Where the world comes to study the Bible

Lesson 31: The Main Business of the Church (Acts 13:1-3)

Related Media

Some years ago, an article in the Harvard Business Review called “Market Myopia” talked about how some people didn’t understand what business they were in. For example, the railroad people didn’t understand that they were in the transportation business. Had they realized it, they would have invested in the airplane. The telegraph people thought that they were in the telegraph business. They failed to realize that they were in the communications business. In 1886 or so, they could have bought all of the telephone patents for about $40,000. But they didn’t know what business they were in.

What is the main business of the church? Some would say that it is to care of its members. The church is here to visit the sick and pray with them, to take care of people at important transitions in life, such as marriage, childbirth, and death. It’s here to provide guidance and comfort for people at important times. No doubt, these are all functions of the church. But I would argue that these functions are not the main business of the church, and if we start acting as if they were, we will miss our main business.

We are always in danger of slipping into a maintenance mentality in the church, where we focus on maintaining our religious club and preserving its sacred traditions, and we forget about the lost. Erwin McManus, a pastor in Los Angeles, said, “We somehow think that the Church is here for us; we forget that we are the Church, and we’re here for the world.”

John Piper, a Minneapolis pastor, says, “The book of Acts is a constant indictment of mere maintenance Christianity. It’s a constant goad and encouragement and stimulation to fan the flame of Advent—‘The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.’” (, Sermon on Acts 13:1-12, 12/8/91). As Piper elsewhere articulates (e.g., chapter 1 of Desiring God [Multnomah Books]), the main goal of evangelism and missions is not just to reach the lost, but to glorify God. The glory of God is the supreme goal of history. He saves sinners “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:6, 12). Thus,

The main business of the church is to obey the Holy Spirit in promoting God’s glory among the nations by sending out workers called by God to preach the gospel.

The scene in Acts shifts back to the church in Antioch, where some men who had been scattered by the persecution in Jerusalem had the audacity to speak the gospel to Gentiles (11:19). The hand of the Lord was with them, and many got saved. At the end of chapter 12, Luke reports that Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, where they had taken the gift for those affected by the famine. They brought back John Mark with them. This sets the stage for a major shift in the focus of Acts. From now on, it is the Acts of the Apostle Paul. It is the story of the missionary thrust of the church in Antioch, resulting in the planting of many churches in the Gentile world. Just as the founding of the church in Antioch was a radical turn, with Jews and Gentiles getting saved and joining together on the basis of the cross, so Acts 13 is another turning point. The gospel goes out into Gentile territory, as the church in Antioch responds to its rightful business. Note three things:

1. The Holy Spirit is sovereign over the church.

G. Campbell Morgan notes that the central feature of these verses is “the declared activity of the Spirit of God” (The Acts of the Apostles [Revell], p. 305). The Holy Spirit speaks, and He does not give suggestions, but orders: “Set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2). He tells these leaders what to do, and when they obeyed, Luke notes that Barnabas and Saul were “sent out by the Holy Spirit” (13:4).

A. The Holy Spirit is sovereign in initiating the work of missions.

The idea of world missions originates with God, not with men. These leaders weren’t brainstorming on how to pep up their church program when one of them said, “I know what we should do! Let’s send out some missionaries!” Rather, the Holy Spirit broke in and told them what to do.

How did the Spirit speak to them? Was it an audible voice? It could have been, or it could have been one of the prophets speaking out a revelation that God had just given him. But I’m inclined to think that rather, these leaders were spending time in prayer and fasting because they sensed the need for God’s direction for the work. No doubt they were burdened with the thought that many had never heard of Jesus Christ and His salvation. As they spent time in prayer and praise, one of the men said, “I sense that the Lord wants Barnabas and Saul to be set aside for the work that He has called them to.” The rest of the men strongly affirmed that impression, and so they saw it as the Holy Spirit speaking to them. But the point is, the cause of world missions originates with God. We can only obey His directive.

B. The Holy Spirit is sovereign in calling workers.

This occasion was not the first time that Barnabas and Saul knew anything about God’s calling them to be missionaries. Barnabas had already responded in obedience by leaving Jerusalem for Antioch. When the Lord sent Ananias to open Saul’s eyes just after his conversion, He told Ananias that Saul “is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (9:15). No doubt, Ananias relayed those words to Saul. Later, Paul tells how when he first returned to Jerusalem after his conversion, he was praying in the Temple when he fell into a trance. The Lord told him to get out of Jerusalem, saying, “I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (22:21). So Paul knew about God’s calling him to be a missionary to the Gentiles many years before this commission in Acts 13.

I have heard some missions advocates say that we all are called to be missionaries; it’s just a matter of whether or not we are obedient. I would agree that missions should weigh heavily on the heart of every Christian, since it is at the heart of the main business of the church. Thus it is on God’s heart. As John Piper puts it, “There are only three possibilities in life: to be a goer, a sender, or disobedient” (Mission Frontiers [Jan.-Feb., 1998], p. 8).

