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Large numbers of North American and European missionaries who were deployed after World War II are now retiring. The need for replacements raises the key question, Who sends the missionary? Clarity is needed in a time when some missionary candidates "lay hands" on themselves, without involving the church. On the other hand, some churches insist that unless candidates defer totally to their guidance, they should not go. The work of the Spirit in the lives of Saul and Barnabas and the church at Antioch gives us God's perspective on who sends the missionary.
Luke sets the scene by listing the Antioch church's leaders, at once spiritually gifted (prophets and teachers) and multiculturally and socioeconomically diverse. Barnabas, a Levite from Cyprus (4:36), labors alongside Simeon, a black man (with the nickname Niger), and Lucius, a Roman from Cyrene in North Africa (compare 11:20). Manaen, who in his youth was chosen as a companion to a prince, Herod Antipas, ministers with Saul, a Pharisee from Cilicia in southeast Asia Minor (22:3; Phil 3:5).
This leadership roll is actually a list of potential candidates for missionary service, for those who head and complete it are called by the Spirit to such work (13:2). And today, the "apostolic" function--crosscultural pioneer church planting among unreached peoples--is still the highest calling (Rom 15:20; 1 Cor 12:28; 2 Tim 1:11). Will the church give its "best and brightest" to this calling?
Is worship and fasting a part of this church's routine practice, or is it a special seeking of guidance? The purpose of fasting can be to withdraw as far as possible from the influence of the world and make oneself receptive to commands from heaven (Ex 34:28; compare Lk 2:37); this combined the emphatic Greek de in the Spirit's directive, which may indicate an evaluation of a proposal (Williams 1985:210), probably indicates a quest for particular guidance. Are the participants just the leaders (Bruce 1988:245) or the whole church (Marshall 1980:215)? In view of the mutually interactive decision-making process of Acts 6:1-7 (see comment there) and the fact that Paul and Barnabas report back to the entire church (14:27), it is best to say the leaders in the presence of the entire church take this action.
Whether by internal prompting in the entire church (Stott 1990:217) or external directive through one of the believers (Longenecker 1981:417) or more particularly one of the prophets (Haenchen 1971:396), the Spirit communicates that now is the time for deployment. The church is to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the evangelization of Jew and Gentile (compare Rom 1:1; Gal 1:15). God had previously personally called Saul and Barnabas, a call that was still in effect (so the perfect tense; compare 9:15-16; 26:16-18).
In this simple command we meet God's basic answer to the question, Who sends the missionary? God sends the missionary through two essential and complementary means: the personal, inward call to the individual and the outward confirmation through the church.
It is interesting that Luke describes only the end of the process of confirmation. The church is the key to timing in deployment. There is no mention of testing Saul and Barnabas's ministry gifting as part of confirmation, probably because they have been ministering in the Antioch congregation for over a year (11:26). The need for testing must be deduced from other Scriptures (such as 1 Tim 3:10).
The "release" (NIV sent off) of the missionaries from their duties so that they may undertake this other work is marked by prayer, fasting and the laying on of hands. Fasting and prayer constitute earnest intercession for full equipping in the grace of God and the Spirit's full and successful working through Barnabas and Saul in the mission (compare 14:26 and the answer to the prayers in 13:9-12, 43, 48; 14:3, 10; compare also 4:29, 31, 33). The laying on of hands is probably not ordination for lifelong ministry (14:26 declares the work complete; contrast Kistemaker 1990:456) nor authorization to the apostolate. Rather, the church in an act of solidarity with the missionaries both commissions them as its representatives in this evangelistic mission (note the use of "apostle" to describe both Barnabas and Paul in Acts 14:4, 14) and commends them to God's grace and blessing (14:26). Luke is silent regarding the church's responsibility for financial support of these missionaries.
Antioch, then, becomes a model for the missionary vision and missionary deployment of every church. A church that embodies cultural diversity and has spiritually gifted, sensitive and obedient leaders will release into Christ's service those so called, earnestly interceding for them and standing in solidarity with them. With more than half the world's population yet to hear the gospel for the first time, our Lord needs many more Antiochs.