Updated: May 11, 2020
How does the Holy Spirit guide and lead people to start a new ministry or church-planting or evangelistic ministry ?
Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus. Acts 13:1-4
1. The leaders of the local church – “prophets and teachers” (13:1) , in other words elders (Titus 1:5-7; 1 Timothy 3; Acts 14:23; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Acts 20:17, 28), teachers, leaders were gathered together -(Acts 13:1)- So we see even the apostle Paul and Barnabas first learned submission under authority in a local church. In fact, they were part of the leadership teaching team here in Acts 13:1-4. I Timothy 3, and Titus chapter 1 says that the elders or overseers must be “able to teach”, so we take Acts 13 as the model for showing the teaching authority as the elders, overseers and pastors, which other Scriptures teach – Ephesians 4:11-12, Acts 20, I Peter 5:1-5
The different leaders of the church are named and there is a nice ethnic diversity here. Darrell Bock comments, “God is gifting the church without ethnic distinctions.” (page 439, Commentary on Acts. Baker, 2007)
2. It was a church. (verse 1) Greek: “ek-klessia” “ones who are called out” from the world to Christ.
3. It was a specific local church. “at Antioch” (verse 1)
4. Prophets and teachers were there as the leadership. (verse 1) The Pastoral Epistles, 1-2 Timothy and Titus, written a little later, show that it is the elders-overseers job to shepherd and teach and lead. I Timothy 3, Titus 1, elders are to be able to teach; so the teachers in Acts 13 are assumed to be elders and shepherds, and pastors, according to I Timothy 3 and Titus 1, Acts 20, and I Peter 5:1-7. Ephesians 4:11 teaches that the “pastor-teacher” or “shepherd-teacher” is one gifting combined.
Another juicy morsel from Darrell Bock’s commentary on Acts:
“God calls those among the most gifted out from the larger community. (Bruce 1990:294) These two men are an integral part of the community, having ministered there for at least a year. Those sent are qualified to plant new works on the basis of their previous contribution to the church. God’s leading takes place here in the context of worship and fasting.” (Darrell Bock, Acts, page 439)
5. It seems they worshipped God, prayed and fasted over a period of time. (verse 2) Not just one time, but for an extended period of time, several days or weeks even, possibly months. By the way, an excellent book on fasting is John Piper’s A Hunger for God.
6. They were unified in worship and ministering to the Lord, prayer, and fasting. (true worship) (verse 2)
the phrase “while they were ministering to the Lord” is a very interesting phrase. worship is for God; see John 4:23-24. The Father seeks such kind of worshipers. Notice the repeat of the word about “worship”. Churches should pray for unreached peoples and ask the Sovereign Lord of the harvest to send forth workers. (see Matthew 9:37-38)
Darrell Bock again, “Worship and mission appear side by side as key tasks of the church.” (ibid, page 440)
7. “The Holy Spirit said”. Guidance by the Spirit. (verse 2) It is only when these above conditions are fulfilled; that the Holy Spirit spoke and guided and led the group as a whole church to start a new work. God called Paul earlier (Acts 9:15-16; Acts 22:10; 26:16-23; Galatians 1:12-18; 1 Timothy 2:7), but he grew spiritually for 3 years in discipleship and meditation on the word of God and in prayer and we can assume reasonably, in humble unknown service, and 14 years later started his ministry, according to Galatians chapters 1-2. It seems that God spoke audibly from heaven or secretly to the hearts of humans many times in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. How exactly the Holy Spirit communicated this to them in Acts 13 is unclear. Was it an internal impression in the leaders hearts that they all agreed upon after they prayed, worshiped, and fasted? Or was it an audible voice, like a miracle here? I don’t believe God speaks audible today, as He did in the OT and sometimes in the Gospels and Acts. Today, it is usually through an internal conviction, zeal, desire, and motivation, based on a sound disciple of study of the Scriptures, meditation on Scripture – based on the truth of the Scriptures, combined with more objective principles such as the confirmation of the local church, character, training, gifting, providencial circumstances; – the combination of internal and external objective factors that the Holy Spirit guides us. I do think that believers who are called into ministry, whether the pastorate or being a missionary, have to have a burning zeal and conviction. “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” ( 1 Corinthians 9:16) You can feel Paul’s passion to preach the gospel in that verse! The Holy Spirit will use the combination of internal desire (1 Timothy 3:1) and motivation with the confirmation of the leaders of the Biblical and sound local church to guide people today into missions. There are clear texts on all Christians’ responsibility to witness and do evangelism, outreach, etc. and to be a part of a local church committed to world missions outreach to another culture or land. (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:44-47; Acts 1:8; John 20:21; Romans 10:13-15; Romans 15:20-21) The apostles even quoted an OT text, later in the same chapter, as the basis for their mission to the Gentile nations (ethne / εθνη ) – see Acts 13:46-47, quoting Isaiah 49:6 – notice they understand Isaiah 49:6 as a command for the believers to be a light to the nations, not just for the Messiah to come to be a light for the nations (see also Isaiah 42:1-6); “for the Lord has commanded us,
For so the Lord has commanded us, ‘I have placed You as a light for the Gentiles,
That You may bring salvation to the end of the earth.’” Acts 13:46-47, quoting Isaiah 49:6
“set apart” – see Galatians 1:15; Romans 1:1
“to the work I have called them” – (verse 2) “called” – see Acts 16:10 – “concluding that God had called them to preach the gospel to them”. This is guidance along the way, after already being formally called by God. There is an effective calling to salvation, there is an external “calling” or invitation; and there are specific callings to the work of apostleship.
8. “sending” and “sending” – Verses 3-4 teach that the Local church sends in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. It is interesting that the Greek word in verse 3 for the local church “sending” them carries with it the idea of “releasing” / “loosing” (after a time of discipleship, training, accountability, confirmation, they are “released” to go and do the work of evangelism, discipleship, and church planting), and the word for “sending” in verse 4 is ekpempo ( εκπεμπω ). εκ + πεμπω. (“to send out”) You can see similarity with our mission name, “pro-pempo” προ-πεμπω = “to send forth” (fully equipped). see here. The root pempo πεμπω “to send” is used in Jesus’ commission in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent Me (from “apostello” αποστελλω), so also I am sending (pempo / πεμπω) you.” When the local church sends, the Holy Spirit sends; the Holy Spirit does not send someone separately without input from the local church. This helps cut down on subjectivism and emotions and romanticizing missions; and also safeguards against sending someone out who is not ready or not morally qualified – they need to be confirmed morally and ethically by local church accountability and discipleship.
9. The church laid their hands on them and fasted again (verse 3) — indicating another period of time, at least several days. The church approved and appointed them. Notice the role of prayer and fasting in the appointment of elders in Acts 14:23.
“God loves churches that look beyond their own needs.” (Darrell Bock, ibid, page 440)
10. Already been serving – In Acts 11:26, we see that Paul and Barnabas were already serving and teaching first in the local church before they were sent out. Acts 11:26 comes before Acts 13:1-4.
and when he [Barnabas] had found him [Saul / Paul ], he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. Acts 11:26
If you believe God is leading you into cross-cultural missions, check out some of these books here, especially
Don’t Waste Your Life, by John Piper
The Great Omission, by Robertson McQuilkin
Let the Nations Be Glad, by John Piper
A Vision for Missions, by Tom Wells
Decision Making God’s Way: A new model for knowing God’s will, by Gary T. Meadors
Make sure you are a member of a Biblical local church, learning and serving and being accountable to elders/pastor/church leaders, just as the apostle Paul and Barnabas were in Acts 13:1-4.