But I would disagree that every Christian is called to leave his or her native country and take the gospel to those in other cultures. That takes a special calling from God and requires spiritual gifts that not all believers possess. I also believe that a man should not go into pastoral ministry unless he senses God’s call to do so. Otherwise, he will grow discouraged and quit when the battle gets intense. By a call, I do not mean a hearing a voice from heaven. Spurgeon defined a call as an intense and all-absorbing desire (mentioned by Rick Gamache, in a sermon by John Piper, “Exultation on Education,” on Acts 13:1-5, In my case, it was a strong sense that I could not be satisfied doing anything else with my life. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “I have always felt when someone has come to me and told me that he has been called to be a preacher, that my main business is to put every conceivable obstacle that I can think of in his way” (Preaching and Preachers [Zondervan], p. 108). In other words, he wanted to make sure that the young man was sure that his calling was from God, not from some emotional experience or idealistic view of the ministry. So a calling from God is essential.

Thus the Spirit is sovereign in initiating missions; and, He is sovereign in calling workers.

C. The Holy Spirit is sovereign in directing His work.

The Spirit had a distinct work in mind for Barnabas and Saul to do (13:2), namely, “to bear [His] name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (9:15). Before these men left Antioch, they had another session of fasting and prayer (13:3). Presumably, they were seeking the Lord’s direction for where He wanted them to begin. This is further implied in verse 4, “being sent out by the Holy Spirit [not by the church], they … sailed to Cyprus.” Thus from start to finish, the Spirit is sovereign over the church and the work that He calls us to do in taking the gospel to all peoples.

2. To be obedient to the sovereign Spirit, godly church leaders must take time to worship God and seek His will.

It’s easy to get so busy in serving the Lord that you fail to take the time to meet with the Lord in worship and prayer. I think that behind all of the talk about burnout in our day is this basic failure, to block out adequate time to draw near to the Lord and seek His will for His work. With the great numbers in the church at Antioch (11:21, 24, 26), many of them from pagan backgrounds, undoubtedly there were many needs crying for attention. But if church leaders spend all of their time responding to needs and not enough time seeking the Lord, they will miss His direction for the work. Note several necessary qualities for church leaders:

A. Church leaders must be godly men.

We’ve already studied Barnabas, who is described as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (11:24). The remaining chapters of Acts, as well as his many epistles, reveal the godly character of the apostle Paul. While we do not know anything more of the other three men listed here, they must have been godly men to have worked side by side with these two men. They had to step into the huge void left when the Lord called Barnabas and Saul to leave Antioch.

In First Timothy 3 and Titus 1, Paul gives the necessary qualifications for church leaders. Almost all of the qualities relate to godly character, none to leadership skill or personal charisma. Also, although God gifts women and calls them to serve in many capacities in the church, the role of elder and the task of preaching and teaching God’s Word to the church at large is limited to men (1 Tim. 2:11-15; 3:1-7). On the mission field, women have done some admirable and courageous work, often going where men could not go. But if they follow biblical truth, those women missionaries will aim at establishing godly men over the churches that they see God raise up.

B. Church leaders must lead the church to know God through teaching His Word of truth.

These leaders are described here by their gifts as prophets and teachers. Although there is much difference of opinion about the description and function of New Testament prophets, it would seem that their main role was to proclaim to the church direct revelation that they received from God. Sometimes it would be to predict a future event (11:27-28; 21:10-11). At other times, it would be a word of edification, exhortation, or consolation (1 Cor. 14:3). Paul states that the church was “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). Thus there is a sense in which these gifts ceased once the foundation was laid. There is debate about whether there is another sense of prophecy that is valid for today (see Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today [Crossway Books]). But whatever we say about that, these men knew God and knew how to discern His voice so that they could communicate His truth to His church.

Teachers explain and apply God’s Word of truth to His church. In our day, we are privileged to be able to take advantage of gifted Bible teachers in a way that was not possible in earlier generations, namely, through the radio, tapes, the internet, and Bible conferences around the country. On the other hand, there seem to be fewer pastors who are willing to put in the hard work necessary to do an adequate job of teaching the Word week in and week out on the local church level. Many pastors buy into the view that sermons should be short, inspirational pep talks filled with moving stories, rather than an exposition of what Scripture teaches. But the solid teaching of God’s Word is one of the most important tasks for church leaders.

C. Church leaders should be plural, not singular.

Five leaders are mentioned from this church in Antioch. They may have ministered in different meeting places, since a large church such as this may not all have met in the same place. But when the word “elder” is used with reference to a local church, it is always in the plural, “elders of the church” (11:30; 14:23; 20:17).

These five leaders were a diverse bunch. We’ve already met Barnabas and Saul, who were both from strict Jewish backgrounds. Simeon had the nickname of Niger, which means “black.” He was probably dark-skinned. Some think that he is the Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross, but that cannot be proved. Lucius was from Cyrene in North Africa, and probably was one of the original evangelists who helped found the church in Antioch (11:20). Manaen, which is a Greek form of the Hebrew name Menahem (meaning “comfort”), was brought up with Herod the tetrarch (Antipas, who executed John the Baptist). It is interesting that these two men, raised in the same setting, would go in such opposite directions. Manaen had to turn his back on wealth and a possible position of power to follow Christ.

