Acts 13v1-12: God's Spirit breaks through lies - 9th June 2013 - Dave Walker

Bible Reading: Acts 13:1-12

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Have you ever had a guest in your house, who is just a little bit more demanding than you thought they would be? I think most of us can relate to that. You know, you give them a bit of houseroom, and soon enough they start making demands. They rearrange things. They don’t just fall in to the routine, they expect your routine to fit around them. Have you had that? It’s a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it?

God’s Holy Spirit is an uncomfortable guest. God has sent his Spirit to his church so that he can be with us. But he doesn’t just fall in to the routine. He rearranges everything. Here’s our big lesson for today:

God’s Holy Spirit makes sure that God’s mission is carried out.

God’s Spirit directs God’s mission. It’s all completely God’s work – three times in this passage Luke emphasises that the Holy Spirit is doing this. Can you see that? Its there in verse 2: “the Holy Spirit said.” And in verse 4: “sent on their way by the Holy Spirit.” And verse 9: “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Paul said…” The Holy Spirit is at work. And where the Spirit is at work we find prayerful people obeying God’s word and speaking God’s message. Remember: the big thing that the Holy Spirit is doing in the world is making Jesus known. He is all about God’s mission of taking the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth. And he does it through prayerful people who obey God’s word and speak God’s message.

We see that in v1-4. Here we have the church inAntioch. It’s a wonderful scene – different people gathered together in Jesus. We’ve got a snapshot of that in the leadership: Barnabas the Cypriot, Simeon called Niger – that means he’s black – Lucius from Cyrene in North Africa, Manean from high places in the court of Herod, Saul the ex-Pharisee. It’s what a church should be: different people, from different places and levels in society, together. But they are not just a complacent social club who gather for the sake of gathering. They are earnestly seeking the Lord. That is – they want God’s will to be done. Seeking the Lord is not “God is hidden and I need to find him”. Seeking the Lord is “God has shown himself and I want to know him more.” So they worship and pray and fast.

Fasting get mentioned twice here doesn’t it? In the Bible, fasting is something that happens at special times to help us to seek the Lord. Fasting doesn’t happen on its own, it’s not just giving up food for a bit because that’s a good thing to do, it’s not the God diet or something like that; fasting goes with something. In verse 2 they fast and worship. In verse 4 they fast and pray. When you fast you are saying “Lord God, I need you even more than I need food. Even more than food, which we can’t live without. I need you more than that.” They mean it, don’t they? This church is a product of the Holy Spirit’s work;  you can tell that because they are united and they are all about God. They love the Lord. They need him and they want to do what he wants. What a brilliant picture of what a church should be, isn’t it? They really know and show Jesus, don’t they? Don’t you just want to be more like that church in Antioch?

But as they are meeting God’s Holy Spirit has a specific message for them – “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."”

This is an exciting message, and a costly message. It’s exciting because we know what God has been planning. We know what the Holy Spirit’s mission is – to take the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth. And this is going to be another big step in that mission. So it’s exciting. But it’s also costly, isn’t it? It’s costly for that wonderful church in Antioch. It’s hard for them. Barnabas and Saul are among the best of their leaders. Barnabas was probably their main leader – that’s why he’s first on the list in verse 1. These people are not the sort of people that you want to leave your church! They will leave a massive hole behind them. The Holy Spirit is telling them to give their best, not their leftovers. This is going to be hard.

So what do they do? The same as they always do. They pray and they obey. More fasting, so that they can devote themselves to praying. Then they send them off. They lay hands on them. When they lay hands on them they are saying “we’re with you in this. We support you, we’re behind you, you go with our blessing. But now we trust you to God. Because it’s his mission, so we entrust you to him.” And off they go.

You see this church knows that God’s mission is more important than they are. God’s mission comes first. The church comes second.

God’s Holy Spirit makes sure that God’s mission comes first.

That’s a huge lesson that every church has to learn. God’s mission of bringing the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth, that’s not an add-on to church, an optional extra which can go with the usual weekly business of meeting together and looking after each other. Just another thing we do. God’s mission is the lifeblood of the church. God’s mission comes first. Christ Church, and any other church, is an add-on to the mission.

