Acts 12:25 – 13:4
How Can I Know My Calling?
Summary: Saul and Barnabas sensed a calling from God that was confirmed by the church and empowered by the Spirit.
I have had the privilege of taking a lot of trips overseas. Between serving in the military and going on missions trips, I’ve been to five of the seven continents and it’s rarely been to the touristy hot spots. Instead, it was often to the hot and dusty, or humid spots – remote places. Places where you missed the things you had back home. And every now and then, this whole COVID experience actually reminds me of one of those trips.
Because, when you’re in a place like that, for a long time, there are things you start to miss about home. And you start to think about the things you want to do when you get back. Where do you want to go? Where do you want to eat? What do you want to do, or what do you want to buy? Things have been removed from your life and you start to think about what you want to add back in.
Well, right now, a lot of things have been removed from our lives. And there are some things you miss. For me, it’s my favorite pizza place and the sauna at the gym. I’m looking forward to the day when they’re part of my routine again.
You probably have some of the same desires. There are people you want to see, things you want to do. And we know that will happen, but not yet. The governor’s orders for Virginia last until June 10, and it’s still April. June 10 is a long May away. How are you going to spend it?
I encourage you to use it as a time of reflection. A time to think and study and pray – “God, what do you want to do with my life? When the time comes to rebuild my schedule, what do You want things to look like? What should be added back and what should be left out?”
I encourage you to use this time to establish a firm sense of the purpose and direction of your life and to assess the path you’re on to get there. Choose to evaluate your life with God: shut off Netflix a little earlier at night, or set your alarm a little earlier in the morning, get out on a walk in the middle day – do what’s best for you, but begin thinking, praying and drafting plans for the future, now.
Consider: back when you were so busy, going so many places, doing so many things, were you doing the right things? Was all the time, energy, and money you were spending actually propelling you in the right direction?
And ask yourself: if you’re doing OK without it right now, how important is it, really, to add back in?
We’re going to look at a really important passage of Scripture this morning that should help you think through some of those things. We’ll see what happens when God gives people direction for their lives, how they sense that calling and direction personally, have it confirmed by the people around them, and then go out and do the things God is calling them to do in the power of the Holy Spirit.
When we jump in this morning, Barnabas and Saul are on their way back to Antioch from Jerusalem – a roughly 400 mile trip they had taken to deliver aid collected by the church in Antioch, for the church in Jerusalem. And so we read:
Acts 12:25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their ministry, and they also took with them John whose surname was Mark.
Now, if you have been with us this far through the book of Acts, you know who Barnabas is. His name is actually Joseph, Barnabas is a nickname that means Son of Encouragement – the kind of guy you definitely want to be around, especially in a time of crisis, right? And you remember that several years before the events we’re reading about now, he was there in Jerusalem at the very beginning of the church and he sold a piece of property he owned and donated the money to the church to help with the early ministry. He let go of a life he had built and things he had acquired in order to be available to God.
And, you know Saul – also known as Paul the apostle who will go on to write many of the books in the New Testament. He’s a former Pharisee from a good family with a good education, he had all the right things going for him. But Jesus showed up in his life and demanded everything – he was radically saved and transformed – to the point where he would one day say, all that great stuff that I had going for me, I count is as worthless for the sake of knowing Christ.
Phil 3:7 But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. 8 Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ
So, think about that as you think about all the stuff that has been stripped away from you – all the things you’re missing right now. Some of them were things that gave you your sense of identity, your place on the team, some of them were the things you enjoyed the things that gave you comfort. And now they’re gone. Who are you without them?
Paul says I’m glad all that stuff is gone from my life, I’m actually happier without it, as long as I have Christ. And now, instead of trying to pad his resume, instead of trying to pile up his own achievements and accomplishments, he’s looking around, asking: who can I help, what can I do for the good of others and the glory of Christ.
Tell me you wouldn’t want to go on a 400-mile trip with these two men.
