The guidance of the Spirit
The church in Antioch don’t know it yet, but they’re about to start a brand new missionary initiative – and it’s very clear that it’s the Holy Spirit who’s in charge, because He is the one who sets the ball rolling in the first place (verse 2). Now wouldn’t we all like to get guidance like that? How can we get the Holy Spirit to speak to us? Well, He doesn’t only talk to especially keen Christians, or especially holy ones. He can (and does) speak to any one of us, anywhere, and under any circumstances. But we are more likely to hear Him, and hear Him clearly, if we are listening – if we are ‘tuned in’, so to speak. Now this is what we see the church in Antioch doing: they meet together for worship, prayer and fasting – which is quite a potent combination. This is when they receive a message that is going to change the course of history. And since Luke specifically mentions prophets (verse 1), it’s very likely that the message came through a word of prophecy at one of their prayer meetings.
Hear and obey… but not straight away
Now if you read this passage very quickly, you might get the impression that this prophecy comes completely out of the blue, and that Paul and Barnabas dash off on their mission immediately at the end of the prayer meeting. But it wasn’t quite like that… We are told elsewhere in the New Testament that prophecy must always be tested (I Corinthians 14:29; I John 4:1). So the church do a lot more fasting and praying before releasing the two men (verse 3). And fasting isn’t a five-minute activity – it implies a number of days at least, probably weeks. Also, Paul has known about his calling to preach to the Gentiles for years, ever since his conversion. This new prophecy is a confirmation of what has gone before, and an indication that ‘now is the time to go’.
When Jesus sent His disciples out on mission, He always sent them ‘two by two’ (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1), and this principle hasn’t changed. The Holy Spirit doesn’t send Paul out on his own, but with his old colleague Barnabas. And throughout the book of Acts we see that Paul never works alone, always as part of a team. This time the third member of the team is John Mark (verse 5). “Two are better than one,” says Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 4:9,10), because they can help and support each other. But there are disadvantages as well: sometimes team members fall out, and the more members you have in the team, the greater the risk of friction. We don’t know what caused John Mark to break away and go home early (verse 13). Lots of different suggestions have been made, but they’re all speculation. The main thing to note is that although such things happen, they don’t need to stop the work going forward.