After all, why are we here? Christ Church exists because the mission of bringing the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth has reached Finchley. The mission has come here. We exist because of God’s mission. We are fruit of God’s mission. And we exist so that God’s mission can go on. We are a channel through which the message of Jesus can go further and reach more people and save more people and bring more glory to Jesus. God’s mission comes first.

The church in Antioch got that. They understood that. They knew what the Holy Spirit was doing in the world. They knew he was all about God’s mission. That’s why they pray and obey. That’s why they send off Barnabas and Saul. God’s mission comes first. They get it.

I think that for many of us though, that’s a real change in mindset. We’ve got used to the idea that mission is one thing we do among many. It’s something we know deep down needs to happen, but when push comes to shove we’d much rather do all sorts of other things first. We’d do almost anything first, in fact. There are all sorts of things that we can be busy with. Lots of those things are good things. But whatever they are, those things are less important than God’s mission. And whenever something becomes top priority, there is a cost. Other things have to be bumped down the list. Things end up not being done which you’d like to get done. Ambitions die, so that a greater ambition can be realised. The church in Antioch got that.

That’s a challenge for us, isn’t it? Those Christians in Antioch gave up precious friends, they gave up food when they fasted, they gave them up so that God’s mission could come first. If we got it like they got it, it’d change all sorts of things, wouldn’t it? There would be habits and hobbies and holidays that would be neglected so that God’s mission work could be done. Maybe we’d fast from time to time so that we could spend time in prayer, especially when there are big decisions to be made and we need to seek the Lord’s will. When was the last time you went without food so that you could pray? When was the last time that you gave up some other thing that you enjoy for the sake of something that God wants you to do?

Recently, quite a number of people in this congregation have been reading a book called ‘the Trellis and the Vine’ and it’s been pretty powerful stuff in helping us to think through this challenge that we see here in Acts. At the start of the book the authors describe this picture of a vine growing up a trellis – can you imagine that? – and they say “that’s a bit like the Christian life.” The main thing is growing the vine. The vine is people growing in Jesus, and that happens as we hear the word of God and pray. That’s the big thing. That’s what we’re about – God’s mission of bringing the message of Jesus to people so that they can grow as his disciples. And to do that we need a trellis. The vine needs a trellis to cling to. We need to do all sorts of things so that this mission can go on. We need to do practical things – we need to arrange to meet, so that we can hear the word of God and pray. Buildings, committees, rotas, different sorts of ministries, housegroups, holiday clubs – they’re all trellis: they are there to help the vine grow. When those things cause people to talk about Jesus and pray, that’s when vine growth goes on. But the problem is that sometimes the trellis can take over, so that the vine is hardly growing at all. Sometimes all the things we have to do just to keep a church going can become the thing we do. So that the mission of bringing the message of Jesus to people and praying becomes an after thought. Do you see that?

That’s how it is in churches. That’s how it is in our individual lives. If the vine is neglected because there’s so much other trellis, that’s a problem. If the mission is neglected because there’s too much else to do, that’s a problem. We need this clear vision that the church inAntiochhad. We need to remember we’re here for the mission. God’s mission comes first. The church, and everything else in our lives, comes second. We need to pray that the Holy Spirit would give us that vision.

(Prayer point – what needs to clear space for God’s mission to come first?)

So, God’s Holy Spirit makes sure that God’s mission is carried out. He does that by making sure that God’s mission comes first. He does that also by clearing away the lies.

God’s Holy Spirit clears away the lies.

So off go Barnabas and Saul, and straight away Luke reminds us in verse 4 that they are sent out by the Holy Spirit. Another reminder – this is his mission. They start off inCyprus, where Barnabas had grown up. And there they get on with it – look at verse 5. Everywhere they go they “proclaimed the word of God.” They tell people the message of Jesus, starting with the Jewish people, just as God had started with the Jewish people.

And soon enough they face opposition. As we said last week – that’s no surprise. We’ve been taught to expect it, haven’t we, as we’ve been going through Acts. Everywhere God’s mission advances there will be some people who oppose it. There is a spiritual conflict going on – everywhere Jesus claims people for himself, the devil wants to claim them back.