Well, someone did. John Mark. Now, his name came up last week because, if you remember, when Peter was arrested and spending time in jail, the church got together and was praying for him at the house owned by John Mark’s mom. John Mark has a pretty close connection to some of the big names in the early church. Barnabas is his cousin. Peter came to his house. And most theologians believe he’s the author of the gospel of Mark.
You have four gospels, or biographies of Jesus, in the Bible. Matthew was one of the twelve disciples. So was John. Mark, or John Mark, wrote down Peter’s perspective. And Luke, who we will meet later in the book of Acts, travelled with Paul and collected information from a variety of sources, like a documentary filmmaker.
So, after delivering the aid that the church in Antioch gave to the church in Jerusalem, Saul and Barnabas grab John Mark and head back home. And here’s where we’ll start to see how all of this might apply to reconstructing your post-isolation life. Because, it seems like, during their long journey they may have received some guidance from the Lord about what to do next.
Remember, this is a long trip – 400 miles there and 400 miles back and there were no motors involved at all. They weren’t able to book a flight or call an Uber. There were no trains. They didn’t have bicycles or scooters. Horses and chariots existed but it’s almost certain that they did not take one. They spent days if not weeks walking and waiting, even if they sailed for part of the trip. It’s a lot of time to think and pray and re-imagine what you’re going to do next. But how do you know if any of those ideas you’re having are actually from God? Well, let’s look at what happened when they got back.
Acts 13:1 Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
You might think of these men as the elders or pastors of the local church. We have six here at City Gates: me, Pastor Matt who leads worship, Pastor Stephen who oversees the youth, Pastor Vic who is also the chaplain down at the Fairfax jail, Jesse who leads one of the home groups and usually does announcements when we’re all together, and Jim Greening who teaches in the Self-Confrontation Bible Study.
In Antioch they had Barnabas and Saul who we’ve already mentioned, but also Simeon who was called Niger – he most likely had a dark complexion. The Romans spoke Latin and this is the Latin word for black which later became monstrously twisted into a hateful word used today. But in the beginning it was not so.
Simeon was likely from North Africa and here he is positioned as a leader in the early church alongside Barnabas and Saul and Lucius and Manaen. So, you have three men with brown skin, one with black, and one European forming the leadership of the church that is going to launch the first missionaries and spread the gospel across the Mediterranean basin. All of which shows the splendid diversity of God’s kingdom and reminds us that God’s plan, from the beginning, really has been to draw people to Himself from every tribe, tongue, and nation – people from Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and the outermost parts of the earth.
If you grew up going to church you probably learned a song that is wonderfully true:
Jesus loves the children
All the children of the world,
Red and yellow, black and white,
They’re all precious in His sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
There is no place for racism in the Church. We are united in doctrine, belief, and practice, but there is room for all sorts of diversity in other categories.
Including diversity of age, social class, and where and how you grew up. At Antioch we see Barnabas, Simeon, Saul. But we also see Lucius of Cyrene. Cyrene is located on the coast of modern Libya, about 150 miles east of Benghazi and was a remote Roman province, kind of on the outskirts of the empire.
But then you also have Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch. This is a different Herod than the one we saw last week, remember, Herod was a title. This is Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist beheaded and was involved in Jesus’ trial and now his childhood friend is worshiping Jesus.
So pause for a moment and think about this: the gospel about a Jewish carpenter is being spread by his uneducated disciples, several of whom were fishermen, and within 15 years it’s reaching members of the royal court as well as people from the outer rings of the Empire who are now being called by God to serve in positions of leadership in the church. Isn’t God amazing? He takes this incredibly diverse group of men, binds them together with the gospel, and then entrusts them with leadership in the church.
Acts 13:2 As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
3 Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.
4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.
So, here is where I want to spend the rest of our time focused this morning. I had to share everything else to get us to this, and I have three points I would like to make – three things to draw your attention to.
