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Easter 7, “Set Apart by the Spirit”

Pastor Gary Wong May 24, 2020

Acts 13:1-12

In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 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." 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. 4 The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper. 6 They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7 who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 9 Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 10 "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? 11 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. 12 When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.

When my family and I visit San Francisco, we love to go to Fisherman’s Wharf and watch the seals swim and play on the piers. There is another kind of seal, however, that is not a playful marine mammal with flippers. These “seals” are members of one of our nation’s most elite fighting forces: the Navy SEALs. The things that set a Navy SEAL apart from other sailors are the demanding physical and mental requirements he must meet and the grueling training he must undergo before he can even be considered for service on one of these elite teams. It’s no wonder, then, that when there is a mission that calls for the best, our country sends in the SEALs. In today’s lesson, St. Luke reminds us that we are members of an elite team; through faith in Christ, we are members of the Holy Christian church. What’s more, the Holy Spirit has set us apart for the work he would have us do. The Spirit equips us for his service; He sends us out with his power.

The elite team that St. Luke holds before us in today’s lesson is the team of Paul and Barnabas. In Chapter 13 of the Book of Acts, Luke describes how the Holy Spirit had first set Barnabas and Paul aside for the work to which he had called them. The Spirit then sent them out on what we know as Paul’s first missionary journey. Most of us are familiar with Paul, the author of thirteen of the twenty seven books of the New Testament, and without a doubt the greatest missionary of all time; but what do we know about Barnabas?

Luke introduces us to Paul’s partner in the gospel ministry in Acts Chapter 4 where the evangelist calls Barnabas by his Hebrew name, Joseph. Barnabas was a Levite from Cyprus who sold a piece of land and then laid the money at the apostles’ feet. Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement”, lived up to his name when he paved the way for Peter and the other disciples to accept Paul as a fellow apostle whom Jesus had appointed to proclaim the gospel. Barnabas enjoyed a well deserved reputation as a faithful disciple and leader; so much so that he was sent by the church in Jerusalem to verify the report that the true gospel was being faithfully preached to the people in the city of Antioch. Not only did Barnabas encourage the brothers to continue to preach the good news about Jesus, he convinced Paul to go to Antioch to work with him in this fertile mission field.

According to Luke, it was while Paul and Barnabas and a number of other prophets and teachers were worshipping that the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul (Paul’s name before his conversion) for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). After they had prayed and fasted, the disciples laid their hands on Barnabas and Paul and sent them on their way. Please note that this “setting apart” by the Holy Spirit was not calling Paul and Barnabas to faith nor was it calling them into the public ministry. Both Paul and Barnabas had been serving the Lord for quite some time—both individually and now together in Antioch. Rather, this “setting apart” was a commissioning by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the gospel in many different places and to nations and races of people who did not know that Jesus is their Savior.

Filled with the Spirit, these divinely appointed disciples set sail for the island of Cyprus. What did Saul and Barnabas do once their feet hit dry ground? They began proclaiming the Word of God in the Jewish synagogues. Both the choices to go to Cyprus and to first reach out to the Jews showed that Paul and Barnabas were using their sanctified common sense. Since Barnabas grew up on Cyprus, he was very familiar with the customs, culture, and people of the island. Preaching to the Jews in their synagogues was also a sound mission strategy. While these Jews were familiar with the Old Testament scriptures, they needed someone to connect the prophecies about the Messiah to Jesus. As fellow Jews blessed with insight into God’s Word, who better than Paul and Barnabas to teach these descendants of Abraham about their promised Savior?

Paul and Barnabas proclaimed the gospel to Jews and Gentiles throughout the island, from Salamis on the east end to Paphos in the west. Paphos was the home of Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul in charge of the province of Cyprus. Luke tells us that the proconsul was an intelligent man, a man who was blessed with the ability to understand and consider new ideas. Paulus probably had heard of the work Paul and Barnabas had been doing; so motivated by his sense of curiosity, Paulus sent for Paul and Barnabas so he could hear what they had to say. Here is where Luke’s account gets interesting. Sergius Paulus had an attendant by the name of Bar Jesus, a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet, who opposed Paul and Barnabas and wanted to stop this meeting from ever taking place. The question is “Why?”

Bar Jesus, or Elymas (his other name which means sorcerer), recognized the power of the gospel. This opportunistic magician had been using the power of the devil to trick people into thinking that he had special insight into the mysteries of God. He was afraid that if Sergius Paulus heard the true word of God from Paul and Barnabas, the Holy Spirit could then work through that Word and bring his benefactor to faith. If that were to happen, Elymas would be exposed as the fake that he was, and that Sergius Paulus would probably then throw him out on his ear. So Bar Jesus tried to cut the apostles off at the pass. It didn’t work. Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of trickery and deceit. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?” (13:10).

