Me, a Missionary? (January 28, 2018)
Me, a Missionary?
Have you ever thought about being a missionary? Actually, I should back up and first ask a different question. What do you think of when you hear the word “missionary”? When I was young, I think my thoughts always turned to Africa. Probably because the African mission field, one of our church body’s oldest, was getting a lot of attention at the time! I pictured American missionaries going out to villages and living in huts proclaiming God’s Word! During my high school and college years my attention was turned to the courageous work that was being done in Asia. It all sounded much like the early Christian church in which missionaries and churches had to meet secretly in houses. Yet, despite the danger, there was such a veracious hunger for God’s Word. Is that somewhat along the lines of what you think of when you hear the word “missionary”? What are some other mission fields that come to mind? I know some of you have a particular connection or concern for one particular mission field over another. Not to downplay the other missions, but I think it’s great that you take particular interest in a certain area.
In today’s reading, we get to hear about the beginnings of a couple missionaries and the first place they set out for! It all starts at the church in Antioch. Fun fact: “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26)! Five people are mentioned: Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, and Saul, whom we know as Paul (Acts 13:1). These men were identified as “prophets” and “teachers.” Prophets, yes, can be those through whom God reveals future events. But in New Testament times, especially after the time of Jesus, we see less and less of this kind of prophet. Mainly because prophets most often pointed to Jesus and his work of salvation. At this time, God had already revealed much of what he intended to reveal to believers. So we can also think of these prophets in the more general way, people who are able to expound upon the Word of God. They are also called “teachers.” So they knew God’s Word and they were able to communicate it clearly!
Then, during a worship service, it sounds like, “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” (Acts 13:2). It seems that the great hour has come! Up to this point, missionaries had really only been sent to Jewish regions. Now, two men were set apart by God and specifically called to the Gentile world! If you attend the Sunday morning Bible class, this is the 3rd expansion that we talked about in our brief outline of Acts. “You will be my witnesses [first] in Jerusalem, [then] in all Judea and Samaria, and [finally] to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). This is the very beginning of a journey that would lead missionaries of the gospel into the Gentile world, even to stand before kings! Saul himself would stand before Caesar in Rome – arguably the most powerful person in the world at the time. Now that is mission work! What brave and courageous people it takes to start from your own homeland and make a journey across the known world, preaching the gospel along the way!
You know what? I see a very similar setting here today. I see Christians, gathered around the Word, worshiping the Lord. Except, instead of focusing on those five “pastors” I guess we would call them, I want to focus on the rest of the congregation that is gathered. Right now I see about 50 or so lay people, and I’m wondering, could I be looking at not just two, but 50 or so missionaries? Some of you are glad you chose to sit in the back today so that you can slump down and hide a bit. But in all seriousness, have you ever considered it? When you hear the word “missionary” have you ever thought of yourself? And I don’t simply mean you being a missionary in the sense of going out to the plains of Africa or the big cities of Asia. I mean just right here in Texas, right here in your own neighborhood. Have you ever considered the thought?
Me, a missionary? You might be thinking. Some things are better left to the professionals – to those who actually have the training. But I might beg to differ. You certainly have skills worth highlighting too! Can you carry on a casual conversation with ease? I think that’s a great skill for a missionary. Do you enjoy studying the Bible and have a pretty good knowledge of the gospel truths? That’s a great skill for a missionary. Are you faithful in prayer, commending every situation to God? That’s a great skill for a missionary, because certainly you wouldn’t go out without first praying that God bless your efforts.
