“As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.” (Acts 13:2, AV)
I knew a preacher who was between ministries. He was quite frustrated. This went on for some time, over a year. I experienced this same thing when I retired from the church I pastored in New Hampshire. One moment I was preaching every Sunday, leading the church in a renewed vision, ministering to people in their deepest needs of life, and then nothing. It was like my life just shut down, having no purpose. So, I did just what the preacher who was between ministries did. I prayed. It was not just me, but it was also my wife who had to put up with my sense of emptiness. After a time of prayer, the Lord put it on my heart to write a daily devotional and a book. This aspect of ministry was birthed in prayer.
Having pastored churches, I discovered one huge flaw in the way we often did things. We would make decisions to begin ministries or shutdown ministries with a lot of discussion and teams, but all too little time in prayer. Churches need direction too. However, this direction will never come from the beauty of human intellect or reasoning. The direction the church needs must be from the Lord. In this passage, we see this perfect example of how this should work.
Paul and Barnabas were in the church at Antioch. The church here formed because of the scattering of believers due to persecution. The church at Jerusalem had sent Barnabas to Antioch to assess the situation and establish a church with a good foundation. Barnabas summoned Saul of Tarsus, Paul, to assist him in the mission (Acts 11:19-24).
In the church were a group of men, gifted prophets and teachers. In a time of gathering for worship, which included fasting and prayer, they received guidance from the Holy Spirit. They were to send forth Paul and Barnabas to begin a missionary endeavor in distant regions. The passage does not give us any indication of how the Holy Spirit spoke, or how they discerned the voice of the Spirit in this. In fact, this work of the Spirit’s leading is somewhat subjective in practice. One thing we can gather from the examples of Scripture is that this leading is direct and without confusion.
The main point of this passage is that the Holy Spirit directed the church. They, or at least a small group of the church, had gathered for worship. The Greek word here translated worship, leitourgeo, means to serve the state at one’s own cost (Strong’s, G3008). In the context of the church, it refers to serving Christ through a variety of ways including prayer. The men gathered to worship or serve Christ in prayer and fasting. The result was seemingly an unexpected movement of the Spirit to send Paul and Barnabas out as missionaries and the church obeyed.
Today, the church is too often getting its direction from programs, books or an institutional hierarchy, rather than from the Lord via the means of the Holy Spirit. It is not that the programs, books, and hierarchy do not have their place. However, churches often get lazy and impatient, allowing these things to take preeminence. We need to go back to the ancient ways for direction in our churches. What is this? The church in Antioch demonstrated it. It is waiting on the Lord. This means that we must worship in serving the Lord, and spend much time in fasting and prayer. Through this means, the Lord will lead His church to accomplish His purpose in the Great Commission.