This confrontation was like a classic gunfight in the Wild West. Without blinking, Paul stared down Elymas. The apostle then called out Bar Jesus for what he was. That took courage. As a child of the devil, Bar Jesus had the power of the devil behind him. Paul, however, knew that Satan’s power was no match for the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul fearlessly pronounced God’s judgment on Bar Jesus: “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” (13:11). Immediately, darkness came over Elymas. He groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. In a case of poetic, divine justice, this once powerful magician, who tried to lead many into spiritual darkness, was now in darkness himself. He was powerless and needed the help of others to find his way. Luke’s account ends with Sergius Paulus amazed at this display of the Holy Spirit’s power; but more importantly, by the power of the Holy Spirit through the gospel that Paul and Barnabas had shared with him, Sergius Paulus became a believer.

Friends, I thank God for this extremely practical lesson that speaks to each and every one of us. Yet, I realize that some of you might not agree that this lesson is practical. As you listened to this account, some of you might have been thinking, “I couldn’t possibly do what Paul and Barnabas had done. The Holy Spirit certainly hasn’t set me apart. The odds of me being a missionary like Paul are about as great as me being a Navy SEAL.” If you’re thinking that way, you are selling yourself short; more importantly, you are selling the Holy Spirit short. Just as the Holy Spirit had done for Paul and Barnabas, God has equipped you and me for service in his kingdom, and the Holy Spirit sends us out with his power to do the work that he has set us apart to do.

Now, some of you still aren’t convinced that you are just like Paul and Barnabas. Perhaps it would help if you would remember how Paul started out in life and what his relationship with Jesus had been before he was on the road to Damascus. Paul hadn’t been a follower of Christ. Rather, Paul had been the greatest persecutor of Christians the world had ever seen. Paul acknowledged that he had been God’s worst enemy. So were we. Because of the sinful natures we inherited, we were born enemies of God. As sinners, we deserved to die and suffer in the darkness of hell for all eternity. But by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. At our baptisms, the Holy Spirit made us children of God. He feeds and strengthens our faith with God’s Word. He equips us with the gospel and sends us out to proclaim the good news of Jesus.

Yet, carrying out our mission isn’t always easy. Our enemy, the devil, is out there, trying to prevent us from sharing God’s Word. And unfortunately, our enemy isn’t always as easily identified as an admitted sorcerer like Bar Jesus. God’s enemies employ all kinds of deceit and trickery. They deny, twist, or water down God’s Word that says that salvation is found only in Jesus. The false prophets of our day try to trick us into believing that there are many ways to get to heaven. They don’t want us to believe that God is serious about sin and that the wages of sin is death. And they certainly don’t want us to share the good news that God forgives all who believe that Jesus is our Savior.

Because we are weak, imperfect human beings, it’s not always easy to be faithful witnesses. Yet as we live lives of repentance, we can then look at a family member, friend, neighbor, coworker or classmate in the eye, confront him with his sin, and assure him of God’s forgiveness through Christ. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can boldly go into our community and proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord. God is with us and equips us with the gospel. One of the best ways to make sure that we are ready for any and every situation is through regular and thorough training in God’s Word. With the coronavirus keeping many of us at home, let’s take advantage of our opportunities to read our bibles, listen to God’s Word on the radio, and watch services on TV or our computers.

Friends, through faith in Christ, God has made us members of an elite team. As soldiers in the church militant, the Holy Spirit deploys us in our particular mission field. Motivated by what Jesus has done for us and knowing that he has equipped us for service, we joyfully and confidently go out with his power to carry out the work he has set us apart to do. Let us “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mk. 16:15). Amen.

“Onward, Christian Soldiers” (CW 537)

Text: Sabine Baring-Gould, 1834-1924, abr., alt.

Onward, Christian soldiers, Marching as to war,

With the cross of Jesus Going on before.

Christ, the royal master, Leads against the foe;

Forward into battle See his banners go!

Refrain

Onward Christian soldiers, Marching as to war,

With the cross of Jesus Going on before.

Like a mighty army Moves the Church of God;

Brothers, we are treading Where the saints have trod.

We are not divided, All one body we,

One in hope and doctrine, One in charity.

Refrain

Crowns and thrones may perish, Kingdoms rise and wane,

But the Church of Jesus Constant will remain.

Gates of hell can never “Gainst that Church prevail;

We have Christ’s own promise, And that cannot fail.

Refrain

Onward, then, ye faithful; Join the happy throng,

Blend with ours your voices In the triumph song;

Glory, laud, and honor Unto Christ the King;

This through countless ages Saints and angels sing.

Refrain

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