First, Saul and Barnabas knew they had been called personally. God said, separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.
Second, their personal sense of calling was confirmed corporately. The other leaders of the church laid hands on them and sent them out.
And third, they were empowered by the Spirit as they served. Yes, they were sent out by their friends, but they were also sent out by and with the Holy Spirit meaning they were never alone and the work wasn’t entirely up to them.
So, let’s talk about that first point – Saul and Barnabas had a personal sense of being called. It is evident that at some point Saul and Barnabas heard from the Lord, and it is equally evident that the others leaders did as well.
But what about you? Do you ever hear from the Lord? Do you have any sense of divine guidance in your life? Have you ever felt that, this is something God wants me to do, or this is something God does not want me to do?
That should not be odd or strange or rare. God wants to regularly direct you – through making applications of His never-changing Word to your ever-changing life. And sometimes that happens as you read the Scripture. You come across something and it’s just perfectly clear – this is something I should do, or something I should stop doing or avoid. You receive guidance from the Bible.
Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible is full of nuggets like this:
Ps 119:9 How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
Ps 119:11 I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
Ps 119:105 Your word is a lamp to my feet
And a light to my path.
If you want to know what God wants your life to look like – spend time reading Scripture. And if you have questions, or you need help, ask. The pastors and other ministry leaders are happy to help you. You’re going to come up with questions, good questions, as you read, so let’s make sure you get good answers.
But then, there will also be times when God guides and directs you by nudging your life. Life is full of choices you’ll have to make by instinct or feel – things like which job to take, where to live, who to marry, the ‘ministry that God has called you to.’ Scripture won’t tell you those things directly and plainly.
You’ll need to let God direct you. Now, that process is made easier if you’re already saturated in the Scriptures, but it will come to you regardless of your Bible literacy because God doesn’t wait for you to hit a certain level Scriptural competency before He starts to guide you. You should expect nudges from your conscience, your life circumstances, and the counsel of your friends and family, that line up with or at the very least do not contradict Scripture.
This is where I want to point you right now, as we finish out April and head into May – you’ve still got a long time of government mandated isolation to spend seeking God about what life should look like when the stay-at-home orders lift. Are you headed in the right direction? What does God want you to be working on? What does He want you to be walking away from? This is the time to be asking those kinds of questions as you spend time in Scripture and prayer.
And you need to be prepared for the fact that the answer may lie in the past. Is there something God has spoken to you before, a direction or guidance He gave you that you haven’t followed up on, or you let slip, or you wrote off? Now, don’t go obsessing over that, don’t let it become some head trip. But explore the possibility. Spend some time asking God if you’ve lost sight of anything and ask Him, in His mercy, to remind you or forgive you or bring it back. Maybe now is the time to start making progress on that, or least to bring it back up to the front burner as other things have been cleared away.
But spend time, seek the Lord, let Him direct your life – you should have a personal sense of calling or role. It doesn’t have to be some massive thing with global impact – don’t miss the opportunities under your own roof or in your own community because you’re busy thinking big. There are small parts to play in the Kingdom too, but they all have value, and you should know what yours is.
And then, notice that the calling Saul and Barnabas experienced was confirmed by their church – there’s an individual sense of calling, as well as an institutional confirmation. And this is good for both parties.
You don’t get to commission yourself for your own grand ideas. They need to be affirmed by others. You need to humble yourself and seek guidance, counsel, and confirmation. That could come from your parents, spouse, or mentors, but in some cases, like a calling to ministry, it should come from the church. You have a sense of calling; the church gives confirmation.
In other situations, like who to marry, what job to take, what to do about this tough situation you face, take your thoughts and ideas to your parents, to godly mentors, to peers who love Jesus and love you, and ask for counsel, ask for confirmation, “is this a good idea?”
We’re not meant to make life’s biggest decisions alone. God’s best plan is that we will consult the Scriptures, rely on the Holy Spirit, and turn to the family and community He has placed around us when we make choices about the direction and pace of our lives.