These five different men learned to wait upon the Lord together and work together in leading the church. When the Lord sent out these first missionaries, He did not send out one, but two. While team ministry is sometimes difficult (as we will see with Barnabas and Paul), it is God’s way. Even the strongest of leaders (like Paul) need other men who are strong enough to confront them at times and to help them to see other points of view. God designed the church to be a body, not a single member. The leaders should complement one another and learn to work through differences in a spirit of humility.

D. Church leaders must take the time to worship God and seek His direction for His church.

They were ministering to the Lord and fasting. All ministry should be first and foremost to the Lord. The Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me” (13:2). The Greek word translated “set apart” means to devote something to a special purpose. These men were to be devoted to the Lord first, then to the work to which He called them. Jesus told the woman at the well that the Father seeks worshipers who worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). It was while these men took the time to worship that the Lord gave them this history-changing directive.

Fasting is somewhat neglected in the modern church, but it should not be. In the Bible, it is often connected with a need to seek God’s direction or to get an answer in prayer on important matters. I have never gone on a long fast, but I have seen God use times of fasting in my life. It can be as short as skipping a single meal and devoting the time to prayer and seeking God through His Word. The hunger pangs remind you of your purpose!

E. Church leaders must be obedient to the direction God gives, even if it’s difficult.

These leaders sought the Lord and He answered them, but they might not have liked what they heard at first. Barnabas and Saul were two of the most gifted men in that church, and God sent them out on this missionary journey. They would have left a gaping hole in the ministry there! The other leaders would have been burdened with more work. But they obeyed and trusted God to make up the difference.

It’s interesting that these men were sent out and there isn’t a word about what is usually foremost in our minds: how will they be supported? Whether the church got behind their ongoing support or gave a one-time gift to cover their living expenses or whether they assumed that they would work to support themselves, we don’t know. But the impressive thing is, without a word of protest, the church obeyed the Spirit’s directive and released these gifted men for ministry outside of Antioch.

Thus the Holy Spirit is sovereign over the church. To be obedient to the sovereign Spirit, godly church leaders must take time to worship God and seek His direction.

3. The purpose of the sovereign Spirit is to glorify God among the nations by sending out workers who preach the gospel.

A. God’s ultimate goal is His glory.

Habakkuk 2:14 states, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” In Psalm 46:10, God says, “Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” John Piper rewords the first answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy himself forever” (Desiring God, pp. 33, 42, italics his). He states, “This is why God has done all things, from creation to consummation, for the preservation and display of his glory” (p. 45). Thus salvation is not God’s ultimate goal, but rather a means to His goal of glorifying Himself.

B. God will be glorified on earth when the gospel is preached among the nations.

In Revelation 5:9-10, John hears the heavenly chorus singing, “Worthy are You to take the book, and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” When the church preaches the gospel to all the nations, God will use it to save His elect to the glory of His name. Thus as Piper again puts it, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. The glory of God is the ultimate goal of the church—because it’s the ultimate goal of God…. Missions exists because worship doesn’t” (Mission Frontiers, p. 13).


Some years ago, Stan Mooneyham wrote (“World Vision,” July, 1980),

The other day when I was reading about a certain church, I came upon the fact that it “seats 900.” That’s a common enough way of describing size. The Houston Astrodome seats 50,000; the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, 91,000. But, I wondered, is seating power the way a church should be measured? Wouldn’t sending power be more relevant? I’d like to know if that church sends 900. Or even 90.

Perhaps we’ve gotten in the habit of lumping churchgoing with spectator sports, where it is the coming and not the going that is important. That may help to explain why we attach such importance to glossy, fast-paced church services in which even ushers are expected to perform with the choreographed precision of the Rockettes.

The entertainment industry knows all about slickness and image, and if we are trying only to fill seats, that’s probably the route. But it seems to me that the church might better be trying to empty its seats. The church is, or ought to be, a sending agency. A recruiting office, as nearly as I can tell, doesn’t talk about the number of recruits it can hold, but the number it has sent. Come to think of it, I have never seen a very big or a very plush recruiting office. They don’t have to be, because the action is somewhere else.

Let’s keep our main business in focus: To obey the Holy Spirit in promoting God’s glory among the nations by sending out workers called by God to preach the gospel. As Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” (Matt. 9:37-38).

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree with John Piper: Either you’re a goer, a sender, or disobedient? Why must missions be the focus of all?
  2. How can a person know if he or she is called to going to another culture as a missionary?
  3. Should missionaries be supported by many churches or primarily by one church? What are the pros and cons?
  4. What are some ways that those who do not go as missionaries can be involved in the cause?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Evangelism, Glory, Missions, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit)

Report Inappropriate Ad