We have here a divine warrant and commission to Barnabas and Saul to go and preach the gospel among the Gentiles, and their ordination to that service by the imposition of hands, with fasting and prayer.
I. Here is an account of the present state of the church at Antioch, which was planted, Acts 11:20.
1. How well furnished it was with good ministers; there were there certain prophets and teachers (Acts 13:1), men that were eminent for gifts, graces, and usefulness. Christ, when he ascended on high, gave some prophets and some teachers (Eph. 4:11); these were both. Agabus seems to have been a prophet and not a teacher, and many were teachers who were not prophets; but those here mentioned were at times divinely inspired, and had instructions immediately from heaven upon special occasions, which gave them the title of prophets; and withal they were stated teachers of the church in their religious assemblies, expounded the scriptures, and opened the doctrine of Christ with suitable applications. These were the prophets, and scribes, or teachers, which Christ promised to send (Matt. 23:34), such as were every way qualified for the service of the Christian church. Antioch was a great city, and the Christians there were many, so that they could not all meet in one place; it was therefore requisite they should have many teachers, to preside in their respective assemblies, and to deliver God’s mind to them. Barnabas is first named, probably because he was the eldest, and Saul last, probably because he was the youngest; but afterwards the last became first, and Saul more eminent in the church. Three others are mentioned. (1.) Simeon, or Simon, who for distinction-sake was called Niger, Simon the Black, from the color of his hair; like him that with us was surnamed the Black Prince. (2.) Lucius of Cyrene, who some think (and Dr. Lightfoot inclines to it) was the same with this Luke that wrote the Acts, originally a Cyrenian, and educated in the Cyrenian college or synagogue at Jerusalem, and there first receiving the gospel. (3.) Manaen, a person of some quality, as it should seem, for he was brought up with Herod the tetrarch, either nursed of the same milk, or bred at the same school, or pupil to the same tutor, or rather one that was his constant colleague and companion—that in every part of his education was his comrade and intimate, which gave him a fair prospect of preferment at court, and yet for Christ’s sake he quitted all the hopes of it; like Moses, who, when he had come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. Had he joined in with Herod, with whom he was brought up, he might have had Blastus’s place, and have been his chamberlain; but it is better to be fellow-sufferer with a saint than fellow-persecutor with a tetrarch.
2. How well employed they were (Acts 13:2): They ministered to the Lord, and fasted. Observe, (1.) Diligent faithful teachers do truly minister unto the Lord. Those that instruct Christians serve Christ; they really do him honour, and carry on the interest of his kingdom. Those that minister to the church in praying and preaching (both which are included here), minister unto the Lord, for they are the church’s servants for Christ’s sake; to him they must have an eye in their ministrations, and from him they shall have their recompence. (2.) Ministering to the Lord, in one way or other, ought to be the stated business of churches and their teachers; to this work time ought to be set apart, nay, it is set apart, and in this work we ought to spend some part of every day. What have we to do as Christians and ministers but to serve the Lord Christ? Col. 3:24; Rom. 14:18. (3.) Religious fasting is of use in our ministering to the Lord, both as a sign of our humiliation and a means of our mortification. Though it was not so much practised by the disciples of Christ, while the bridegroom was with them, as it was by the disciples of John and of the Pharisees; yet, after the bridegroom was taken away, they abounded in it, as those that had well learned to deny themselves and to endure hardness.
II. The orders given by the Holy Ghost for the setting apart of Barnabas and Saul, while they were engaged in public exercises, the ministers of the several congregations in the city joining in one solemn fast or day of prayer: The Holy Ghost said, either by a voice from heaven, or by a strong impulse on the minds of those of them that were prophets, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. He does not specify the work, but refers to a former call of which they themselves knew the meaning, whether others did or no: as for Saul, he was particularly told that he must bear Christ’s name to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15), that he must be sent to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21); the matter was settled between them at Jerusalem before this, that as Peter, James, and John laid out themselves among those of the circumcision, so Paul and Barnabas should go to the heathen, Gal. 2:7-9. Barnabas, it is likely, knew himself designed for this service as well as Paul. Yet they would not thrust themselves into this harvest, though it appeared plenteous, till they received their orders from the Lord of the harvest: Thrust in thy sickle for the harvest is ripe, Rev. 14:15. The orders were, Separate me Barnabas and Saul. Observe here, 1. Christ by his Spirit has the nomination of his ministers; for it is by the Spirit of Christ that they are qualified in some measure for his services, inclined to it, and taken off from other cares inconsistent with it. There are some whom the Holy Ghost has separated for the service of Christ, has distinguished from others as men that are offered and that willingly offer themselves to the temple service; and concerning them directions are given to those who are competent judges of the sufficiency of the abilities and the sincerity of the inclination: Separate them. 2. Christ’s ministers are separated to him and to the Holy Ghost: Separate them to me; they are to be employed in Christ’s work and under the Spirit’s guidance, to the glory of God the Father. 3. All that are separated to Christ as his ministers are separated to work; Christ keeps no servants to be idle. If any man desires the office of a bishop, he desires a good work; that is what he is separated to, to labour in the word and doctrine. They are separated to take pains, not to take state. 4. The work of Christ’s ministers, to which they are to be separated, is work that is already settled, and that which all Christ’s ministers hitherto have been called to, and which they themselves have first been, by an external call, directed to and have chosen.
III. Their ordination, pursuant to these orders: not to the ministry in general (Barnabas and Saul had both of them been ministers long before this), but to a particular service in the ministry, which had something peculiar in it, and which required a fresh commission, which commission God saw fit at this time to transmit by the hands of these prophets and teachers, for the giving of this direction to the church, that teachers should ordain teachers (for prophets we are not now any longer to expect), and that those who have the dispensing of the oracles of Christ committed to them should, for the benefit of posterity, commit the same to faithful men, who shall be able also to teach others, 2 Tim. 2:2. So here, Simeon, and Lucius, and Manaen, faithful teachers at this time in the church of Antioch, when they had fasted and prayed, laid their hands on Barnabas and Saul, and sent them away (Acts 13:3), according to the directions received. Observe, 1. They prayed for them. When good men are going forth about good work, they ought to be solemnly and particularly prayed for, especially by their brethren that are their fellow-labourers and fellow-soldiers. 2. They joined fasting with their prayers, as they did in their other ministrations, Acts 13:3. Christ has taught us this by his abstaining from sleep (a night-fast, if I may so call it) the night before he sent forth his apostles, that he might spend it in prayer. 3. They laid their hands on them. Hereby, (1.) They gave them their manumission, dismission, or discharge from the present service they were engaged in, in the church of Antioch, acknowledging that they went off not only fairly and with consent, but honourably and with a good report. (2.) They implored a blessing upon them in their present undertaking, begged that God would be with them, and give them success; and, in order to this, that they might be filled with the Holy Ghost in their work. This very thing is explained Acts 14:26; where it is said, concerning Paul and Barnabas, that from Antioch they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled. As it was an instance of the humility of Barnabas and Saul that they submitted to the imposition of the hands of those that were their equals, or rather their inferiors; so it was of the good disposition of the other teachers that they did not envy Barnabas and Saul the honour to which they were preferred, but cheerfully committed it to them, with hearty prayers for them; and they sent them away with all expedition, out of a concern for those countries where they were to break up fallow ground.