So that, as we see in Acts 13, those people can know where we’re going, what we’re up against, and can fast and pray for us and with us. They can help us through the difficult times and be there, as a tangible reminder, that we are not alone and that we weren’t being stupid or spontaneous when we made this decision.
Because difficult times will come. Life is not easy. Even if you’re following the Lord, even if you sincerely believe, 100% that this is God’s will or direction for your life, life will be hard at times, you will face resistance, you will get choked by depression, you will be provoked by frustration to anger. You will question whether you should keep going. And you need to have something to fall back on, you need to know – I had a definite sense this is what I was supposed to do, and these other people, who love God and love me, confirmed it.
And then, last thing – you also need to know that when God calls you to make a decision or head in a certain direction, He doesn’t just send you off with a wave a smile and a “text Me when you get there.” No, Saul and Barnabas sensed a calling from God – to the work that He called them to, that was confirmed by other men in leadership, who stood behind them and sent them off, but then, look at this, it’s super important for you to notice:
Acts 13:3 Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.
4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.
Wait, so did the church send them or did the Holy Spirit send them? Yes. Both. Together. Working in tandem.
This is so important because it reminds us that even when we have a sense of calling – yes we’re supposed to have another baby; yes, we’re supposed to move and take that job; yes, God is calling me to take that position in ministry – we have a sense of calling, and it’s confirmed by people who love God and love us – then we have to launch out into obedience and there will be times and places where the people who loved us won’t be able to come, or things we will have to endure alone or with our spouse or family. We will be separated from our family or community at some point and we need to know that the God who called us to make this decision also goes with us and gives us the strength to do it.
When I joined the Marine Corps, I showed up at MCRD, the recruit depot, and I stood on the yellow footprints, and they took us inside and took away everything we had brought with us including the cloths we were wearing, and they boxed them up and put them away. And then they gave me stuff – lots of stuff. Boots, shoes, socks, undershirts. They gave me a bed to sleep in and a foot locker to store my gear. They gave me food. They gave me a rifle and trained me to use it. They gave me or taught me everything I needed to know to be a Marine.
That’s a great picture of what it’s like to be a child of God. He gives you what you need to serve and follow Him. Everything. So depend on Him. Ask from Him.
But let’s be clear, the Marines also told me to do hard things. It’s the same way with God. He’s going to call you to do hard things; you will break a spiritual sweat at times. You will be afraid at times. You will have your doubts at times. But God is giving you what you need to follow Him. Seek Him. Trust Him.
This week I was re-reading a great book on prayer and was hit again by this powerful quote. Guard yourself, because this one is going to hurt:
If you are not praying, then you are quietly confident that time, money, and talent are all you need in life.
Friends, this morning, on the basis of what we see in Acts, I’m asking you to reject that kind of confidence. I’m asking you turn to the Lord instead. To take time in the coming weeks to read Scripture, to pray, to think and ponder – is my life in alignment with God? What is the work that He is calling me to, sending me to, holding me for? What are the new things that need to be added into my life and what are the old things that need to be kept out. What are the things that need to stay the same?
Seek the calling of God on your life, and seek the confirmation of that calling through others. Take the time to reach out to people who love God and love you and get their perspective.
You’ve got time before the world opens back up – make the most of it. And trust, that no matter what God is calling you to, He’s also coming with you, supplying you and training you for the battles He’ll send you to fight. LEAN on Him. Trust Him. Depend on Him. Even if it’s hard. Even if it’s new. Even if it’s scary. Even in this.
Look forward and ask – what does God want your life to look like when COVID-19 is just a memory? Saul and Barnabas were sent out of Antioch with purpose and direction. They didn’t have all the answers, and difficult times lay ahead, but they knew what to do. It had confirmed by the church, and they had the Spirit of God to guard and to guide them. What about you?