By J.R. Miller
We are told that "there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers." There were many of these more than were needed for the work at home. That was the reason some of them were sent out to work elsewhere. There are a great many churches nowadays that contain more Christian men and women, capable of effective service, than can possibly find work in their own parish. There are churches many of whose members are well educated, able to teach in Sunday school, to speak in public, and conduct religious services. Ofttimes only a little handful of these are actually engaged in any kind of Christian work. But this ought not to be so. Every Christian should become useful at once and continue to be useful in some way. Every church should be a missionary church. In cities, especially, there are needy places enough to occupy in them all who have the love of Christ in their hearts. Those who are not needed in the work of the Church in its own parish should find places outside where they can help build up the Kingdom of Christ and save souls. The time is coming, too, when single churches will send out their own missionaries to foreign countries to carry the gospel there.
There seems little doubt that this church was considering very earnestly at this time--its duty to the outside world, and was engaged in a special service, imploring guidance. When God wants a great work done--He usually puts the thought of it in the hearts of some of His children, and then they begin to pray about it. As they think and pray, the burden grows heavier continually, and at last God sends the answer. This passage gathers intense interest from the fact that here we see the very birth of the foreign missionary work of the Church. The apostles and other Christians were very earnest in preaching the gospel--but only to the Jews. The disciples were driven out of Jerusalem and scattered, and went everywhere preaching--but to the Jews only. The church at Antioch was the first Gentile church established, and it is a very interesting fact that in this Gentile church the first effort to carry the gospel to other Gentiles originated.
God is always ready to guide those who seek His guidance. To these watching, planning, praying people of Antioch He said, by His Holy Spirit, "Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them." The Lord has a plan of work for His church. Foreign missions was no accident. It was not merely the result of enthusiasm of an earnest church. It was part of God's plan. The part which these two men took in it was no chance part. That, too, was in God's plan. He had chosen and prepared them for that very duty.
Everyone's work is definitely marked out for him in the great purpose of God. Men are not born and trained just to pick up anything that may fall to their hands as they go through life. There is a particular something, which everyone was born and trained to do. What it is, we may not know until God puts the work in our hand--but He knows from the first. A successful life is one, which does just the work for which it was created--whereunto God calls it. How can we now what our part is in God's plan? Only by submitting ourselves to the divine will at every point, and faithfully doing what He gives day by day. If we do this--He will lead us into the work for which He created and redeemed us.
The way these men proved their fitness for the new and greater work was by doing well the duties that were given to them in the lowlier place. That is the way God always promotes His servants. Those who prove themselves faithful and efficient in humble tasks--will get larger service in due time when ready for it.
Another point here is, that Christ wants the best workers for the foreign field. Many think that any poor stick is good enough for preaching to the heathen--but God chose the best men for His most difficult work. The best men are needed for the same work.
The Christians at Antioch did as God directed. They sent away Barnabas and Saul. The Church must have loved these men who had been their pastor so long; yet when the Spirit asked for them for this new work, the people did not resist the call. They did not say, "There are heathen here in Antioch; let us get them all saved first." That is the way people talk in these days. They "don't believe in foreign missions," and they are continually prating about their zeal for home missions, and pointing to the unconverted in our own towns and cities. Surely, if there ever was a time when this plea should have been urged, it was when this first missionary was talked of. Both fields are important--but the heathen countries must not be compelled to wait until there are no sinners remaining at home. There should be no rivalry between the two great interests. The one receives the best attention when the other is not neglected. A church that does nothing for foreign missionary work--very soon comes to doing nothing for home or any other kind of work.
Barnabas and Saul made no objection, and they did not delay. "So they, being sent forth by the Holy Spirit," departed. It is a good thing to be sent forth continually to our work by the Holy Spirit. Why may we not be? Whatever there may have been unusual and special in these early days of the Church, there is no doubt that the Holy Spirit works today just as really and effectively as He did then. No one need go anywhere, into any field, without being sent forth by the Holy Spirit. "No pastor should accept any call to a church until he believes that he is sent there by God."
