In this section of Scripture there are two big ideas I will consider: First, in what circumstance does the Spirit speak; and secondly, what’s Paul’s central message in his preaching?
First, the Holy Spirit spoke, “While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting…” (V.2a) What it means to minister to the Lord, is not clear here, other than the fasting. Scripture teaches that one way for us to humble ourselves before God is through fasting and prayer (Ps.35:13). In light of this, all kinds of prayer must have been offered such as thanksgiving, intercessions, and petition. Moreover, in this gathering they probably also included the reading or recitation of the Law—Torah, the Prophets and the Writings.
The point here is that as the prophets and teachers from the church in Antioch ministered to the Lord, the “Holy Spirit said set aside/apart for Me Barnabus and Saul for the work which I have called them.” (V.2b) Here is an example of God doing the unusual and speaking—how though we are not told. Was it through a vision, or an impression, or an audible voice like at Jesus’ baptism where it’s recorded that the Father’s voice was heard? The text plainly says, “The Holy Spirit said”.
I think Luke is focusing on something essential that we do well to heed: monumental work which these two are about to embark (the First Gentile mission) comes at a cost. It’s birthed from a posture of humility (fasting) and dependence (prayer), rather than self-reliance and the latest business model on how to grow or run the church.
Humility and dependence on the Father’s will and purposes is what Jesus demonstrated in his earthly ministry for us to consider and to emulate. It’s how the work of the kingdom is accomplished as the message of the kingdom is proclaimed and lived, as it’s explained and defended.
Second, Paul gives a salvation history message when he’s asked to speak. He gives a “topical” sermon using texts from the Psalms, Genesis, Exodus, I Samuel, Judges, Kings, Habakkuk, and Isaiah explaining their own Hebrew history, the promise of the coming Messiah, the fact of Jesus’ resurrection and the doom awaiting recalcitrant souls who reject Yeshua (Vv.14-43). This preaching as always is first rejected by the Jews (Vv.44-47) even if others received it with joy (Vv.42-43). The message is fulfillment! What God promised he accomplished in Christ Jesus! This is not a new message but the completion of what had already been preached to the patriarchs and the prophets.
This fulfillment included salvation for the Gentiles which for many Jews was difficult to bear. Why? It was because they neglected heeding God’s word. Now, if the word of the Lord that’s central to all this ministry is what caused many to be saved—to those “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed”, ought we do any less?
Consider what the text says, “those appointed, chosen, elected for eternal life—believed”. The scripture, in other words, was the means of salvation for those “appointed”. This appointment preceded their believing and is marvelous to consider. For it seems to me, that something outside the creature, not something within the believer is working to effect salvation. I think that something is someone—the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless, the word is central for salvation to be realized and it must always be if our converts are going to be genuine. Thus, God does extraordinary things when his people choose to like a child walk humbly and dependent before Him—he brings life where death once reigned! And as always, God’s faithfulness is on display when the fulfillment of prophecy occurs. Let God be true and every man a liar!