The deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being
astonished at the doctrine
Last week a friend sent me an e-mail containing what was supposed to be a picture of a man. If I stared at the picture long enough, I was told, I would see the hologram-like image of a man’s face.
But it was just too hard for me.
My eyes kept giving up. Perhaps I couldn’t focus long enough to capture the image correctly. Either way, all I kept seeing was a collection of black-and-white splotches – so I thought, “What’s the big deal?!”
Sometimes when you and I as Christians look at the world around us, we can’t make sense of God’s work in it. The only thing we see is a collection of splotches – not a breathtaking work of art. You and I scan the folks we meet everyday, see them distancing themselves from God, and lump them into the category of “spiritual long-shots” or, worse, lost causes. There’s no way, we think to ourselves, God can build a church out of the mass of unbelievers around us.
Try as we might, stare as long as we will, you and I can’t see God at work.
But God can.
Today’s passage is about God’s vision for crafting His church. It’s about what the Lord is doing in His sovereign wisdom and power to build a church from people you and I just can’t see becoming Christians. It’s about God selecting His servants, and about God saving His elect.
God’s vision and ours sometimes are utterly different. You and I just can’t see what He’s going to do with people around us.
Yet through the ministry of His Word, God always accomplishes His mission – and brings His vision to fruition.
In bringing His vision for His church into reality, God first selects His servants.
The church in Antioch, Dr. Luke informs us, had a host of servant-leaders to teach and to shepherd God’s people. In the first verse of chapter 13, Luke mentions the chief teachers and prophets (and, in the case of Barnabas and Paul, apostles) of the Antiochene church. While we know of Saul’s (Paul’s) dramatic conversion (see chapter 9) and something of Manaen (whom we’ll explore in a moment), you and I really don’t know much about the other men serving in Antioch. The mere presence of such prophets and teachers to declare the Word of God, though, speaks to the Good Shepherd’s love for his people to provide under-shepherds for their care.
Pastors and teachers matter, because they set forth the life-changing Word of God before human beings. Indeed, the men mentioned in 13:1 all were saved through the preaching and hearing of God’s Word, and where would you and I today be without them? Thus you and I give thanks that God loves His church enough to call and to equip ministers of the Word.
The events in verses 1-3 really are more of a commissioning than an ordination, for by this point Paul and Barnabas already had been ordained apostles by the Lord Himself. The imposition of hands here signified the church’s official commissioning of Paul and Barnabas to go to Cyprus and beyond. What’s most important, though, is that the sovereign Spirit of God selected these men for this mission.
The church’s leaders were well-prepared to receive direction from the Lord regarding Paul and Barnabas, because Luke tells us they had been engaged in prayer and in fasting. As a result, their hearts and minds would have been fixed on the Lord and therefore sharpened to perceive the Lord’s will. And it clearly was God’s will to choose these men to accomplish His evangelistic purposes in faraway lands.
Today, no less than in Paul’s day, Christians must select leaders for local bodies of believers carefully and with much prayer (fasting also might be appropriate). While the elders and presbytery ordain a man to a ministry, we know it is God who must do the calling, preparation and ordination.
Yet you and I always should give thanks, because the Lord still shapes and selects faithful men to minister His Word to you – even those we might never have thought could be profitable to Christ.
God fully enacts His vision for His church, secondly, as He saves His elect.
No sooner did the church commission Paul and Barnabas than the Holy Spirit called them to venture to Seleucia. The Lord obviously had His elect in mind and by this point was unfolding His plan to call them to Himself.
(Once again, it’s worth noting, you and I encounter the primacy of the preached Word in Acts. As Paul and Barnabas journeyed, they preached the Word – particularly in the synagogue of the Jews. That’s why we seek to incorporate so much of the Word into our weekly services of worship and various gatherings: God changes lives through His Word. You and I would be wise to recall the apostolic practice as we engage in ministry here in Leakesville, and as we face temptations to rely on gimmicks [such as food and parties and projectors and loud music] to draw people to church.)
In our text we meet two pairs of men, and God’s sovereignty in salvation comes out profoundly in the lives of these fellows. In both of these pairs – Herod Antipas and Manaen, Bar-jesus/Elymas and Sergius Paullus – one man is a child of the devil, while another is converted to become a child of God in Christ. Both Manaen and Sergius Paullus faced long spiritual odds and horrible influences along their journeys to Christianity: Herod Antipas, the man who grew up with Manaen, had John Baptist murdered, dealt harshly with our Savior, and was consumed with worldliness; Bar-jesus, far from being a “son of the Savior” (as his name implies) was a son of Satan.
As we zoom in on Bar-jesus, you and I should observe that he was crafty and malicious in his interaction with Sergius Paullus. Now, Luke informs us that Sergius Paullus was an intelligent man and (literally, from the Greek) could “put things together” in his mind; yet the Lord had to work savingly in his heart before he could accept the Gospel. It surely didn’t help that Bar-jesus subtly tried to turn him off the straight path to Jesus, just as crafty Satan caused Eve to question God’s goodness and authority and to tinker ever so slightly with His commandment in Eden.
Yet Paul taught the truth. And under the power of the Spirit, he caused a temporary blindness to overtake Bar-jesus so that Sergius Paullus, already hungry for Christ, could see a child of the father of lies stumbling around pitifully, asking for someone to lead him around. It’s no shock, then, that Sergius Paullus believed the doctrine of the Lord Jesus Christ as he saw the Lord at work.
Back in the 1970s, the Miami Dolphins featured a defense without “big names” – hence they were known as the “No Name Defense.” And many of you recall Elliot Ness’ “Untouchables” in the days of Al Capone.
If you and I had to give a nickname to the men described in our passage this morning, we ought to choose “The Impossibles.”
After all, it’s impossible that Saul, the Hebrew of Hebrews, that notorious enemy of Christ, would become Christianity’s most-ardent proponent.
And it’s impossible that Manaen, who grew up with Herod Antipas, would forsake material glory for Christ’s humility.
And it’s impossible that a Gentile named Sergius Paullus, constantly hassled by a crafty magician named Bar-jesus, would see through the devil’s lies and believe on Christ.
Were you and I to have looked at these men early in their lives, we probably couldn’t have seen an apostle. Or a church leader. Or a future follower of Jesus Christ. Like me staring at that e-mailed picture, you and I would have seen only a bunch of dots.
Thankfully, what matters is what God sees.
You and I can’t see His elect in a crowd. We don’t know whom He has purposed from all eternity to call to Himself.
Your role is to minister His transformative Word in your own words and actions. And as you do, keep your eyes open: God is bringing His vision for His church to fruition, one “impossible” conversion and commissioning at a time.