While they were worshiping 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 after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
Luke's account of the first call to missionary service is both rooted in real experience, a tangibly relatable story, and also an account of a mysterious moment in church history. First, I can tangibly identify with the particular details of the call as it relates to church life. The Antioch congregation was in a season of prayer and fasting. It would seem to me that fasting indicates a special season, but maybe not... perhaps it was the regular practice of that church. The call came out of the regular worship of the life of the church, something that has been a weekly rhythm for my life for 45+ years now. So I can identify with first eight words of this passage.
Into this rhythm Luke interjects the surprise four word interruption... "the Holy Spirit said". That's unusual. I'd like to know more about how that happened. Luke just states it so plainly. I mean, did an audible voice speak from their midst? Was someone who was gifted as a prophet become the spokesperson for the Holy Spirit in the midst of a meeting? We don't know how. And the content of the call is equally short and begs to be interrogated: "Set apart Barnabus and Saul to the work to which I have called them." Reading through the text of Acts, this is news... we aren't told that they had a new work or that they were considering anywhere to be sent. Is the possibility of taking the gospel further into Gentile lands something Barnabus and Saul had been considering and proposing to the Antioch church? Had they written up a ministry proposal and been considering it by calling the church to prayer and fasting? Had the elders of Antioch approached them with this to consider? Part of me would like to fill in the gaps so that I can see it this way, but I would be reading way too much into the text. Luke just leaves the details of the process fuzzy (probably a good thing), emphasizing instead God's clear call and the church's quick surrender to the Lord's leadership.
I love the swift obedience of the church. The Antioch church continues fasting and praying in response to the call, and then quickly lends support to the missionary team, sending them off commissioned and with the blessing of the church to preach the gospel where it had not yet gone. We shouldn't delay when the gospel is at stake.