Then, there is a personal sending which is also very real. The Spirit sends us each time we go forth to any work, to any duty. The guidance or the sending becomes minute, a matter of detail. A dozen times a day we may be sent forth by the Holy Spirit to some service of love, or the service may be sent to us, to our very door, to be done by us. If we learn to look continually for divine direction, and then always promptly follow and obey it, we shall never go without a blessing. The Spirit never merely sends--He goes with us and works through us.
"They had also John as their attendant." This was John Mark. He was not a preacher, or even a teacher. He was only an attendant. He went along with the missionaries to help them in any way he could. He was probably a servant to wait on them personally. This suggests to us that there are many ways of helping in the Lord's work besides being preachers. Mark did not preach anywhere, so far as we know--and yet he was very helpful. Boys and young men get a special suggestion from this young man. If they cannot be teachers or preachers, they can be attendants, and can find a great deal to do in the Lord's work. Samuel "ministered" unto the Lord about the temple when he was only a little child. Of course, he could not do the priests' work yet, as he was too young--but there were many things he could do--attend the doors, look after the lamps, and run errands for the old priest. So there are many things the youngest Christian can do for Christ. To be even only an "attendant" in the work for Christ is a high honor and privilege. One evening, at an open-air service, I saw a young man holding a lantern that another one, who was reading the Bible, could see the book. He could not speak in public himself--but he could help the minister by holding the light for him. There are many such ways of helping others to do Christ's work.
After a time the missionaries had an adventure. "Elymas the sorcerer opposed them, seeking to turn aside the proconsul from the faith." It is a grievous sin to try to turn any believer from the faith; yet there are at all times those who try to do this. They try to put a doubt on the religion of Christ. They seek to make people believe there is no reality in the things which they believe, or they offer inducements to Christians to go elsewhere. At the present time the air is full of skepticism and doubts of all sorts. People who are unbelievers themselves try to keep their friends from coming with us. The Devil is at this same sort of work yet. First he comes with pretended wisdom and offers to guide seeking souls himself--but leads them farther and farther away from the truth. Then, when the voice of true wisdom comes and offers to show them the right way, he interferes and tries to hinder them from listening to or believing what is said. If the devil can only keep human souls from Christ, or can turn them away from the faith after they have heard Him--the Devil is satisfied.
"You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see the light of the sun." Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand."
It was the Lord, and not Paul, who had inflicted this judgment, for we are told that Paul was specially "filled with the Holy Spirit" when he said this. The punishment itself was to Elymas an outward emblem of his actual spiritual condition. He was only a blind man professing to be a guide to others. So his natural eyes were darkened that he might be made to realize his inner blindness. There was also in his punishment a disclosure of the kind of doom those bring on themselves who shut their eyes to the holy light of truth. He is here warned that the result of such perverse refusal to see, if persisted in, will be total inability to see at all.
William Taylor mentions in illustration the account given in Roman history of one who had been proscribed, and who, to save his life, disguised himself by wearing a patch over one eye. A good while after, when there was no longer any danger, he removed the patch--but in vain, for the sight was gone. So, if men stubbornly shut their hearts against the truth, the light that is in them, will become darkness. It is a terrible thing to resist the truth of God; it is still worse to try to lead other souls in false paths.
Paul's word was fulfilled. Immediately the sorcerer was stricken with blindness. Seeing this, the proconsul believed. So after all, good came out of the apparition of the sorcerer. It was the manifestation of the divine power through the missionaries, in the punishment of Elymas, that led Paulus to believe. This power would not have been manifested had not the sorcerer resisted Paul and Barnabas. Thus God overruled the evil effort of this "son of the devil." He sought to keep the proconsul from believing; but became the means of compelling him to believe. Thus God is always overruling the evil of the world, and makes even the wrath of Satan glorify Him. It is better sometimes to have opposition when we try to be good. Serguis Paulus probably would not have believed at all--had it not been for the sorcerer's rage and punishment.