The Relationship Between Commending Assemblies and Missionaries

In Luke’s travel narrative (9:51-19:47), he records Christ’s relentless, final journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. In the Acts, however, Luke reverses the direction: If Luke’s gospel describes the Lord’s centripetal motion toward Jerusalem in order to procure our salvation, then the Acts describes the disciples’ centrifugal motion away from Jerusalem in order to proclaim that salvation. Just as the Lord Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem, His followers, prompted by the Holy Spirit, turned their sights away from Jerusalem toward the uttermost parts of the earth.

At the time He ascended, Christ Himself laid out the plan for missionary work in four distinct phases: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, ESV). Luke covers the first three phases—Jerusalem itself, then Judea, and then Samaria—in the first 12 chapters of Acts. Throughout these chapters, the Jerusalem assembly remains the epicenter, and Peter, the apostle to the nation of Israel, plays the prominent role (Gal 2:7-8). In Acts 13, however, Luke starts to chronicle the fourth and final stage, the mission mainly to Gentiles living in distant lands.

This fourth phase of the gospel’s expansion provides the pattern for modern missionary work because it describes evangelists leaving the “homeland” of Israel and Samaria for distant lands. For the first time, the messengers would reach out to Gentiles, people with a vastly different worldview and no remaining knowledge of God. Luke introduces some important changes to stress this transition. First, the gospel’s staging hub moves from the assembly in Jerusalem to the assembly in Antioch, an assembly whose ethnic diversity symbolizes the universal scope of the gospel (Acts 13:1). In addition, the chief protagonist changes from Peter to Paul.

The Bible describes two Sauls arising from the tribe of Benjamin: the first is King Saul, who was physically tall but morally small. The second is Saul of Tarsus, physically a small man, but spiritually a giant. Beginning in Acts 13, Saul of Tarsus takes the leading role, and Luke replaces his Hebrew name Saul with his Latin name Paul. At the time of Saul’s conversion, the Lord told Ananias, “He is a chosen instrument of Mine to carry My Name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Paul himself later stated that he had been “appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles” (2Tim 1:11).

The Holy Spirit calls missionaries

Within days of his conversion, Paul began to preach in Damascus that Jesus was the Son of God, and to prove that He was the Messiah (Acts 9:20-22). He continued to preach the gospel back in Jerusalem, and then in Tarsus. Meanwhile, Barnabas had been working and gaining experience in Jerusalem and Antioch. When the Lord saved a large number of people in Antioch, Barnabas brought Saul from Tarsus, and the two of them worked with the new believers in the assembly for a year (Acts 11:19-26). When the assembly decided to send help to the impoverished believers in Judea, they chose Barnabas and Saul to deliver the funds (Acts 11:30; 12:25).

During this time, Barnabas and Saul individually heard the Lord calling them to wider missionary service. The Lord calls men and women to His work in a very personal way, as with Samuel (1Sam 3:4). If we want to hear the Lord calling us today, then we should pay attention to what was happening when Barnabas and Saul heard the Spirit’s voice: they were busily engaged in the work of the local assembly; they had already gained experience in gospel preaching; they had earned the trust of their assembly overseers; and they (with other believers in the assembly) were worshiping and fasting (Acts 13:2).

The Holy Spirit directs assembly overseers

Once the Holy Spirit had spoken to Barnabas and Saul personally, He then spoke to the assembly (Acts 13:2-4). From this we learn that every valid commendation requires two parties that have both listened to God: a missionary who has been called to go, and an assembly that has been told to send. A believer may feel certain that the Lord has called him to missionary service, but that feeling is baseless until others in the assembly achieve the same certainty about the Lord’s intention for him. Thus, the Holy Spirit calls individuals, and then confirms that call by speaking to spiritual believers in the assembly (Gal 2:9). He delegates to the assembly the responsibility of singling out those whom He has called, and indicates to the assembly when it is time to send them into the field.

Assemblies commend and release missionaries

Although commendation to missionary work is joyful, it is also exceptionally solemn. The Antioch assembly showed how seriously they took this responsibility by fasting and praying (Acts 13:3). Fasting means temporarily depriving yourself of something normal or necessary (typically food) in order to focus intense prayer on a specific spiritual burden. (The New Testament does not command fasting, but commends it). The assembly earnestly prayed to discern the Lord’s calling and to commit the missionaries to His keeping.

Barnabas and Saul would represent the Antioch assembly everywhere they would go. To show their solidarity with these men, representatives of the assembly laid their hands on them. This cultural action originated in the Old Testament, where the laying on of hands meant total identification (Exo 29:10; Lev 1:4). In this way, the assembly publicly expressed their fellowship with the missionaries, the needed partnership in the Lord’s work between those going and those sending. They showed that they fully approved of each man’s character and totally endorsed his teaching. Since the assembly believers were sending these two men to the front, they promised them dependable supply lines of prayer and friendship.

The assembly commended Barnabas and Saul to the work of evangelism, seeing souls saved, and assemblies planted. The Holy Spirit did not authorize the assembly to limit the missionaries to a certain geographical location or span of time. Luke’s narrative shows that even Paul did not know exactly where the Lord would lead him or how long his journeys would last (Acts 15:36; 16:6-9; 17:15; 18:21-23). Thus the assembly freely commended Barnabas and Saul to the work of God and to the grace of God, and placed no restrictions on them (Acts 14:26). When the time was right, the assembly simply released them (Acts 13:3).

To be continued