form of hyper-Presbyterianism, while he argued that he was being true to the Westminster Form of Presbyterial Church Government. (Hodge certainly wasn’t a New School Presbyterian.)
Hodge: That in the exercise of these prerogatives, the church is to be governed by principles laid down in the word of God, which determine, within certain limits, her officers arid modes of organization; but that beyond those prescribed principles and in fidelity to them, the church has a wide discretion ill the choice of methods, organs and agencies.
Parachurch ministries should be approved by the church if not being OF the church. Serious review of their activities is necessary.]
We should note that Barnabas and Saul are set apart for the work to which God has called them, and that this work is evangelistic, it is gospel work. I wouldn’t support the sending of anyone in the name of the church or a parachurch ministry unless they are to do evangelistic work in some sense.
Now, that evangelistic work may not be exactly the same as what Paul and Barnabas did.
For example, I want to tell you about Jim L. He is a man at my former church in North Carolina. This man — you’d never know — speaks Korean. His family has long done missionary work in Korea and I believe he learned the language growing up there in part. Well Jim drills water wells in North Korea. A vital service indeed. And he’s not allowed to preach the gospel, except in one small way. He has a cross on his drill equipment. And the people are smart. They know who it is that is doing this important work for them. So I would saw Jim’s work is evangelistic, though the opportunity at present is slim. Incidentally, some of his purpose there is to have good relationships so that he will be able to evangelize all the better when someday North Korea opens up, changes in some positive way.
Well in times past, missionaries have been sent with no “gospel” goal at all, but merely what is called “the Social Gospel.” And, let me tell you, the Social Gospel is no gospel at all. It is merely giving physical things and training to people in an attempt to better their lives, but is entirely devoid of the actual Gospel of Jesus Christ which forever betters one’s life and one’s life to come.
So we can at least agree that missionaries are to be sent forth with the Gospel and to give that Gospel to the people of all nations.
And it all starts here in our passage. Here we have, in Antioch, the first church to send out evangelists.
And this is the beginning of the 1st Missionary Journey of Paul. You probably have a map in the back of your Bible that shows the route.
II. Sending of Missionaries
The passage is quite sparse in details about the sending of a missionary.
We find that there is a plethora of teachers in Antioch. So sending a missionary is not going to end the preaching there.
It is notable that the church in Jerusalem was not the main missionary church, Antioch was. And I think this example of Antioch matches well with my position that a church should only be so big. They’ve got a number of teachers and Antioch. Its time to expand. Time to plant new churches!
We find that somehow (it is not specified) the Holy Spirit tells them who to be sent (Paul and Barnabas).
And we find that there is fasting, praying, and the laying on of hands. It might be a good thing to do all three of these, but I don’t see any indication that this is normative. That is, I don’t believe it is absolutely necessary that fasting, prayer, and the laying on of hands be done before sending a missionary.
III. Five Fellows
Well there are five fellows mentioned in this Antioch group.
Barnabas, who is originally from Cyprus. So it makes sense that he is going back there with Saul. His knowledge of the place would be valuable to a missionary journey there. Some think Barnabas is the oldest of the group of five mentioned and that is why he is listed first.
Simeon who was called Niger. Now, “Niger” is Latin for black. Some say that Simeon had black hair, others that he had black skin. Either is possible.
Lucius of Cyrene. Some believe this is Luke who wrote the Acts. That idea goes back to the 3rd century writer Origen of Alexandria. So it very well could be true. Cyrene, of course, is in Libya next to Egypt. This isn’t the only person from Cyrene in the Bible. The other is Simon of Cyrene who carried the cross of Jesus. There was, it is said, a large Jewish community in that place. While Simon is a Jewish name, Lucius is a Greek one. The city was said to have been founded by Greek settlers centuries before.
Manean a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch. The Greek word can actually mean “foster brother.” So he could be the close friend or even the foster brother of Herod. This Herod “the tetrarch” is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and uncle of Herod Agrippa who we was recently saw the Lord put to death by the hand of an angel. So this seems strange, doesn’t it, that a Christian is a “lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch.” Well, here is much speculation about Manean, but we really don’t have anything other than what we find in the present passage. But what we can see is the power of the Gospel in that it reaches successfully into the family and friends of Herod. This continues the triumphant message of the book of Acts. The Gospel wins the victory!
All five of these fellows are “prophets and teachings”? Matthew Henry explains “Christ, when he ascended on high, gave some prophets and some teachers (Eph. 4:11); these were both.”
IV. The travels of Paul and Barnabas
So Paul and Barnabas are sent.
And they are going to the Gentiles!
We’ll see in coming weeks, Lord willing, where the Lord will bring them and what they do in those places.
And then back to Antioch in Syria, completing the circuit of their missionary journey.
More on that … next time.
Let us conclude with this. There are debates on the office evangelists and how they are to be sent, but there can be no debate that the preaching of the Gospel to all lands is a necessary calling of the Lord. We are to make disciples of all nations. Let us start right here. May the Lord bless our work in this place. Let us pray.