Commentary on Acts 12:24
There are three great missionary journeys of Paul described in the Acts of the Apostles and today we see the beginning of the first of these journeys. (Incidentally, he is still being called ‘Saul’ at this stage. The switch to ‘Paul’ is noted a few verses after the end of today’s reading – Acts 13:9.)
Saul and Barnabas had just returned to Antioch from Jerusalem where they had brought relief supplies to the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem who were suffering from famine. Such mutual support of brothers in need is an essential element of Christian community living. (This is surely what the Gospel means when Jesus tells his apostles that, after leaving all things for him, they will find a hundredfold mothers, brothers, sisters, houses… In a true Christian community, no one will be in want.)
With them they brought John Mark. Was he the young man who fled naked on the night of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:51-52)? The writing of the second gospel is attributed to him and he accompanied Barnabas and Saul on part of their first missionary journey.
We are also told today of a number of people in the church at Antioch described as ‘prophets’ and ‘teachers’. These two terms have very specific meanings in the New Testament and refer to particular ‘charisms’ with which certain people were endowed.
It does not identify in the group which was which, although there could be an overlap. However, these two roles are usually regarded as distinct charisms. The role of the prophet was to have a deeper insight into where God was calling the community to serve. The prophet was a visionary and a pioneer and led the way into new ways of proclaiming the Gospel.
The charism of the ‘teacher’, (didaskalos, didaskalos), on the other hand, was his ability to instruct others on matters of morality and doctrine, instruction, usually based on the scriptures.
The role of the teacher was to communicate the common tradition in the community. The teacher conserves and hands on. Paul, in a way, had both charisms but was very much the prophet in the sense described. He was the great innovator in contrast to Peter, the keeper of the tradition.
The five prophets and teachers here named – Barnabas, Symeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (a friend of Herod the Tetrarch) and Saul – now represent the governing body of the church of Antioch. They all seem to be Hellenistic, Greek-speaking Jews and it is possible that the names are listed in order of importance with Barnabas at the head and Saul taking the last place. It seems he was still on probation.
It suddenly becomes clear to the community in their common prayer and fasting that God is calling Barnabas and Saul for a special evangelising work. Paul’s first missionary journey does not arise from his own initiative but is a response to the call of the Spirit made known as the community prays and fasts. Then, as a sign of missioning, all lay their hands on the two missionaries. They are to go and preach in the name of the community which has sent them.
[It is recommended that during the coming days one consult a map, often found in good bibles, to follow the course of the three missionary journeys and see just where the places mention are to be found.]
So they set off by going down to Seleucia and from there to Cyprus. Seleucia was the seaport of Antioch 27 km (16 miles) to the west and 8 km (5 miles) upstream from the mouth of the Orontes River. Cyprus was where Barnabas came from. There were many Jews on the island and the Gospel had already been preached there.
They landed at Salamis, a town on the east coast of the central plain of Cyprus, near present-day Famagusta. It is not to be confused with the more famous place in Greece where the Greeks had a famous victory over the Persians.
The first objectives of the two missionaries are the Jewish synagogues. This will become the pattern of all the mission journeys. The idea was always to approach the Jews first on the principle that they had the first claim to hear the Gospel. It would be only after their refusal to accept the message that Paul would turn to the local Gentiles.
From today’s readings we could ask ourselves:
- To what extent do I give spiritual and material help to those in need in my community?
- Am I a teacher or a prophet in my community? Or do I have some other charism by which I contribute to the wellbeing of my community?
- In what ways do I spread the word of the Gospel in my immediate environment? Am I known to be a committed and caring Christian?