So we meet Bar-Jesus. His name means ‘Son of Jesus’ or ‘Son of Salvation’, because the name Jesus just means ‘God saves.’ But that’s not really who he is. He has another name ‘Elymas’, the Sorcerer. He’s a trickster, and an influential one at that. A teacher, but not a teacher of the truth. And we can tell that by what happens when he comes up against this message of Jesus.

Look at verse 8: “But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith.” He’s against Jesus, and he wants to stop others from following Jesus.

You see it’s all a bit like a big masquerade. A fancy dress party. The fun thing about fancy dress and masks is that when you are dressed up in them, you get to play at being someone else; the real you is hidden away a bit. Did you see this picture of Leonardo DiCaprio? But the thing that Luke the writer wants us to understand is that the Holy Spirit sees through the costume. He strips away the masks. That’s why there’s all this stuff about names – Bar-Jesus the son of salvation is more of an Elymas, the sorcerer. The names here are masks – a bit like how the name Elton John makes Reg Dwight sound good, or how Lady Gaga makes Stefani Germanotta sound more good or how Englebert Humperdinck makes Arnold Dorsey sound… well…  The name Bar-Jesus hides the truth.

But when the Holy Spirit gets in on the action – that’s when the truth really comes out. Look at verse 9: “Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, "You are a son of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right!” Oof! He doesn’t go in for polite introductions does he? “You are a son of the devil!”

The Holy Spirit sees straight through him. “He looked straight at him.” He gets to the truth. This man Bar-Jesus, the son of salvation, is really Bar-Satan, the son of the devil. Because he’s doing exactly what the devil always tries to do – he’s trying to stop people from following Jesus. What we see here is not just Paul being rude, it’s the word of God, in the hands of the Holy Spirit, cutting this man right down the middle so that we can see what’s inside. The mask is stripped away. The false name is forgotten. This man, for all of his cleverness and influence, is opposing God.

And then the Holy Spirit makes outside of Elymas match the truth that’s on the inside. He has spent his career leading others into blindness and falsehood, as he taught his lies. But now look at what happens, verse 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.” Elymas has lead others into blindness against God; now God is against him, and he is the one who is blind; he is the one who needs to be lead. There are no masks any more. The secrets are out. A bit like at the end of the picture of Dorian Gray, the horrible truth which was locked away from view is now written all over him and everyone can see.

This is an awesome and fearsome view of the Holy Spirit, isn’t it? There is no hiding from God the Holy Spirit. When we encounter the Holy Spirit the truth cannot be locked away any more. He uses his word to cut us open, so that our hearts are laid bare.

It’s such a simple point, isn’t it, but again it merits some serious thought. There are no secrets with God. You can fool some of the people all of the time, you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool God for a single second. So many of us wear masks because we’re scared of being exposed. Is that you? What are you afraid of being exposed? You can’t fool God.

The difference here for a believer is that disciples of Jesus are people who have been cut open by the Holy Spirit. It happens to them regularly, in fact. That’s what needs to happen to you. You need God’s Spirit to use his word to show up what’s inside, so that he can make you run to Jesus to be made clean. To be saved. We need him to do that for us.

We need him to do that to the people that you want to share the message with, too. We often worry about people taking against us if we talk to them about Jesus. We worry they will get upset. Sometimes, though, a bit of hostility is a good thing, because it shows that there’s something going on inside: God’s Spirit needs to cut that person open and dig out what’s inside. That can be pretty difficult, and there might be lot of hostility along the way as it goes on. Being converted is never easy. There are lots of lies that need to be cut through. Keep praying that God would open that person’s eyes.

(Prayer points – what to lay before God? Who can you pray to have their eyes opened?)

So God’s Holy Spirit cuts through the problem of Elymas the Sorcerer. And just like we were hearing last week, when God breaks through barriers it is so that his mission can succeed. God doesn’t just bring Elymas down for the sake of it, he does it for the sake of his mission. He shows his power so that people can see and believe. The proconsul sees what has happened, and he believes the message he has heard. He becomes a believer. And with him on side, the message can go to others. God is breaking barriers. God is opening doors for his gospel.

So remember: God’s Holy Spirit makes sure that God’s mission is carried out. He does that by making sure that the mission comes first. He does that by cutting through the lies that stand in the way.