Even if you take a look at the two skills highlighted in this section of scripture: “prophets” who know the Word of God, and “teachers” who are able to communicate it clearly. Let me tell you, you belong to a church body that probably has some of the best educated laity in regards to the Bible. I’m not trying to put other church bodies down, not at all, but think about it. Our teens go through three years of intense Bible study, just as they make the transition to adult membership in the church! Even those who have come to our church as adults have gone through 10-15 in depth studies on the Bible! And if you’ve forgotten some of what you’ve learned, go back to your catechism. Or ask me, and I’d be happy to give you the “teacher’s edition” of any study I have. You are prophets who know God’s Word! Even if you can’t quote direct passages, you know the truths. And let me tell you, it’s ok to say that you don’t know. It’s ok to say, “let me look into it and I’ll get back to you.” Or, “Let me ask my pastor.” We often feel that we will be attacked for not knowing everything, but what I’ve found is that people appreciate that you care enough to find answers for them!
I guess the only thing left is to ask, “have I been called to be a missionary?” Saul and Barnabas were set apart by God. Have I been called by God? Let me read your call to you. You can actually find it written out in Matthew 28(:18-20). “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” That passage is known as “The Great Commission.” A commission from Jesus to all believers to be missionaries! And if you object, saying that only the eleven disciples were there, so it’s only a commission for those eleven disciples, then listen to what God says through Peter as he addresses a broad audience of believers, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pt 2:9). You have indeed been called to be a proclaimer of the gospel. And that’s essentially what a missionary is.
So, as you are coming to grips with the prospect of being a missionary, listen how these first two missionaries to the gentiles were sent on their way.
“After they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3). Now remember, it wasn’t the congregation that commissioned these missionaries. That credit goes to God! In fact, Luke makes that fact very clear with the Greek words that he used. A more literal translation would be that “they placed their hands on them and released them.” The congregation released these men from their calling to the congregation at Antioch, so that they could devote themselves to their new God-given mission work.
Then, “The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus” (Acts 13:4). Cyprus is actually the old homeland of Barnabas. Did they get to choose this location on their own? It’s possible. Did the Holy Spirit start them off where they might be a little more comfortable with this new prospect of mission work? Yeah, that could have been a factor. Either way, Barnabas knew the kind of people they would meet there, and they already knew how they were going to go about their mission work.
“When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues” (Acts 13:5). Because of their qualifications, it would have been easy for Saul and Barnabas to be invited to speak in the synagogues. Here, they were met with people who already knew their Bibles – at least the Old Testament. Their task, then, would be to make the bridge from the Old Testament messianic prophecies to their fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth. In essence, the knowledge was already there, they just had to identify Jesus as the Messiah. And in this way, they set the pattern for how their mission work would be carried out. They would target cities of the diaspora – cities to which Jews were scattered during the Babylonian captivity. In these cities, they would proclaim the gospel of Jesus at the synagogues. Then, from these strongholds, the local synagogue would be expected to proclaim the word to the Gentiles in that region.
That’s who I want you to identify with from this reading. Yes, you have to tools of the prophets and teachers mentioned earlier. You have a strong knowledge of God’s Word and you have a commission from God to be missionaries. But, you may not have the opportunity, like Saul and Barnabas, to go into new lands and proclaim the Gospel. You do, however, have your very own mission field already. Just like those Jews who learned from Saul and Barnabas at the synagogue and then shared what they learned with their Gentile friends, you can do the same thing! This church isn’t merely a refuge for believers, it’s a hub where you come to be strengthened and then leave as missionaries! Identify the bridge in your mission field. It may not be bridging Old Testament prophecies to Jesus. More likely it’s going to be filling the void with the hope and salvation found in Jesus!
Now I know what you may be thinking. You may be thinking, “Pastor, I’ve been doing that. I’ve been sharing my faith every opportunity I get, but I just don’t see any results.” That’s a struggle that I think every missionary faces at one time or another. Where are the results? Look again in Acts 13. Do you see any results mentioned? When results were immediate and dramatic, Luke usually recorded them. Perhaps in Salamis, there was no dramatic conversion to the gospel. Yet, we are sure that God was working! Because God says, “[My word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Is 55:11). It’s ok if you don’t see immediate results in your mission field. Trust that God is working! You are not called to produce results you are called to share the word. Let God worry about the results. Saul himself said, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow” (1 Cor 3:6).